A Venetian Literary Adventure

Venice Punta della Dogana

A view of the Basilica from the Punta della Dogana in Venice.

by Saxon Henry

I dare you to visit Venice and not think about age! It may not be your own that comes to mind but I’m betting the patina surrounding you will have you pondering the heft of time. During my first meal in a waterfront café along the Canale di Cannaregio, I was amazed at how the frayed architecture, disappearing into water at every turn, gave the word distressed an entirely new connotation. When I heard American pop music thumping from speakers attached to the restaurant’s façade in the midst of the other-worldly vibe, I knew the thread running through my experiences would be juxtaposition. My visit to the Palazzo Grassi at the Punta della Dogana with my pal JoAnn Locktov confirmed this. Edgy contemporary art was set within the 15th-century building, brought into the 21st-century by Tadao Ando. His minimalist architecture melded so seamlessly with the time-worn brick and stone, the effect was eerily serene. Even with an abundance of war and its atrocities as a common theme in the collection, the thoughtfulness in how he handled the updating made the encounter breathtaking. Looking out onto the lagoon through soaring arches countered by stairwells and railings made of clean panes of glass and sleek lengths of unadorned steel brought it home to me how rare it is for a building to have a foot in two disparate eras. The Dogana was one of the best examples of this I’d ever had the pleasure to experience.

JoAnn Locktov in Venice

JoAnn Locktov in her adored city of Venice.

 Our next stop was the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a museum the American heiress created in her Venetian home, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. Guggenheim’s singular eye for surrealistic and early modern art, along with the intimate scale of the building, was a bit jarring, though a welcome change from the overwhelm of the Dogana’s massive collection and mammoth spaces. The palazzo housing her avant-garde collection dates back to the 18th Century but the aesthetics of its interiors made it “feel” much younger than its age. This is the point in my trip when my stage-of-life fascination turned from the built world to the museum’s namesake. Through Guggenheim’s biography, Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim, which I bought in the gift shop at the palazzo, I set out on a deeper journey than I had expected when I planned my trip, and I am thrilled I did because reading about her life while in her chosen city made her story seriously powerful. I carried the book with me and it became an ever-present plumb-line into history as I moved around the city. By lunch the next day, I had made it through the first half of the biography nestled under a portico at a café on the Rio di San Giovanni Cristostomo, surprised to hear how much Guggenheim despised New York City by the time she moved to Europe. According to Mary Dearborn, the biographer, she had dreamed of buying a place of her own in Venice for quite a while: “She set her sights on nothing less than a palazzo in Venice, where she could look at all her lovely art and gossip about old friends and the art world. She envisioned little herds of Lhasa Apsos sweeping across the marble floors. ‘Don’t you think they would be divine trooping about in large quantities?’ she wrote Becky Reis. She longed to buy a gondola and float through the canals of the magical city.” Guggenheim achieved all of it and lived life on her own terms as the art and literary worlds of America ebbed and flowed into and out of her new life.

Venice Guggenheim gate.

Th gate says it all…Peggy Guggenheim once lived here!

By the time evening had softened the light reflecting from watery surfaces during my last day there, I had nearly finished the socialite’s story, reading about her salon while seated at a café in a crook of the Grand Canal just before it rushes under the Rialto Bridge. It was 6pm and the moody ambiance was simply incredible—the sky giving off a powdery quality I had reveled in each evening. Guggenheim called it the “irresistible hour” and described the light she experienced from her private gondola as it shone on the lagoon waters as golden, but the atmosphere seemed filtered through chalkiness to me—so soft and satisfying to walk through. I knew before reading the book that she was a true eccentric but I hadn’t realized just how Bohemian she had been—sunbathing on the roof of the palazzo in the nude, naming her dogs after her children and hanging Calder mobiles where everyone expected Venetian glass chandeliers to be. Her determination to do things her way made her treatment of some of my literary heroes surprising, especially the Beat Poets and Writers who passed through Venice when she was holding court in her venerated salon. William Burroughs made it through the gate once but was not invited back because he made an off-color remark about a certain part of her anatomy. She had a flirtation with Gregory Corso, which her biographer described as a courtship; the poet, who was 28 years old when he visited her, denied this in his letters to friends, saying it was an attraction to her daughter that kept him coming back (it’s tough to blame him for fancying the 34-year-old Pegeen over her 59-year-old mother given the age differences). Once Guggenheim learned the truth, he was no longer welcomed into her home, either. Though expelled fairly quickly, at least these bad-boy Beats had had their turn. Two of the genre’s stars never gained entrée, their rejection coming about after a poetry reading in Alan Ansen’s apartment one night. Peter Orlovsky was reading his poems when he playfully tossed a sweaty towel at his boyfriend, Allen Ginsberg. It missed Ginsberg and landed on Guggenheim’s head, causing her to storm out in a huff.

She excluded the two ne’er-do-wells from her parties forever after, a disappointment that caused Ginsberg to write this note to her: “I’ve never been in a great formal historic salon before and naturally have been eager to go there, be accepted, see the pictures at leisure, sip big cocktails, gaze over [the] grand canal, be a poet in Venice surrounded by famous ladies, echoes of Partisan Review & the 20s & Surrealists, butlers and gondolas…I’d like to come. I don’t want to leave Venice without big high class social encounters.” If I’d known the story before visiting, I would have taken my copy of Howl and read it in Guggenheim’s garden. It would have been an edgy aural accompaniment to the Jenny Holzer declarations carved into so many of the marble surfaces there.

Holzer at the Guggenheim.

Jenny Holzer’s expressive art is prolific in the gardens at the Venice Guggenheim.

The stories in the book made me question the “truth” of biographies for the umpteenth time, wondering if they condense life to the point they distort the stories being told. I’ve known for many years as I’ve crafted pieces for newspapers and magazines that any slant can be achieved by the questions asked. Might it be the same when someone’s life-story is being told given how the material included is merely one point of view? I’m not saying biographies should present someone one-dimensionally because I needed the contrast of the woman’s moments of ridiculousness to the compassion I felt for Guggenheim, who’s one word to describe her early years in Venice was lonely. I needed the juxtaposition for her to be real, but I wondered if the amount of rejection she experienced might have been accessed as an emotional leveler against her narcissism, her sadness counterbalancing her brash side, so to speak. Listening to the bells of the Basilica pummel the air with resplendent sound as I walked around town, I wondered how she felt about their ringing as she sashayed through the intentionally spare rooms of her palazzo, her handmade sandals slapping the marble floors and the fabric of her caftans flowing behind her. Did she hear forlornness?

Corso certainly noticed her despair as he left her for the last time: “I kissed her good-bye,” he wrote; “while I watched her walk away I saw that she put her hand to her head as though she were in pain. I suddenly realized the plight of the woman by that gesture. She is a liver of life, and life is fading away. That’s all there is to it.” Thanks to trailblazers like Guggenheim, who refused to bow to prescribed roles that didn’t fit their explosive modern times, things have changed for women during the 56 years since she bid Corso an emotional farewell. She was just a few years younger than me when she bought her palazzo in Venice at 50, and she traveled until very late in life, opening her mind to new experiences along the way and leaving quite a legacy. I believe she is an excellent model when it comes to dreaming a connection with a larger world, and I’m glad I found a fuller view of her and her version of Modernity in Venice, of all places! Reading her book while experiencing the city made for an incredible Venetian literary adventure, though it now feels odd to realize I will never be able to separate the Italian town from the American rebel’s story. That’s the risk when traveling with books, I suppose; they have a way of taking over. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way!

Serenading gondolier

A gondolier serenades his passengers.

Footnotes: If you’d like to hear more of Allen Ginsberg’s lecture on the “Literary History of the Beat Generation,” the audio clip is online. And in case you skimmed over the William Burroughs link, it leads to an excellent interview that Conrad Knickerbocker conducted for The Paris Review. This post was inspired by Carmen Natschke, who has featured several other writers on her inspired post “Venice by Heart and Soul,” including Patty Otis Abel, aka #TheSultanette; JoAnn Locktov, whom I mention in this post and whose book Dream of Venice we are awaiting with baited breath; and Jen Duchene, who is known for her soul readings for good reason! For a deeper peek into Peggy Guggenheim’s passions, her memoir Confessions of an Art Addict is worth a read.

Text and images © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is the founder of The Literary Blog to Book Movement.