I want to be a living work of art’ are the only words uttered by Marchesa Casati to survive on record. She was the original celebrity and an artist’s muse, famed worldwide for her extravagance, her eccentricity and her fantastical parties…Born into a luxurious life, Luisa married at a young age to the aristocratic and wealthy Marchese Casati. While he amused himself with horses and hunting in Rome, she resided in beautiful Palazzo dei Leoni (Palace of Lions), Venice – now home to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum –attended by naked servants gilded in gold leaf and with strange wax mannequins as dining companions. She surrounded herself with exotic pets, flocks of white peacocks, leopards, monkeys, snakes and a lion chained to the main gates. Often she was seen walking a pair of cheetahs in bejewelled collars and leads around Piazza San Marco, wearing a tiger skin and ‘more perfume than clothing’.Casati in costume image c/o enquire.it
But when she did wear clothing, she did it with gusto! She ordered specially made fabric for her gowns of silks and Fortuny velvets, and shaded herself with a parasol made from white peacock feathers. The costume designer from the famous Ballet Russes was employed to make her spectacular and sculptural party frocks such as the Sun dress. Snakes were often worn as live jewellery and it was rumoured she once demanded a necklace made from live cockroaches! Her hair was dyed Vermillion red, framing her whitened face and kohl-blackened eyes. Gabriel-Louis Pringué wrote of her –
‘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’.Her finest hour was also the last great ball held in a public square in Venice – the Grande Ballo Pietro Longhi took place in Piazza San Marco in September 1913. Luisa, heralded by trumpeters and escorted by footmen and falconers, made a grand entrance dressed as Tiepolo’s deity of Venice in a gold satin gown with a tremendous hooped skirt and a black Burano-lace mantle, her flaming red hair flowing beneath it. Her lucky guests were served by 200 servants in scarlet velvet livery with powdered white wigs and pearls.
Sadly, the Marchesa’s extravagance became her downfall. She fled to London in 1930, in debt to the tune of a whopping $25 million, and lived the rest of her days in poverty. It is said she was sometimes seen rifling through bins, seeking feathers for her hair. She died in 1957 aged 76 and was buried in the Brompton Oratory. Fittingly, her gravestone bears the Shakespeare quote ‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety’. One day, I will find her grave and leave her some white peacock feathers.