Monthly Archives: September 2013

Lusting After Venetian Velvet

Silk velvet, the ultimate luxury textile, arrived in Venice via the Silk Route traders during the 13th century. By the 15th century, Venetian guilds were the global masters of velvet production.

Silk Velvet Italian early 15th c. Photo: Vrangtate Brun

Silk Velvet Italian early 15th c. Photo: Vrangtate Brun

Venice Palazzo Sagredo Bedroom

Bedroom from the Palazzo Sedgrado on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. Photo: Matthew Thompson

The guilds operated under strict quality controls. The regulations went so far as to require inferior production to be burned. Given it took days to hand-loom a few centimetres of velvet, the economic implications of poor quality output could be devastating to a producer. Each area of silk velvet production became highly specialized, from sericulture through marketing, with apprenticeships lasting 7-8 years.

Competition to create the best textiles was fierce.  Companies developed proprietary dyeing and weaving methods, making the production environment ripe for espionage. To guard against trade-secrets getting out, craftspeople couldn’t readily move from one employer to another.

Venice’s silk velvet was highly desired by wealthy Venetians and throughout Europe during the Renaissance period. In paintings by the Venetian artists, such as those by Tiziano Vecelli (better known as Titian), you can see exquisite renderings of velvet gowns, robes, furnishings, coverlets and wall hangings.

Titian Portraits of Lavinia and Jacopo Soranso

Portraits of Lavinia (1561) and Jacopo Soranso (1550) by Titian.

The demand for velvet was driven by more than its sumptuous beauty. Velvet became a status symbol. Newly wealthy commoners sought to upstage less well-to-do nobles by draping themselves and their homes in velvet textiles. This rich display of luxury goods was intended to blur the the lines of class distinction between commoners and the aristocracy.

In their quest to maintain lavish lifestyles, people became heavily indebted, often to the point of bankruptcy. The increased rates of insolvency severely reduced the tax coffers. In response, Venetian legislators enacted sumptuary laws, restricting the use of velvet and other luxury goods. Under these laws, the right to wear clothing made from velvet was limited to high-ranking Venetian nobles. Restrictions even dictated that only plain velvet could be used in upholstery. The laws were moderately successful. Those who could afford to pay the high tax levies for disobeying the regulations did so rather than forgo the banned luxuries.

Globally, few companies produce pure silk velvet today. Silk backings are often used with less expensive rayon or viscose pile, making the material accessible to a greater market. High-end, highly durable velvet is also available in mohair and linen fabrications, sometimes blended with silk.

Velveteen, velvet’s poor cousin, offers better durability than velvet due to its shorter nap. However, lacks velvet’s sumptuous drape and texture. Velveteen is produced in a wide-range of colours and designs. The print used on the Lee Jofa velveteen shown below, is reminiscent of woven Renaissance silk velvet patterns.

Lee Jofa Textile

Modern Lee Jofa Printed Cotton Velveteen Textile.

Established in Venice in 1875,  Luigi Bevilacqua currently produces luxurious silk velvets for interior applications. Skilled craftspeople still operate the hand-looms dating from the 17th and 18th century. The company is also known for their beautiful brocades, satins, damasks, lampasses and trimmings.

Hand-looming textiles is a labour intensive process. Luigi Bevilacqua produces only a few hundred meters of the hand-loomed fabric annually. Since the 1930’s, the bulk of their textile manufacturing is done using mechanical technology. Whether hand or machine-loomed, the fabrics created are based on selections from Luigi Bevilacqua’s exclusive library of 3,500 designs, using only the finest quality dyes and threads. One of their hand-loomed velvets is the fabulous Tagliato Tigre, having a pure-silk pile and a 50/50 linen and silk ground.


Photo Source:

Another name associated with velvet and Venice is Mariano Fortuny. Originally from Granada, Spain, Fortuny relocated to Venice as a child in 1889. By his early thirties, Fortuny was well-recognized for his creative and innovative talents. Among them were painting, photography, stage lighting and theatre design. Today, he is probably best remembered for his forays into textiles and fashion. Assisted by his Parisian wife, Henriette Negrin, Fortuny designed and created the uniquely pleated silk dresses known as Delphos gowns. He also created fabulous hand-printed silk velvet evening coats.

In 1927 New York interior designer, Elsie McNeill Lee, saw Fortuny’s dress and coat fabrics in a Paris museum. She decided they would be perfect for use in interiors. Working with Fortuny to expand his line, Elsie McNeill Lee was instrumental in bringing his fabrics to the United States. Her business savvy also saved the company from receivership during the Depression.

Shown below is an example of one of his early fabrics for interiors. He based the design on a woven 16th century Italian textile and printed it in gold and silver. Eventually, due to cost, Fortuny opted to only use cotton as the base for his furnishing textiles.

Fortuny Velvet

Photos via: (clockwise from top L) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, V&A Museum, 1st Dibs

Sadly, like the Fortuny Delphos dresses, the evening coats can only be acquired today at auction or through vintage resellers, if at all. Wouldn’t the patterns Fortuny used for the splendid silk-velvet evening coat (circa 1930) and purse be wonderful for an interior application?

Mariano Fortuny, looked to the past for his design inspirations. However, his printing techniques were innovative. Using purchased plain off-white fabrics, vegetable-based dyes and a little alchemy based on his knowledge of photographic processing, Fortuny developed uniquely printed textiles. The patterns were created by layering hand-blocked stencils with hand-painting and were often highlighted with gold and silver. For this work, he became known as the “Magician of Venice.”

Today, the Fortuny product line, under the leadership of the Riad family, includes furniture, tableware, mosaic tiles and notebooks. As in Mariano Fortuny’s day, the company prints upholstery fabrics using secret techniques and no two lengths are exactly the same.

One modern-day textile designer, Mirella Spinella, hand-prints velvet fabrics in her Venice studio. With a background in painting and set design, she taught herself how to create beautiful printed velvet textiles. Given the secretive nature of the industry, Mirella Spinella researched old craft treaties and then experimented with pigments and mordants.

Working with stencils and woodblocks, she meticulously hand-prints her designs on white velvet. Mirella Spinella’s patterns have historical references to Venice. However, she adds a unique bold, theatrical flair, creating fresh interpretations that fit in well with today’s preferences for eclectic fashion and interior design. Shown below are two patterns from her on-line catalogue, ‘Chinese Flowers’ and ‘Hunting Lion.’

Chinese Flowers

Chinese Flowers. Photo Source:

Hunting Lion. Photo Source:

Hunting Lion. Photo Source:



Brown, Patricia Fortini. “Behind the Walls: The Material Culture of Venetian Elites.” Venice Reconsidered: The History and Civilization of an Italian City-State, 1294-1797. John Jeffries Martin & Denis Romano, Eds. JHU Press, 2002. 295 – 338.

Coleman, Brian D. Fortuny Interiors. Gibbs Smith, 2012.

Facelle, Amande E. “Down to the Last Stitch: Sumptuary Law and Conspicuous Consumption in Rennaisance Italy.” April 2009.

Gregorin, Cristina. “Velvet, Damask and Brocade. The Luigi Bevilacqua Silk-Weaving Mill.” Venice Master Artisans. Grafiche Vianello srl, 2003. 38-45.

Watt, Melinda. “Renaissance Velvet Textiles“. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (August 2011)

Exploring The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

What attracts you to artwork? For me, initial attractions vary. The lasting ones are those which trigger an emotional response. In addition, learning about the artist, the message they intended and the provenance of their work, either enhances or reduces a piece’s appeal to me.

This past spring, when in Venice, I spent an afternoon viewing The Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Below are some of my favourites. The last two were acquired by the museum after Peggy’ Guggenheim’s death.

While Peggy Guggenheim initially sought out the advice of art experts when building her collection, her selections were based on her own preferences. She often had a personal connection with the artists whose work she acquired. Art brought her a great deal of enjoyment.

The Antipope, Dec 1941 – Mar 1942. Max Ernst (1891 – 1976)

This Surrealist piece was the first to command my attention at the museum. I kept going back to it. It’s a fascinating, disturbing and sad painting.


The Antipope. Photo: juliesea

Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst married in December 1941, the month Ernst began to create this painting. Peggy believed that Ernst had portrayed her as the figure third from the right, with Ernst representing himself as the black horse. Some scholars agree with this interpretation. Others suggest Peggy Guggenheim is the figure to the far left. You can learn about “The Antipope” via this link to the Guggenheim site.

Just as the poet the has to write down what is being thought – voiced – inside of him, so the painter has to limn and give objective form to what is visible inside of him.” – Max Ernst

Silver Bed Head 1945-46. “Sandy” Alexander Calder (1889 – 1976)

The whimsy of the piece engages me. That it was a personal item of Peggy’s, rather than one commissioned for her museum, is also appealing. Calder created this work of art specifically for Peggy Guggenheim. There is a photo of Peggy in her bedroom at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in my previous post. Calder’s sculpture is on the wall, above her bed.

Best known for his amazing mobiles, it’s not surprising Calder’s background was in mechanical engineering. He studied the discipline at university, then worked in the field for about six years before becoming a sculptor. To learn more about Calder and his work, please visit the Calder Foundation website.

Calder Bedhead Photo Patrick Huber

Silver Bed Head, Calder. Photo: Patrick Huber

Sculptures after Picasso’s sketches, 1964. Egidio Costantini (1912 -2007)

It’s Costantini’s life story makes these sculptures of particular interest to me.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection Blue Glass Sculptures

Sculptures after Picasso’s sketches. Photos: L. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection R. Patrick Huber

Born in southern Italy, Costantini grew up in Venice. After training to become a radio telegraph operator, he worked as a bank clerk. Later, he obtained a degree in botany. His interest in glass began when he worked as an agent for several Murano glass factories. Gradually, Costantini learned the art of glass blowing from the master Murano craftsmen and began experimenting with glass. He envisioned glass as an art medium rather than as a material suited only for functional applications. Through collaborations with artists and master Venetian glass blowers, he began to create his vision. He set up an artists’ co-operative in 1950 called Fucina degli Angeli (Forge of Angels). After achieving some success, he ran into financial difficulties and closed it in 1958. Costantini met Peggy Guggenheim in 1961 through a friend. She provided him with the funds needed to revitalize the company. You can read more about Costantini at The website is in Italian, Google Translate worked well for me.

You can see the grand Palazzo Corner della Ca’ Granda through the window screen behind the glass sculptures. Please refer to my previous post to read about the link between the Corners and the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni which houses The Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

The New Gates of Paradise, 1960. Claire Falkenstein (1908-1997)

What a perfect name. The gates lead into the palazzo’s garden oasis, to the home Peggy Guggenheim lived in for 30 years (I think that the longest I’ve lived in one place is 4 years – my husband calls me a nomad – maybe I just need some gates to paradise). Falkenstein’s creation is both functional and fascinating. Their design makes me think of dense bramble bushes.

Peggy commissioned her friend, Claire Falkenstein, an American sculptor and painter, to create the gates. Claire had lived in Paris for a number of years. While there, she became interested in the relationship between space and matter. In this piece, welded iron rods create a multidimensional web around chunks of Venetian glass; instilling a sense of depth greater that the actual thickness of the panels.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection Venice The New Gates of Paradise. Claire Falkenstein

The New Gates of Paradise. Photo: Detlef Schober

Detail of The New Gates of Paradise. Claire Falkenstein. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Detail of The New Gates of Paradise. Photo: Detlef Schober

Bird in Space, 1932-40. Constantin Brâncuși (1876 – 1957)

Brancusi Bird in Space

Photo: rocor

I find the deceptive simplicity of this sculpture appealing. This is another artwork that was close to Peggy Guggenheim’s heart.  That it had such importance to her gives me a greater appreciation of it.

She had been friends with Brâncuși, and an admirer of his work, for sixteen years before she bought one of his sculptures. “Bird in Space” sculpture was the second of his sculptures added to her collection. Although she had long admired the series, she and Brâncuși had a bitter argument of the asking price when she first tried to buy it. They did not speak for months afterwards. Weeks before German troops invaded Paris during WWII, Brâncuși finally sold the sculpture to Peggy Guggenheim. It was an emotional moment for the artist. In Confessions of Art Addict, Peggy Guggenheim writes, “Tears were streaming down Brâncuși’s face. I was genuinely touched. I never knew why he was so upset, but assumed it was because he was parting with his favorite bird.” 

Through the highly-polished, smooth bronze surface and elongated tapering shape of the bird, Brâncuși wanted to convey the “essence of flight.” By minimizing the physical attributes of the bird, we are left to focus on the its movement; its ability to quickly ascend into the sky. Please visit to read a short summary about Brâncuși and his work.

La Sibilla, 1947. Pericle Fazzini (1913-1987)

The sculpture shown in the photo below was one my favourites in the garden. Sibilla sits, lost in thought, with the warm summer sun on her back. Her serene smile captured my attention.

Venice Peggy Guggenheim Collection

La Sibilla

Please visit the Guggenheim site to read more about Fazzini. The sculpture was a 2012 bequest of art patron Hannelore B. Schulhof, who once said

“Art is almost like a religion. It is what gives my life dimension beyond the material world we live in.”

Savor Kindess Because Cruelty is Always Possible Later, 1983. Jenny Holzer (1950 – )

I first learned of American artist Jenny Holzer in the early 1990’s. I was living in Toronto, Canada at the time. She was in town to present and discuss her work. It was my first exposure to text being used as a standalone art form. The phrases she uses are provocative and unsettling. They make me stop, look and think.
Speaking about what motivates and inspires her work, Jenny Holzer says:

“I wanted to offer content that people – not necessarily art people – could understand.” (Interview Magazine, 2012) “I’m inclined to work on dark things. Sadly, the world is always offering up something dark and dreadful.” (The Guardian, 2013)

The bench shown below is part of her 1983 Survival series. Another phrase from this series is “Protect me from what I want.” On the series, Jenny Holzer says,

“I wanted to support things that are helpful to people and maybe bash what I think is dangerous.” (NY Times, 1989).


Photo: Richard, enjoy my life!

Jenny Holzer won the prestigious Leone d’Oro (Golden Lion) for her exhibition at the 1990 Venice Biennale. She was the first woman to represent the United States at the exhibition. While the Guggenheim connection with Jenny Holzer dates back to that Biennale, unfortunately, Peggy Guggenheim, who died in 1979, never met the artist. Knowing what we know about Peggy, it’s likely that she would have enjoyed meeting the artist.
Art (seeing it, creating it, learning about it, thinking about it, talking about it) makes my life richer and helps to keep my brain humming. How does art bring bring enjoyment to your life? Do you have a favourite quote about art or one said by an artist?

Venice, the Last of Peggy Guggenheim’s Loves

“Living in Venice, or simply visiting it, means falling in love with it and leaving no room in your heart for anything else.” – Peggy Guggenheim

Peggy Guggenheim was a voracious lover of art, men and Venice. She lived in the city for over 30 years until her death, in 1979, at the age of 81. Her art collection and Venice home, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, are the basis of The Peggy Guggenheim Collection. It’s noted as the most important collection, in Italy, of European and American art from the first half of the 20th century.


Peggy Guggenheim on her Venice terrace, wearing a Fortuny Delphos gown, 1950’s. Photo via: tumblr

While her appreciation for the art of her time is well-known, Peggy Guggenheim initially studied and enjoyed the classics, particularly Venetian Renaissance paintings. From her twenties onward, surrounded by a growing circle of avant-garde and bohemian writers and artists, she developed an astute knowledge of and keen eye for modern art.

“I took advice from none but the best. I listened, how I listened! That’s how I finally became my own expert.”

The majority of Peggy Guggenheim’s collection was put together over a period of ten years. From 1938 to 1940 in Europe, 1941 to 1946 in the United States and during her first two years back in Europe. She continued to collect art throughout her life. However, according to an article in the New Criterion, her later additions were less significant than her earlier ones.

Peggy Guggenheim also provided financial support to and extensively promoted a number of artists. It can be said that she launched the tragically all-too-short career of Jackson Pollock. When she first met him, he was struggling financially as an artist, holding down a day job as a carpenter for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The financial support she provided to Pollack allowed him the freedom to focus on his art.

via Pinterest

Peggy Guggenheim and Jackson Pollack 1943 in front of “Mural.”

Shortly after Peggy Guggenheim returned to Europe in 1946, she was invited to show her collection at the 24th La Biennale in Venice which took place in 1948. Presented were 136 pieces, covering the work of 73 artists, including Jackson Pollack, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Wassily Kandinsky.  This was the first time such an avant-garde body of work was permitted at the Biennale and a turning point for the acceptance of modern art in Italy.

Deciding to remain in Venice (choosing this beautiful city over all others), in 1949 Peggy Guggenheim purchased the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni from the heirs of Viscountess Castlerosse. The Viscountess, who died of an overdose at 42, was a London socialite who attracted the attention of Winston Churchill among others. Churchill was so taken with her that he painted her portrait in 1930. Born Doris Delevingne (and incidentally, Clara Delevingne’s great-aunt), she later modified her last name to de Lavigne,  She, like Peggy, was often the subject of gossip about her “scandalous” affairs. Prior to the Viscountess’s ownership, the palazzo had been the home of Marchessa Luisa Casati. The Marchessa and Peggy Guggenheim had some commonalities. Both became wealthy heiresses at a young age. Both were patrons of the arts, although perhaps the Marchessa was a tad more flamboyant. The Marchessa launched many artists’ careers through her patronage. She liked “the newest and most radical artistic terrains of the twentieth century.” (Source:

The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni seems a fitting abode for these women who stood out from others during their lives. As the lone one-story palazzo, it stands out from the other structures on the Grand Canal.

Photo: Graeme Churchard

Photo: Graeme Churchard

Known as the “Maifinio” (never finished) in the Venetian dialect, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, dates from the mid-1700s. The architect, Lorzenzo Boschetti, intended it to be a grand three-story building. Only a small portion of the first floor was completed. The reason why the building was never finished remains a mystery. Some speculate there was battle between two prominent Venetian families, the Veniers and the Corners. The Veniers commissioned the home. The Corners owned the palazzo across the canal and did not want their grand home to be upstaged. So, they blocked further construction of the palazzo, claiming it would obstruct their view. Or, is the reason less intriguing? Others suggest that either money became tight or engineering issues got in the way. In any case, I found the home to be rather grand “as is.”

As for the “dei Leoni” reference in the palazzo’s name, there are 18 stone lions’ head sculptures at the base of the palazzo facing the canal. Legend has it that living lions were once kept in the garden.

Lion Close Up Original Photo Sue Elias

Photo: Sue Elias

The Marchessa Luisa Casati lived up to the legend. She kept pet cheetahs in the garden.

Marchessa Luisa Casati PInterest

Marchessa Luisa Casati with one of her pet cheetahs. Palazzo Veneri dei Leoni, 1912.

In 1951, after touring her collection around Europe for several years, Peggy Guggenheim installed it at the Palazzo dei Leoni.

She continued to support the Venice Biennale, making it a point to purchase something from every show. Artists, art critics, gallery owners and key collectors flocked to Venice during the each opening week (the tradition continues today) of the Biennale. Safe from the lions and cheetahs of past days, many were invited to the large cocktail parties Peggy held in her spacious garden to celebrate the start of the latest exhibition.

Her ever-growing art collection and artists-in-residence program took over the palazzo. At one point, she had plans drawn up to add a two-story modern gallery on the roof. The design was much in the style of Le Corbusier. The plans were abandoned, partially as she thought the proposed addition was ugly, partially because the addition would have cost sixty thousand dollars, only a bit less than the amount she paid for the palazzo. Instead, she converted the basement servants’ quarters into galleries and artists studios. Peggy Guggenheim also made space for the artists and new work by giving away large portions of her collection.

Her generous support of the arts also included holding salons in her home for art lovers and critics. The palazzo was also opened to the public three afternoons a week. The admission was free.

Her many and frequent house guests, caught off guard, were often still in their Pjs when the museum-goers came to the palazzo. During opening hours, Peggy would either escape to her roof-top terrace and sunbathe or glide off in her Gondola. I think it would be wonderful to lounge on that terrace.

via Pinterest

Initially, her entire home was accessible. Eventually, she closed off her bedroom to the public, only allowing friends and those who specifically requested a viewing to see it. Her bedroom, shown in the photo below, contained a spectacular silver bed-head made by Alexander Calder specifically for Peggy. The room was painted turquoise. Her extensive collection of earrings, accumulated from around the world, hung on her walls. The curtains were made from saris and the mirrors were elaborate Venetian designs. The room would fit in well with today’s boho décor themes.Peggy in Bedroom Palazzo Venier dei Leoni - Calder Bed-head

Peggy in Dining Room Palazzo Venier dei LeoniIn her dining room, Peggy combined Cubist artwork with a 15th century Venetian dining table and chairs. Seen behind Peggy is “Vita segreta” (Secret Life), a 1958 oil by the Venetian painter, Giuseppe Santamosa. Peggy met Santamosa shortly after arriving in Venice in 1946. They became close friends. It was through him that she was invited to show at the 1948 Biennale. You also see Brancusi’s sculpture “Maiastra” (Maestro). Peggy purchased it when she couldn’t get Brancusi to agree on a fair price for the “Bird in Space” sculpture that she coveted. “Bird in Space” was added to her collection soon afterward, weeks before German troops invaded Paris in June 1940. Both sculptures are in the Collection today, as is the dining room furniture.

In the next photo, she is seen adjusting Max Ernst’s “The Anti-pope.” Ernst painted it in New York shortly after fleeing Europe in the summer of 1941 (more about this Surrealist painting in my next post). Peggy in Palazzo Venier dei Leoni - The Anti-popePeggy is shown standing beside a pre-Columbian sculpture in the photo below. She began buying pre-Columbian pieces in 1958. It was her first visit back to New York in twelve years. Peggy in Palazzo Venier dei Leoni - Pre-ColumbianShe was “thunderstruck” to find how much the American art world had changed during over the years. Prices had sky-rocketed and people considered modern art a business investment.

“Only a few people really care for paintings. The rest buy them from snobbishness or to avoid taxation, presenting pictures to museums and being allowed to keep them until their death, a way of having your cake and eating it.”

By the 1960’s, Peggy had pretty well stopped collecting modern art.

“In fact, I do not like art today, I think it has gone to hell as a result of the financial attitude. People blame me for what is painted today because I had encouraged and helped this new movement to be born. I am not responsible. Eighteen years ago there was a pioneering spirit in America. A new art had to be born – Abstract Expressionism. I fostered it. I do not regret it. It produced Pollock, or rather Pollock produced it. This alone justifies my efforts. As to the others, I don’t know what got into them. Some people say that I got stuck. Maybe it’s true.”

With her home base and museum in place, she spent some time travelling, visiting Sri Lanka, India, Greece, Syria and other many other countries.

In her final years, Peggy Guggenheim withdrew somewhat from the world. Despite being ill, she would take a gondola ride through her beloved city each evening. After her death, an honorary dispensation was granted by the City of Venice allowing her ashes to be buried in her Venice garden near the graves of her pet dogs. The spot is marked with a simple plaque.

Resting Place | Photo Spiterman

Photo: Spiterman

Only weeks before she died, she wrote to a friend in New York about her museum,

“It is one of the most popular attractions in Venice, so at least I have achieved my great ambition.” (Source: Obituary in The New York Times, December 24, 1979).

She left her collection of over 260 artworks to The Solomon G. Guggenheim Foundation, an organization started by her uncle. There was one stipulation, the collection had to remain at the palazzo (or somewhere nearby should Venice sink) and intact. Her wishes have, for the most part, been respected. Pieces from the collection are however, loaned out to other museums for extended periods of time (years).

The Foundation has continued to add to the collection. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection remains one of the most popular attractions in Venice. Peggy Guggenheim left a wonderful legacy for the city which she loved above all others.



Additional sources: Confessions of an Art Addict (Kindle version) by Peggy Guggenheim, 1960, Vogue Italia and The Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Unless otherwise noted, photos were from Pinterest.