When Peggy Guggenheim strode across the worn paving stones that led to the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni she knew she’d found her Venetian dream. The elegant white stone palace, constructed of Istrian stone, situated directly on Venice’s Grand Canal was ideal for her and her growing modern art collection. Perfectly located in the district of Dorsoduro, close to the church of Santa Maria della Salute and the Accademia Art Gallery and yet peacefully removed from the hustle and bustle of San Marco. The Palace had an imposing waterfront entrance and spectacular views across the Grand Canal towards the lagoon. From the late 1940s until her death in 1979 this was Peggy Guggenheim’s home.
Palazzo Venier was built in the second half of the 18th century for the Venier family, although financial difficulties meant that it was never completed. It’s been called ‘the unfinished palazzo’ and there’s even a book about the palazzo that has that name. The palazzo is a single storey building with two symmetrical wings, it has a generous frontage onto the Grand Canal and a beautiful walled garden to the rear. To arrive at Palazzo Venier in the 1950s, as one of Peggy Guggenheim’s many guests must have been a truly memorable occasion. I like to imagine arriving at Palazzo Venier just after Peggy had purchased the property. Making the journey to Venice by train, guests would have taken a water taxi from the Ferrovia Santa Lucia along the Grand Canal passing Ca d’Oro, where Casanova stayed, proceeding under the Rialto Bridge and following the curve of the canal down to the Accademia Bridge to land on the jetty at Peggy’s palazzo. No doubt a selection of Peggy’s little dogs would have been yapping their special canine welcome as I disembarked.
Peggy was an American heiress, a very wealthy woman with a huge interest in modern, 20th century art. She’d already started galleries in New York, London and Paris. As storm clouds gathered over Europe, Peggy continued to acquire paintings and sculptures. She married the artist Max Ernst, one of the leading figures in the surrealist art movement. Although by the time she arrived in Venice and bought Palazzo Venier her marriage to Ernst was already over. Through the 1940s and 50s Peggy acquired an incredible collection of modern art, she supported numerous artists and was possibly the most important private collector of modern art in Europe. To this day visitors to the ‘Guggenheim’ in Venice can admire works by Jackson Pollock, Picasso, Salvador Dali, Giacometti, Marc Chagall, Kandinsky, Magritte and Alexander Calder. The collection is truly spectacular.
Peggy also established herself as a colourful and eccentric character on the streets and canals of Venice. She maintained her own private gondola and gondolier. Whenever she wanted to head over to St Mark’s or the Rialto, her gondola would be summoned. Peggy and a furry flurry of little dogs would then board the vessel and head off across the waters of the lagoon. Peggy loved her Lhasa Apso dogs, many of whom are buried in the garden of her Venetian Palace. These small, canine characters were her loyal and consistent companions for more than 3o years. Wherever Peggy went – a small collection of furry friends went too. In fact there is a grave-stone marking the final resting place of these little dogs in the courtyard of Palazzo Vernier – a charming reminder that Peggy loved these dogs as if they were her children.
Don’t miss the Alexander Calder work on the wall above Peggy’s bed! Today the Guggenheim Museum is a ‘must see’ for modern art lovers visiting Venice. The collection remains much as it was when Peggy lived in the palazzo. You can still see a gravestone commemorating this great lady and her little companions.
Interestingly the tradition of modern art in Venice started with the Biennale at the end of the 19th century. The Biennale is an art exhibition that takes place every other year in the city and includes art from all over the world. The Public Gardens hosts a variety of pavilions, where nations from all continents exhibit their most original and contemporary art. Many of the squares and palaces of Venice also exhibit this cutting edge art. To coincide with the 2017 Biennale the British artist Damien Hirst, in association with Francois Pinault, opened a huge and ambitious exhibition which deliberately blurred fact and fiction. The exhibition was called ”Treasures from the wreck of the ‘Unbelievable’ ”. The show was breath-taking, spectacular and extra-ordinary. It was well worth taking a look. The exhibition was so large it spread across two location; Palazzo Grassi, on the Grand Canal, not far from Teatro Goldoni and also Punta della Dogana, at the end of the Grand Canal, next door to Santa Maria della Salute. Whilst the show is sadly long over, Hirst fans can still buy an exhibition catalogue!
- Peggy Guggenheim’s beloved Lhasa Apso dogs are originally from Tibet. Their name comes from the Tibetan capital of Lhassa. Apso is the name of a type of long-haired goat found in Tibet. So you might say that the Lhasa Apso dog is the goat of Tibet.
- Damien Hirst’s spectacular art show in Venice Treasures from the wreck of the ‘Unbelievable’ ran from April-Nov 2017. It was spread over two museum spaces, Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana. Both part of the Pinault Foundation.
- Critics remain divided over the impact of the exhibition. The Daily Telegraph declared the event “a spectacular, bloated folly, an enormity that may prove the shipwreck of Hirst’s career” whilst ‘The Guardian’ described it as “a titanic return to form” which has “redeemed” the artist.
- François Pinault the art collector and financier of the exhibition believed the event to be ground-breaking for the artist. Well he would really – given that he financed the whole thing!
- More reading – A wonderful article about Peggy Guggenheim: Peggy Guggenheim, Art, Venice and Dogs Galore
- To read a little more about Peggy in Italian – and why not: ‘Nel 1947 Peggy decide di ritornare in Europa, dove la sua collezione viene epsosta per la prima volta alla Biennale di Venezia del 1948, nel padiglione greco. È così che le opere di artisti come Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock e Mark Rothko vengono esposte per la prima volta in Europa. La presenza di opere cubiste, astratte e surrealiste rende l’esposizione al padiglione greco la più completa e coerente descrizione del modernismo mai presentata fino ad allora in Italia. Alla fine del 1948 Peggy acquista, a Venezia, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, dove si trasferisce con la sua collezione. Nel 1950 organizza, nell’Ala Napoleonica del Museo Correr a Venezia, la prima personale di Jackson Pollock in Europa. Nel frattempo la sua collezione è esposta a Firenze e a Milano, quindi ad Amsterdam, Bruxelles e Zurigo. A partire dal 1951 la collezione è nuovamente a Palazzo Venier dei Leoni e comincia ad essere aperta annualmente al pubblico durante i mesi estivi. Nel corso dei trent’anni trascorsi a Venezia, Peggy continua a collezionare e sostenere artisti, come ad esempio Edmondo Bacci e Tancredi Parmeggiani, conosciuti nel 1951. Nel 1962 viene insignita della cittadinanza onoraria della città di Venezia’.
Peggy Guggenheim – relaxing on the roof of her palazzo, Venice
Postscript – In the summer of 2020 I was invited to participate in a yoga class at the Gritti Place, the views across the Grand Canal to Peggy’s beloved palazzo were spectacular. Here’s the proof….
- Peggy Guggenheim’s impact on modern art in Venice was profound. She arrived in Venice in the late 1940s, bought a palace (on the Grand Canal) and the rest as they say is history. She was a wonderful patron of the arts and artists.
- She particularly championed young artists. She was largely responsible for bringing Jackson Pollock into the public eye.
- She worked hard to support the Venice Biennale too. In 1948 much of her private collection was exhibited at the Greek Pavilion during the Biennale. It was this event that established Peggy as a truly exceptional collector of modern art.
- She was a real character and the last private individual to maintain her own personal gondola and gondolier (of course) in Venice – see @lastampa photo below!
- A very stylish woman, she dressed in fabulous Fortuny gowns and slept surrounded by Alexander Calder art work. A thoroughly classy bird, as we would say in Liverpool.
- Venice – Fashion, Fortuny, Silk dresses and Downton Abbey
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- Written: 24th August, 2019
- Updated: 20th February, 2021
Note – #Repost from @Lastampa – Peggy was the last person to have her own private gondola and gondolier in Venice!!!
- Happy Wanderings!
- Black & white photos from various newspapers and from PGC Venezia.