PALAZZO DARIO – The Palace That Tommy Bought

A family trip to Venice affords the opportunity to explore one of the more arcane tributaries of Who folklore, the Palazzo Dario that their co-manager Kit Lambert, flush with the revenues from Tommy, acquired towards the end of 1971. Located next to the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery near the mouth of the Grand Canal, Kit paid £115,000 and an unknown sum in bribes to officials so that he could move in during April of 1972. Part of its attraction for Kit was its reputation as a house of ill omen – a series of previous owners had met (and would meet) with tragic ends – of which more later.
          Right now (see below) the Palace is covered in scaffolding, its current owner having evidently decided to spruce it up. This was unfortunate as it spoilt the view from my water taxi as we sailed along the Grand Canal last Saturday. The scaffolding is covered in netting and there is a large poster stretched across the front of the building, presumably advertising the name of the architect and construction company engaged in its rehabilitation.

“The characteristic façade is covered with fine ornaments, marble of various colours, discs and interwoven roses,” according to one reference book I found in the apartment where we stayed. Another stated: “[It is] jewel-like in its combination of surface richness and small size… it has four storeys and two piani nobli [floors with just one huge room], and a generous water storey.”
The Palazzo Dario, or Ca’ Dario as it is known locally, was built in 1487 by Giovanni Dario who in order to make room for it arranged the demolition of an earlier Gothic house on the same site. Giovanni was a Venetian diplomat and a former envoy to the Turkish court and on his death in 1494 it was inherited by his daughter Marietta who just happened to be married to the son of the owner of the neighbouring Palazzo Barbaro, and the two adjoining palaces therefore remained in the possession of the Barbaro family for over three centuries.

This was the oldest picture I could find. Note (below) the different chimneys and changes to the facade, presumably done towards the end of the 19th Century.

The Palazzo Barbaro is on the left

Between 1838 and 1842 Ca’ Dario was occupied by Rawdon Brown, a British student of Venetian history, and thereafter it has had several owners. At the end of the 19th Century the proprietor was the Countess de la Baume-Pluvinel, a French aristocrat and author, who undertook a good deal of restoration, including a new staircase, chimneys and replacing the marble on the front. In 1908, the impressionist Claude Monet was sufficiently impressed with its fancy façade to paint it from the other side of the Grand Canal.  

Monet's view of Ca' Dario

It is the series of later owners who contributed to Ca’ Dario’s macabre standing: Charles Briggs, a rich American, committed suicide there; Count Filippo Giordano delle Lanze was assassinated there (shot several times in the head by a disloyal friend in 1970); businessman Fabrizio Ferrari went bankrupt; and industrialist Raul Gardini shot himself at another of his homes in Milan after being involved in a political/financial scandal. Kit arrived between Lanze and Ferrari, owning Ca’ Dario for seven years until he sold it in 1979 for £360,000 plus, controversially, £34,000 for its contents. His tidy profit was scooped up by his creditors as he too was bankrupt by this time, thus continuing the tradition of misfortune among the owners of Ca’ Dario. It was then purchased by the opera singer Mario Del Monaco but in keeping with morbid custom he died from a heart attack three years later at the age of 67.
In Andrew Motion’s book The Lamberts, his study of three generations of Kit’s family, Pete Townshend says the members of The Who were dismayed by the number of sycophants that stayed there at Kit’s expense. “He desperately wanted us to go [and stay there], but we weren’t interested, or too busy,” says Pete. In the event his principal visitors were his old Oxford college friends Daria Chorley (whose Christian name added a further incentive to buy it) and Robert and Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall. When Kit was detained elsewhere his assistant Anya Forbes, once married to Byrd Chris Hillman, found herself looking after Ca’ Dario for months on end.
Today the building is privately owned but occasionally used as an extension of the neighbouring Guggenheim Gallery for large art exhibitions. On Saturday I wandered around the back and at the ‘land’ side rear gate pressed the buzzer but no one answered. Even if they had I doubt I’d have been invited inside.

Two views of the rear of Ca' Dario

It’s not hard to understand why this strange and wonderful city appealed so deeply to a man of Kit Lambert’s sensibility; the ornate splendour of its architecture, the intrigue of the masks and old-fashioned costumes worn during carnival, the fine wining and dining, the romance of the canals, the elegance of the strong and handsome gondoliers who ply their trade amongst the waterways in their traditional striped tops and straw hats – so much more evocative than humble London cabbies.
Like Kit, the city of Venice is steeped in art and culture, so it wasn’t hard to imagine the man I once knew clambering out of a gondola to enter his palace from the front or stumbling over the bridges and through the narrow alleyways towards the rear, fumbling drunkenly with his keys in the lock on the gate and making his way unsteadily down the narrow passage that separates Palazzo Dario from Palazzo Barbaro next door.
Forty years later I took great pleasure in following in his footsteps, taking a few photographs and playing both ‘The Overture’ and ‘Underture’ from Tommy on my iPod as I gazed up at the rear of Ca’ Dario and imagined Kit in his pomp, the proprietor of a genuine palace no less.

My daughter Olivia took this picture of me (making the Lucky Who sign) by the back gate. Unfortunately it’s hard to make out Ca DARIO on the cross beam as it’s very faded. The rest of the pictures were either taken by me or scanned from the reference books I found. 

Information for this post was obtained from several guidebooks and histories of Venice, the internet and Andrew Motion’s indispensable book The Lamberts: George, Constant & Kit (Chatto & Windus, 1986).


Brian in Atlanta said...

Just passed by it on water taxi yesterday (14 May) and it looked precisely the same with the scaffolding and the sign. Life is short but Italian scaffolding lasts forever.

Chris Charlesworth said...

Did you walk round the back?

Unknown said...

Was just there a few weeks ago. Still scaffolding on the canal side. Went to the Guggenheim then walked around back and imagined the very same: Kit in a stupor, 'The Baron Lambert' returning to his palace... Took a bunch of pics. No lucky Who sign tho, (not sure I'd qualify for that one anyway ha ha), and no Tommy on the iPod alas. Nice touch!

maxthemod said...

It looked safe and sound on Monday even though there were high waters all week. The Guggenheim was really busy and I believe that the Pallazo may be an extension for the Guggenheim in the future. I cannot imagine any other use.

Chris Charlesworth said...

That's good to know, thanks. If it does become an extension of the Guggenheim I might visit Venice again, just to see the inside.