One hot evening in September 1913 a traffic jam formed on the Grand Canal in Venice, as gondolas ferrying elaborately costumed partygoers converged on the eastern stretch of the water, just as it widened out towards the lagoon. Buildings of great distinction lined the canal here, their façades glowing ostentatiously from the light of the glass chandeliers that hung in their upper stories, their magnificence reflected back from the waters below. Yet in the middle of this classic Venetian scene, one building obtruded like a broken tooth. Only one storey high, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni appeared to be in a state of near-dereliction, its white stone walls overrun with ivy, its roof gaping with holes.
It was to this building, however, that the gondolas were heading. A halo of golden lights shimmered over its roof, music could be heard from its grounds and on the wide waterfront terrace a spectacular scene of greeting was in progress. Two black men, six feet tall and costumed as Nubian slaves, stood either side of the landing steps; one of them was striking a ceremonial gong to herald the arriving boats, the other throwing metal filings onto a brazier and sending flares of white light up into the night sky. A little way behind was the party’s hostess, a tall, narrow woman dressed like a Persian princess in a gauzy costume of white and gold. She stood in the centre of a wide shallow bowl filled with tuberoses; and as she received her guests she uttered no words of welcome, gave no smile of recognition, but simply bent to hand each one a single flower.
During the three years in which the Marchesa Luisa Casati had been tenant of the Palazzo Venier, she and her parties had become the stuff of local legend. Although she was by nature profoundly and eccentrically shy, she was convinced that she possessed the soul of an artist and that it was her métier to turn herself and her surroundings into works of art. Even in a city famous for its carnivals and masquerades, there was nothing to match the theatre of the Marchesa’s entertainments, and all of her guests were expected to play their parts. As she stood silent and grave amongst the tuberoses, the men and women alighting from their gondolas on that September night were titled socialites in harem trousers, middle-aged painters with turbans and false beards – a colourfully self-conscious assortment of slave girls, pashas and booted corsairs.
Oriental parties were much in vogue during this last summer before the Great War, but few had so apt a setting as this. Once the Marchesa’s guests had been ushered through the palazzo’s crumbling portico, they found themselves in a scene of improbable fantasy. In place of the gloomy marbled expanse of a typical entrance hall was a gold-coloured salon, shimmering with mirrors and noisy with the chatter of caged monkeys and parrots. Beyond the salon lay an overgrown garden in which white peacocks, pedigree greyhounds and a semi-tame cheetah roamed among gold-painted statues. As waiters in richly dyed brocade served flutes of champagne, a black jazz band played ragtime and tango, the world Luisa had created in her palazzo that night was as elaborate, as flamboyant a meeting place of east and west as the history of Venice itself.
Extract from The Unfinished Palazzo by Judith Mackrell, published by Thames & Hudson.