Luisa Casati: “as elusive as a shadow in Hades”

by Barbara Palladino

“I want to be a living work of art” is the epitaph that will forever be associated with Marquise Luisa Casati Stampa, known as one of the most eccentric and nonconformist figures in the 20th century and a muse to artists such as Giovanni Boldini, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Fortunato Depero, Kees Van Dogen, Giacomo Balla, Man Ray and Cecil Beaton, who portrayed her as a divine seductress. Jean Cocteau claimed her allure was not about beauty or surprising looks, but about shock value.

Luisa Casati was born in Milan in 1881, in a rich family of textile industrialists. The daughter of Alberto Amman and Lucia Bressi, at the young age of 19 she married Marquis Camillo Casati Stampa of Soncino, who gave her the aristocratic title and clout she lacked as part of the nouveaux riche. Quickly realizing how limited the role as his wife was for her, she began a rocky relationship with Gabriele D’Annunzio, becoming his inspiration and “Corè” – while the poet was her “Ariel”, named after the cheeky spirit in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. From then on, the Marquise Casati began building her own “mask”.

Inspired by two female icons she admired, Sarah Bernardt and the Countess of Castiglione, she dyed her hair a fiery red, heavily highlighted her eyes with black makeup and even used drops of belladonna to dilate the pupils. She kept her skin diaphanous under layers of powder, and changed her houses’ decor to reflect her new image: red brocades and gilded furniture were replaced by alabaster floors and toy birds in cages suspended from the ceiling, while the use of black and white completely changed interiors.
D’Annunzio – who said she was “as elusive as a shadow in Hades” – convinced her to move to Venice, in the decadent Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (later bought by Peggy Guggenheim). She filled her garden with leopards, albino blackbirds with dyed wings, tigers and boas, which she brought along on her romps. She walked around the Serenissima with a leopard – its diamond collar allowing for a leash – as an African servant carried a torch so everyone could see her.

Her parties were famous: the Marquise Casati once turned Piazza San Marco into a ballroom, with brutes dressed in red chained to one another to stop the crowd from entering.
In 1913, she attended a party at the Embassy in Rome dressed in gold, flanked by servants who had been painted the same precious color, with a peacock on a leash.
In 1922, Man Ray portrayed her in a “magical” photo, with double eyes: one pair to see, and one pair to be seen.

When Paris was occupied in 1914, she was staying at the Ritz on Place Vendome. It was the end of the Belle Époque, and the “Divine Marquise” was about to become the favorite muse of the Futurists: Marinetti, Carrà, Depero, Balla, Boccioni.
After her sister Francesca’s death, she started traveling around Poland, France, Hungary, Scotland, England, India… moving to Capri and later back to Paris. There, she purchased the Palais Rose that poet Robert de Montesquiou had once owned, and renovated it according to her taste with gold, white and black, exotic animals like cobras and tigers, and even a mechanical panther to scare off thieves. She collected 130 paintings and photographs of herself – portraits by the greatest artists of her time, from Giovanni Boldini to Giacomo Balla, from Catherine Barjansky to Cecil Beaton.

With her extravagant lifestyle, she squandered her huge fortune. Over the years, she accumulated debts equal to what 25 million euros would be today. After auctioning off her belongings, she lived between Italy and France and finally moved to London, where she walked around the city dressed in tattered velvet dresses, veiled hats and leopard gloves. The eyes that had once charmed poets and artists were at that point lined with shoe polish, because make up was too expensive.

The Marquise Casati died in 1957, buried in a leopard-trimmed cape, with the beloved Pekinese dog she had embalmed at her feet. For her tombstone, her niece picked the epitaph Shakespeare had written for Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”. Her legacy lives on, through her fame and the work of artists and creatives all around the world, who celebrate this female icon and bold, irreverent hero.

September 20, 2019