Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Other Guggenheim

A Kandinsky in the living room
An unfinished palazzo directly on Venice's bustling Grand Canal hides one of the most magnificent collections of 20th century modern art. Bohemian socialite Peggy Guggenheim opened the doors to her Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in 1951 to share the works of her friends, unknown artists named Pablo. And Jackson. And Salvador.

After her death in 1979 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (yes, that would be Peggy's uncle Solomon) turned the palazzo into a museum and opened it to the public. All of the artworks were left in their original places, which makes for a fascinating museum experience. It's a perfectly manageable size for your kiddos and the rooms are filled with iconic works that represent the best of modern art.

No doubt he's wishing for a return visit
Strolling across the peaceful courtyard is a wonderful way to escape the tourist crowds on your trip to Venice. Be sure to say hi to Peggy and her dogs (buried in the corner) and stop by Yoko Ono's Wish Tree, where you can write down your own wish and attach it to the tree. See how many languages your kiddos can find on the paper "leaves". Sculptures surround the courtyard and gardens and it's fun to have art the kids can interact with and contribute to.

Pull open the heavy iron scrollwork doors to enter into the palazzo where you'll be greeted by a few Picassos and a hanging mobile by Alexander Calder. Can't you just imagine the elegant Peggy greeting you at the door, wearing a flowing caftan and bearing champagne glasses? She was known for her elaborate parties and eclectic guest lists, with artists, actors, composers and dancers all gliding across her terrazzo floors. I would have loved to have had a few cocktails with her.

The collection is displayed mostly in chronological order but let your kiddos lead the way to things that spark their interest. Enthusiastic art students can be found in almost every room and they're very happy to answer any questions or share their knowledge. We had a charming young Italian student approach the boys to ask if he could tell them something about a Chagall and to practice his English. I'm sure the boys didn't understand a word, but I was very proud that they remained attentive and even asked a few questions.

Don't miss the excited boy sculpture
When your crew is done with art head out to the canal side terrace for a stunning view of Venice. You can see why Peggy chose to remain in Venice until the end of her life. Be sure to share the story of sculptor Marino Marini's The Angel of the City with your kiddos. The figure on the horse is very excited (I would be too if the Grand Canal was my permanent view) and a certain body part stands at full attention.

Peggy had the sculptor make the body part detachable, just in case she had some prudish guests over for drinks she could simply remove it. I'm sure one night the martini glasses were overflowing and in the morning Peggy found it had been unscrewed and stolen. So a new one was quickly made and welded on and there it still is today. The little C&Gs thought it was the funniest story and I can't help wondering who has the bronze piece on their mantle.

There's an excellent gift shop with great kids activity and art books and a small but expensive cafe. We headed out for cocktails and gelato in Campo San Barnaba, the square best known for its library in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The boys ran off to grab gelato at the highly recommended Grom Gelateria while Mr. C&G and I found the nearest shady table and ordered a few Aperol and Campari cocktails.

Lounging under the Pollock
Honestly I don't think the Peggy Guggenheim Collection was on our list of things to do on our trip to Venice, we were looking for a place to escape the heat and crowds and decided a cool palazzo was it. But it was truly one of our best adventures, the boys even listed it in their top three.

The building and grounds are gorgeous, and the artwork is a nicely curated collection. Plus who doesn't love a few splattered Jackson Pollocks? Check the website for opening hours and the schedule of family friendly art activities. Admission is €14 ($19) for adults, €8 for students ages 11-26, and under 10s are free.

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