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Vanity and egotism of two society beauties; La Divine Comtesse -photographs of the Countess de Castiglione. Edited by Pierre Apraxine (Yale, pounds 16.95). Infinite Variety, the life and legend of the Marchesa Casati. By Scot D Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino (Pimlico, pounds 12.50).

Two women - both of them half mad and obsessed with mirrors. Their lifestyles, which fed a rampant narcissism, underpinned by weak husbands or doting parents. Both of them supported from birth by aristocratic parents.

Obviously money was no object and as long as it flowed these women spent it. Casati was a turn-of-the-century shopaholic squandering money in Rome on clothes, jewels and restaurants always with an eye for the latest theatrical success, such as the arrival of The Russian Ballet which provided her with the perfect setting for her unstable affections and abnormal ego.

But Casati (who modelled herself upon the Countess de Castiglione) was undeniably a stunner - at least in her early life. In 1909 she appeared before the Parisienne beau monde in a painting by the society artist Boldini which took Paris by storm.

Boldini, who painted beautiful women, not always telling the truth, had conceived a portrait of Casati where she held a greyhound on a leash and looked at the world through eyes burning inside dark circles.

Casati loved it. She had spent 20,000 francs on the picture and as a feckless woman deemed the money well spent. Her mania for exhibitionism grew and she vented her spleen on Boldini when he refused to allow popular magazines to reproduce the portrait.

Casati saw this as a stumbling block, blocking her path to international acclaim. She raved at Boldini and finally he gave in to her abusive letters, (people with excessive egos can usually switch from abuse to charm in seconds, as is well known). But how else do you deal with narcissistic maniacs for whom their own beauty is the reason for their being?

In a similar way to Casati, Castiglione also turned to photography to satisfy her particular brand of narcissism. She too believed in the power of her looks - which were not inconsiderable - and dedicated her life to the cult of herself with all the passion of a born drama queen.

La Divine Comtesse is the more remarkable book of the two, since it shows plate after photographic plate of this mysterious adventuress who was not above involvement in political schemes of her day.

Born in 1837 in Florence, Castiglione spoke several languages (her English was apparently perfect and without accent) and though her glamour and sense of theatre, not to mention her aristocratic credentials, she was able to insinuate herself into the circle of Napoleon III and through him she was able to speak influentially for the Italian Revolutionary Cavour.

Obviously with her assets and attributes much to the fore she eventually became the Emperor's mistress until the assassination attempt was made on his life.

Compromised by the politics of violence, something she proclaimed in many of her photographs, where she is seen with knitted brows and a dagger, she was forced out from the French court and returned to Italy where, having totally bankrupted a long-suffering husband she left and took up residence in Paris.

Castiglione's taste for drama is the thing that strikes you most about her life and photographs in this superb book which will one day become a great rarity, and which recreates perfectly a vanished world where old ghosts in plundered finery, Miss Havershams, if you like, are evoked once more.

Articles were written about Castiglione after her death. One had the cruel headline 'When Fairy queens become witches'. But she remained an inspiration and she was in a sense reborn when Casati was given to appearing as her predecessor at costume balls in costumes a la Castiglione specially designed for her by Erte, the talented theatre designer.

As far as Casati is concerned she too made her mark. Charlie Chaplin is said to have made at one time a painting of her foot, and, according to rumour, she insisted that her Pekinese dogs should be stuffed and then laid with her in coffin at her death.

But Casati never made it into the movies and Castiglione did exactly that. She was perpetuated in films by Visconti and the Warner Brothers, where Yvonne de Carlo portrayed her although probably unconscious of the legend she was attempting to project. The film, named after the countess sank in time without trace.

The Marchesa Casati ended her days in London in a shabby flat smelling of dogs where she passed her days in her old age making collages.

She became a gay icon and was really at the end an old pleasure boat from which the paint had peeled long ago. Casati died in 1957, aged 76, from a cerebral haemorrhage.

She was laid out in her tawdry black and leopard skin finery and given a requiem mass at the Brompton Oratory. At the last minute an admirer managed to slip the latest of her stuffed Pekinese dogs into the coffin with the corpse. Casati's life - like that of her model, Castiglione, lives which some people might view as shudderingly awful, - had not been that of a spectator.
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Title Annotation:Books
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 14, 2000
Words:828
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