Nicolas Berggruen is running late. I’m waiting for the billionaire German-American investor and philanthropist on the balcony of Venice’s Palazzo Malipiero, his latest acquisition, but the views of the Grand Canal more than compensate for any delay. The frenetic opening week of the 60th Venice Biennale is drawing to a close, and in addition to the shows at official pavilions, there have been exhibitions and programmes sponsored by potentates such as François Pinault, Miuccia Prada, Bernard Arnault and Sheikha Al Mayassa of Qatar. Not to be outdone, Berggruen has staged events in his own three landmark buildings. The properties are still in various stages of restoration, but Berggruen is emerging as a modern-day Medici, the city’s most dynamic and thrilling new patron. 

Stuck outside the Byzantine-era palazzo, Berggruen calls me, asking for help getting in. None of his staff are answering the doorbell. (Being a billionaire means never having to carry a house key, it turns out.) He also wants to know if I’ve managed to find a chair. I don’t see one. The enormous salons are magnificently empty – all the better to appreciate their frescoes, marbles and stucco work. 

The inner gallery of Palazzo Malipiero in Venice
The inner gallery of Palazzo Malipiero in Venice © Paolo Prendin
The palazzo as seen from the Grand Canal
The palazzo as seen from the Grand Canal © Paolo Prendin

One of the few palaces on the Grand Canal with a formal garden, Palazzo Malipiero dates from around the 11th century. During the 18th, it was home to Alvise Malipiero, a Venetian senator, legendary libertine – and mentor to Giacomo Casanova, who lived in the palazzo until he was caught in flagrante with one of Malipiero’s lovers and banished. It remained one of the last great palazzi on the Grand Canal still in Venetian family hands until last year, when Berggruen jumped at the chance to buy it from surviving members of the patrician Barnabò clan. 

Berggruen’s cultural immersion began in early childhood. As an infant, he sat on Picasso’s lap. His late father, Heinz, an eminent German-Jewish art dealer and collector, had settled on Paris’s Left Bank after the second world war – which he had spent in San Francisco, after fleeing the Nazis in 1936 – and the Spanish artist was one of many creative luminaries who frequented the family apartment. Later, fuelled by intellectual debate, the teenage Berggruen began reading French and German philosophy and political theory. “It was all over my head,” he says. “I was super-leftwing. I didn’t want to learn English, because it was the language of imperialism. But as opposed to being a revolutionary, I thought, ‘Well, let’s understand the other side.’” 

A side parlour looking over the Grand Canal
A side parlour looking over the Grand Canal © Paolo Prendin
The gate to the palazzo’s private courtyard
The gate to the palazzo’s private courtyard © Paolo Prendin
Nicolas Berggruen on the palazzo’s balustrade, on the Grand Canal
Nicolas Berggruen on the palazzo’s balustrade, on the Grand Canal © Paolo Prendin

Indeed, he went over to “the evil side”, first in London where he worked as a trainee for London Merchant Securities chair Max Rayne. After graduating from New York University in the early 1980s, he began investing, drawing on $250,000 from his trust fund. He proved to have a canny instinct (according to Forbes, his fortunes now total $3.2bn). And with his lavish, art-filled residences in New York and Miami, and his flashy parties attended by movie stars and models, he gained a reputation. “It worked out fine,” Berggruen summarises about his playboy period. “It was financially rewarding, but I wasn’t stimulated.” 

In the mid-2000s, he divested himself of his residences and worldly trophies. With no fixed address, the bachelor became known as “the homeless billionaire”. A business nomad, he lived out of five-star hotels, hopscotching between locations on his Gulfstream IV (he couldn’t bring himself to give up the jet). 

It was in Los Angeles that he began to privately study philosophy and political theory with UCLA professors. “I got back to my original interests, to what I really cared about as a teenager,” he says. In 2010, he established the Berggruen Institute, which describes itself as “a global network of thinkers navigating change through ideas”. It was kickstarted by $100mn of his own funds (topped up with $500mn three years later) and the clout of a stellar board of directors, including former Google CEO Eric E Schmidt, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Thrive Global CEO and founder Arianna Huffington. Likewise, numerous committees are filled with impressive thinkers: The Berggruen Network, for example, counts many former world leaders, including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Gerhard Schröder and Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as titans of finance, tech, industry and letters such as Stephen Schwarzman, Pierre Omidyar, John Elkann, Frances Fukuyama and Timothy Garton Ash, to name a few.

A living room with chinoiserie-style stucco work from the 1950s
A living room with chinoiserie-style stucco work from the 1950s © Paolo Prendin
The central fountain in the palazzo’s garden
The central fountain in the palazzo’s garden © Paolo Prendin
Patricia Hill Collins, the recipient of the $1mn Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture in 2023
Patricia Hill Collins, the recipient of the $1mn Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture in 2023 © Berggruen Institute

Initiatives include the annual Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture, a $1mn award intended to rival the Nobel. “We wanted to acknowledge that philosophical ideas are just as important as physics or chemistry,” says Berggruen. The recipient for 2023, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, best known for her work to elevate Black feminist thought and develop intersectionality, will receive her prize in a gala ceremony in Washington, DC, on 6 June. 

Berggruen is “a serious, serious intellectual player”, says Schmidt. He marvels at what he and others refer to as Berggruen’s “convening power”. He likes to assemble gatherings of high-powered minds in locations around the world. One such meeting – with about 15 political, policy and business leaders – occurred several years ago in Beijing. As Schmidt recalls: “President Xi showed up. Shocking. How did Nicolas pull it off? He partnered with a Chinese think-tank, and the Chinese group and Nicolas’s team convinced President Xi that our group represented a fine set of western intellectuals. We had a good meeting. [Berggruen] clearly knew Xi quite well. He has more access than you think he does because he doesn’t boast. He’s not a showman. He doesn’t give big speeches, make shit up, like others. He is very rigorous in the way he thinks. He’s a genuine European intellectual.”

“I’ve always loved his passion for ideas,” adds Huffington. “A lot of think-tanks focus on geopolitics and foreign affairs. His interests are much broader and more philosophical. He has a really deep interest in the big questions about life, and he’s been ahead of the curve in focusing on many issues, such as AI.” 

Venice is central to Berggruen’s vision for the institute. While a 450-acre campus of residences for thinkers and scholars is scheduled for development in California’s Santa Monica mountains, (obtaining the construction approvals and permits has been “torturous”, says Berggruen), and there’s a satellite branch of the institute in Beijing, at Peking University (“From the beginning, we felt we shouldn’t just do all these things in a western way”), Venice is somewhere “more neutral” to establish a centre for the institute. “It’s like a meta city,” says Berggruen. “It attracts people from all over the world” – including, of course, a steady stream from the US. “We think there are a lot of good thinkers in Europe, but not always a lot of great doers,” he says of his both-worlds location. “In America, there are a lot of great doers... not so many thinkers.”

Venice’s Grand Canal palazzos seen from Malipiero’s balustrade
Venice’s Grand Canal palazzos seen from Malipiero’s balustrade © Paolo Prendin
Berggruen walks in Malipiero’s garden
Berggruen walks in Malipiero’s garden © Paolo Prendin

The first of his three Venetian properties is on the Giudecca: the neo-gothic Casa dei Tre Oci, built in 1913. Slated to host global summits and symposia, as well as provide residences for philosophers and thinkers, it is also a gallery, which debuted with a show of works by Picasso, Matisse and other masters collected by Berggruen’s father. 

In Cannaregio, Berggruen is transforming the baroque-style 18th-century Palazzo Diedo into a major space dedicated to contemporary art. The launch party he just hosted during vernissage – arguably the Biennale week’s buzziest event – unveiled the partially renovated building and its inaugural exhibitions, including 11 site-specific commissions by artists including Urs Fischer, Carsten Höller and Lee Ufan. More than 2,000 giovani crammed into the palazzo. “The city needs to have a bit of, you know, energy,” Berggruen explains. The evening must have been successful: at around midnight, Venetian police arrived to shut it down. 

The other jewel in Berggruen’s Venetian crown is, of course, Malipiero, which will serve as a residence as well as a space for special events. Given its history as a one-time home to Casanova, Berggruen has a lot to live up to, as I joked to him last winter. “Hope just as much fun – without the troubles…” he replied. 

As to being seen as a contemporary Medici, “there couldn’t be a higher compliment”, he says. “Not only did they have vision, they had courage. They got things done.”

The private courtyard, looking towards the garden
The private courtyard, looking towards the garden © Paolo Prendin
The central hall with 18th-century-style stucco work
The central hall with 18th-century-style stucco work © Paolo Prendin

Today, the slim 62-year-old is a solo father of eight-year-olds, Olympia and Alexander, conceived through one egg donor and born to two surrogates three weeks apart. “It’s been a blessing... the most extraordinary experience,” he says about parenthood. “It’s a joy to be with them. It changes one – as a person and as a biological agent. Suddenly, there is something greater than you.”

In addition to his Venetian holdings and two villas in Saint-Tropez, he has properties in the Los Angeles area, including an estate in Beverly Hills that once belonged to William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies (bought for $63.1mn) and a mansion in Holmby Hills where Louis B Mayer’s daughter Edie Goetz long reigned ($42mn). He also owns several apartments in the Sierra Towers, a celebrity-filled building in West Hollywood. But Venice holds special promise. With Casa dei Tre Oci as a hub for philosophical debate and Palazzo Diedo the place “to expand the arts and culture”, Palazzo Malipiero is more of a blank canvas. “First, it needs to be restored. But delicately. It’s so beautiful. The envelope is so good. You want to honour that and not do so much. You want to have a very light touch,” says Berggruen.

A living room, with its ceiling fresco by the baroque Venetian artist Jacopo Guarana
A living room, with its ceiling fresco by the baroque Venetian artist Jacopo Guarana © Paolo Prendin
A stucco overdoor leading to the central hall
A stucco overdoor leading to the central hall © Paolo Prendin

After it is restored, Palazzo Malipiero will be a family home once again, with rooms for Berggruen’s children. Still, he tiptoes around calling Malipiero his house: “We’ll organise it so one can stay there” is how he phrases it. He is keener to talk about how he will make it available for events – such as Sebastian, an eight-hour performance work by Miles Greenberg, described as “a futuristic study of martyrdom” and a highlight of the Biennale’s opening week. “Oh my God. People were transfixed. It was very emotional. I was mesmerised.” 

“The kids have anchored him,” says Reid Hoffman. “Like, now, he has homes.” Homes? “Bourgeois, boring,” Berggruen jokes when I bring up the concept. “You know, sometimes it’s more comfortable to stay in a hotel.” Once a homeless billionaire… 

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