19 October 2014
No one ever thought that Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, originally envisioned as an ornate, five-story palazzo situated along Venice’s Grand Canal, would house an art collection as elite as the Guggenheim one day. Originally designed by Lorenzo Boschetti, building began in the 1750s and was never completed. As a result, the building gets a new nickname Il Palazzo Non-finito that translates to “the Unfinished Palace.” In 1948, Peggy Guggenheim, niece of Solomon and widely recognized as one of the most influential art patrons of the 20th century, purchased the building as her home, where she also installed her private art collection. Peggy bought art, not as an investment, but because she saw greatness beyond these pieces. As a result, in 1969, she decided to donate her entire collection and the palazzo, to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and that is what we see today in Venice.
Peggy Guggenheim was born in 1898 to a wealthy family in New York City. After basic education on subjects of modern art in the 1920s, she went on travelling to Europe, discovering Paris along the way where she stayed for almost 22 years. As the whole of Europe suffered from the tremendous casualties of the Second World War, Peggy Guggenheim set out on her tremendous cultural crusade. She boldly decided to “buy a picture a day,” which resulted in owning surrealist works by Dali, cubist works by Braque and Picasso and geometric designs by Mondrian and Fernand Léger. Later on in 1948 and after discovering Venice, her collection was exhibited at the Venice Biennale, which was the first time that Pollock, Rothko and Arshile Gorky have been introduced to Europe. The exhibited collection was a clear combination of pre-war pieces and contemporary unknown artists, and had a controversial characteristic to it, different than any other art exhibition displayed in the West. Starting the year 1951, Peggy opened her house and collection to the general public every summer and by the spring of 1985, all of the rooms on the main floor have been converted into galleries and the basement rooms into support areas for the museum. In 1993, apartments adjacent to the museum were converted to galleries, a garden annex, and a shop designed by Lella Vignelli of Vignelli Associates, New York, which shows the importance of the museum and its influence on its surroundings. Since then, the museum has doubled in size, from 2,000 to 4,000 square meters with the addition of a café, extra exhibition rooms, and the Nasher Sculpture Garden.
The Peggy Guggenheim, located in Venice, has a very different setting than any other Guggenheim. It speaks a different architectural language than that of the New York or Bilbao Guggenheim. With its white Istrian stone façade, unique canal terrace and incomplete exterior columns, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni acts as the perfect setting for the prestigious Guggenheim series of museums in a city as unique as Venice. Despite its extravagant Grand Canal entrance, the regular pedestrian entrance from the alleys does not stand out as much. A regular gate marks the pedestrian entry for eager visitors to finally see Peggy’s grand art collection. Even though the museum is currently owned by a grand foundation, I personally felt that there was not enough regulation for the visitors’ circulation. The guiding signs were not sufficient and the circulation path remained unclear as to where to start or where to buy tickets. After crossing the main threshold that marks the official entry of the museum, I was still confused as a visitor as to which area is the temporary exhibition and which space should I visit first. However, that might have been the curator’s intention to attract a large number of visitors to the temporary exhibitions before they realize the location of Peggy’s original collection. View of the Peggy Guggenheim from the Grand Canal Close up of the pedestrian gate Close up of the unfinished columns
In contrast, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni’s rectilinear plan and clearly divided spaces worked successfully in terms of exhibiting art works. As visitors first enter Peggy’s former house, they are greeted by a foyer that is large enough to host a sculpture. Windows that overlook the Grand Canal flank the foyer and visitors can also cross the space and move into the house’s backyard, which has the main canal entrance. The central space then breaks into hallways that are of sufficient width for circulation and create an intimate relationship with the artwork and the regular visitor. In contrast, the large pre-existing rooms in the house create another relationship with the visitors, where some have seating in the center to accommodate the overwhelmed visitors. They are filled with natural light and beautiful views of the Grand Canal, unlike any other museum in the world. Opposite to the original house lies the building for the temporary exhibitions. The spaces have a simpler circulation path, where visitors enter from one space and the hallways lead them to all of the exhibition rooms and finally to the exit. Both buildings have a similar architectural language that carries out through the exterior and interior, such as the window-covering pattern and railing for the stairs. Also, the distinct patterned terrazzo floors, that are repeated, remind the visitors of the fact that the exhibition spaces were once a home. These elements connect the separate buildings and tie them back to the same intention, of creating coherent spaces to primarily exhibit unique pieces of art. However, it is important to note that because the Peggy Guggenheim museum was a house to begin with, it is completely closed off from the general public that pass by the building. The museum has the aspect of privacy and the crossing of thresholds to get to the center of the house or in today’s case, the exhibition spaces. Therefore, no one can actually guess that it is a grand museum except by reading the sign on the building. In my opinion, this case can only seem fitting in a city like Venice, where most of the buildings on the forefront of the canal speak the same architectural language.
My personal favorite space in the Peggy Guggenheim was not a specific room but the sculpture garden. Because gardens are very rare in Venice, experiencing one amidst two great art exhibition spaces gave it an astonishing feel. With its minimal seating spaces and extra tall trees, a feeling of tranquility washes over you all while being surrounded by fine sculptures. Ironically, Peggy’s ashes are buried in a corner of the Palazzo’s garden after dying in 1979, along with her 14 dogs. Because she was an art collector who believed that some works are worth keeping safe, she gave us a gift that can never be dismissed, which is the Peggy Guggenheim museum.