All hell broke loose amongst the saintly citizens of La Serenissima in the middle of the last century. The City’s winged figures, that for years on end had dutifully flanked the gothic facades and adorned the frescoed interiors of Venice’s teeming churches and palazzos, were in despair over a newcomer who had so atrociously taken their holy name in vain. The angels that knelt atop the central gable of St Mark’s Basilica fluttered their gold-plated wings in their disapproval and Giovanni Bellini’s music-playing messengers of God were even more the merciful to remain behind the closed walls of the Accademia Gallery, turning blind eyes to this rude intruder: Marino Marini’s ‘The Angel of the City’, whose only ‘wing’ was that of an erect male organ, had arrived and no angel, they determined, was he.
Blissfully unaware of such animosity a bare-bottomed bronze boy sat on a bare-bottomed bronze horse; his arms, head and penis raised high in euphoria as he wallowed in his new surroundings. Together with his newfound marble feline friends, Marino’s creation looked onto the Grand Canal and gallantly guarded the home behind. Palazzo Venier dei Leoni had just been bought and the boy’s master, the true reasoning to his revelry, the lover of life, love and art, Peggy Guggenheim had moved in.
Venetians traditionally wear their excess in their rich linings. Venice has been home to the most passionate and wild affairs, but invariably it has hidden them behind shutters and closed doors. Peggy Guggenheim was not prepared to waste time on this game. ‘I was a liberated woman long before there was a name for it,’ she declared. This was Peggy through and through. Born in New York in 1898 into an elite society; the Guggenheim family were amongst the richest of their day. Her life could have so easily been played out for her but she chose to set out and embark on a world of self-education, using her money in supporting the creative talent of the time, befriending her own idols and pursuing her own sexual needs and desires. Whether she was born that way or consciously chose it she was fiercely fighting against centuries of female repression.
Peggy was an unstoppable force. Her collection of art was only rivalled by her collection of lovers. In Europe alone she claimed to have slept with 1000 men. ‘My book’ she said in referring to her memoirs, ‘was all about fucking.’ When asked in an interview how many husbands she had, she responded in typical jest ‘You mean my own, or other people’s?’ Her honesty was raw, her candidness refreshing and a reflection of the times. She had no time to waste on the ties of the past. She lived in the present. With her wit and charm, she was always one step ahead. Marino and she were even ready for pious visitors. They made a detachable penis – to these folk the little bronze boy was as ‘pure’ as they come!
Every lover, every person, every event was a challenge. Even World War 2 brought out the best in her. Living in Paris at the time, she resolved to buy a picture a day and although she may have fallen short of this ambitious goal, she still managed to purchase a phenomenal 170 artworks between the turbulent years of 1939 and 1941. Fleeing the city within days of its invasion she smuggled her new acquisitions back to the States between pots and pans and bedclothes, safe from the ‘degenerate’ eyes of Hitler’s Nazis. Picassos, Ernsts, Man Rays and Margrittes; she bought the lot for a total of $40,000. A whopping sum for the time, but a sum well spent. Her unflinching bravery and expert bargaining paid off and her wartime shopping remains at the heart of the priceless collection that floats upon the Venetian lagoon today.
Peggy’s collection came before everything. She had her dogs. She had her children: her very own Pegeen. But her legacy, and what she knew to nurture best, was her art. The Palazzo Venier is now an integral part of a city over-endowed with treasures. It makes little effort to lure you in. The black grilled windows look over the Grand Canal much as Peggy did in her space woman dark glasses. But once inside, each painting, each sculpture tells its story. A room of Pollocks; his drips and splashes may have never adorned the walls of museums were it not for Peggy. She provided the artist with a monthly stipend and helped house his first shows. There is no dividing line between gallery and bedroom, with the Venetian sun and its reflections on the water allowing Alexander Calder’s bedhead to glisten.
Crowned the last Dogaressa at her 80th birthday, and well before that an honorary citizen of Venice, Peggy was legend, a man eater, a sex addict and an art gourmet. She was as much booed as she was wooed, taunted as she was treasured. She was larger than life. Once when she went too far with a derisory offer, Picasso showed her out of his Paris studio with the words: ‘Madame, you will find the lingerie department on the second floor.’ Yet she didn’t stop there; there were no no’s with Peggy and Picasso’s work remains a crown of her collection today. She helped nurture some of the greatest minds of the century and created a beautiful space in which to exhibit their work. And to the accusation of her being egotistical? Well, as she famously said herself ‘to live in Venice or even to visit it means that you fall in love with the city itself. There is nothing left over in your heart for anyone else.’