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More than a muse.

Luisa Casati, muse to many artists in the early 20th century, was far more than a passive sitter. As an exhibition at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice makes clear, she was also a collector, patron and perfomer--who--succeeded in turning herself into a living work of art

The Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957) had one goal: to be a living work of art. To that end, the heiress commissioned and sat for as many as 200 portraits. Over five decades she had herself immortalised in a multitude of media by a diverse group of artists. The variety of these portraits, and her imagination as a sitter, are impressive. She poses languidly by the Venetian lagoon for Kees van Dongen and decapitates John the Baptist for Alastair. She is an imposing medusa in both Jacob Epstein's bust and Romaine Brooks' life-sized nude portrait. She dons the armour of Cesare Borgia for Alberto Martini (Fig. 5) and the dark garb of a sorceress for Ignacio Zuloaga's Goya-esque portrait.

Other traces of Casati abound: she is the femme fatale of Gabriele d'Annunzio's decadent tales; subject of a stanza of Jack Kerouac's San Francisco Blues (1954); friend of Sergei Diaghilev, Ezra Pound and F.T. Marinetti; former resident of Peggy Guggenheim's palazzo on the Grand Canal; and living mannequin for Paul Poiret, Leon Bakst, Mariano Fortuny and Erte. The paintings, photographs, sculptures, jewellery, clothing, letters, and taxidermied animals currently displayed in Palazzo Fortuny's sumptuous interiors (until 8 March 2015) create a sort of Casati Wunderkammer. It is, however, difficult to build up a cohesive picture of the woman d'Annunzio called 'La Lontaine'--the distant one. She left no memoirs or diaries, and there is no documentation of her collection and its sale, bar some oblique notes. Biographies rely on tales of her antics reported by friends and commentators, as well as information supplied by her descendants. Casati's granddaughter informed her biographers that Luisa preferred the visual arts to the literary: 'What mattered was the image' and what an image it was. (1)

Born Luisa Adele Rosa Maria Amman in 1881, she was orphaned at the age of 13, inheriting an enormous cotton mill fortune with her older sister Francesca. In 1900, she gained an aristocratic title to match her riches by marrying the Marchese Camillo Casati Stampa di Soncino, a union which bore a daughter, Cristina, but would end in divorce in 1924, after 10 years of separation. Her metamorphosis from respectable aristocratic wife and mother to exotic vamp can be seen in her portraits. It had already begun in 1908 when Giovanni Boldini painted a celebrated, but fairly conventional society portrait of the Marchesa in an extravagant Poiret gown, accompanied by her greyhounds (Fig. 2).

In 1919, Augustus John, one of the many artists with whom Casati had affairs, painted a striking portrait of the Marchesa with her dyed red hair cut short, anticipating the flapper style, her lips bright red, her eyes lined with copious kohl and fake eyelashes, sparkling and large with belladonna (Fig. 3). As Kerouac wrote in reference to this picture, she had transformed herself into 'a living doll'.

Both portraits have been described as an 'anti-Joconde': indeed, Mona Lisa was another nickname given to Casati by d'Annunzio, her sometime lover and lifelong friend, who claimed she was the only woman ever to astonish him. Her physical and behavioural transformation has been attributed to the influence of the writer, whom she first met in 1903; her increasingly extravagant wardrobe has also been linked to her first encounter with Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, which may have taken place as early as 1909. (2) However, 'la divina Marchesa' stands as an independent and singular figure, who created her own inimitable style as much from her own imagination as from the tales her mother had told her as a child of the extravagant exploits of Cristina Trivulzio, Sarah Bernhardt, the Comtesse de Castiglione and Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Fig. 1).

Since 1971, when Marisa Berenson dressed up as the Marchesa for the Rothschild Ball, she has joined this hall of fame herself. In 1998, John Galliano based his Christian Dior Spring/Summer collection on her, and in 2009-10 her influence was apparent in Karl Lagerfeld's collection for Chanel. Georgina Chapman, founder of the fashion label Marchesa, was photographed as Casati by Peter Lindbergh in 2009, the same year Tilda Swinton modelled as her for Paolo Roversi. Contemporary artists Filippo di Sambuy, Anne-Karin Furunes and T.J. Wilcox have also drawn on photographic images of Casati in their work (Fig. 8). This legacy is a major aspect of the exhibition in Venice, but rather than presenting the Marchesa as a mute and passive sitter, or--as Harold Acton dubbed her--'the d'Annunzian Muse incarnate', (3) it focuses on her performative artistic role and her activities as a collector.

At masquerade balls, Casati would often dress up as works of art, from the mosaic of Empress Theodora in Ravenna to a Cubist portrait. She once claimed that she felt as if she imprinted her image on the very air of the places she passed through. (4) It is therefore appropriate not only to see so many images of her gathered in Fortuny's former studio, but also to think of her creation of her appearance as an artistic activity, a kind of proto-body art. As the sculptor Catherine Barjansky put it: 'she made an art of herself. (5) The Marchesa and d'Annunzio commissioned sculptures made from casts of her face by Annie Fokker Cottrau and Sarah Lipska. They also ordered wax figures by Barjansky, Lotte Pritzel and others, avatars which represent Casati's fascination with the occult, as much as her artistic interests. In d'Annunzio's La figure de cire the protagonist, unquestionably based on the Marchesa, is killed in front of a wax model of herself, which spontaneously animates upon her death, replacing her.

Casati sat for portraits upon request, as well as commissioning them, but was discerning in her selection of artists, which followed her own eclectic tastes. She was not a passive sitter, as Martini, her fully contracted court painter, attested, and her repeated visits to his studio, as well as to those of Boldini and John, demonstrate a desire to keep her image updated. In the case of photography, Casati was particularly active in crafting her own image (Fig. 6). Man Ray describes how after his session with Casati in 1922 he thought all the negatives unusable due to poor lighting. On the Marchesa's insistence he sent her some prints, one with three pairs of eyes, which, in his words 'might have passed for a Surrealist version of the Medusa'. (6) She was fascinated by this image and ordered many copies; the image spread across Paris and Man Ray repeated the idea with Tanya Ramm in 1930. In Cecil Beaton's snatched photographs of an elderly Casati, she practically turned him into a paparazzo, contradicting years of seeking the limelight by shielding herself. She was outraged when an enlargement of one of these unauthorised images was placed in the window of Harrods to promote his autobiography, and launched occult maledictions against the photographer.

Exhibition co-curator Gioia Mori is adamant that Casati's exploits should be seen as forerunners to contemporary performance art. (7) Mori compares Casati's attendance at a Beaumont Ball with a live python to Marina Abramovic's Dragon Heads (1990). She also highlights the performative nature of Casati's Saint Sebastian costume, commissioned from Bakst and complete with illuminated arrows, which unfortunately short-circuited, causing the Marchesa to somersault backwards with such force that she missed the party. (8) Venice was one of her greatest stages. She filled the great, unfinished Palazzo Venier dei Leoni and its large garden with her menagerie of cheetahs, a boa constrictor, parrots, white peacocks, and clockwork birds in golden cages, and held numerous soirees. She did not restrict her parties merely to her own residence. In September 1913, she staged an 18th-century masquerade ball, the Grande Ballo Pietro Longhi, in St Mark's Square. Two hundred servants, costumed by Bakst, led the international aristocratic guests, all in fancy dress, to the square. Longhi was not the only great of Venetian painting evoked by the Marchesa's lifestyle: her promenades wearing little more than a cape, and accompanied by her servant and cheetah, have been compared to works by Tintoretto and Carpaccio. (9)

Casati was certainly a performer: in Boldini's 1911-13 portrait with peacock feathers she seems to be mid-dance. Diaghilev apparently implored her to appear with the Ballet Russes, but it seems she never accepted. She did however recreate a scene from his Firebird in St Moritz in the summer of 1912. A few days later she perfomed an Indo-Persian dance to music by Modest Mussorgsky, possibly wearing the same costume by Bakst that she wears in a photograph taken by Fortuny (Fig. 4). (10) She also supposedly danced for the Red Cross in Rome in 1916, wearing just a black velvet rose. Marinetti dedicated his 1917 manifesto 'Futurist Dance' to Casati, and she regularly attended and perhaps even collaborated in Fortunato Depero's Balli Plastid (1918).

It was not until she was in her 70s that Casati began to produce her own visual art. For the last 25 years of her life, the penniless Marchesa lived in London, relying on the charity of friends, and surviving on, it is said, bee juice from Harrods, gin and opiates. (11) During a period in which she was often seen rummaging through bins in Soho in search of fabric, she was also cutting images from newspapers and magazines in order to produce three volumes of amusing and elegant Surrealist collages combining historical and contemporary imagery.

The eclectic juxtaposition of images in these works is reminiscent of Casati's diverse taste as an art collector, which, like her collages, has only recently gained attention. Isabella d'Este has been added to the list of illustrious women the Marchesa wished to emulate, a heroine she shared with the Casati-esque Isabella Inghirami in d'Annunzio's Forse che si, forse die no (1910). (12) Details of the Marchesa's collection are scant, and many works have been lost. Her exorbitant spending and distaste for financial planning led to her having to sell the majority of her collection in an undocumented auction at her French home, the Palais Rose, in December 1932. Some of the art was also used for security on payments: works given to her creditors in the early 1930s include two Boucher school paintings and a 'priceless ivory statuette of the Saviour that had belonged to Pope Alexander II'. (13)

Casati also collected contemporary art, and not just portraits of herself. Exhibition co-curator Fabio Benzi emphasises her role as a patron of Futurism (Fig. 7), confirming Marinetti's claim that three sculptures by Umberto Boccioni were in her collection. At the 1920 Venice Biennale, she bought another mixed-media work, Alexander Archipenko's sculpto-painting Standing Woman. (14) While Marinetti insists that Casati had her Futurist artworks proudly on display, and the only extant photograph of Casati's collection shows portraits by Natalia Goncharova and Van Dongen on display with Giacomo Balia's Hand of the Violinist (1912), now in London's Estorick Collection, one contemporary commentator suggested that the Marchesa was not as enamoured with her avant-garde works as it seemed. In his notorious column 'Satyricon', Eugenio Giovannetti described how visitors to her home asking to see her Futurist works were led up stairs and down hallways to a dimly lit room containing 'all the terrible revolutionaries of art, topsy-turvy, forgotten, dusty'. (15)

Whether or not Casati truly subscribed to artistic avant-gardism, the diversity of her collection and patronage demonstrate an indifference to its supposed cliques and hierarchies, and its myth of complete rupture with the decadentism that went before it.

Casati's blending of art and life was fundamentally avant-garde, but her ambition to become a living work of art was also decadent, in the way encapsulated by d'Annunzio in Il Piacere (1889): 'You must make your own life as you would any other work of art'. (16) The Marchesa's marginal place in the histories of modernist and decadent art can be attributed to her skill in straddling both, as can the resulting difficulty in classifying her activities as a patron, collector and muse. She died on 1 June 1957 and was interred in Brompton Cemetery, her grave marked by the Shakespearean epitaph 'Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.' There could be no better description for the accumulation of images created, owned or inspired by 'la divina Marchesa'.

(1/) From an interview with Lady Moorea Black, September 1997, quoted in Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino, Infinite Variety: The Life & Legend of the Marchesa Casati, Minneapolis, 2004, p. 52.

(2/) Luca Massimo Barbero, 'La Venezia di Luisa Casati tra emporio di un "Medioevo perenne" e avanguardia', in Gioia Mori (ed.), La Divina Marchesa. Arte e vita di Luisa Casati dalla Belle Epoque agli annifolli, exh. cat., Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, 2014, p. 140; Doretta DavanzoPoli 'Luisa Casati e la moda' in ibid., p. 214.

(3/) Harold Acton, Memoirs of an Aesthete, London, 1948, p. 37.

(4/) Quoted in Philippe Jullian, 'Extravagant Casati', in Vogue, vol. CLVI, no. 4 (September 1970), p. 424.

(5/) Catherine Barjansky, Portraits with Backgrounds, London, 1948, p. 21.

(6/) Claudio Marra,'La vita immaginata. Luisa Amman Casati e la fotografia', in op. cit. in n. 2, pp. 178-79; Man Ray, Self Portrait, London, 1988,p. 131.

(7/) Mori is not the first to make this point. See also David Wistow, Augustus John: The Marchesa Casati, exh. cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 1987, p. 9.

(8/) Gioia Mori, 'Luisa Casati, Casaque, Casinelle, Core: opera d'arte vivente' in op. cit. in n. 2, p. 60.

(9/) Michael de Cossart, The Food of Love: Princesse Edmond de Polignac (1865-1943) andHer Salon, London, 1978, p. 171.

(10/) Gioia Mori, 'Luisa Casati, Casaque, Casinelle, Core: opera d'arte vivente' in op. cit. inn. 2, p. 36.

(11/) Op. cit. in n. 7, p. 6.

(12/) Floriana Conte, 'Luisa Casati Collezionista e Mecenate Tra 1908 e 1915', in Annalidi Critica d'Arte, vol. IX, no. 2 (2013), pp. 329-48; on Casati and d'Este, see p. 333. On Inghirami and d'Este see Raffaella Castagnola, 'Introduzione' in Gabriele d'Annunzio, Forse che si, forseche no, Milan, 1998, p. XXXI.

(13/) Anon., 'Astonishing Exploits of the Marquise Casati', The American Weekly, 1 December 1935, p. 3.

(14/) Maria Elena Versari, 'The Style and Status of the Modern Artist: Archipenko in the Eyes of the Italian Futurists' in Marek Bartelik et al., Alexander Archipenko Revisited, New York, 2008, p. 30, n. 33.

(15/) '... tutti iterribilirivoluzionari dell'arte, messi a catafascio, obliati, polverosi': Eugenio Giovannetti, Satyricon, 1918-20, Florence, 1921, p. 179.

(16/) Gabriele d'Annunzio, The Child of Pleasure [Il Piacere], Sawtry, 1991, p. 24.


Rosalind McKever is an art historian and writer.

'La Divina Marchesa: Arte e vita di Luisa Casati dalla Belle Epoque agliAnnifolli' is at Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, until 8 March 2015. To find out more, go to
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Title Annotation:Luisa Casati
Author:McKever, Rosalind
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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