Winnaretta Singer’s 1900 visit to Venice gave her an opportunity to see familiar friends from Paris, the comtesse Isabelle Gontran de la Baume-Pluvinel and her partner, the writer and photographer Augustine Bulteau. Augustine and their mutual friend Anna de Noailles had for some years been members of a discreet but formidable lesbian circle in Paris. The couple had bought the dilapidated Ca’Dario from its Hungarian owners in 1896 and soon completed a major program of restoration. Isabelle and Augustine created an agreeable salon at Ca’Dario, which Winnaretta describes in the following extract from her brief memoirs. The ‘incomplete’ ‘marble palace’ nearby was the single-storey Palazzo Venier dei Leoni which was to become, over half a century later, Peggy Guggenheim’s home. Today, it houses the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
Life in Venice was then absolutely delightful. The Countess de la Baume lived in the lovely Casa Dario, next door to the Giardino Barbier, which was at the back of a marble palace that had been begun in the seventeenth century and left incomplete, so that only the ground floor was finished and the large terrace overlooking the Grand Canal. On this terrace we often had coffee or dined in the afternoons.
The Countess de la Baume had made the Casa Dario a marvel of comfort and good taste, and had filled it with the finest pictures and the most precious books and musical instruments, and here congregated the fine fleur of Parisian art-lovers. I sometimes met at the Casa Dario the Comtesse de Noailles, and her wonderful and gifted sister the Princess Alexandre de Caraman-Chimay, for whom the youthful Marcel Proust had written a long dedication and preface in his recently published translation of Ruskin’s La Bible d’Amiens. Leon Daudet, then very young and one of the most brilliant and cultured men I have ever known, was a constant visitor, as was also Henri Gonse the collector, and the great poet Henri de Regnier and his talented wife, the daughter of the famous Heredia and herself a celebrated poet. They spent many months at a time at the Palazzo Barbier, where a few rooms had been repaired and made comfortable for the guests of the Comtesse de la Baume. After her death, the Marchesa Casati took the Palazzo Barbier [Winnaretta carelessly writes Barbier, when she meant Venier. Her brief memoirs, hastily completed for Horizon shortly before her death, contain the occasional slip-up. RS] – or rather the ground floor of this unfinished palace – and there had a series of fancy dress balls that are now legendary. At one of these balls, held at the time the Russian Ballet was at the height of its glory, she appeared at the top of the steps leading to the garden, in a wonderful costume designed by Bakst, with a tiger stretched out at her feet. The tiger had been drugged, but it was nevertheless extremely frightening, as one came up from a peaceful gondola, to find it lying on the steps of the palace. At the end of the party some of the guests took the tiger on to the Piazza, where quiet citizens who were leaving the theatres were terrified at its appearance. The incident provoked general censure.
This was clearly a Venetian way of life to be relished, and it is easy to see why so many grand expatriates were drawn to it. Informal dinners overlooking the Grand Canal, not to mention the occasional appearance of a tiger, albeit a drugged one, undoubtedly made a welcome change from the comparatively restrained atmosphere of Mayfair or the Faubourg Saint-Germain.