For 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 Dalí 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. She was the only woman ever to astonish her lover Gabriele D'Annunzio, one of Italy's most notorious and revolutionary writers.
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. Frequently blurring gender lines–as well as those separating the human and extraordinary–her progressive personal aesthetic made her a legend throughout the continent. She was tall and thin. A thick blaze of flame-coloured hair crowned her pale, almost cadaverously 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. 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 such legendary actresses as 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.
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 way significantly different 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, and the latter regardless of sex. Casati's tireless pursuit of the vanguard in everything would allow her to satisfy an endless yearning for novel experiences and fresh audiences.
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 includes: Federico Beltran 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.
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. 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. 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. 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 the equivalent of twenty-five million U.S. dollars. Unable to satisfy countless creditors, her personal possessions were confiscated and auctioned off, including numerous original artworks of her. Today, many of these works remain untraceable or in private collections. 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. On 1 June 1957, Luisa Casati died at 32 Beaufort Gardens, her final 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. In his tragedy 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 centerpieces for important exhibitions worldwide. Of major relevance today is Casati's innovative fashion sense, which remains a constant resource for major and fledgling designers everywhere. These include most notably John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld, Tom Ford, Alexander McQueen, Alberta Ferretti, and Dries Van Noten.
From the original 1999 publication of Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati to the autumn 2017 release of its ‘Ultimate Edition’, as well as the now sold-out The Marchesa Casati: Portraits of a Muse, the only full-length, family-authorised and official biographies of this fascinating woman, Casati’s incredible life story has been preserved for and kept vividly alive in this millennium.
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