In the age of social media we have become more than familiar with the practice of carefully curating one's identity through public visual displays, but the concept of using art, imagery and aesthetics to mould a public image is certainly not a new one. A significant and compelling example is that of Italian aristocrat Marchesa Luisa Casati, who’s lifestyle of fantastical theatrics, decadence and eccentricity made her one of the most luminescent figures depicted in art of the 20th century.
Known for her extravagant costumes and heavily kohl rimmed eyes, the Marchesa’s haunting stare can be seen in countless paintings and photographs by some of the era's most forward thinking artists. But in creating the fantastical aesthetic whirlwind of her life, it was the Marchesa herself who truly held the power of artistic invention.
Born into a cocoon of privilege in 1881, Luisa was the second daughter of a rich Austian cotton merchant living in Milan, who would later be given the title of count by King Umberto I. A plain and introverted child, she quietly absorbed the delights of Milan’s museums, galleries, and libraries, which instilled in her an appreciation of the avant-garde art that was gradually becoming popular at the turn of the century. It was in these early years that Luisa became fascinated by history’s notorious eccentrics, including the ’Swan King’ Ludwig of Bavaria, who’s outlandish behaviour, construction of extravagant castles, and patronage of the arts would be a significant influence on the Marchesa's later years.
By fifteen, after the death of both parents, the Marchesa and her elder sister Francesca became the richest heiresses in Italy. By nineteen, she was married to the equally wealthy Marchese Camillo Casati and soon after gave birth to a daughter, Cristina Casati. Despite this conventional start to the marriage it was not an intimate relationship, and the couple lived in different residences. Leading a separate life from her husband was a significant factor which allowed Luisa the freedom to pursue other affairs, including exploring the realms of her own self-fabricated character.
With an abundance of wealth behind her, the Marchesa began to tailor her lifestyle into a plethora of flamboyant dress and unconventional behaviour. Her reputation spread throughout Europe, with stories of lavish and fantastical soirees, of servants painted in gold leaf, and of the Marchesa’s penchant for wearing live snakes as jewellery. She began to collect elaborate mansions, such as the red marble Palais Rose near Paris, which included a summer house gallery housing the hundreds of portraits she had sat for. Elsewhere she kept a large menagerie of animals, including monkeys, snakes, and two cheetahs with whom she would stroll through the streets at night. Guests reported collections of eerie mannequins that sat around her dining table as if to accompany the guests, and the Marchesa added fuel to these rumours by hinting they contained ashes of her past lovers.
Luisa's raison d’etre became ‘immortality through art’ and she began to seek out progressive artists, commissioning them to take her portrait by paint or lens and sometimes funding their living costs. This exchange differed somewhat from traditional, contemptuous relationship between the artist and the bourgeoisie; she maintained friendships with many she worked with and patronised the most innovative of artists. Her lifestyle was so intricately sewn with aesthetic excess and unconventionality that it appealed greatly to bohemian artistic sensibilities.
Although no artist by traditional means, the Marchesa’s appearance was her canvas and she cultivated an enchanting personal style which captivated the aesthetes and bon vivants she consorted with. With her long, lean, pearl white body draped in outlandish finery, chaotic mess of fiery red hair, slash of scarlet lipstick, and striking kohl rimmed eyes, the Marchesa had the glamorous allure of a vampire, hungrily sucking up beauty, excess, and other visual delights.
She dressed in the high fashions of the day, but had many outlandish outfits specially tailored from her own ideas. One such example, which was worn to a ball in 1922, was decorated with dozens of tiny light bulbs, powered by a generator beneath her skirt, and reportedly gave the Marchesa tiny electric shocks throughout the night.
"The door to the room where we sat chatting suddenly opened. A dead woman entered. Her superb body was modelling a dress of white satin that was wrapped around her like a shroud and dragged behind her. A bouquet of orchids hid her breast. Her hair was red and her complexion livid like alabaster. Her face was devoured by two enormous eyes, whose black pupils almost overwhelmed her mouth, painted a red so vivid that it seemed like a strip of coagulated blood. In her arms she carried a baby leopard. It was the Marchesa Casati." - Gabriel-Louis Pringué
In her later years the Marchesa’s life of lavish excess caught up with her and it emerged that by 1935 she had raised up to $25 million in debt. Her belongings were auctioned away to bidders (including fashion house Chanel) and she fled to London to live in a slightly more modest lifestyle, funded by friends and her daughter. Still glamorous and striking, she continued to surround herself with artists, modernists, free thinkers and admirers until her death in 1957. Inscribed on her tombstone are Shakespeare’s words of the queen in Antony and Cleopatra “Age Cannot Wither Her, Nor Custom Stale Her Infinite Variety”.
The Marchesa’s influence is still celebrated today, particularly in fashion. Of the dozens of portraits she had commissioned, a small amount survive, including images by Augustus John, Cecil Beaton, Man Ray, Romaine Brooks, and Giovanni Boldini. Though sadly somewhat unknown to the mainstream, in the realm of art The Marchesa’s desire to become immortal through art was achieved just as she wished.
While many are granted wonderful lifestyles of excess and freedom through their riches, few shape their existence with such brazen determination and individuality. Through her standing within the world of art, the Marchesa seemed to surpass the more superficial privileges of wealth, and instead ascended to a world where art and life are one and aestheticism is given a divine status.
In 1999 an official biography, Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of The Marchesa Casati was published by Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino, and in 2017 a revised and expanded 'Ultimate Edition' of the book was published. To order a copy, or find out more about The Marchesa, visit the official website: marchesacasati.com