Once upon a time there was a bizarre lady living in Venice who wore her pet boa constrictor around her neck, walked her cheetahs on a leash in St. Mark’s Square with her Nubian servant Garbi following behind holding a peacock feather parasol over her head.
She was the Marquise Luisa Casati, a flamboyant, extravagant woman who used her vast wealth to make herself into a living work of art.
I had never heard of Luisa Casati until a few months ago when a heavy package arrived for me in my office containing a large catalogue for an exhibit in Venice called “La Divina Marchesa,” which has brought together some of the many works of art representing the Marquise Luisa Casati. As I flipped through the catalogue I became steadily more intrigued by this narcissistic woman who moved in the wealthiest circles in Europe and passed from the Belle Époque through the Roaring Twenties throwing lavish costume parties and dabbling in the occult.
This woman lived through two world wars without seeming to have taken much notice.
Luisa Casati was a distinctive and attractive woman – tall and slender, with big dark eyes. But she was not beautiful in a classical sense. Early on the Marquise decided she wanted to stand out. She began dyeing her hair carrot red, using dark kohl all around her eyes to create a rather raccoon effect, and she regularly used poisonous Belladonna eye drops to make her pupils seem seductively enormous. She then covered her face with powder so she had a ghostly pallor.
She didn’t bother hanging around with her husband very long, and sent her only child off to boarding school while she gallivanted around the world throwing fabulous parties and having herself painted by the world’s most famous artists.
For some time the Marquise Casati rented the Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni in Venice and used it for her extravaganzas. The gardens were filled with her private zoo—her cheetahs, snakes, parrots, peacocks and monkeys. These animals would frequently accompany her about in her private gondola. Naked servants painted gold and holding lanterns would wait to greet the guests arriving by canal at her Palazzo for a party.
The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni was later bought by American art collector Peggy Guggenheim and turned into a museum.
Famed portrait artist Giovanni Boldrini was the first to paint la Casati at his studio in Paris. She took up residence at the Hotel Ritz while doing the sittings for the portrait.
While at the Ritz, Casati got to know Catherine Barjansky, a famous sculptress who was asked to make a wax figure sculpture of the Marquise. Barjansky wrote of Casati in her book, “Portraits and Backgrounds” “She had an artistic temperament, but being unable to express herself in any branch of art, she made an art of herself. Because she possessed no inner life nor any power of concentration, she sought wild ideas in her external life.”
Barjansky happened to be staying at the Ritz in Paris along with Casati when World War I broke out on August 4, 1914. Barjansky had this to say about Casati who descended to the lobby in a tizzy when no one responded to her call for breakfast, “I found the Marquise Casati screaming hysterically…Her red hair was wild. In her Bakst-Poiret dress she suddenly looked like an evil and helpless fury, as useless and lost in this new life as the little lady in wax. War had touched the roots of life. Art was no longer necessary.”
(Barjansky – Portraits in Backgrounds — quoted in Casati Biography cited below)
The Marquise moved in circles with the rich and famous of her generation. Here is a description by dancer Isabella Duncan of a visit to the Villa of Luisa Casati in Rome from her autobiography “My Life” (as cited in Casati’s biography see below)
“I went to the palace and walked into the antechamber. It was all done out in Grecian style and I sat there awaiting the arrival of the Marquesa, when I suddenly heard the most violent tirade of the most vulgar language you would possibly imagine directed at me. I looked around and saw a green parrot. I noticed he was not chained. I got up and leaped into the next salon. I was sitting there awaiting the Marquesa when I suddenly heard a noise–brrrrr–and I saw a white bulldog. He wasn’t chained, so I leaped into the next salon, which was carpeted with white bear rugs and had bear skins even on the walls. I sat down there and waited for the Marquesa. Suddenly I heard a hissing sound. I looked up and saw a cobra in a cage sitting up on end and hissing at me. I leaped into the next salon, all lined with tiger skins. There was a gorilla, showing his teeth. I rushed into the next room, the dining room and there I found the secretary of the Marquesa. Finally the Marquesa descended for dinner. She was dressed in transparent gold pyjamas. I said:
“You love animals,I see.”
“Oh yes, I adore them–especially Monkeys,” she replied looking at her secretary.
Strange to say, after this exciting aperitif, the dinner passed off with the utmost formality.” –Isadora Duncan, My Life
Over the decades Luisa Casati’s behavior became steadily more outlandish and her parties more extravagant. She would dress up as the Countess of Castiglione or as an American Indian Chief, Cagliostro, Cesare Borgia, or the Queen of Sheba.
Other artists who painted, sculpted or photographed the Marquise Casati include Augustus Edwin John, Romaine Brooks, Joseph Rous Paget-Fredericks, Federico Beltran Masses, Sarah Lipska, Paolo Troubetzkoy, Leon Bakst, Mariano Fortuny Y Madrazo, Jacob Epstein, Ignacio Zuloaga, Kees Van Dongen, Giacomo Balla, Alberto Martini, Man Ray, Adolph De Meyer, and Cecil Beaton.
In her lifetime she would be considered the Muse of various artistic movements including the Symbolists, the Fauves, the Futurists and the Surrealists.
Although Luisa Casati biggest love affair was with herself – she did have romantic involvements with various men. Perhaps her most intense and longstanding relationship was with Italian writer and poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. D’Annunzio called her Core’, the Goddess of Hell—a name she clearly relished.
Casati inherited a massive fortune from her father who was in the cotton business and over the course of her lifetime managed to burn through it all and find herself in massive debt. She died in poverty in London in 1957. Her style however has left a mark on the fashion industry. In 1998 John Galliano said that the Marquise Casati was the inspiration for the wildly successful Dior Haute Couture spring/summer collection. Since then designers Karl Lagerfeld and Tom Ford credited Casati styles for inspiring their collections.
As I walked through the exhibit at Palazzo Fortuny in Venice I tried to understand this peculiar woman. It is hard for me to approve of a person with such vast wealth blowing it all on extravagant parties and funding artists to paint pictures of her and nothing else. It is also hard for me to approve of a mother sending her child off to a strict French boarding school in a Catholic Convent while she was traipsing around the world enjoying herself. I wondered if I would be so judgmental if the person involved was a man rather than a woman.
But despite my qualms about La Casati, there is no doubt that she continues to captivate and inspire, leaving her mark on the world of art and fashion.
(In addition to all the documents provided by the Exhibit, I got a lot more information reading the excellent, exhaustingly-researched biography of Luisa Casati “Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati” by Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino)
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.