image courtesy of The London Dead
Luisa Casati has fascinated me since I came across her grave in Brompton cemetery. A crumbling, pock marked monument in the shape of a draped urn with flowers carved across it. Little did I know that down below she was lying in her Harrods coffin dressed in a black dress, leopard skin trimmed cloak and false eyelashes with one of her Pekingese dogs (taxidermed) snuggled at her feet. Her gravestone is inscribed with the Shakespeare quote ‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.’ Never was an inscription more apt.
By the time Luisa Casati died of a stroke in 1957, she had been leading a totally impoverished life . Rather than spend her last money on food, she indulged in gin and the occult. She stopped seeing her few remaining friends because she could chat to them telepathically. She rummaged through dustbins at the back of theatres for scraps of fabric to add to her fading wardrobe and ringed her eyes in shoe polish because she no longer could afford to buy kohl. It was a long way from her priviledged earlier life but with those few scraps she was preserving the outrageous style for which she was once known.
In 1896 , when she was just 15, she was the richest girl-woman in Italy through inherited wealth. By the age of 19 she had married a millionaire…a Marchese, to boot. The world was her playground. The millionaire stifled her, so 4 years later , after popping out a daughter, she left him to pursue a life of shockingly delicious decadence. And so began her legendary fame as fashion icon, muse and patron of artists and writers.
Here’s what Gabriel-Louis Pringué (gossip columnist and social butterfly) wrote in his journal after meeting her for the first time;
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.
Her primary home, the crumbling Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal in Venice became the main stage set for her extraordinary life style. Garden birds were hand dyed to match the flowers. Wild monkeys screeched in the trees above gorillas in marble cages. Wax mannequins were created to be seated between the guests at dinner parties. Manservants attended, stripped naked and painted gold. A post prandial stroll along the canal would be led by a nude Luisa swathed in furs, leading a cheetah on a diamond studded leash. Real diamonds, of course. A servant holding fiery torches would follow to light up the surreal procession
And if the big cat wore a diamond collar, what did Luisa wear? By all accounts, a live snake coiled around her neck to set off her décolletage. And those enormous eyes? Emerald green, enhanced with drops of poisonous belladonna to make them glitter dangerously, the longest false eyelashes and rings of kohl. Her black and white greyhounds were thin and long limbed like the Marchesa herself. On a whim she had them painted blue to match an outfit. Even the exquisite white peacocks in the gardens weren’t safe from her . A handful of feathers were brutally plucked to be used as a giant corsage on a white gown…with an added splash of chicken blood for shock effect.
She and her entourage moved between Venice and her other homes, the Palais Rose outside Paris which housed her extensive art collection (mostly paintings of her), and her villa in Rome. Her houses provided the backdrop for constant parties and costumed balls Her credo; “I want to be a living work of art”meant that her surroundings had to be exact. If the backdrop didn’t suit, then another house that fit the bill was rented for the event. In summer they would decamp en masse to the Villa San Michele in Capri where they would revel in a delicious druggie haze of cocaine, opium, champagne and absinthe, frightening the locals with their forays into town. (Luisa’s passport picture was not a photograph but a photograph of a painting of her)
She gathered an amazing amount of followers, admirers and general hangers-on. Diaghilev, Picasso, Man Ray, Proust, Erté were all enthralled by her. Kaiser Wilhelm II was besotted. Lovers? she had a fair few.
Queen of the Night costume for Casati by Léon Bakst
On the occasions when she wasn’t naked she would commission extravagant gowns and costumes from designers such as the House of Worth Paul Poiret, Mariano Fortuny and Jean Patou. If the couturiers couldn’t come up with something outrageous enough, she would call on theatrical designers such as Bakst and Erté.
La Marquise Louisa Casati – fête à Versailles (“furious” costume !)
Joseph Paget-Fredericks – 1927
Cartier and Lalique designed bespoke jewels for her…in fact head designer Jeanne Toussaint, who personally delivered jewellery to the Marchesa when in Paris, was inspired to create Cartier’s iconic panther jewels after seeing a stuffed mechanical panther (it roared and moved) in her home.
By 1930 the party was well and truly over. She was in hock to the tune of tens of millions and all her possessions were confiscated and auctioned off. Coco Chanel was amongst the bidders. Wiped out, she relocated to London where she lived her last 2 decades in a room at 32 Beaufort Gardens surrounded by the last vestiges of her meteoric life. A broken cuckoo clock, a stuffed lion’s head, and a purported fragment of St. Peter’s finger that had once been “flung at her during a séance”
And just as she had been a muse in her extraordinary lifetime, her style has still inspired designers long after her death. Galliano, Dior, Lagerfeld and McQueen have all acknowledged her influence.
Luisa Casati by De Meyer
“La carne non è se non uno spirito promesso alla Morte”
“Flesh is nothing but a spirit betrothed to death”.
Luisa, Marchesa Casati Stampa di Soncino
23.01 1881 – 1.06.1957
The Palazzo Fortuny in Venice is currently running an exhibition
‘The Divine Marchesa Art and life of Luisa Casati from the Belle Époque to the spree years’