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  • Gathering Places:The Stories of Six Women and the Worlds They Created
  • Kristine Somerville (bio)
The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in Venice, Judith Mackrell,
Thames & Hudson, 2017, 408 pp., $34.95 (hardcover)
The Riviera Set: Glitz, Glamour, and the Hidden World of High Society,
Mary S. Lovell, Pegasus Books, 2017, 434 pp., $27.95 (hardcover)
The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss and American Royalty in the
Nation's Largest Home
, Denise Kiernan, Touchstone, 2017, 388 pp., $28
A Season of Splendor: The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York,
Greg King, Wiley, 2009, 508 pp., $35 (hardcover)

For Friedrich Nietzsche, greatness was achieved through the full, unflinching realization of self by turning life into a work of art. Separated by time and place, six unique women—Luisa Casati, Doris Castlerosse, Peggy Guggenheim, Maxine Elliot, Edith Vanderbilt, and Caroline Astor—all embody these notions of self-realization and life as art. Despite social conventions meant to dictate the courses of their lives, these independent women reinvented themselves through creativity and tenacity by fashioning worlds in which they could find full expression. The houses they bought or built and the milieux that grew up around them supported their ventures in art, commerce, and activism, ventures that have fascinating stories of their own. The histories of these houses are as richly textured and varied as the lives of their most famous occupants. [End Page 177]

The Unfinished Palazzo:
Life, Love and Art in Venice
Judith Mackrell, Thames & Hudson, 2017,
408 pp., $34.95 (hardcover)

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. [End Page 178]

While Luisa called Palazzo Venier dei Leoni home for fourteen years, Doris Castlerosse's possession of the property was brief. During World War I, Luisa's house had been looted of its remaining treasures, yet outside, the ivy-covered walls and overgrown garden remained magical, offering Doris Castlerosse the sanctuary she needed after decades of social climbing. Born in 1900 in South London, Jessie Doris Delevingne was not a Venetian grande dame but the daughter of a tradesman. She had a conventional middle-class upbringing that she wanted to escape, and her looks were her passport. Mackrell writes that Doris bravely rejected the standards of the age, "refusing to accept...


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