The high tide had recently flooded the city’s streets and plazas, but by the time I landed in Venice the sky was a bright forget-me-not blue and the sun was all ablaze. I settled in to the deliciously old-fashioned Gritti and romped down a seafood pasta on the Grand Canal-side terrace (with views to the splendor of Santa Maria della Salute on the opposite bank) to fortify myself for a return trip to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
Now celebrating its 75th Anniversary, the collection of the fabled dealer and collector is showcased in her Venetian residence, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. At one point, the exquisite one-story Palazzo belonged to the fantastic Marchesa Casati, a spendthrift eccentric who romanced Gabriele D’Annunzio, stepped out with a pet leopard on a leash, and consumed belladonna to widen her eyes.
No less eccentric herself, the fearless Peggy was an insatiable collector and a visionary dealer who was the first to showcase the work of Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner—and who championed the leading figures in the Dada (Max Ernst was her second husband), Surrealist, and Abstract Expressionist movements.
That evening, I hied to the poetic Palazzo Gradenigo for dinner chez Toto Bergamo Rossi, director of Venetian Heritage, the organization that has done so much to preserve the treasures of Venice and its former empire. The author of Venice: The Art of Living knows the storied city and its stories like no one else (his work has also taken him to Croatia, where he has another magical home.
The following day I joined Skye McAlpine for lunch at Harry’s Bar. Another Venetian expert, Skye has lived in the city since childhood and has brought her knowledge of its cuisine (and her own photographs) to her own delightful book A Table in Venice: Recipes from my Home. Skye has recently moved into a bedazzling Henry Jamesian establishment of her own, carved from the same palazzo as Toto, and after a post-prandial visit, my apartment envy knew no bounds.
Thence, as dusk began to fall and the skies turned orange and mauve, I went to explore a mysterious garden, the largest in all of Venice, created by Frederic Eden and his wife Caroline, who acquired the plot in 1884. Caroline was the sister of the legendary landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll, whose own taste for brilliantly colored herbaceous borders and garden “rooms” has shaped the look of classic English gardens to this day. Her sister struggled to create horticultural fireworks in Venice, with its sandy soil and unforgiving salt air, but apparently triumphed over the odds. When the local commune began to use an adjoining plot of land as a city dump, the Edens acquired that, too, and expanded their gardens to become the largest in the city, with formal allees of cypress trees, a Muscat grape vine pergola walk underplanted with roses, and a magnolia grove.
Princess Aspasia of Greece subsequently bought this literal garden of Eden in the late 1920s, leaving it to her daughter Queen Alexandra of Yugoslavia, who sold it in 1979 to the Austrian artist and environmentalist Hundertwasser. The Gaudi-inspired artist’s philosophy was that “nature is queen.” He abhorred straight lines, and the formal structure that previous incumbents had brought to the land slowly dissolved as ivy and brambles grew and formality gave way to a Sleeping Beauty wilderness tended by a single monk.
Hermès’ legendary fragrance creator, the Swiss-Italian Christine Nagel, had been looking for an Italian garden on which to base a new fragrance and heard about this mysterious place—closed to the public since the reclusive artist died in 2000—which she found far more intriguing than any of the country’s more famous and kempt classical gardens. The artist’s trust that manages the property receives hundreds of letters a month asking permission to visit, but Nagel’s must have struck a particular chord: It worked as an open sesame and she was invited in.
She was bewitched by its abandoned romance and returned through the seasons, as she told me, delighted by its poetry and its strange, haunting melancholy. In April, for instance, the pittosporum tree was completely covered with yellow and white flowers, smelling like orange blossom or jasmine, whilst in June, as Nagel recalled, “the magnolia smells so delicate, and of course the odor comes from the sky!” She also loved the smell of the trees’ roots, which cover the ground “like the lines on your hands” because they can’t burrow into the salty earth. The fleshy saltwort, the Madonna lilies, and the smell of the salt air were also amongst the smells that the alchemical Nagel (whose fragrances for Jo Malone included a collection inspired by traditional English desserts) blended together into her fragrance, aptly titled Un Jardin sur La Lagune. (Nagel cultivates her own garden in Normandy, filled with roses, peonies, and her beloved ferns).
The multiple smells for this latest Hermès fragrance were created in Nagel’s laboratory at Pantin, where the legendary Hermès workshops are based and where she chose to work because she felt that here “the heart of Hermès beats.”
“I love the texture of perfumes,” Nagel told me over tea at the Gritti. “Perhaps that’s why I am at Hermès, because fabric and texture is at the heart of the house.” When she was working on a men’s fragrance for another brand, she said, she would come to Hermès and, eyes closed, run her hands along the men’s suits. “It was so sensuous,” she says, “but now perhaps when they see me they remember me as that crazy lady who would stroke the clothes!”
“In Hermès, each time I create a perfume I create a story,” says Nagel, mindful of an injunction from Hermès’ chief executive officer Axel Dumas that “Without audacity there is no creation.” “I put in this perfume all the life of this garden,” she says.
That evening, the fragrance was celebrated with an ambulatory dinner through the remarkable rooms of the Palazzo Grimani, a relatively unknown gem a brisk walk from St Mark’s Square. Among its many wonders is a ceiling painted by Camilla Montovano with foliage and birds—a heron fighting a hawk in the center of the motif was meant to symbolize the fight between the fabulously wealthy Giovanni Grimani and the church authorities. Grimani bequeathed his remarkable collection of antiquities (and some Renaissance sculpture) to the Venetian state in 1587. Thanks to Venetian Heritage and its generous benefactors, many of these pieces will finally be returning to the room that was originally created to showcase them, following a period of conservation and cleaning.
During the dinner, Toto Bergamo Rossi led a small tour to the conservation labs in another wing of the city palace, where elaborately coiffed Roman matrons and beautiful gods rested side by side on pads in preparation to be painstakingly cleaned. It was a magical sight, and it is going to be spectacular to see them displayed as Grimani himself would have known them in his lifetime. Venice’s treasures really are so abundant that no matter how often one returns, it is always to some wondrous new serendipity.