A museum of indulgence: Peggy Guggenheim 's Venice palazzo

The spirit of Peggy Guggenheim lives on in the Venice palazzo housing her fantastic art collection.

In the latter years of her life, Peggy Guggenheim would float around Venice in her private gondola, with a lapful of her favourite Lhasa Apso pet dogs, dressed in something flamboyant, such as a kaftan, a turban and oversized sunglasses. "In this fantastic city only fantastic clothes should be worn," she'd say.

An heiress to the Guggenheim mining fortune (her father, Benjamin Guggenheim, went down with the Titanic), she was an intriguing, eccentric figure. She died at the age of 81 in 1979.

In some quarters, the name Peggy Guggenheim still conjures up the idea of a life of indulgence lived in a Venetian palazzo on the Grand Canal, but that frivolous idea is far from the truth.

A modest and serious woman, she lived comfortably but simply in an unfinished 18th century palace which had fallen into disrepair after several tenancies, including that of the notorious Marchesa Casati. Far from being an indulgent socialite, Peggy Guggenheim became a devoted patron of artists and was one of the most influential figures in the history of 20th-century art. She lived surrounded by the masterpieces of painting and sculpture she had collected astutely from the late 1930s.

Thanks to a bequest Peggy drew up before her death, her home, the Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni, is open to the public year round.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which features works from early Picassos to Surrealists such as Ernst, Dali and Magritte to Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, many of whom she championed before they were fashionable, is Italy's number-one museum of modern art and the second most-visited museum in Venice after the Doge's Palace. Visitors to Venice flock to it, at the rate of about 1500 a day in the summer.

Seen from the Grand Canal, the palazzo is an intriguing low, white-stone building with black iron gates, behind which stand Marino Marini's bronze statue of a horse and rider. (The naked rider has a removable phallus that Peggy Guggenheim would sometimes unscrew and put in a drawer when she didn't want to offend certain visitors.)

The palazzo has one of the biggest private gardens in Venice and an enormous rooftop terrace, arguably Venice's most fabulously located, the scene of many glittering parties in Guggenheim's day and today. She may have sailed up to the gates in her gondola, but visitors have to navigate the alleys of the quiet neighbourhood of Dorsoduro to find the high-walled entrance at the rear.


Inside the walls, her garden still flowers, and her ashes are interred beneath a plaque, along with several of her beloved dogs - Cappuccino, Pegeen, Peacock, Madam Butterfly, Sir Herbert and White Angel.

The palace, when she lived in it, was effectively an art gallery with furniture, minimalist in style. She restored it carefully and, with a keen, modern eye extracted all the baroque ornamentation.

The building is still very much as she kept it, with most of the furniture removed, but with many of the art works displayed as she arranged them.

Neighbouring buildings have been acquired for a cafe and a temporary exhibition space.

"We like people to feel at home here and live the atmosphere of Peggy's house," says British-born art historian Philip Rylands, who befriended Guggenheim in 1974, becoming administrator of the collection after her death, then director in 2000.

"She didn't want a memorial to herself, a mausoleum."

Throughout the gallery space are hung black-and-white photographs of Guggenheim in her home. Some furniture has been saved, such as a dining setting and a white sofa with zebra-print cushions. The silver mobile Alexander Calder made to hang over her bed is still in that room, and daughter Pegeen's old bedroom has been turned into a small gallery dedicated to her primitive drawings. "She had a rather tight cohabitation with her collection," Rylands says wryly.

Guggenheim, who was never quite as rich as those who sought her largesse imagined, spent her inheritance on a gallery, showing edgy Surrealist and Abstract art, which opened in London in 1938. It was a critical but not a commercial success.

She changed tack and decided to open a museum of modern art there and acquired a number of significant works, but World War II disrupted her plans.

She left Europe for New York in 1941 and opened the groundbreaking Art of This Century Gallery in West 57th Street, dedicated to Cubist, Abstract, Surrealist and Kinetic art. There, she fostered the careers of several promising artists such as Pollock and Motherwell.

Guggenheim came to Venice in 1948 to exhibit the collection of cutting-edge art she had put together in seven years. It caused a sensation. In 1949, she bought the palazzo and stayed on.

She started displaying a small part of her collection to the public in 1951. Before her death, she donated the more than 300 masterpieces and the palazzo to the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation, which also owns and operates the Guggenheim Museum in Frank Lloyd Wright's famous spiral building in New York, as well as Frank Gehry's spectacular Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. (Solomon was Peggy's uncle.) The Peggy Guggenheim Collection opened to the public in 1980.

"She completely trusted the Guggenheim Foundation and made no conditions," Rylands says. "She asked that the museum expand and the collection stay together, which it has, and be in her name, which it is."

But some of Guggenheim's descendants argue that the museum is not being run according to her wishes and the matter has been contentious since the 1990s, recently finding its way into the European courts.

Guggenheim had two children by Dadaist writer and sculptor Laurence Vail - Pegeen, a troubled woman who died in 1967 of an overdose, and son Sinbad. Guggenheim was also married to Surrealist Max Ernst and had a blazing affair with Samuel Beckett. She boasted more than 1000 affairs with men during her lifetime. She left her fortune to Sinbad. Pegeen's two sons, who were not named in Guggenheim's will, contend that the foundation is ignoring her wishes by permanently exhibiting work she did not collect.

As part of their suit, they are demanding the revocation of Guggenheim's donation to the foundation. Sinbad's three children and their descendants have taken the other side, supporting the foundation.

The main bone of contention is the Hannelore and Rudolph Schulhof Collection, which the gallery acquired in 2012 and is now housed in an extension covering what was once an outdoor loggia.

The Schulhofs started collecting contemporary art in the 1950s, creating an impressive collection of postwar works by important artists such as Cy Twombly and Mark Rothko.

The couple's estate donated more than 80 works to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The litigating descendants argue that Guggenheim would not have wanted another permanent collection under her roof and that the Schulhofs should not have their name alongside Guggenheim's on the museum entrance.

Rylands, who cannot talk about the court case, nevertheless fiercely defends the accepting of the Schulhof art works, arguing that they are important modern pieces, which Guggenheim might have collected herself.

They also assure that the museum is not frozen in time. "Peggy wanted the collection to grow," Rylands says adamantly.

On July 4, a Paris court agreed, rejecting the descendants' claims, but they plan to appeal.

Peggy Guggenheim's collection is a rich prize and it contains a heart-stopping number of masterpieces: Picasso's The Poet, Brancusi's Bird in Space, Max Ernst's The Attirement of the Bride, and Duchamp's Sad Young Man on a Train, as well as dozens of other masterworks.

Her spirit is palpable throughout the museum. Perhaps it's because those who are her caretakers talk about her as if she is still with us. "We do it all in Peggy's name," Rylands says.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is open Wednesday to Monday 10am-6pm, closed on Christmas Day. Free workshops for children on Sundays. See guggenheim-venice.it

The writer travelled to Italy as guest of Cathay Pacific.