The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in
Venice by Judith Mackrell, a British author of
biographical nonfiction, tells the story of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni and the women who
called it home. Built in 1750 by a great Venetian family, the one-story, partially constructed
palazzo was abandoned when their fortune failed. Known as “the Unfinished Palace,” the crumbling eyesore was bought by Luisa Casati in
1910. She saw in the semiruin a poetic mystery and gothic romance.
Convinced that she possessed the soul of an artist, Luisa turned herself
and the home into a visual masterpiece.
Luisa Adele Rosa Maria Amman, born in 1881 in Milan, Italy, was
orphaned at fifteen and inherited a vast fortune, leaving her vulnerable to fortune hunters. Shy and socially maladapted, Luisa cultivated an
extravagant persona to mask her feelings of inferiority and used clothes
as her social armor, dressing in outrageous gowns designed by Poiret
and Léon Bakst of the Ballets Russes. In 1900, succumbing to family
pressure, Luisa married Marchese Camillo Casati Stampa di Soncino,
a man whose title was more impressive than his fortune. Having little
interest in her roles as wife and eventually mother, she cast them aside
and began constructing a life in which her clothes, friends, and home
comprised a work of art.
Mackrell writes that Luisa “refashioned herself and her surrounding
into the mise-en-scène of her imagination.” She renovated the palazzo
in her own ostentatious image, installing gilded pillars, stained-glass
windows, gold chandeliers, lace curtains, and black-and-white marble
flooring. Along with its menagerie of exotic animals—monkeys, parrots, snakes, greyhounds, and wildcats—the palazzo became a study in
artifice in which Casati entertained artists, bohemians, and romantics
like herself on a magnificent scale. The home and its “privileged muse”
became a tourist attraction. By 1923, after acquiring many houses, traveling constantly, and throwing lavish parties, Luisa was on the brink of
bankruptcy and sold her beloved palazzo.
The Unfinished Palazzo:
Life, Love and Art in Venice
Judith Mackrell, Thames & Hudson, 2017,
408 pp., $34.95 (hardcover)