Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Style Icon: Marchesa Luisa Casati

Marchesa Casati with greyhounds.  Portrait by Giovanni Boldini, 1908
From the private collection of Andrew Lloyd Webber

"I want to be a living work of art"

Marchesa Luisa Casati

An heiress, a muse and a fashion legend Luisa Casati dazzled everyone she met and shocked turn-of-the-century Europe.  She wore live snakes as jewellery and was infamous for her evening strolls; naked beneath her furs whilst parading cheetahs on diamond-studded leads.  Nude servants gilded in gold leaf attended her.  Bizarre wax mannequins sat as guests at her dining table, some of them rumoured to contain the ashes of past lovers.

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.

"She was the most flamboyant and dramatic character to flit through the early 20th century European beau monde.  They simply don't make her kind anymore: richer than God, gloriously semi-sane, with outrageous tastes in friends, art, decor, clothes, houses, pets and lovers.  Guests of Casati's boudoir were a veritable who's who of the aristos, aesthetes, artists, bon vivants, poets, dancers and dandies that made the early 20th century's art scene what it was; totally, utterly and delightfully mad."

Michael Mattis

For the first half of the twentieth century, Marchesa Luisa Casati was the brightest star in European society.  A true fashion legend, she was possibly the most artistically represented woman after Cleopatra and the Virgin Mary and the portraits, sculptures and photographs of her could fill a gallery.  Her extravagant lifestyle, eccentric personality and scandalous escapades captivated and inspired some of the most influential artists of the time, whose careers she helped enormously in her lifetime and beyond.

Some of the numerous works she posed for include paintings by Giovanni Boldini, Augustus John, Kees Van Dongen, Romaine Brooks and Ignacio Zuloaga; sketches by Drian, Alberto Martini and Alastair; sculpted by Giacomo Balla, Catherine Bajanksy and Jacob Epstein; and photographs by Man Ray, Cecil Beaton and Baron Adolph de Meyer.

Photograph by Man Ray, 1924 © Man Ray Foundation

Portrait by Giovanni Boldini, 1914


Born in 1881, the second daughter of a wealthy cotton manufacturer.  Her father Alberto Amman was made a Count by King Umberto I for his contribution to the cotton industry.  Contessa Luisa Amman was born rich, but was a plain child and also very shy.  Fiercely intelligent, her passion for the arts were encouraged with visits to museums and art galleries. Early on she became enchanted with eccentric royalty and theatrical figures and they forever fascinated her.

Her mother Lucia Bressi died when she was thirteen and her father two years later.  Luisa and her sister Francesca inherited a fortune and became the richest women in Italy at the time. She married Camillo Casati Stampa di Soncino, Marchese di Roma in 1900 and they had their only child, Cristina a year later.  The marriage however, cramped her style and the couple took up separate residences.  Luisa began an affair with the famous Italian poet Gabriel D'Annunzio (one of many lovers), a controversial figure due to his influence on the Fascist movement and his status as an alleged forerunner of Benito Mussolini.  The affair lastest decades and the friendship a lifetime.

By Ted Coconis

She dramatically altered her appearance to become a bewitchingly beautiful figure from some bizarre fairy tale.  Luisa further enhanced her persona by keeping 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.

Journeying wherever the 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 cadaverously white face with it's vermillion lips.  Above all the Marchesa's large green eyes cast the strongest spell of her unique beauty.  She exaggerated these still further with immense false lashes and surrounding rings of black kohl and drops of poisonous belladonna to make them sparkle more.

Luisa fascinated Diaghilev, frightened Arthur Rubenstein, 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.

It's no wonder she cause a press sensation during a visit to Hollywood in the 1920's which featured stays with film star John Barrymore and newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.  So intriguing was her persona, she also influenced playwrights and filmmakers during and after her lifetime.  She had affairs with both men and women and captivated Marcel Proust, Jean Cocteau. the Comte Robert de Montesquiou, Natalie Barney, Tamara de Lempicka, Serge Diaglilev, Ronald Firbank, Tallulah Bankhead and Lord Berners and inspired Tennessee Williams and American beat poet Jack Kerouac.  She whirled through society making an unforgettable impression on Elsa Shiaparelli, Colette and Coco Chanel. Characters based on her were portrayed by Theda Bara, Vivien Leigh, Valentina Cortese and Ingrid Bergman.

By Olga Balabanova

Casati remained a loyal patron to innumerable artists on more than one continent for thirty years - forever offering her considerable wealth, influence and ideas to a legion of painters, sculptors, photographers and fashion designers.

Keeping several lavish and dreamlike homes each expensively designed to her exacting tastes.  In Venice there was the Palazzo dei Leoni on the Grand Canal - a fabulous half ruin, it's gardens set ablaze wtih enormous Chinesde lanterns, where albino blackbirds trilled overhead; while below, her pet cheetahs prowled along twisting pathways.  Just outside of Paris lay the Palais Rose - a fantastic mansion built of red marbel featuring a detached pavillion converted into a private art gallery where Luisa housed more than 130 images of herself.

Portrait by Giovanni Boldini

She wore extravagant clothes by Erté, Fortuny and Poiret, although the the decadent balls, jewels and paintings commissioned seemed endless, her fortunes were not.  By 1930 she had debts of twenty five million US dollars.  Unable to pay her creditors her belongings were confiscated and auctioned at the Palais Rose in 1932.  Among the bidders was Coco Chanel.  

Casati moved to London where she lived for the next two decades in decidedly less grand conditions.  Funds were supplied by her daughter and loyal friends including the painter Augustus John.  She died on 1st June 1957 at 32 Beaufort Gardens, SW3, her last residence at seventy six years old.  As she would have wished, her legend lives on and she has been immortalised by some of our greatest, painters, writers and fashion designers.

Source: Numerous articles, Infinite Variety, Wiki and contessateashop.co.za

Portrait by Augustus John

"The door to the room where we sat chatting suddenly opened.  A dead woman entered.  Her superb body was modelling a dress of white satin that was wrapped around her like a shroud and dragged behind her.  A bouquet of orchids hid her breast.  Her hair was red and her complexion livid like alabaster.  Her face was devoured by two enormous eyes, whose black pupils almost overwhelmed her mouth, painted a red so vivid that it seemed like a strip of coagulated blood.  In her arms she carried a baby leopard.  It was the Marchesa Casati."

Gabriel-Louis Pringué

Pastel by Alberto Martini

John Galliano for Christian Dior Haute Couture, SS98

John Galliano for Christian Dior Haute Couture, SS98

The Marchesa inspired Cartier's panther jewellery and they even used emeralds to match her green eyes.

Portrait by Augustus John

"Her carrot coloured hair hung in long curls.  The enormous agate-black eyes seemed to be eating her thin face.  Again she was a vision, a mad vision, surrounded as usual by her black and white greyhounds and a host of charming and utterly useless ornaments.  But curiously enough she did not look unnatural.  The fantastic garb resally suited her. She was so different from other women that ordinary clothes were impossible for her.  Long Persian trousers of heavy gold brocade, fastened tightly, held by diamond bangles... feet encased in gold sandals with high diamond heels, she smoked cigarettes out of a long black holder, studded with diamonds"

Catherine Barjansky, Sculptor

"Her alchemy was much more complex, producing many other marvels.  By what fire she did transmute the substance of her life into the beauties of such moving power?  She demonstrated how true it is that all enchantment is madness induced with art.  But what was the real essence of this creature?  Was she aware of her continuous metaphorphosis, or was she impenetrable to herself, excluded from her own mystery?"
Gabriel D'Annunzio

This book is wonderful.  Buy it here

And so is this, containing hundreds of images of the Marchesa, buy it here

The Princess of Wax
A darkly decadent fairy tale inspired by the Marchesa Casati
"In this Edgar Allan Poe-esque nightmare, Venice and La Casati have never been so enchanting and decadent.  Anne Bachelier's illustrations, so surreal and so wonderfully rich in detail, are the perfect visualisation of an intriguing, never-ending journey through eccentricity, obsession, love, cruelty, glamour and destiny."
Grazia D'Annunzio - Vogue Italia

Photograph by Man Ray © Man Ray Foundation

"Women of the world today dress alike.  They are like so many loaves of bread.  To be beautiful one must be unhurried.  Personality is needed.  There is too much sameness.  The world seems only to have a desire for more of this sameness.  To be different is to be alone."

Marchesa Luisa Casati

The Marchesa's incredible influence on fashion and style is still apparent today and her legend lives on.  I would love to see a film made of her life.  Tilda Swinton starring anyone?

Photography by Paolo Roversi
Tilda Swinton as Marchesa Casati
for Acne Paper, FW09

Photography by Paolo Roversi
Tilda Swinton

Photography by Paolo Roversi
Tilda Swinton

Marisa Berenson dressed as the Marchesa for the Rothschild Ball, 1972

Photography by Karl Lagerfeld
Carine Roifield as Marchesa Casati
The New Yorker, 2003

Georgina Chapman named her label Marchesa

John Galliano for Christian Dior Couture, SS08

John Galliano for Christian Dior Couture, SS08

John Galliano for Christian Dior Couture SS08

Alexander McQueen, AW08

Alexander McQueen, AW08

Alexander McQueen, AW08

The Marchesa is a huge inspiration for British designer John Galliano

Karl Lagerfeld held Chanel's 2010 Resort collection in Venice, home to the Marchesa for a large part of her life and she clearly influenced the entire collection.

Chanel Resort 2010

Her influences go further than art or fashion; There are chocolates made especially for the Marchesa.  Katrina Markoff and Vosges Haute Chocolat make 'The Marchesa' a limited-edition "Black sea salt caramel enrobed in 85% bittersweet dark chocolate and crowned with real freshwater pearl dust" celebrating Casati's taste for the exotically decadent. Get them here.

The Marchesa was buried in the Brompton Cemetery, Chelsea.  Dressed in her black and leopardskin finery, in full make-up including her false eyelashes.  In her coffin one of her beloved stuffed Pekinese dogs lay resting at her feet.  Her tombstone is a small grave marker in the shape of an urn, draped in cloth with a swag of flowers to the front.  On her tombstone reads a fitting tribute, in Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare evokes the lure of the unforgettable queen by declaring;

"Age cannot wither her,
nor custom stale her infinite variety"

Marchesa Luisa Casati


Jill said...


Smashingbird said...

Great post what an amazing woman, I could look at pictures of her all day.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

I love this post. Thank you for the information. I ordered the biography. Can't wait to read it.



cazza said...

The book's amazing.......I love the bit where she made an entrance at one of her parties covered in lit lightbulbs, and then tripped & promptly fell down the steps! Leigh Bowery is the only person who came close to stunts like that!

Christina Lindsay said...

Dear Jill, thank you and for the link xx

Dear Smashingbird, absolutely she was quite something xx

Dear SB, Ah! I'm so pleased you've bought the book. Enjoy xx

Dear Cazza, me too, it all went wrong didn't it? I love the efforts she went to!

I feel the same about Leigh. I'm putting together a post about him at the moment but want to interview a lot of friends to include so it will take a little while xx

Colettesmom said...

This is an exquisite entry and makes me very happy since I just became familiar with la marchesa.
Do you think she, Colette and virginia Woolf could have met and been friends?

Christina Lindsay said...

Dear Colettesmom, thank you so much for your kind words. I know she met Colette at a ball in 1928. Virginia Woolf and the Marchesa both had their portraits painted by Jacques-Emile Blanche so they may have moved in the same circles. It would have been fabulous if they were though, wouldn't it? xx

Penny Dreadful said...

Oh yes, I had read this one when I dug through some of your archives! I put the Boldini portrait in the apartment post as I thought it is the one most people know by him. The Marchesa is so fascinating, what a woman. I'd been thinking of doing a post on her myself a while ago, but you have done it so thoroughly here that there isn't much point. I have that last book on my amazon wish list too x

little augury said...

the Tilda Swinton photographs are the best I have seen, she can "do" anyone. pgt

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zoe said...

oh, wow! what a treasure trove, makes me want to dig :)
thank you!
and those chocolates sound DIVINE...

Tabitha said...

Luisa's story is such an inspiration. Such characters are few and far between - and thank goodness for that! That is precisely what makes them so special.

Thank you for this wonderful post. I feel nourished!

jellything said...

You don't have a credit for the Casati doll (tenth image down) - it's by Kerry Kate (http://www.octobereffigies.com/).

Tabitha said...

I hope you will not mind my including a link to this story from my own website. I wanted to share it with my readers - such a beautiful, biteable chunk of writing!

Anonymous said...

Yes ... the design is clearly needed to be changed :)
The dark green color would fit perfectly xD

Chez Edmea said...

Great post!
Me too I spoke about Marchesa Casati.

Thank you for you infos!