Thursday, 5 November 2015
Luisa Casati a muse to many I discovered her at the age of 11 in a Man Ray photgraph book
Written for the teegraph
By Lucy Davies9:00AM GMT 23 Nov 2014
In the late 1950s, when she was living in a one-bedroom flat near Harrods, the Marchesa Luisa Casati believed she was capable of communicating by telepathy. She stopped writing cards and letters, and spent her days indulging in spiritualist sessions with her few remaining friends. Cecil Beaton came to visit one afternoon and took a few ill-conceived snaps, where she appears blurred and cowering with her arm over her face, horrified she might be captured in her jowly, lace-veiled dotage.
Not long afterwards she died of a stroke. When he heard, a friend with whom she had conducted a séance earlier that morning let himself back into her flat to fetch her taxidermied Pekinese and a fresh pair of her false eyelashes. She was buried with both, in Brompton Cemetery, five days later. It was a miserable occasion, on an unseasonably cool, unsettled June day, and only a handful of family and friends attended. One of them came all the way from Venice, where half a century earlier he had been her personal gondolier, ferrying her jewel-collared cheetahs, her blue-painted greyhounds and her own decadently costumed form across the murky shimmer of the city’s lagoon.
Back then, Luisa Casati – heiress, socialite, artists’ muse – was a beacon of the belle époque, a legion of poets, artists, sculptors, designers and occultists trailing in her wake. She stuffed her palazzo on the Grand Canal (today the site of the Guggenheim Museum) with gold-painted servants, mechanical birds in gilded cages, a boa-constrictor and a pride of white peacocks that she tied to the windows, in the shade of her cypress trees. She once plundered their feathers for a costume, accessorising its white plumage with a dash of fresh chicken blood. Lady Gaga’s meat dress would have seemed quite dowdy.
The tendrils of Casati’s signature and often nonsensical style reach confidently into the present day. Georgina Chapman named her fashion label Marchesa after the Italian heiress, and over the years both Alexander McQueen and Tom Ford have cited her as inspiration for their collections, the latter christening Casati “the first European dandy of the early 20th century”.
At six feet and cadaverously skinny, Casati was not considered a beauty, but she made herself unforgettable all the same. Her hair was cut and dyed a fiery red, her skin bleached white with powder. She kept her pupils dark with doses of belladonna, and rimmed their lids in thick black kohl, adding false eyelashes and strips of glued black velvet when the mood took her. It was not uncommon to see her prowling Venice with her cheetahs after dark, dressed in a cloak of silk velvet, mother-of-pearl heels and little else.
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So incredible and so ingrained are these stories that it has become impossible to detach the myths and aspersions that have cobwebbed around her over the years. An exhibition devoted to her life – the very first – recently opened in Venice and its curators have spent years researching society columns of the time for the truth.
A Man Ray portrait of Casati dressed as Elisabeth of Austria, 1935 (Man Ray Trust by SIAE 2014)
“When we looked into it, we were expecting to find a lot that hadn’t really happened,” says the historian Fabio Benzi. “She delighted in and fed these myths. She loved their contradictions and was fascinated by her own ability to deceive and distract people. We discovered more truth than myth, although embellished, shall we say, by her or by others.”
As a link between East and West and a symbol of shadowy, romantic beauty, Venice was a magnet for the era’s lost, often opium-soaked souls who flitted between its salons and balls, mixing with Europe’s élite.
It was here Casati began to realise her aim of becoming “a living work of art” and it so shaped her style that organisers have chosen to hold the exhibition at the former home and studio of the designer Mariano Fortuny. Casati was one of the first to wear the exquisitely pleated Delphos dress that made Fortuny’s name.
It was meant to be worn without underwear, which wasn’t too much of a problem for a woman who regularly appeared in public in see-through shifts and who once wore a dress covered in light bulbs with a generator attached.
Before all this, she was of course, a young girl, growing up between Monza and Lake Como, the daughter of rich parents who had made their fortune in cotton. Her father was ennobled in 1887, but eight years later he and his wife died within 12 months of each other, leaving 15-year-old Luisa and her sister Francesca sought-after heiresses.
Although Francesca was considered the better catch, Luisa made a suitably decorous débutante and in 1900, aged 19, she married Count Camillo Casati Stampa di Soncino, providing him with an heir, Cristina, a year later.
Neglected from a young age while her parents followed the hunting circuit from Rome to Paris and London, Cristina eloped with an English lord. Their daughter, Moorea, married the politician and royal hanger-on Woodrow Wyatt, and later Brinsley Black (their son is Octavius Black, founder of The Mind Gym).
Photographs of Casati taken not long after her marriage show a doe-eyed, typically Edwardian-looking girl. Everything changed when she met the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio at one of the hunts. The famously louche, debt-ridden lothario, who bedded most of Europe’s great beauties, made Casati his muse and lover. The two wrote cryptic notes to each other and christened themselves as Ariel and Core/Persephone.
The count ignored their affair, leaving Casati to transform herself from petulant, rule-abiding heiress into a devastating femme fatale – “To Core, destroyer of mediocrity” read one of d’Annunzio’s dedications. Supplicants at her Venice, Rome and later Paris courts included many of the avant-garde. Diaghilev, Picasso, Man Ray, Proust, Erté – all of them danced to her tune. She patronised the Futurists and the Ballets Russes and counted Kaiser Wilhelm II as one of her most dedicated admirers.
A Mario Natale Biazzi portrait of Marchesa Casati (Collezione Paolo Schmidlin)
Casati was an excellent subject for artists, and many tried to capture her aristocratic eccentricity. She was never the same character twice, transforming herself continually with extravagant clothes and props. Hothouse flowers, Egyptian statuary, jewels, Nubian servants, crystal balls, cocaine, opium and champagne were just some of the things she spent her money on, and she threw party after party, each one outdoing the last.
At some of these she reportedly sat next to a wax figure of herself, amused by the macabre mix-up she could provoke in the candlelit gloom. One summer, on Capri, she wore nothing but black and dyed her hair green to match the copper filings thrown into the fire by her servants, which turned the flames a beautiful viridian. In Rome she borrowed a lion from the zoo, tying it to her custom-made throne.
Things were already beginning to crumble when Casati threw a lavish party that was considered poor taste in economically straitened times. On 30 June 1927 guests arrived for a Soirée Magique at the rose-marble house in Paris she had christened “the palace of dreams”.
Captured for Vogue by the photographer Hoyningen-Huene, Casati dressed as Count Cagliostro, a 17th-century occultist, wearing a mask, suit of gold and silver, high heels and a crystal sword. The evening had been carefully staged, but when a storm struck, guests were forced to flee in a pandemonium of soggy wigs and crinoline.
By 1930 she had not only worked her way through her family’s fortune, but had supposedly accrued tens of millions of pounds in debt. She wrote to d’Annunzio imploring him to wire her money, but her telegram was met with silence.
She moved to the flat in London soon afterwards, and, having never been a big eater, spent the pittance earned selling her remaining effects on gin and occult trappings. Ever the fashionista, she was sometimes seen rummaging through bins for scraps of fabric, dressed in threadbare clothes, a mangy fur hat and a scarf made of newspaper. “It took all of the dignity of the English,” wrote the French author Druon, who used her as the model for his 1954 novel La Volupté d’Etre, “not to just gawk at this phantom.”
For a woman who had devoted her life to making an exhibition of herself, perhaps, as her swansong, it wasn’t all that bad.
"The Divine Marchesa” is at Palazzo Fortuny, Venice (mostracasati.it)