Two lives devoted to art: Luisa Casati Stampa and Peggy Guggenheim.

Venice, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Canal Grande, also known as the unfinished palace, yet so infinitely eloquent, was the home of two of the most well known patroness of the art of the last century: Luisa Casati Stampa (née Amman) and Marguerite Guggenheim better known with her name of Peggy. Their paths seemed destined to meet; wealthy heirs of industrial empires, one an Italian noblewoman, and an American of Jewish origin the other, they had much more in common than a palace in the lagoon of Venice. Their lives were totally guided by art in all its forms; insatiable and eccentric collectors, always surrounded by artists, they spent their fortunes purchasing varied works of art, driven by the thirst for aesthetic pleasure. They didn’t exactly portray of the ideal of beauty, but they possessed the aura that only the charm of a cultured mind can give.  Casati was a slender androgynous figure with sphinx-like eyes, as D’Annunzio loved to call them, and a mind tormented by the obsession with the possession of the most varied and bizarre items, she wandered among Venice, Rome, Capri, Paris and London with her collection of exotic animals, including the boa constrictor Anaxagarus.

Peggy Guggenheim arranging Alexander Calder’s Arc of Petals / Greek Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 1948

She purchased in 1910 the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, where she loved to host epic masked balls of which she enjoyed being the protagonist with clothes specially tailored for her by Mariano Fortuny and bijoux made by René Lalique, doing the same thing in Paris in the Palais Rose a building that previously belonged to Robert de Montesquiou. She knew Marinetti and the futurists to whom she commissioned many works, however portraits were her greatest passion, of which obviously she loved to be the subject; in addition to the two famous portraits of her made by Giovanni Boldini, the story of her image on canvas is intertwined with extramarital love: she was one of D’Annunzio’s lovers with the pseudonym Corè, but Kees Van Dongen, Augustus John, and the her safic love Romaine Brooks were the ones that most successfully portrayed the “Divine” marquise with the strokes of their brush, with her typical copper red messy hair and her large circled eyes that couldn’t hide her opium addiction, she was also immortalized in 1922 in a series of famous photos by Man Ray who at the time was still mostly unknown; it was the American photographer who also photographed the young fellow compatriot Peggy Guggenheim who arrived in Paris following her first husband Laurence Veil, a bohemian painter with whom she shared a stormy life made up of excesses and two children at the mercy of their own destiny. 

Peggy Guggenheim (1898 – 1979)  leaves in a gondola from her musem home located in the ‘Palazzo Venier dei Leoni’ on the Grand Canal 1968 Venice © Tony Vaccaro
Luisa, Marchesa Casati Stampa di Soncino (23 Jan.1881-1 June 1957)

Thanks to her husband, Peggy came into contact with the European artistic avantgarde, of which she was immediately an avid supporter, purchasing works and financially supporting the artists. In January 1938, together with Jean Cocteau, she inaugurated the “Guggenheim-Jeune” gallery in which, among many others, she also exhibited Kandinsky, and it was from this date until around 1946 that she collected a large amount of contemporary artworks, between one troubled love affair and the other; after her divorce from Veil her life was a whirling succession of tormented love stories that pushed her to the perpetual search for inner peace that she saw embodied in various male figures such as the writer John Holms, Yves Tanguy, Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, thanks to whom she met James Joyce, and her second husband Max Ernst. The surrealist painter though was still very much in love with the artist Leonora Carrington and the marriage with Peggy therefore could not last long, but they fled together from a Europe destroyed by Hitler, arriving in New York while the city was in full artistic ferment. Here Peggy inaugurated the “Art of this century” gallery by promoting Jackson Pollock, who with his particular dripping technique pioneered the art of the second half of the twentieth century. 

Luisa Casati Stampa by Man Ray, 1922

Having now made the European avant-garde movement known to American artists, after World War II, she decides to move to Venice where in 1948 her collection was exhibited at the 24th Venice Art Biennale. She then permanently moved to the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni opening its doors to the public in 1949, where her collection is still on display under the name of the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation.

Dolores Pulella