Commissioned in 1750, the Palazzo Venier was planned as a testimony to the power and wealth of a great Venetian family, but the fortunes of the Veniers waned midconstruction and the project was abandoned. Empty, unfinished, and decaying, the building was considered an eyesore until the early twentieth century when it attracted and inspired three women at key moments in their lives: Luisa Casati, Doris Castlerosse, and Peggy Guggenheim.
Luisa Casati turned her home into an aesthete’s fantasy where she hosted parties as extravagant and decadent as Renaissance court operas, spending small fortunes on her own costumes in her quest to become a “living work of art” and muse. Doris Castlerosse strove to make her mark in London and Venice during the glamorous, hedonistic interwar years, hosting film stars and royalty at glittering parties. In the postwar years, Peggy Gugenheim turned the Palazzo into a model of modernist simplicity that served as a home for her exquisite collection of modern art that today draws tourists and art lovers from around the world. Each vivid life story is accompanied by previously unseen materials from family archives, weaving an intricate history of these legendary art world eccentrics.
The Unfinished Palazzo tells the stories of 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 [Peggy] Guggenheim, the American art patron who bequeathed the mansion to her family's foundation as a museum of modern art. … Their life stories are 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. … In more enlightened times these women might have had solid accomplishments…but Mackrell's documentation of their relentless self-absorption and unfiltered vanity argues against it.
— The New York Times Book Review
Skillfully weaves historical details into absorbing biographical profiles while also capturing the charm of Venice… Mackrell explores [the] eventful lives [of] three remarkable women [who] differed in many ways, but points out their similarities in motivation, independence, daring unconventionality, and historic roles in Venice and social culture. Her astute commentary is particularly illuminating, enlarging the reader's understanding of these individuals and the larger framework of their worlds. Well-chosen photographs and comprehensive notes and bibliography enhance the volume.
— Library Journal
Thoughtful, gracefully written and engaging… Like Paris, Venice is a subject rife with cliché. Ms. Mackrell sidesteps this pitfall by focusing on one tiny part of the city. By book's end, the complexly fated, much-altered Venier comes to seem a mirror of its occupants. Self-realization is often bound up with real estate, and rarely more so than at the palazzo non finito.
— The Wall Street Journal
A breathtaking social portrait, peeling the glitter from privileged lives even as it fleshes out the spectacle they created.
— The Washington Post
Judith Mackrell is a dance critic and author.