Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Icon & Muse: The Fabled Life of Luisa, Marchesa Casati

"She was tall and cadaverous, with a little feral face swamped by incandescent eyes… She blackened her eyes with kohl, powdered her skin a fungal white, and dyed her hair to resemble a corona of flames; her mouth was a lurid gash…" ~ Thurman

Portrait by Giovanni Boldini
Image courtesy of: http://wearethunder.com/

"I want to be a living work of art," was the famous pronouncement of Luisa Adele Rosa Maria Amman, better known to the world in her guise as the Marchesa Casati. Not only would the destiny of her life prove it to be, but in time she became the celebrated muse of countless artists writers as well as photographers, among whom were John Singer Sargent, Giovanni Boldidini, Rorbert de Montesquiou, Erté, Jean Cocteau, Baron Adolf de Meyer, Man Ray and Cecil Beaton prominently featured in that roster. And, long after her passing, she still has the ability to inspire the creative minds of today.

The younger daughter of a wealthy cotton manufacturer, Alaberto Amman, and his wife, Lucia Bressi, Luisa was born in Milan in January, 1881. At the age of 13, Luisa's mother died; two years later, she lost her father also when he passed away. At the death of their parents, Luisa and her elder sister, Francesca, reputedly became the wealthiest young women in Italy.

Portrait of Luisa Casati by John Singer Sargent
Image courtesy of: http://www.lifeinitaly.com/

In 1900, Luisa was betrothed to Camillo Casati Stampa di Soncino, Marchese di Roma; a year later, the Marchesa gave birth to their only daughter, Cristina. By many accounts an unhappy marriage, the couple legally separated in 1914, after having spent years living apart in separate residences.

 Image courtesy of: http://wearethunder.com/

In 1910, four years prior to her official separation from her husband,  Luisa established herself on the Grand Canal in Venice, at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. Eccentric to the point of 'shocking,' it was here that the Marchesa gathered round her a motley of (mostly artistic) guests and hosted dinner parties in her apparel of choice: sheer golden pajamas. It was also here that she collected her menagerie of exotic animals - peacocks, greyhounds, cheetahs, snakes and, most unusually of all, albino crows  - and garnered for herself a reputation of the grand hostess of legendary receptions and masquerade balls. Her eccentricities knew no bounds - she would roam through the streets of Venice late at night in her fur coats, wearing nothing underneath, led by diamond-collared cheetahs. (Source: Blume, L. M. M., huffingtonpost.com, October 28, 2010)

Photographed and signed by Man Ray

By the early 1930s, the once fabulously wealthy and extravagant Marchesa Casati, the long-term lover of the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, had fallen into financial difficulties, reportedly accruing a personal debt of $25 million. Having no means by which to pay off her debtors, Luisa's estates and possessions were auctioned off in an effort to pay her debts. By now in a panic, Casati fled to London, England, where she lived a considerably less lavish lifestyle; some would term it an impoverished one. In England, she lived a life far removed from her glory days, with only a few remnants of belongings still in her possession, including a broken cuckoo clock, a stuffed lion's head and a few books from her once-vast collection, for company. There are accounts which say that the Marchesa could be seen roaming the alleyways and streets of London, rummaging through dumpsters for feathers and other accoutrements with which to decorate her hair. (Source is partially from: Blume, L. M. M., huffingtonpost.com, October 28, 2010)

Portrait by Giovanni Boldini
Image courtesy of: http://eliotessani.altervista.org/

Nude portraits of the Marchesa by Giovanni Boldini
The two images above are courtesy of: http://www.atuttascuola.it/

Marchesa Luisa Casati
Image courtesy of: http://delendi.blogspot.com/

In a costume designed by Worth ~ Paris, 1922
Image courtesy of LIFE.com: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/

Sadly, it was in London that the once celebrated Marchesa, famed for her eccentricities and muse to the artists and poets of her age, died on June 1st, 1957, penniless. It is alleged that she was buried with a beloved (but stuffed) pekingese dog and wearing leopard skins - and false eyelashes.

Tombstone marking the grave of Luisa,
Marchesa Casati bearing the inscription:
"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”
Image courtesy of: http://junefontaine.com/blog

Still the muse:
Contemporary interpretations & inspirations of La Casati in popular culture
    Image courtesy of:  http://hippiedeluxe.blogspot.com/
Marisa Berenson as La Casati for The Rothschilds'
Proust Ball, 1971
Photographed by Cecil Beaton

Image courtesy of:   http://www.tumblr.com/

John Galliano's perfume advertisement
Carine Roitfeld as Marchesa Casati,
photographed by Karl Lagerfeld
The New Yorker, September 22, 2003
Karl Lagerfeld's sketch of Carine Roitfeld
as Marchesa Casati, 2003
Condé Nast

The above four images are from:
Acne Paper - Issue #9, Fall/Winter 2009
Photographed by Paolo Roversi

Suggested readings:

Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of The Marchesa Casati (2004), by Scot D. Ryersson and Michael O. Yaccarino: University of Minnesota Press

The Marchesa Casati: Portraits of a Muse (2009), by Scot D. Ryersson, Michael O. Yaccarino, Diane Von Furstenberg, and Judith Thurman: Abrams

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