She was said to walk around Venice at night with her pet cheetahs, naked but for a fur cloak: Luisa Casati was both an eccentric and a pioneer, the author of a new biography tells Fiona Macdonald.
In April 1917, three years into World War 1, Pablo Picasso attended a dinner hosted by the wealthy heiress Marchesa Luisa Casati in Rome. “It was so preposterous a contrast to the shell-shocked Paris that Picasso had recently left that he retained a precise visual memory of it for the rest of his life,” writes Judith Mackrell in her new book The Unfinished Palazzo. “Forty years later he could still recall the footmen in their 18th-Century livery who’d thrown copper filings onto the dining-room fires in order to turn the flames green; the massive boa constrictor that had lounged in golden coils on a polar bear skin rug… and above all, the startling appearance of Luisa herself, dressed in a pearl-embroidered gown with a stiff Elizabethan ruff and a neckline that plunged to her navel.”
Born in Milan in 1881 and orphaned at the age of 15, Luisa Casati was to become a figure shrouded in legends as elaborate as the clothes she wore. Almost pathologically shy, she had a menagerie of pets, which included a boa constrictor she wore around her neck, white peacocks trained to perch on her windowsills and a flock of tame albino blackbirds dyed different colours to match the themes of her parties. She commissioned the costume designer of the Ballets Russes to create ever more outrageous outfits, notably one made of tiny electric lightbulbs that short-circuited and gave her an electric shock so powerful it forced her into a backward somersault. And she was fascinated by the occult, always carrying a crystal ball and collecting wax replicas of herself, including one that was life-sized with a wig made from her own hair: when hosting dinner, she would sit the figure next to her and in the dim candlelight her guests struggled to make out which was the real Luisa.
Casati was physically striking, enhancing her features in an unusual way, as a 2003 profile in The New Yorker described. “The Marchesa was exceptionally tall and cadaverous, with a head shaped like a dagger and a little, feral face that was swamped by incandescent eyes. She brightened their pupils with belladonna and blackened their contours with kohl or India ink, gluing a two-inch fringe of false lashes and strips of black velvet to the lids,” wrote Judith Thurman in a feature accompanied by sketches by Karl Lagerfeld, a fan of Casati. “She powdered her skin a fungal white and dyed her hair to resemble a corona of flames… Her contemporaries couldn’t decide if she was a vampire, a bird of paradise, an androgyne, a goddess, an enigma, or a common lunatic.”
Yet Casati was not simply a flamboyant eccentric, as Mackrell reveals in her book. Her parties – and the costumes she wore for them – were choreographed performances rather than just society events, and she aimed to be ‘a living work of art’. Casati “straddled the period of belle époque decadence and early modernism, in terms of the art that she appreciated, in terms of the way that she wanted to present herself,” Mackrell tells BBC Culture. Ezra Pound immortalised her peacocks in his epic poem The Cantos and the photographer Man Ray described her as “a Surrealist version of the Medusa” after she wouldn’t stop moving in a sitting for him – Casati so loved his blurry portrait, in which she had three pairs of eyes, that she sent it to all of her friends, including her lover Gabriele d’Annuzio.
The outfit that electrocuted Casati was itself a piece of art: the bulbs were at the tips of hundreds of arrows that pierced a suit of silver armour, and by embracing modern technology it was intended to show her credentials as a Futurist (a group of artists welcoming the new age of the machine). Another outfit, worn in 1924 to the Beaumont Ball in Paris (an event with a guest list so selective that Coco Chanel was excluded for being too ‘trade’), was a homage to Picasso and the Cubists. Made entirely from wires and lights, it was too wide for the entrance to Beaumont’s ballroom: the artist Christian Bérard, who witnessed Casati attempting to squeeze through the doorway, reported that she collapsed like a “smashed zeppelin”.
While her attempts at creating art with her outfits had mixed success, Casati could inspire painters and sculptors both as muse and subject. The leader of the Futurists, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, credited Casati with keeping his avant-garde movement alive during WWI, and had an earlier portrait of himself re-dedicated to her, adding a tribute to “the great Futurist Marchesa Casati with the languid satisfied eyes of a panther that has just devoured the bars of its cage”. Casati sat for Giovanni Boldini, who had painted Giuseppe Verdi, Sarah Bernhardt and James Whistler: when the portrait was unveiled at the 1909 Paris salon, Le Figaro praised the intensity of her “‘witch’s sabbat’ mien”. Her portrait was painted by Augustus John and Jacob Epstein sculpted her in bronze.
All of this was inextricably tied to the Casati of the gossip pages. “As ludicrous as some of her behaviour was, and as senselessly extravagant, what I love about her is there was no vulgarity about it – there was a purity to her desire to be a work of art and nothing else,” says Mackrell. “Although she loved the publicity, it was a sort of oxygen for her project – she needed an audience – she saw it the way an actor or a theatre director needs an audience, not to seek celebrity.” The rumours enhanced her status as an art patron. “If you painted her picture, or she bought one of your works, that gave you a real cachet.”
And Casati encouraged the mythologising, although it made her biography harder to untangle. Like the cloud of perfume released from a microscopic incense holder worn on her little finger, the urban legends about Casati enhanced her mystique but also obscured her. “The challenge in writing about her was trying to figure out who the woman was behind this extraordinary set of myths and stories and rumours and gossip,” says Mackrell. “It was frustrating because… there’s so little of her own recorded voice in terms of diaries or letters – so there had to be a sifting through of evidence, of comparing some of the more outrageously fabricated stories against other versions of that event to try and arrive at what seemed the most plausible level of truth.”
Yet perhaps that isn’t the point: Casati welcomed those who would spin her excess and decadence into embroidered truth. It was said she took walks through Venice at night with her pet cheetahs, naked but for a fur cloak; that several of her servants had died after their bodies were covered in toxic gold paint. One rumour, that she commissioned wax dummies in which she kept the cremated remains of former lovers, was oddly similar to a story about her teenage heroine Cristina Trivulzio.
The Italian princess, notorious for the odd rites with which she was said to mourn dead lovers, bore similarities to Casati: an introverted child who had inherited a fortune and couldn’t fit into society. Casati attempted to contact Trivulzio’s spirit in séances, and named her own daughter Cristina. Perhaps the similarities went further than she realized: as Mackrell writes in The Unfinished Palazzo (about the Venetian palazzo in which Casati hosted some of her most spectacular soirees, later owned by Peggy Guggenheim), “Trivulzio was actually an impressive woman, a feminist of the mid-19th Century, a free thinker, writer and political activist” – yet all she became known for “were the necrophiliac rumours surrounding her sexual life”.
Casati might have deliberately fuelled outlandish tales about her life through what she did and what she wore – which included a gown of egret plumes that moulted as she moved, a headdress of white peacock feathers accessorised by the blood of a freshly slaughtered chicken, and, at the Grand Canyon, leopard-skin trousers, a sombrero and a lace veil. Yet it was a flouting of convention as much as an attempt to shock. “Everything about her was surprising – she seemed to live her life by a different set of emotional and social and visual rules from anybody else,” says Mackrell, who writes in the book how Marinetti celebrated Casati as “a warrior against mediocrity”.
“I was interested by what it is that allowed women to become exceptional or individual or free at that time… [to] live life more on their own terms rather than dictated by the men they married or the fathers they chose to remain at home with,” she says. “She was allowed to become this remarkable creature by virtue of this extraordinary wealth that she had, but also because of the fact that society was beginning to shift at the end of the 19th Century, early 20th Century – there were cracks opening up that allowed a woman like her to use her money to do something extraordinary as well – perhaps in earlier times she would have simply been crushed.”
While she has parallels today – Mackrell says that one obvious comparison is Lady Gaga, who also overcame shyness by using “extraordinary transformations in appearance, dress, make-up in a way to create a persona in which she could comfortably live in the world” – Casati was able to be so shocking because of the period in which she lived. “The background was still one where social and behavioural norms were so set that it was possible to be daring in a much purer way, perhaps.”
Historical events – and her profligate spending – would lead to Casati’s bankruptcy. “In the 30s the Wall Street crash, which burst the 20s bubble… completely wrecked her.” Casati owed tens of millions of pounds, and was forced to sell off all her assets. She moved to a one-bedroom flat in London, with just a few visitors (including the photographer Cecil Beaton), conducting séances and, by one account, rummaging through bins for scraps of velvet while dressed in a mangy fur hat and a scarf made of newspaper.
Casati died of a stroke in 1957, at the age of 76, and was buried with her embalmed Pekinese dog and a pair of false eyelashes. She continued to influence beyond her death: Vivien Leigh and Ingrid Bergman both played characters based on her, and she served as inspiration for fashion designers including John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Dries Van Noten. Jack Kerouac wrote a poem about her, with the lines ‘Marchesa Casati/Is a living doll/Pinned on my Frisco/Skid row wall’. Hers was a unique appeal that survives today. “There is that sense of dancing towards the abyss,” says Mackrell. “People think those things can save them, people hang onto them when their own lives are in chaos or freefall.”