She astonished. She did not please. – Jean Cocteau on Luisa Casati
Iconic and elusive, decadent and modern, introverted and extravagant—few figures so perfectly embody the contrasts of the early Twentieth Century as Marchesa Luisa Casati. She fascinated European high society with her elaborate galas and fanciful personal style while supporting some of the most daring artists of her time. In spite of numerous depictions of her in paintings, drawings, and photographs, the woman beneath the outlandish appearance remains enigmatic.
Luisa was a quiet, shy child who seemed to enjoy the isolation of her upper-class upbringing. Far from the spotlight-craving creature she would become, she seems to have spent her childhood engaged in solitary pursuits, preferring sketching over socializing. Her father, granted the title of Count in recognition of his wealth from cotton mills, died when Luisa was fifteen and left her with an inheritance that made her one of the richest women in Italy. This wealth made Luisa an appealing match for less financially blessed members of the nobility and she married into a distinguished Milanese family, becoming a Marchesa at the age of nineteen. Luisa was unusually tall and thin with huge, luminous eyes—not a traditional feminine beauty, but rather a striking and elegant figure who elicited comparisons to legendary Amazons. By the time Luisa was in her early twenties, she was already beginning to rebel against her traditional Catholic marriage and the presumed roles of doting mother and housewife that came along with it. Her husband tolerated her interests in exotic decorating and the occult, and Luisa began experimenting with new, frivolous pleasures including feats of equestrian daring and the thrills of fast automobiles. It was during this youthful stage of experimentation that she met the already-infamous Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio.
There was an extreme attraction between the dandified womanizer and the young wife yearning for sensual satisfaction. Luisa would become the writer’s muse, inspiring the captivating, mercurial heroine of Maybe Yes, Maybe No, D’Annunzio’s novel detailing the tempestuous love lives of wealthy characters against the backdrop of the newly-emerging world of aviation. Their romance would last for decades and would include scores of enigmatic letters and telegrams exchanged between the pair when geography separated them.
Perhaps emboldened by her affair, Luisa embarked on a campaign to launch herself in Italian society. While her peers were aware of her as a striking young wife of significant means, Luisa craved a different brand of notoriety. She was fascinated by the arts since childhood and her wealth now allowed her to fully pursue this passion. One of her earliest commissions was a portrait by Giovanni Boldini, a painter who captured many of the leading figures of his time in elegant, Romantic style. The resulting oil painting of Luisa, surrounded by her greyhounds and clad in black with haunting eyes staring out from beneath a wide-brimmed hat, was an enormous success when first exhibited in 1908, inspiring rave reviews and elevating its subject to the highest levels of the Italian haut monde.
Luisa fully embraced her role as glamorous society hostess, purchasing a beautifully decaying mansion in Venice and outfitting it with lavish decor as well as a menagerie of exotic beasts, including cheetahs and a boa constrictor. She relished the gossip that surrounded her and cultivated a fashionable yet sinister appearance. She painted her eyes with heavy kohl, dyed her hair bright red, and paraded around the canals with her cheetahs, nude beneath plush furs. Her home was the site of numerous masked balls that were the toast of the city, and she also held séances that attempted to contact the spirits of dead luminaries. At the height of her notoriety, Luisa took several lovers in addition to D’Annunzio, including artists Augustus John, Kees Van Dongen, and Romaine Brooks who attempted to capture some essence of her soul on canvas. John painted Luisa with the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa, Van Dongen’s portraits celebrate her dramatic mystery, and Brooks depicted her lover as a terrifying gorgon.
Luisa’s fame was such that everywhere she traveled—from Paris to California—she became the subject of fascination. She was a woman of surprisingly few words, however, preferring her appearance and her reputation to do the talking for her. When she would make an outrageous artistic statement, like reserving a place at the dinner table for her life-sized wax mannequin, the rumor mill would add to the already-wild reality, claiming that the doll was filled with the ashes of her former lovers. Tales were told of servants who suffocated after having their bodies covered in gold leaf, or of men who were crushed to death by her boa constrictor.
Her talent for scandal was eventually overshadowed by her naiveté with money. The extravagant Marchesa’s monumental debts finally caught up with her and in 1930, she was forced to auction off her possessions. She would live out the rest of her days in England, kept from starvation by friends, former lovers, and the daughter she’d virtually abandoned in her quest for artistic immortality. Those closest to Luisa knew that the money they gave her would be used for fripperies and not for necessities, but the proud woman held together some semblance of her former glory by pinning together bits of fur and feathers that she used to adorn her all-black dresses. In her final days, she was still a remarkable figure, an attenuated witch haunting the city’s streets.
As a result of her legacy as one of the most frequently depicted women in Twentieth Century art, Luisa’s aesthetic audacity continues to serve as an inspiration. Her portraits are displayed in prestigious galleries, her story inspires playwrights and novelists, and star designers like Karl Lagerfeld and Alexander McQueen have paid homage to her unique style. A loving online shrine to her life and legend can be viewed at MarchesaCasati.com. While it’s tempting to view Luisa as the precursor for Twenty-First Century “famous for being famous” celebutantes, she is very much a figure of her own time: a self-made centerpiece in a high society that was experiencing its last sparkling moments, one that would be extinguished entirely by the time of Luisa’s death in 1957.