Venice: Ancient city houses heiress’s collection of modern art
Those happy few Americans assigned to northern Italy are spoiled for choice in so many sensuous pleasures. None, however, is more splendid than Venice.
The world’s most beautiful, most romantic city, the destination dreamed of, where the light and water illuminate and soften beautiful ruins, is an hour or so from U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza and Aviano Air Base. One hour! Yet a world away.
I spent four days there in the late 1990s during a four-week European vacation. And since being assigned to Vicenza a month ago, I’ve also spent four days there. I think I might go every weekend.
The island city, once a powerful European republic, home to painters, poets and Casanova, overflows with tourists as well as tourist attractions, such as the Palazzo Ducale, home to the doges who ruled Venice for centuries, and the Piazza San Marco, which Napoleon is said to have called “the living room of Europe.”
But it also has a vibrant contemporary art scene — and one of Europe’s premier museums of modern art of the first half of the 20th century, collected by a canny American heiress — and reputed female Casanova herself — in her palazzo on the Grand Canal.
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection contains masterpieces ranging in style from cubism and surrealism to abstract expressionism, with artists such as Picasso, Braque, Dali, Pollock and Rothko. It’s refreshingly different from the Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance art in Italy’s infinite cathedrals and august museums.
I decided to go on a whim on a sunny Saturday. I know nothing about modern art, so I not only rented the audio guide, I lurked near knowledgeable people discussing the works, including an American in a baseball cap. He repeatedly quizzed two young children, apparently his grandchildren, about the abstract artworks in the sculpture garden. They never knew the right answers. We all learned a lot.
There was, in addition, a special exhibition of “The Avant-Gardes of Fin-de-Siècle Paris,” with some 100 paintings, drawings and prints by late 19th-century post-Impressionism artists whose art dealt in part with the turbulent time.
But Venice itself is a work of art. I’m looking forward to going this winter.
“In winter you wake up in this city, especially on Sundays, to the chiming of its innumerable bells, as though behind your gauze curtains a gigantic china teaset were vibrating on a silver tray in the pearl-gray sky,” wrote the poet Joseph Brodsky. “You fling the window open and the room is instantly flooded with this outer, peal-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers.”