Judith Mackrell is the Guardian’s dance critic and author of ‘The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in Venice’. The book tells the story of three women — Luisa Casati, Doris Castlerosse and Peggy Guggenheim — who lived at the Palazzo Venier, originally commissioned in 1750. Leah Broad spoke to her about the challenges of writing group biographies, and the enduring fascination that Venice held for these women.
What is ‘The Unfinished Palazzo’ about?
It’s a book about several stories — about a house, about Venice, and about three women. One story is the palazzo itself, this extraordinary history of a building designed by the Venier family that was destined for such greatness. But the building crumbled with the family, and it too seemed destined to become a ruin. It’s therefore about the irony of these three single women who at different times come to reinhabit it, recreate it, and transform it back into the kind of public, prominent building that the Venier family had originally envisaged.
Another story is about Venice itself. Venice is a kind of alternative fantasy city where poets, dreamers, mavericks, and women have all come to find a new version of themselves, and build a new life for themselves. The book’s about the coincidence of the palazzo actually being the stage on which all three women chose to do that.
It’s also about the similarities between the three womens’ lives. Although they all came from very different circumstances and origins, they were all women who were reacting against constricting conventions of the time. They all had a kind of performative lifestyle and a slightly dangerous approach to their own sexuality and sense of power that made them seek out an alternative mould for themselves beyond the domesticity that most of their friends and their peers would have settled for. Given the lack of opportunities and jobs, it was in the arts that they all transcended the expectations of their families and their class.
When I read the book I got a real sense of how important place is — almost as though this couldn’t have happened anywhere other than Venice. Is that how you felt writing the book?
Yes — the story is about three women but Venice is the central character. It is about the fantasy of the place that draws people, the peculiar subtleness and versatility and changeability of the place that allows it to absorb all these different people. And yet it still carries on being the place that it always is. It seems to me wonderfully undefined. It’s partly the geography of it, it’s as much light and water and air as it is solid stone. Venice also has a peculiar history as a meeting place between cultures, the entry point between west and east. It’s always had that mythology of being an island moored on the edge of reality. What that offers to those who come and visit or to settle in it makes it unique. I read various other writers and artists who’ve all been to Venice, and they all write and paint in a different style — people live in a different style when they’re in Venice. So I was fascinated that these three women felt that this was the place where they could find the alternative sense of self that was eluding them or had been denied them elsewhere.
Was there something about Venice and its particularly rich history that drew them to this place, or was it more to do with the circumstances of twentieth-century Venice?
It’s definitely the history. It’s a strange thing that a city that’s so rich in history and seems still to be inhabiting the past should also feel like so free a place. In most places — Oxford included — history can feel like a burden. But Venice seems to have the opposite effect, at least for a lot of people. It frees them from their own present. Peggy talks about the timelessness of living in Venice, and I think that’s part of it for all of them. For Luisa the past was a very rich fantasy anyway, so she was able to root her own fantasies in what was already there, play with the city’s rich theatricality and all of its legends to promote her own image. They all felt liberated into a different sense of history.
But they also had a very strong preoccupation with legacy, and what they were building for the future?
Particularly Peggy and Luisa — Doris less so. Perhaps because Luisa and Peggy came from a certain class, with certain expectations and ancestry, they both saw their art as a means of perpetuating their name. Neither of them had that much interest in their children, so it was through their achievements in art that they felt most themselves, and for which they most wanted to be recognised. They legacy they were both precious about was their art. Luisa wanted to be a work of art and Peggy wanted to collect art. I think the legacy for Luisa was all about herself and the art. She loved art. It was about Her with a capital H and Art with a capital A. With Peggy, who ended up living in Venice for so long, it was also about the city. Of all three of them, she developed more of a civic sense of the place. She was very proud to be made an honorary citizen. She began donating to the Save Venice fund in the sixties, and she so desperately wanted the collection to remain in the palazzo in Venice. It ties in with wanting to make her presence in Venice permanent.
The characters in the book are so very strong that sometimes the context seems to fade into the background. Did their money allow them to stay aloof of external events?
I think that was certainly true of Luisa until her money ran out. She found Europe during the First World War rather disappointingly lacking in parties — she was never subjected to any real sense of trauma or inconvenience. For Peggy the Second World War really did impinge on her, even if she only acknowledged that in retrospect. When she’s in Paris she’s so busy chasing art that she’s not really thinking about the war. In the book I talk about Venice’s situation under fascism. The city did change, but the authorities were so careful to keep that separate from the tourist image that people like Doris were able to go to Venice and not really take any notice of the presence of Fascism or the closing down of several of Venice’s more liberal or outrageous establishments.
What was the hardest part of the book to write?
The hardest part was writing about Luisa. She was the most extreme personality I’ve ever had to write about. I’d known about her previously in a superficial way — her extraordinary costumes and parties and the wild myths that circulated about her. It was really problematic finding a route behind all that, because very few people really got close enough to write about what she was like. Everybody wanted to write about Luisa the mad woman, the crazy, eccentric beauty. I had to do quite a lot of detective work and as I make clear in the book, move into speculation, to try to make sense of what it would be like to live your life the way she did, because it was relentless. There were just these little glimpses in the letters of how vulnerable and sensitive she was, set against these extraordinary accounts of her brutality to her daughter, her random rudeness, and a seeming inability to read a situation.
I didn’t discover anything that surprised me very much — I’d already been set up for her to be completely beyond my normal experience — but it was fascinating how she’d managed to wall herself into this bizarre life and how that continued. Towards the end of her life she was almost heroic — she’d lost all her money and most of her friends, and was living in this artless world in a dream of art. She genuinely did turn her life into an artwork. Even when it wasn’t so public, it remained for her a private performance project until her death. There’s a beauty and heroism in that.
Where did you look for sources to get into Luisa’s life?
All her letters with Gabriele D’Annunzio were fantastic. Barking as he was, I think he understood her as well as anybody did. His accounts of her and their letters were what gave me the confidence to structure my picture of her personality. Then I trawled through as many diaries and memoirs, newspaper reports of the time as possible, just to catch glimpses of her. From this I could build up a picture against which I could start testing whether a story sounded like a fabrication or whether it rung true. I started to get a sense of what was actually going on in her life and who she was, and I also got a sense of the tone in which people wrote about her. A lot of people wrote about her as a way to promote themselves — “I had an encounter with the amazing Luisa” and then elaborate on it and invent things to make it sound even more extraordinary. After a while you can start to tell who are the fakers and who the people were who wrote with honesty.
All of these women had deeply unpleasant relationships, and there’s a sense of tragedy behind the elaborate flamboyancy. Is that something that you knew you wanted to highlight, or how did that emerge?
I don’t know if I had a conscious sense of highlighting the tragedy — in a sense it was all there to be written. Sadly it felt as though that was the note to which all their lives were tending. The more I wrote about them and lived with their lives, I became more conscious of the waste. Even though I knew they lived in a very different era to the one in which I grew up, there were times when I’d think “Why don’t you get a job? Why don’t you do something?” They felt like they were all set on utterly destructive paths for themselves, in their own different ways. To present the nuance of their lives, that sense of waste and tragedy had to be included alongside the froth and entitlement.
Do you have another project in mind?
Yes! I’m writing about women correspondents in the Second World War. While I was writing the Venice book somebody recommended me a history of the Ritz hotel in Paris, because it had a whole chapter about Luisa as she used to stay there. The book goes through to the end of the Second World War, and there’s a marvellous bit in it about the liberation of Paris. Ernest Hemingway, as always, is vaingloriously casting himself in the middle of everything and claiming that he’d helped liberate Paris, and is now drinking all the wine and brandy from the Ritz cellars. While he’s there a young American woman journalist arrives. Hemingway invites her to come and drink with him and she says no, she has stories to write. And she scoops one of the best stories of the day about the liberation! This woman is called Helen Kirkpatrick. I was really intrigued by her, but she’s not well known enough now to merit being the subject of a whole book. So I decided I would do another group biography. There was quite a lot in the news about Clare Hollingworth, the British war journalist who died quite recently, who made her very early name as a journalist by reporting the German invasion of Poland before anybody else. So I began reading around that and realised there were not only lots of interesting stories to tell about these individual women and why they were writing about war, but also about the conditions under which they had to write and the limitations they faced. None of them were allowed to travel with the male press corps, for example. These women really had to fly under the radar to get their stories. That’s what I like about group biography — it’s as much about finding the links between lives as about telling individual stories.
‘The Unfinished Palazzo’ is available to buy in hardback, RRP £19.95.