Accompanying me over Christmas were three glorious women all of whom, at different points, called a grand palazzo in Venice their home. An eccentric, reclusive countess, a gold-digging seductress and an art-collecting heiress. The Unfinished Palazzo is a hugely entertaining biography which firmly sits in the ‘you-couldn’t-have-made-it-up’ category. If you’re looking to brighten up January, this will do!
First out, in 1910, was textile heiress Luisa Casati, reclusive (probably a sufferer of Asperger’s), six feet tall with large hypnotic eyes. Luisa’s huge fortune would attract one of Italy’s most eligible bachelors, the magnificently named Marchese Camillo Casati Stampa di Soncino, but Luisa soon tired of conventional Camillo and abandoned both him and their daughter to pursue a far more colourful existence in Venice.
The palazzo she moved into was once destined to be the most impressive in Venice, but planning permissions and jealous neighbours put an end to the original owner’s ambitious plans. The result was a large one-story building with a magnificent garden in a prominent position on the Grand Canal. Good enough for Luisa, her pet cheetah, her Nubian-slave-costumed black servants and her legendary parties. And fertile ground for Luisa’s eccentric acquaintances such as American society columnist Tryphosa Bates-Batcheller or the rumoured necrophiliac Principessa Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso. (As I said, you couldn’t have made it up!). And on it goes.
Next up was English beauty and social climber Doris Castlerosse. Clever, elegant and a skilled seductress, Doris quickly rose through British high-society to became the mistress of some very powerful men, including both Winston Churchill and his son Randolph. Doris’ address book read like a Who’s Who of the 1940s and 50s. Noel Coward, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Lord Beaverbrook and Cecil Beaton were close friends and although they didn’t exactly consider Doris marriage material she was obviously interesting and entertaining company. How she got her hands on the palazzo, I’ll leave for you to find out.
Finally, there was Peggy Guggenheim, American heiress and art collector who turned the palazzo into the art museum it is today, The Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Her journey as captivating as that of Luisa and Doris, involving numerous husbands and lovers as well as an astonishing talent for picking good art.
To these independent and strong-minded women, Venice represented a heaven of liberalism, a refuge from a conventional life elsewhere and a chance to start afresh. It’s clear that Mackrell thoroughly enjoyed writing this book and that she has huge respect for these unconventional women who really didn’t give a toss about what other people thought of them and who stretched their societies’ perception of acceptable female behaviour to the very limit. A great deal of research went into writing this book and that, combined with Mackrell’s superb writing make it a book to savour. Add Venice itself into the mix and you’re in biography heaven.
The Unfinished Palazzo – Life, Love and Art in Venice is published by Thames & Hudson, 388 pages.