Returning to the ‘Dance of the Century’ in Venice, on 3 September 1951, Jacqueline de Ribes confided to Reinaldo Herrera that Carlos de da Beistegui knew how to lie. «Beistegui – states the viscountess de Ribes – was amoral and a snob. He taught me the complexity of social life. I had seen everything during the war, but I was still innocent until I met Charlie». The worldly primacy of Don Carlos was based on wealth, fantasy and the Proustian law of exclusion. What belonged to him as no one else was a social form that would soon be pulverized by the student protests of the Sixty-Eight, the same that shut down the Parisian atelier of an indignant Cristóbal Balenciaga.
Nothing could seem further from this era of snobbishness as art, and the movement towards boundless sophistication pursued by a Franco-Mexican gentleman between the 1930s and 1960s. Carlos de Beistegui y de Yturbe was born in 1895 and last seen in 1970. He was a patron of the avant-garde art from Bauhaus and Cubism to Surrealism – his tactics on the roof of the Champs-Elysées was conceived by Le Corbusier in 1929 – and later an interpreter of baroque splendor and of the last courts of the ancien regime. Charlie – his many friends called him – specialized in worldliness. But he did not have a count’s title. With endless waves of money and a refined education, he collected houses, personalities and artistic splendor.
Paradoxically Beistegui, who would have politely detested social display, would have attended a Met Ball today. His identity continues to be referenced as an icon and almost sanctified inspiration. His name was often repeated at the Tiepolo Ball on the 11th May in Venice. This masked party was a benefit to raise funds for the monumental restoration operation by Venetian Heritage. It is celebrated every twenty years including in 2019 with the support of the Maison Dior and Gagosian, gallery of modern and contemporary art. Dior also financed the dance thanks to the close relationship with Peter Marino, überdecorator and International President of the Foundation. The silent auction that took place during the evening, reached the sum of four hundred thousand euros. The event was an idyllic close to a preview of the Venice Biennale.
As the name implies, the theme was the transfigured and heroic eighteenth-century of Giambattista Tiepolo’s painting. Here begins a game of mirrors reflecting memories and analogies with Beistegui’s 1951 soirée, carved in the annals, attracting curiosity and criticism, as Europe has just emerged from the horrors of the Second World War. Dior’s Tiepolo Ball took place in what was the Venetian home of Charlie de Beistegui until 1964: Palazzo Labia, a classicist Baroque building, built for a family of Catalan merchants who became Venetian patricians ‘for the money’ on the Canal of Cannaregio in San Geremia. It’s an aristocratic residence which is now Venice’s RAI headquarters and which was frescoed with the Stories of Antonio and Cleopatra by Giambattista Tiepolo at the height of his career, in 1746-47. In the central hall, a double-height monumental space, the two main scenes are crowded with sumptuously dressed characters who assume theatrical and haughty poses. On the vault, inside an oculus, stands Bellerofonte on horseback from Pegasus, who flies towards Glory and Eternity. Tiepolo, with his sons Lorenzo and Giandomenico beside him, crossed most of Europe from Venice, in a parabolic arc from Germany to Bourbon Spain. He was the ultimate painter of the baroque and its political absolutism. Even the rococo splendor of the hall of mirrors of Palazzo Labia, furnished with pieces later sold at auction, was signed by the Tiepolesque genius, who left his mark on the ceiling, depicting the Triumph of Zephyr and Flora with watercolor. From eight o’clock on Saturday 11 May, the influx of guests caused a traffic jam in front of the building at the intersection of Canalazzo and Giudecca Canal, which was lit up like an apparition against the dark green of the waters. Against the backdrop of San Geremia stone from Istria, the guests on the water were greeted by a choreographed dance from the Parolabianca group, dominated by three dancers wearing stilts and heavy cloaks adorned with surrealist and Renaissance motifs, zodiacal inserts and symbols – an escape into a fantastic mannerist bestiary.
Christian Dior’s fascination with the esoteric was inspiration for this repertoire which Maria Grazia Chiuri called «a series of celestial and ancestral journeys». He was already known as Monsieur Dior in 1951 when he arrived in Venice with an entire railway wagon decked out as an atelier and with six models in tow. Chiuri wore an austere black velvet and an antique enamel skeleton necklace, dressed the women including Sienna Miller, in beige cape and iridescent dress, Monica Bellucci and Dasha Zukhova, in Pompadour corsets and floral cloaks, Tilda Swinton in a bouclé silk longuette, Karlie Kloss in a robe-corsage and Amira Casar in black. Maria Grazia Chiuri wished to establish a dialogue with local textile producers, Rubelli and Bevilacqua, whose workshop overlooking the Grand Canal in Santa Croce still produces the soprarizzi and counter-cut velvets on handmade looms that were the pride of the Venetian Republic.
A camp crowd of Antony and Cleopatra, dames and ladies, jabots, overflows and overlaps of cage aux Folles feathers and décolleté on display. Masks are mysterious and seductive, especially in Venice. Golden sequins, bautte, larvae and tufted dusters, a vaulting of fezzes, helmets and turbans, the black leather from Manzoni, between Velázquez and Antonio Lopez, by Peter Marino. Even the fifteenth-century queen of Cyprus, Caterina Cornaro, appeared in peach pink and pearl chains, the wrong epoch. As required by the etiquette at the time, the Beistegui Ball began at exactly 10pm on September 3, 1951, per the invitation. It was not for charity, just the pure whim of the host, focused in particular on the entrance, the characters and groups as they landed and disembarked from the pompous gondolas in eighteenth-century costumes.
There were thousands of guests for Beistegui in 1951: three hundred more than planned. For the most part they were immortalized by Cecil Beaton, Cornell Capa and Robert Doisneau. Among them were members of the high aristocracy and Café Society of Europe. There were the Aga Khan III in black domino, Orson Welles, Gene Tierney and Irene Dunn in lace and tricorn, Elsa Maxwell, the Hollywood gossip, the procession of imperial chinoise by Lopez-Willshaw and Alexis de Redé, Daisy Fellowes in a Dior African Queen costume of a tiepolesque matrix, Cora Caetani, Barbara Hutton with many husbands, and Isabelle Colonna, Fulco di Verdura, Natalie Paley, Duff and Diana Cooper, relying on Oliver Messel’s costume design. Elsa Schiaparelli, Nina Ricci and the young Pierre Cardin were among the costume designers, as was Jacques Fath, who participated in the Louis XIV gold celebration to depict the sun, accompanied by his wife in lunar silver. Salvador Dalì, the black angel of Surrealism, was there with Leonor Fini. Dali had dressed as Monsieur Dior and vice versa. The landlord, who walked on a forty centimeter plateau, wore a scarlet damask toga as a procurator of the Venetian Republic with a Louis XIV wig. A pragmatic dinner of soup was served as a buffet after midnight, interrupting the dancing, watched by the pierrots on stilts designed by Dalì for the Maison Dior, immortalized in watercolor by the Russian Alexandre Serebriakoff. Maria Grazia Chiuri wanted to highlight the role of artist-couturier combined, collaborating on iconographic choices with the Roman Pietro Ruffo, with whom he has shared a scene several times. In 1951 those present intertwined fun and flirtation until daybreak, mixing with the crowd of people in Campo San Geremia, where the local firemen had assembled a human pyramid, as in an eighteenth-century painting by Gabriel Bella, and a fabled gondolier that would have turned the head of the Beghum Aga Khan after a convict waltz.
In the dance parties of the past a meal was never served, yet the dinner of the Tiepolo Ball last May unfolded in the various rooms on the noble Ca ‘Labia from which – legend has it – the owners had thrown the crockery out of the windows into the canal as a coup-de-thèâtre at the end of each banquet – only to recover them at dawn thanks to an elaborate system. The décor designed by Victorie de Castellane differentiated the tables, dressed in Fortuny fabrics and covered with hedges of flowers, crystals, Meissen and Bassano ceramics, bronze candlesticks, and Retour sphinxes. «Christian Dior has always loved Venice» – observes Maria Grazia Chiuri. «His artists, artisans, art, are all part of the Maison’s heritage, which is why I enjoyed working with the indigenous know-how in organizing the party». Each hand fan that everyone found at their place was printed with a phrase coined by Monsieur Dior: ‘Parties should have anything necessary to give joy’.
With literary licentiousness, this year’s Beistegui revival does not end in the lagoons of Venice. There is a second act in Noto Sicily, which the Pompei of the Baroque invented from scratch after an earthquake that destroyed eastern Sicily in 1693. On Saturday June 1, French television tycoon Jean-Louis Remilleux prayed to attend the inauguration of Palazzo Di Lorenzo del Castelluccio, the neoclassical mansion he acquired in emphyteusis from the Order of Malta a few years ago and which he restored with as much philological rigor and love as significant financial resources. In 1999 Remilleux became the owner of the Châteu de Groussay in Montfort l’Amaury north of the Rambouillet forest not far from Paris, the most known and enduring of the houses inhabited by Charlie de Beistegui, who settled there in 1938 in full drôle de guerre. In 2012 Remilleux sold it to the Russian tycoon Rustan Madumarov. During the war in Groussay, the flag of neutral Spain made the property untouchable, and no German soldier or officer ever dared set foot there during the occupation.
There were chickens, homemade butter and bright fireplaces. People lived in careless oblivion of what was happening outside. Not being a national monument, the 1815 country residence of the Duchess of Charost was freely transfigured by the narrative taste of Beistegui and completed with scattered folies in the park, a Salle Hollandaise and an opera house, with the complicity of his architect, the Cuban Emilio Terry. It was an Eden for the privileged who took refuge during the war and through consequent hardships, led by Prince Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucinge, including Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc, Jean Cocteau and Princess Murat, as well as the rivals Louise de Vilmorin and Marie-Laure de Noailles.
Palazzo Castelluccio had a dreamlike program. On the walls there are frescoes and grisailles that cite the Farnese Hercules or the Hadrianic Antinous, a suite of pearly pink, blue and gray. In a bedroom you find an optical illusion of blocked yellow curtains, sheets of flightsé that belonged to Elsa Schiaparelli. The chapel is rich in sacred furnishings, silver and mother-of-pearl, liturgical objects and corals, the dining room blends the old gold with the Cerreto Sannita’s servant. The mahogany bed by Giuseppe Napoleone in Caserta is watched over by golden eagles. There is a secret garden and a Wunderkammer. The event was preceded by a concert in the Tina di Lorenzo theater where the counter-tenor Filippo Mineccia sang Baroque arias and Remilleux was awarded honorary citizenship. The courtyard of the building was like a stage set for the Noto band. The guests were mostly foreigners, a group of boys in tails with red carnations in their breast pocket. Candles everywhere highlighted Sicilian and Neapolitan objects, paintings and furnishings between the eighteenth century and the Restoration, to light up the gilded hues of the wallpaper made in Paris on original models. The noblesse was present, the families rooted in Noto, the Bonaccorsi di Reburdone, direct heirs of the Castelluccio, Nicola and Marica Rocco of Torrepadula, sons of the doyenne netina, the marquise Agata Trigona of Cannicarao and Frigentini, Alessandro Modica of San Giovanni. Alessandra Di Castro wore a mourning cameo with diamonds that belonged to Queen Maria Carolina of Bornone and a micro-mosaic ring. There were Béatrice de Bourbon-Deux Siciles, Alexis Kugel and Madame Pinault, escorted by Jacques Garcia. As expected, people were offended by their exclusion. The new money of Noto weren’t invited. The following day, Jacques Garcia hosted lunch in the countryside in an epic place that deserves an entire volume of description. There was a composition of epochs and styles worthy of Villa Adriana in Tivoli or the Czech Ruldofinum Wunderkammer. A fairy manor with pools that reflect a Palmyrene temple and a citrus grove appears to be arranged in layers as if at Sanssouci. A dreamlike Groussay Castle that could not be more Beistegui.
Translated from the original Italian by Philippa Nicole Barr