Blog 65 07/07/2018 Marchesa Luisa Casati Stampa di Soncino: A Living Work of Art.
Marchesa Luisa Casati Stampa di Soncino: A Living Work of Art.
The art world abounds with eccentrics: indeed, it thrives on them, even more so if they have lots of money to splash around. The Marchesa Luisa Adele Rosa Maria Casati Stampa di Soncino (1881-1957) was one such woman. Besides having an extraordinarily impressive name, she was an Italian heiress, muse, patron of the arts, and one of the most important figures of the twentieth century art scene.
Casati was born in Milan, the younger of two daughters of Albert Amman and his wife, Lucia. Her father was of Austrian descent and made a count by King Umberto I. In 1900, at the age of nineteen, Casati married the Marchese Casati Stampa di Soncino and the following year gave birth to a daughter, Christine. During her time she took many lovers, one of her whom was Gabriele D’Annuncio, whom she met not long after her marriage. Known to have had lots of affairs with many of Europe’s beautiful women, he made her his muse and lover. It was D’Annuncio who is said to have sparked her transformation towards the legend that she would become. The pair christened themselves Ariel and Core/Persephone. In one of his notes to her, D’Annuncio wrote – “to Core, destroyer of mediocrity”. Her husband chose to ignore her affairs leaving her to transform herself into a femme fatale and muse of the avant-garde. In 1910, Casati took up residence at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal in Venice (later to become the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a modern art museum). For centuries, Venice was the link between East and West, a symbol of grandeur kept alive by art and commerce. European socialites flocked to this world of opium and cocaine-induced romance, champagne and balls, and it was easy to see how Casati thrived here. Besides accumulating other palaces throughout Europe, she was to live in Venice for the next thirty years and could often be seen walking her pet blue-painted greyhounds and jewel-collared cheetahs through the streets of Venice whilst wearing live snakes as jewellery. Occasionally she “wore nothing but a fur coat, pearls, and a face full of make-up.” Her soirees were just as legendary. She collected a menagerie of exotic animals and was known to paint her Nubian servants gold. Picasso relates an anecdote about her drugging a snake at one of these parties, painting it in gold and wearing it as a necklace.
Casati’s life-long aim was to become a living work of art and she achieved it, becoming the archetypal female dandy and a figure larger than life. Her dress grew more and more elaborate as she tried to upstage her own last social gathering. One of her more famous dresses was made of light bulbs and powered by a generator. Even she had a hard time upstaging that one. By classical standards, Luisa was certainly not a beauty but one cannot accuse her of lacking style. At six feet tall, she was “cadaverously skinny”, probably due to a diet of gin and opium. Her hair was short and dyed a fiery red, and her skin was bleached white with powder. Her green eyes were dark yet startling due to putting droplets of belladonna on her pupils which “made the rims glisten like jewels”. Her eyes were emphasized even more by heavily painted eyelids of thick, black kohl. Often she added false eyelashes and strips of black velvet. Like the rest of her body, her face was a canvas.
The first three decades of the twentieth century spanned some of the most vibrant eras in art. In 1910, Casati was the extravagant hostess to the Ballet Russes. At the same time she was muse to fashion designers such as Poiret and Fortuny and was one of the first to wear the famous pleated Delphos dress, designed to be worn without underwear – which was not a problem for a woman like Casati who regularly wore transparent clothes. She was also muse to Jean Cocteau, Erté and Marinetti of the Italian Futurist Art Movement, and is known to have inspired the panther range of jewellery for Cartier.
Naturally she was a magnet for artists and sculptors as she was constantly transforming herself. Her decadent style was known throughout Europe and she was feted by such artists as Giovanni Boldini, Man Ray, Romanine Brooks, Kees Van Dongen and Augustus John, another of her lovers. The Literary world was also captivated by her. Ezra Pound, Tennessee Williams, the writer and poet, Jack Kerouac. who wrote poems after viewing Augustus John’s portrait of her with the fiery hair. Characters based on her were played by Theda Bara and Tallulah Bankhead, Vivien Leigh portrayed her in La Contessa, and Ingrid Bergman in the film, A Matter of Time to name just a few.
But all this partying comes at a cost, even for the rich, and by 1930, Luisa had amassed a personal dept of $25,000 and the creditors moved in and her personal possessions were auctioned off. Reportedly, Coco Channel was one of the bidders. Her last lavish soiree in 1927 was a disaster as it was considered poor taste when many were suffering in economically difficult times leading up to the Great Depression. She fled to London shortly after and could be seen dressed in threadbare clothes, a mangy fur hat and a scarf made of newspaper whilst rummaging through bins for something to wear in her hair.
For someone who loved attention, even her near destitution did not stop her and she became obsessed with the occult. In the 1950’s Cecil Beaton went to visit her in her one-bedroom apartment near Harrods. By this time, she had stopped writing to her friends because she believed she could communicate through telepathy. Beaton took a few photographs of her but she was horrified at what she had become. Soon afterwards, she died of a stroke and was buried with her taxidermied Pekinese and a pair of her famous false eyelashes in Brompton Cemetery. The inscription on her gravestone is from Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” – “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”.
The legend of the Marchesa’s life did not die with her death. She has been a source of inspiration for Alexander McQueen, Tom Ford, John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld, and Georgina Chapnam and Keren Craig named their fashion label, Marchese, after her.
Her grandchild, Lady Moorea Hastings, married the advertising executive, Brinsley Black, named as one of the best-dressed Englishmen in the inaugural issue of Men in Vogue 1965. Following the family tradition for creativity, particularly with regards to eccentric names, Lady Moorea’s obituary reads – “Lady Moorea, MBE, 83, died at home of a broken heart on 21st October 2011, less than a month after the loss of her husband Brinsley. Beloved mother of the Hon Pericles Plantagenet James Casati WYATT and Octavius Orlando Casati Black, and devoted grandmother of Bronte.” As one who had a fear of the mundane, I can’t help thinking that the Marchesa would have approved of her descendants
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