19 August, 2006

86. A surreal place to live

This rather odd building looks like the ground floor beginnings of a palazzo that was never finished, and that is exactly what it is.

It is known to the Venetians as the 'palazzo non finito', but its official name is the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, and it was begun around 1750, quite a bit later than most of the completed palazzos around it on the Grand Canal.

The Venier family is one of the oldest and most distinguished aristocratic families of Venice, with three Doges to their credit, and nobody is quite sure why this palazzo was never finished. There is an architect's model of what it was intended to look like in the Correr Museum, and that shows the finished palazzo with a magnificent three level classical façade, grander even than the Palazzo Corner della Ca' Granda facing it on the opposite side of the Grand Canal.

Conspiracy theorists speculate that it was the even more powerful Corner family themselves who somehow blocked the completion of this building (perhaps with a dead horse's head in the city planner's bed?), because they didn’t want anything within view grander than their own noble pile, but the simpler – and more probable – answer is that the waning Venier family may just have underestimated the cost of building such a massive structure, and they ran out of money. Or, even more likely, by the time they got the ground floor in they realised that they would go broke if they kept going up, and chose to stop.

When you see the three massive entrance arches on the model, the two unusual foliage covered pillars in the middle of the unfinished entrance are easier to explain. In the bottom left of this picture just above the waterline is a yawning lion's head, one of many similar Istrian stone decorations along the front of the building. Why lions? No-one is sure of that either, but it is why the palazzo's name carries the 'dei Leoni' descriptor.

In 1948, the remains of this house were purchased by Peggy Guggenheim, heiress and niece of Solomon Guggenheim, whose arts foundation houses the huge Guggenheim collection at its eponymous museum in New York. Peggy was a free spirit in her youth, and married a Dada artist in Paris in 1922. The marriage didn't last, but she got to know many of the surrealist and abstract artists in Europe between the wars and used her money to support a wide range of them, amassing an almost unparalleled collection of modern artworks along the way. After the war, she settled in Venice and this palazzo became her museum of modern art.

Peggy continued collecting, championing artists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, and when she died in 1979, she bequeathed this semi-palace and her entire collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, who still run the museum in Venice, calling it as she herself did, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

Peggy is buried in the backyard of this palace beside her many beloved dogs who lived here with her.

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