Marchesa Luisa Casati
or the first three decades of the twentieth century, the fabled Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957) triumphed as the brightest star in European society. Possibly the most artistically represented woman in history after the Virgin Mary and Cleopatra, the portraits, sculptures and photographs of her would fill a gallery. In a quest for immortality, she had herself painted by Giovanni Boldini, Augustus John, Kees Van Dongen, Romaine Brooks and Ignacio Zuloaga; sketched by Drian, Alberto Martini and Alastair; sculpted by Giacomo Balla, Catherine Barjansky and Jacob Epstein; and photographed by Man Ray, Cecil Beaton and Baron Adolph de Meyer. She frightened Artur Rubinstein, angered Aleister Crowley and intimidated T.E. Lawrence. As muse to the Italian futurists F. T. Marinetti, Fortunato Depero and Umberto Boccioni, she conjured up an elaborate marionette show with music by Maurice Ravel. Accompanied by her pet boa constrictor, she checked into the Ritz Hotel in Paris where it escaped. Considered the original female dandy, Léon Bakst, Paul Poiret, Mariano Fortuny and Erté dressed her. She adorned herself with the jewels of Lalique and directly inspired the famed ‘Panther’ design for Cartier. Her parties and appearances at others became legendary–at
one celebration in her Venetian palazzo, Nijinsky invited Isadora Duncan to dance; Picasso attended a soirée at her Roman villa; while she costumed herself as a living artwork inspired by Dali for another. She was a subject of intrigue to Marcel Proust and the Comte Robert de Montesquiou. She whirled through Parisian nightlife, making an unforgettable impression on Colette, Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel. Nude servants gilded in gold leaf attended her. Bizarre wax mannequins sat as guests at her dining table, some of them even rumoured to contain the ashes of past lovers. She wore live snakes as jewellery and was infamous for her evening strolls, naked beneath her furs whilst parading cheetahs on diamond-studded leashes. Everywhere she went, she set trends, inspired genius and astounded even the most jaded members of the international aristocracy. Without question, the Marchesa Casati was the most scandalous woman of her day. All the while, Luisa journeyed wherever her fancy took her–Venice, Rome, Paris, Capri–collecting palaces and a menagerie of exotic animals and spending fortunes on lavish masquerades. Her appearance made her a legend throughout the continent. She was tall and thin. A thick blaze of flame-coloured hair crowned her pale, almost ca-
daverously white face with its sensually vermilioned lips. Above all, however, the Marchesa’s large green eyes cast the strongest spell of her unique beauty. She exaggerated these further still with immense false lashes and surrounding rings of black kohl, while droplets of poisonous belladonna made them glitter like emeralds. It’s no wonder she caused a press sensation during a sojourn in the United States during the 1920’s that featured stays in New York City and Hollywood–the latter including visits with silent screen idol John Barrymore and newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. So intriguing was her fantastic persona, Casati also influenced playwrights and filmmakers both during and after her lifetime. Characters based specifically and more loosely on her came to be portrayed by Theda Bara, Tallulah Bankhead, Vivien Leigh, Valentina Cortese, Elizabeth Taylor and Ingrid Bergman. The lore of her riveting gaze even inspired famed American writers Ezra Pound, Tennessee Williams and Jack Kerouac. So one must wonder if, when Luisa Casati was born in 1881, she already possessed a talent to astonish. The second daughter of a wealthy cotton manufacturer, Alberto Amman and his wife Lucia Bressi, Luisa enjoyed a privileged, yet isolated childhood in Milan. An intense passion for the visual arts began then and was encouraged by visits to local art galleries and museums. These early years were also shaped by Luisa’s innate shyness, a character trait only exacerbated by her own physical plainness. But even then, the unnatural size and gaze of her enormous eyes possessed an arresting power. It was also during her girlhood that began a lifelong fascination with such extravagant real-life personalites as the royals ‘Mad’ King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Empress Elisabeth of Austria, as well as theatrical superstar Sarah Bernhardt. The early deaths of her parents made Luisa and her elder sister, Francesca, the wealthiest heiresses in Italy at the time. Under the care of a guardian uncle, Luisa became engaged to and married the Marchese Camillo Casati, a young Milanese nobleman, in 1900. A year later, their only child, Cristina, was born. The shackles of a predictable marriage had already begun to frustrate her when Luisa met Gabriele D’Annunzio. Casati began an open affair with the notorious Italian writer who dubbed her both his ‘Coré’ and the ‘Divine Marquise’–the former, an allusion to the Grecian mythological figure of the ‘Queen of Hell’; the latter, in homage to the Marquis de Sade. Not surprisingly, their romantic liaison fuelled the continental gossip columns. Casati’s inhibitions unfettered by D’Annunzio, she dramatically altered her appearance to become a bewitchingly beautiful figure
from some bizarre fairy tale. Luisa further enhanced her strange persona with the keeping of pet cheetahs, snakes and monkeys, and even gilt encrusted male servants. There would be those who would accuse her of conducting an utterly frivolous life as Europe’s most decadent hostess. But in truth, Luisa had a passion of a much more serious nature–the commissioning of her own immortality. The Marchesa Casati achieved this by seeking out and patronizing the talents of both experienced and novice artists. Her only requirement of them was a daringness of vision, capable of transforming their muse in constantly new ways. And consequently, Casati would come to distinguish herself in a significant way from similarly privileged women also rendered by the day’s most important society portraitists. For unlike them, the Marchesa remained actively involved in the lives, minds and movements of the artists capturing her incredible image. Many of their careers first obtained recognition through her generous patronage, and this often included a valuable friendship or romantic affair. Casati’s tireless pursuit of the vanguard in everything would allow her to satisfy an endless yearning for novel experiences and fresh audiences. So while many bejewelled but less inventive doyennes of the Belle Époque eventually found themselves trapped within a dead age, the Marchesa explored the newest and most radical artistic terrains of the early twentieth century. Casati remained a loyal patron or simply an inspirational icon to innumerable artists on more than one continent for nearly thirty years–forever offering her considerable wealth, influence and ideas to a legion of painters, sculptors, photographers and fashion designers. In addition to those already mentioned, a partial list included: Federico Beltran y Masses, Jacques-Émile Blanche, Umberto Brunelleschi, Vittorio Matteo Corcos, Guiglio de Blaas, Natalia Gontcharova, Paul-César Helleu, Roberto Montenegro, Gustav Adolf Mossa, Lotte Pritzel, José Maria Sert, Prince Paul Troubetzkoy and Madeleine Vionnet. She even proved unforgettable to film director Luchino Visconti who met her by chance aboard a train when we was just a boy. All the while, the Marchesa established several dreamlike homes, each designed to her exacting and high-priced tastes. In Venice, there was the Palazzo dei Leoni on the Grand Canal–a fabulous half-ruin, its gardens set ablaze with enormous Chinese lanterns, where albino blackbirds trilled overhead and pet cheetahs prowled along twisting pathways below; while in one of its salons, a life-size wax replica of Mary Vetsera, the tragic Mayerling heroine, sta-
red from within a massive glass case. Years later, this same building would be purchased by Peggy Guggenheim to become The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, the most important museum in Italy for European and American art of the first half of the 20th century. Just outside of Paris lay the Palais Rose–the Marchesa’s fantastic mansion built of red marble, featuring a detached pavilion converted into a private art gallery where Luisa housed more than one hundred and thirty images of herself. More than once, she summered on Capri at the famous Villa San Michele where she startled even the most bohemian of the island’s residents with a thoroughly non-conformist lifestyle. During these glorious times, Casati included among her associates such luminaries as Jean Cocteau; Serge Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes; literary saloneuse Natalie Barney; artist and theatrical designer Christian Bérard; eccentric composer Lord Berners; art deco painter Tamara de Lempicka; and Ronald Firbank, the stylishly satirical novelist and playwright. Even so, although the masquerade balls given and the paintings commissioned seemed endless, Luisa’s fortunes were not. By 1930, Casati had amassed a debt of twenty-five million U.S. dollars. Unable to satisfy countless creditors, her personal possessions were confiscated and auctioned off at the Palais Rose in 1932. Among the bidders was Coco Chanel. Most damaging was the irreplaceable loss of numerous original artworks of the Marchesa by the many artists she had patronized and inspired for decades. Today, many of these works remain untraceable. Casati then fled to London to lead the next two decades in markedly less grand conditions than those enjoyed as a continental celebrity. But even so, her indomitable spirit remained undimmed as she went on to amaze a new set of admirers. Much needed funds were supplied by her daughter, granddaughter and a host of loyal friends. It was in London that the Marchesa attracted a whole new circle of artistic admirers, including authors Peter Quennell, Beverley Nichols, Philippe Jullian and Quentin Crisp. On 1 June 1957, Luisa Casati died at 32 Beaufort Gardens, her last residence. She was seventy-six years old. Following a requiem mass at Brompton Oratory, the Marchesa was interred in Brompton Cemetery, with one of her taxidermed Pekinese dogs resting at her feet [Directions to Casati’s grave]. In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare evokes the lure of the unforgettable Egyptian queen by declaring: ‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.’ This fitting tribute is inscribed upon Casati’s gravestone. As she would surely have desired, the Marchesa’s substantial artistic and cultural legacy continues to be recognized to this very day. Major artworks of and inspired by her continue to provide provocative centrepieces for important exhibitions worldwide. In November 1995, Boldini’s
1908 portrait of this celebrated woman was sold at auction at Christie’s, New York, to theatrical composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber for 1.5 million U.S. dollars. Several years ago, Augustus John’s 1919 painting of Casati was voted the most popular work in the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Of major relevance today is Casati’s innovative fashion sense, which remains a constant resource for major designers. The catalyst for a renewed appreciation of her inimitable aesthetic happened in 1998 when the Marchesa became the inspiring force for the spring/summer haute couture collection by designer John Galliano for Christian Dior. It should be noted that this award-winning fashion feat was preceded by American designer Norman Norell whose 1960 collection was inspired by his ownership of a portrait of Luisa by Van Dongen. Couturier Karl Lagerfeld created an exclusive portfolio of sketches and photographs inspired by the Marchesa for an extensive feature article on her that appeared in a special fashion issue of The New Yorker magazine in September 2003. American designer Tom Ford’s spring/summer 2004 pret-a-porter collection for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche was inspired by the Marchesa Casati’s inimitable panache and style. STYLE.com, the official Web site of Vogue and W magazines, bestowed beauty icon status upon the Marchesa by proclaiming her ‘a face who has made history’. Giorgio Armani titled his autumn/winter 2004/2005 collection ‘A Dash of Eccentricity’, on which the New York Times confirmed, ‘At Armani, bold violet eyes were inspired by the 20th-century Italian aristocrat Marchesa Luisa Casati, the godmother of the new eccentricity movement.’ Famed couturier Alexander McQueen was equally captivated by her as well for his spring/summer 2007 ready-to-wear collection. For his autumn/winter 2007/2008 haute couture collection for Dior, John Galliano was once again inspired by the Marchesa. Known as the Bal des Artistes, the collection includes a gown based directly on Boldini’s 1908 portrait of his most notorious kohl-eyed muse. While Gucci released several Casati-inspired shoe designs for the same season, Raven Kauffman unveiled an entire collection of couture handbags in January 2008–each one evoking the Marchesa’s luxurious exoticism. Premiered in 2008 and launched worldwide in 2009, The number 1 fragrance by John Galliano is a new perfume paying homage to Casati. The flacon’s colour scheme recalls the black and purple of Giovanni Boldini’s famous 1909 portrait of the Marchesa, Galliano’s favorite of the muse. In May 2009, designer Karl Lagerfeld premiered his Casati-inspired Cruise 2009/2010 Ready-to-Wear Collection for Chanel on the famous Lido Beach of Venice where the Marchesa once dazzled. And designer Zac Posen turned in part to Casati to inspire his spring/summer 2011 collection.