Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Marchesa Luisa Casati: The Naked Sorceress

“I want to be a living work of art” – The Marchesa Luisa Casati

The Marchesa Luisa Casati is without a doubt the epitome of opulence, decadence & extravagance. In the decadent 1920’s it was the notorious Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957), who reigned as the disreputable diva of her day. She was an Italian heiress, celebrity, icon, muse, patroness and Europe’s most decadent hostess during the 20th century. For nearly 30 years she became an inspirational icon to innumerable artist on more than one continent and forever offering her considerable wealth, influence and ideas to a legion of painters, sculptors, photographers and fashion designers. Indeed she touches the heart of many artistic admirers and exceedingly captivated, inspired and astonished them with her eccentric persona.

Marchesa Luisa Casati wearing a costume that symbolizes light to a fancy dress party in Paris, 1922.

She had nude male servants gilded with gold. Wax mannequins (rumored to contain the ashes of past lovers) sat, lifeless, at her dinner table. She bejeweled herself in live snakes and was infamous for her Lalique flask of absinthe that accompanied her evening constitutionals around the grounds, parading her beloved cheetahs on diamond-studded leashes, swathed in furs and nothing else, dubbing her thereafter the “naked sorceress”. She traveled wherever her heart desires – Venice, Rome, Paris, Capri-collecting palaces and a menagerie of exotic animals and spending fortunes on lavish masquerades. Extraordinary yet intriguing was her parties and appearances that they became legendary. It said that she once checked into the Ritz Hotel in Paris, accompanied by her pet boa constrictor where it escaped!

Photo of Luisa Casati - 1912

Born in 1881, the second daughter of a wealthy Austrian cotton manufacturer Alberto Amman and his wife Lucia Bressi, Luisa enjoyed a luxurious yet isolated childhood in Milan. As a child she was described as being shy, but was fiercely intelligent and curious about arts and cultures which encouraged her to visit museums and art galleries often. During her girlhood, she began to fascinate extravagant real-life personalities as the royals King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Empress Elisabeth of Austria, as well as theatrical superstar Sarah Bernhardt. When both her wealthy parents died, Luisa (aged 15) & her sister were suddenly the wealthiest women in Italy. Luisa’s natural propensity for the arts & fascination with surrounding herself with beautiful, unusual things became a major part of her personality. She regularly shocked the aristocracy with her bizarre garb & enthrallment with the macabre.

The Marchesa Luisa Casati by Augustus John

Luisa possesses quite a unique & intrigue beauty with thick blaze of flame-coloured hair crowned her pale, almost cadaverously white face and sensually vermilioned lips. But above all, Luisa’s large green eyes cast the strongest spell of her unique beauty. She flanked them further still with immense false lashes and surrounding rings of black kohl, while droplets of poisonous belladonna made them glitter like emeralds.

All the while, Luisa established several dreamlike homes, each designed to her exacting and high-priced tastes. One of her houses was a semi-ruined palace along the Grand Canal in Venice. The gardens were illuminated with Chinese lanterns & albino blackbirds fluttered in the trees and pet cheetahs prowled along twisting pathways below. Another was the Palais Rose just outside of Paris, a red marble mansion with a private art gallery, containing more than 130 paintings of her likeness.

But alas, over the years with seemingly endless masquerade balls and commissions, passion for jewels, clothing and extravagant lifestyle, Luisa had amassed a debt of $25 million by the age of 49 years old. She had all her personal possession auctioned off and fled to London where she spent the next two decades of her life in a less grand condition. Despite her financial crisis, she did not stop being fabulous. It is said that she was seen strolling the alleyways, dumpster diving for feathers and other accoutrements with which to decorate her bonnets.

Giovanni Boldini's Marchesa Luisa Casati, with a Greyhound

Luisa Casati died in London on 1 June 1957 at the age of 76 years old. She was buried wearing not only her black and leopardskin finery but a pair of false eyelashes; an exhibitionist to the end. She was interred with one of her taxidermied Pekinese dogs, and her gravestone quotes Shakespeare’s Anthony & Cleopatra: Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety – a tribune likely befitting for this captivating femme fatale.


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