Painting of Luisa Casati

On this day in history: Marchesa Luisa Casati born

History of Italy News

Luisa Casati, the heiress, socialite, and muse renowned for her extravagant lifestyle, outlandish dresses, and captivating allure, was born 23rd January 1881 in Milan.

From a wealthy background, Casati’s life took a turn when, at the age of 19, she married Marquis Camillo, Marchese Casati Stampa di Soncino. Despite providing him with a daughter, Cristina, their marriage lacked strength, leading to separate residences early on.

Casati’s departure from a life of formalities and strict etiquette occurred after meeting poet and lothario Gabriele D’Annunzio at a society hunt. Their liaison opened the door to a world of writers and artists. Tall, strikingly thin, and possessing captivating looks, she became a fascination for young artists eager to paint this eccentric aristocrat.

Casati indulged her taste for extravagance, donning increasingly outlandish dresses during the Belle Époque. She moved to Venice in 1910, residing in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, now home to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

In Venice, she created a fantastical lifestyle, gathering an extraordinary menagerie of pets, including cheetahs, a boa constrictor, white peacocks, albino blackbirds, and dyed-blue greyhounds. Casati hosted lavish parties, donning costumes like a dress made of lightbulbs, showcasing her penchant for the extraordinary.

Shy by nature, Casati focused on her appearance, contrasting fiery red hair with deathly pale skin. She enhanced her eyes with belladonna lining them with black eyeliner and false eyelashes. Prowling the Venetian streets at night with jewel-collared cheetahs, she often wore nothing but a cloak embroidered with emeralds.

Luisa Casati by Steben Alexander
Luisa Casati by Steben Alexander

Casati’s carefully choreographed parties in Rome, Paris, and Venice were more than indulgences; they were meticulously planned affairs, reflecting her self-perception as a living work of art. Artists like Giovanni Boldini, Paolo Troubetzkoy, Adolph de Meyer, and Romaine Brooks drew inspiration from her, capturing her allure in their works.

Her legacy in art and fashion

Her persona served as a muse for various artists, captivating the likes of Giovanni Boldini, Paolo Troubetzkoy, Adolph de Meyer, and Romaine Brooks. Futurists such as Fortunato Depero and Umberto Boccioni also found inspiration in her allure.

As fashion icon, costume by Léon Bakst, 'Queen of the Light', Paris, 1922
Costume by Léon Bakst, ‘Queen of the Light’, Paris, 1922

The canvas of her life was painted with romantic entanglements, forging connections with multiple artists. Augustus John’s portrayal of her stands as a crowd favourite at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Captured with a greyhound in a painting by Giovanni Boldoni, the Marchesa’s image became an iconic representation of her charisma.

Marchesa Luisa Casati with a greyhound, 1908, by Giovanni Boldini
Marchesa Luisa Casati with a greyhound, 1908, by Giovanni Boldini

D’Annunzio is believed to have drawn from her essence in creating the character of Isabella Inghirami in “Forse che si forse che no” (Maybe yes, maybe no). Additionally, the character of La Casinelle in novels by Michel Georges-Michel bore traces of her influence. The Marchesa’s impact extended to the stage and screen, with plays and movies featuring characters inspired by her, portrayed by actresses like Vivien Leigh and Ingrid Bergman.

Her influence also reached the realm of fashion. The creative minds of John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld, and Alexander McQueen were stirred to craft collections based on or inspired by her. British designers Georgina Chapman and Karen Craig even envisioned her spirit when founding the fashion house Marchesa.

The price she paid

Despite her opulent beginnings in Milan, by 1930, Casati faced personal debts of $25 million, leading to the auction of her possessions.

Living on Capri and later in London, her reduced circumstances marked a stark contrast to her former lifestyle. She passed away in London in June 1957 at the age of 76, buried at Brompton Cemetery, dressed in a leopard skin and black outfit, with a taxidermied Pekinese dog at her side.

At her funeral, an elderly man, her former gondolier from Venice, was among the few mourners. Her tombstone, shaped like an urn draped in cloth, bears Shakespeare’s poignant inscription from Antony and Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”

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