Patronage at a Venetian Palazzo – The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Once upon a time in Venice, I was a museum intern, and once upon that long time ago I fell in love with this dreamy little metropolis of canals and palaces and chilled glasses of sgroppini and steaming plates of fresh spaghetti alle vongole. How can one not fall for a place where you wake to the sound of church bells, where angelic music wafts out of buildings as you pass by or where art is everywhere, even in the paving stones? When I left, I thought I’d be back within a year, but real life got in the way so I wasn’t back for the longest time. It would take me more than a decade to return, but when I did, it was with a man we’ll call Monsieur.


Bar da Gino

I felt a little nervous as we wended our way along the Dorsoduro calli to the Guggenheim Collection where I’d once dressed and undressed the artworks, told visitors “Please don’t touch!” in umpteen different languages and giggled at the Marino Marini with the unmissable erection. Along the way I showed Monsieur the cafe where I’d seen Woody Allen when he was filming ‘Everybody Says I Love You’, and pointed out the bank where interns cashed their monthly stipend cheques, becoming millionaires for a day because the Italian currency was still lira back then and because we hadn’t yet paid our rents. Then, there it was: Bar da Gino, the witness to many pre-, post- and during work snacks. This was where Kim bought her morning coffee, where I’d hum and ha over which tramezzini sandwich to have for lunch or groan if my lunch break was late and they’d all been sold. It was also where we’d take empty water bottles to be filled with table wine for a couple of thousand lira (roughly 80 pence) a time, and we’re not talking small bottles here. Across the way, the tabacchi where I used to buy stamps and phone cards and Baci chocolates wrapped in love messages was still there, and further along, near the Anglican Church there was the Aladdin’s Cave grocery store, filled with pyramids of Ritz cracker boxes, Cipster potato snacks and Kinder Sorpresa eggs, just as it always was. A jumble of happy memories returned with a rush as if I’d only left Venice yesterday.

The Guggenheim Collection lives in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, a squat white palace of one tier only, slightly reminiscent of a half-eaten wedding cake as it looks out at the Grand Canal. For many years it was the home of art collector heiress, Peggy Guggenheim, whose patronage of many of the great artists of the early twentieth century helped build one of the best collections of art from that era. In her lifetime Peggy was a character, to say the least. She had two children with her first husband, Laurence Vail, before divorcing with Olympian acrimony and going on to marry surrealist painter, Max Ernst. That marriage wasn’t destined to last, however, besides which Peggy had affairs with almost every man she ever took a liking to, including Jackson Pollock and the husband of her daughter, Pegeen. Pegeen died young, nurturing the rumour that she’d taken her own life as a result of her mother’s inability to steer clear of her son-in-law. Others say she died mysteriously. Either way, Pegeen’s story is sad. Regarding her mother, whether or not she was the most faithful or amiable of characters as far as people were concerned, she certainly enjoyed her Tibetan terriers, calling them her ‘babies’ and as their respective doggie lives ended, Peggy had each successive dog under interred beneath the paving stones at the back of the Palazzo, before being buried there herself.


Peggy and ‘babies’ in her own, private gondola

As I led Monsieur through the new entrance to the Collection, it was already dark outside and the bright lights of the tickets area made us squint. We bought our tickets and an up-to-date guide, casting a glance at the Guardaroba or wardrobe area. The Guardaroba intern’s face showed misery, pure and simple. In spite of the new entrance and other developments in the gallery’s layout, Guardaroba had obviously not changed that much since I was there. On wet days it used to fill up with umbrellas, dripping backpacks and coats within minutes of opening. Tempers would fray because once the area had reached capacity, we couldn’t take any more belongings from visitors, yet we also couldn’t admit them with bulky day packs or shopping. Arguments were inevitable. Today, Guardaroba certainly looked busy, thanks to the rain outside, but I thought I’d ask anyway. Our coats were drenched through. But before I even opened my mouth to speak, the intern pre-empted my question:

“We’re full already,” he said, with a voice so flat that he might just have been more miserable than he looked.

That settled, we’d just have to try hard not to drip all over the artworks.

To the side of the garden is the gate by Clare Falkenstein that used to be the entrance point for all visitors to the Collection and my way both into and out of work. Made especially for Peggy Guggenheim in 1961, it’s a big, rectangular web of blackened metal, with orbs of glass in different colours appearing at intervals within the web. Then, in the freezing drizzle, we scuttled through the garden and up the stairs into the Palazzo proper. There was the Calder mobile, just where I’d left it, dangling from the ceiling in front of the doors opening onto the terrace. Then we wandered through the room filled with splashy Jackson Pollocks before visiting the old Barchessa, or boat house, which now houses visiting exhibitions. It was crowded down there. We didn’t have much patience for our fellow visitors today, elbowing their way as they were into viewing positions, where they’d take forever ruminating over some technique or muse or artistic attribute, thereby blocking the flow of visitors (including us) behind them. Back in the main palazzo, we found it less oppressive. The fabulous Calder bedhead was still on display in Peggy’s former bedroom and the dressing room was still a shrine to Pegeen and her naive paintings of gondoliers and palazzi. In the past, I’d stare hard at these splashy artworks, trying to imagine Pegeen’s life. The paintings, so bright and child-like, indicate innocence and positivity. Discovering her husband’s affair with her mother must have devastated that part of her personality.

In another room, we considered the use of light in the Magritte canvas of a lit lamppost at dusk, and the whacky imagination present in Max Ernst’s paintings, before stepping through the doors onto the slippery terrace for wicked photos with the Marino Marini bronze of a naked rider with a rather noticeable erection. “People kept pulling it off and it was misplaced,” I explained to Monsieur, “so Peggy finally had the rider’s member soldered on.” From the way he looked at me, I’m sure Monsieur wonders where on earth my next comment is going to come from.


The Marino Marini sculpture, Angel of the City (1948)

Back inside we saw the cubists on display, including works by Picasso and Braques, before braving the garden yet again. We had to. There’s no other way of reaching the New Wing, a separate building at the rear of the property. En route, I showed Monsieur where Peggy lies with her thirteen Tibetan Terrier ‘babies’, and patted Jean Arp’s bronze called ‘Fruit Amphora’, which has always reminded me of a flipperless seal pup.

Shaking off the fresh splattering of rain, I looked hard at New Wing. It had changed completely. Now much larger than when I’d been in residence, it houses a cafe/ restaurant, sizeable boutique and a large exhibition space where a fantastic array of photography was being shown during our visit. But Monsieur and I had places to go and Venetians to meet so back to the ticket counter we went to ask the interns’ advice. “We’re staying on the Fondamenta Nuove,” I explained, “and we’d love to find a good restaurant near there that’s not touristy and not too expensive.” This is just the sort of question that Guggenheim interns love, so we soon had recommendations flying at us. “What about that place near Tre Archi?” proffered one, “oh, yeah. D’you think it’s still open?” asked another. “Sure it is. I was just there the other night.” “Mmm hmmm, you’ll love this place.” Everyone was in agreement, drawing maps and scribbling directions for us on the back of a museum leaflet. “It’s walking distance to your hotel, locals love it, it’s off the beaten track so not that many tourists even find it, and the food’s great.” We were sold. We visit an art collection for the culture and leave with a restaurant recommendation. Well, you can’t get much more Italian than that.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Otto Mann says:

    The picture of the lady with the sunglasses . . . definitely awesome.



  2. That Peggy, what a character! Sleeping with her son-in-law… I feel so much better about my own mother when I read this. I liked the way you described her life.
    I wonder how John Ashcroft, who wanted to veil all the naked statues, would have reacted to the Marino Marini. Such a weird statue with the head of the horse kept completely parallel to the rider’s manhood!
    FYI, I don’t think naked riding without a saddle is generally recommended.


  3. w1kkp says:

    In Boston we have the Isabella Stuart Gardner museum which was once her residence and built like a 15 century Venetian palace with inner courtyard and three levels. It is spectacular and was the victim of a famous “art heist” when a Vermeer, a Rembrandt and one other famous painting was stolen. It is filled with decorative as well as fine art and reading your post makes me make plans to go in and see it. Here’s a little video of them hanging nasturtium vines in the early spring which is traditional.


  4. epicurienne says:

    Greetings OttoMan – having had a quick look at your sight I now understand why you are so appreciative of eccentricity. Your sense of humour rocks!
    Hi Nat – have I mentioned how great it is to have you back? That Peggy certainly was one of life’s more ‘special’ people… as for naked riding, you’d know because you ride, right? Personally, I think it would cause hygiene issues. Ick. I feel my OCD flaring up just thinking about it, and this from a person who loves animals.


  5. epicurienne says:

    Hi Pat – thank you so much for telling me about the Isabella Stuart Gardner museum. It looks incredible. Someday, when I finally make it to visit you for your French oven cooking extraordinaire, we should go together! Let me know what you think when you do visit. Full feedback definitely required.


  6. oakley says:

    She truly was quite a character. I think I would’ve liked her.


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