Nonfiction: Three Wealthy Women and Their Venetian Mansion

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Peggy Guggenheim on the roof of Ca’ Nonfinito, “the unfinished house,” overlooking the Grand Canal. Credit Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

THE UNFINISHED PALAZZO
Life, Love and Art in Venice
By Judith Mackrell
Illustrated. 408 pp. Thames & Hudson. $34.95.

Because the city of Venice has more history than real estate, many of its buildings are crammed with unrelated lore. The complex known as Ca’ Mocenigo is said, for example, to be haunted by the 16th-century philosopher Giordano Bruno, whose exasperated host delivered him to the Inquisition. But he has company from subsequent eras: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu stayed there; so did Lord Byron. Antonio Foscarini paid a nocturnal visit that got him hanged when he was accused of spying, although he was only having an affair. And the love letters in Andrea di Robilant’s tale of a clandestine 18th-century romance, “A Venetian Affair,” were discovered there. This sort of gossipy crowding continued into the modern era in the Ca’ Venier dei Lioni. Now a museum, it’s emblazoned with the name of its founder, Peggy Guggenheim, who placed outside it a statue of a horseman with a conspicuous phallus (detachable in the event of ecclesiastical visits). But she is only the third of its rich and raunchy 20th-century doyennes.

“The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in Venice,” by Judith Mackrell, tells the stories of these notoriously eccentric women: the Marchesa Luisa Casati, from Milan, a champion exhibitionist who considered her life (and especially her person) to be a work of art; Doris, Lady Castlerosse, an Englishwoman whose lovers included both Winston Churchill and his son, Randolph; and finally Guggenheim, the American art patron who bequeathed the mansion to her family’s foundation as a museum of modern art.

The 18th-century building is itself eccentric. It is nicknamed Ca’ Nonfinito, “the unfinished house,” because only the ground floor was built before the money ran out. A wooden model of the enormous structure it would have been, to the annoyance of its Ca’ Grande neighbors across the canal, can be seen in Venice’s Correr Museum.

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Being incomplete, the house wasn’t subject to preservation restrictions that would have inhibited the creativity of these three aggressive aesthetes. The marchesa, who spent summers there early in the last century, fitted it up with eerie Gothic ostentation and populated it with black servants painted gold, dyed pastel birds, creepy wax mannequins and an enormous live cobra that she wore as a stole. In the late 1930s, the slick blonde Lady Castlerosse substituted Art Deco ostentation and installed bathrooms. After Guggenheim bought the place in 1948, she turned some of the bathrooms into galleries.

Their life stories are just as flashy, a kaleidoscope of bad marriages, bad divorces, Fortuny dresses, outlandish costume parties, fashionable portraits, excessive champagne, famous lovers, pickup lovers, alienated children and overlapping celebrity acquaintances. Yes, it’s salacious, but it’s also somewhat repetitive.

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