Summer Trip: a Venetian Masked Ball in Newport, R.I.

Ron Machtley, Monty Burnham and Bernard Gewirz.
Ron Machtley, Monty Burnham and Bernard Gewirz.

Edward Julius Berwind would have been beaming on the evening of Aug. 3, when almost 600 guests enjoyed a Summer Venetian Masked Ball in Newport, R.I., at what was once his summer residence, the Elms. The Philadelphia coal magnate built the $1.4-million mansion on Bellevue Avenue in 1901, envisioning it as a social hub for summer society. The Rococo-inspired “cottage” brilliantly fulfilled this mission during Newport’s gilded age as well as for the recent gala, hosted by the Newport Preservation Society.

“It was one of the loveliest parties the Preservation Society has ever given,” said Monty Burnham, a board member and treasurer of the non-profit.  “It was a perfect evening—the music was glorious, the masks fabulous, and the décor was especially good.”

Monty and her husband Richard Burnham of Cleveland Park were just some of the Washingtonians on hand to celebrate the evening, an occasion that heralded the return of six 18th-century Venetian paintings to the estate. Other Washington notables who attended included board member Sarah Gewirz and her husband Bernard S. Gewirz  of Chevy Chase, Md, Ruth H. Buchanan of Washington D.C., Edith Brewster and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., with his wife Sandra.

The setting for the gala was, in a word, magnificent, with distractions at every turn. Actors painted from head to toe in silver and gold danced silently, anchored to the pedestals from which they pivoted. Stately candelabra held flickering candles that lit the night as the sun set. Guests, bedecked and bejeweled, peeked out from behind elaborate masks, feathers and sparkles complementing elaborate ball gowns. Servers offered tempting hors d’oeuvres of tuna tartare and lobster salad.

Venetian paintings, however, were the draw. Two large canvases by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (1675-1741) greeted guests in front entryway, depicting two scenes from the life of Scipio Africanus, the ancient Roman general who defeated Hannibal. Sebastiano Ricci and Antonio Molinari continued the narrative on canvases displayed in the dining room. The works—ten in all and the largest series of Venetian paintings in the United States—were originally commissioned in 1701 by the powerful Bernardo Corner, also a general and, additionally, a member of the Venetian ruling council of ten. Claiming kinship with Africanus, Corner sought to visually associate his family’s deeds, also depicted, with the legendary Roman’s.

Designer Jules Allard of Paris acquired the paintings from the Ca’ Corner in Venice at the turn of the last century specifically for the Berwind summer house. When Edward’s sister Julia Berwind died in 1961, a developer bought the property, and its contents—including six of the ten paintings—went on the auction block. (The developer intended to build a shopping mall, but the Preservation Society thwarted his plans.)

‘‘It rarely happens, the reuniting of art on this scale,” said John Tschirch, director of museum affairs at the Preservation Society of Newport County, which bought the last of the ten paintings in 2012.

“The return of the last of the missing paintings to the dining room makes the Elms a ‘don’t-miss’ experience in Newport this year,” echoed Trudy Coxe, CEO and executive director. Proceeds from the Aug. 3 event will help endow a fund for fellows to research the art and architecture that the Preservation Society oversees, which include eleven properties dating from the Colonial period to the Gilded Age, and help convert what is now the carriage house at the Elms into a scholars’ center.

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