One of the interesting things about writing this blog – apart from finding new candidates, as yesterday – has been how it reveals connections between apparently disparate subjects. Numerous internal links testify to the myriad inheritances and borrowings from one unique individual to another. It’s as if these strange flowers were seeking out roots and branches to construct a family tree for themselves, one based not on blood but on sensibility. Perhaps nowhere is this network of elective affinities as crowded as around Marchesa Casati; once you start mapping the singular entities who moulded her and others who in turn claim her as an inspiration you end up with a pretty busy whiteboard.
For those who came in late, the marchesa, born Luisa Amman in Milan on this day in 1881, inherited a lorry-load of lire from her industrialist father and married the Marchese Casati in 1900. Not long afterwards she began a long affair with the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, and it was around this time the Marchesa Casati of legend was born. She comes down to us as a serial provocateuse in a series of surreal vignettes; naked under a fur coat walking cheetahs on jewel-studded leashes, attended by black servants painted gold, wearing a necklace of live snakes to a ball. She burnt through her fortune, and then some, and retreated to London where she lived in modest circumstances until her death in 1957.
Casati claimed – not without justification – to be her own work of art, but it was a work with its own set of influences. Her crepuscular glamour, for instance, owed much to the morbidity of Elisabeth of Austria and her cousin Ludwig II of Bavaria. She was similarly entranced by the unsurpassed narcissism of the Countess de Castiglione, and vied with Robert de Montesquiou as the countess’s posthumous BFF.
Among the numerous artists she sought out to portray her (of whom more tomorrow), there were a number of kindred spirits; suffice it here to mention Augustus John and Romaine Brooks, both renowned portraitists, who were intrigued by the contrast of flame-hued hair and cadaverous pallor. “Luisa Casati should be shot, stuffed and displayed in a glass case,” said John (which is more or less what she did; at least, she commissioned a wax effigy of herself). Alastair, himself no stranger to outlandish self-presentation, both fascinated and was fascinated by the marchesa, who hosted exhibitions of his sulphurous illustrations – some of which bore her features.
If Casati was exotic to the Continentals, she was positively alien to the bewildered English. Not surprisingly it was the gay aesthetes who flocked to her, including Ronald Firbank and Lord Berners. Collector and historian Harold Acton was bewitched even before meeting the marchesa; at prep school, when other boys showed pictures of their mothers, he apparently produced a reproduction of the famous Boldini portrait. Quentin Crisp encountered her towards the end and saw a reflection of himself, “a being of her own invention – not one of any particular sex or time or size or shape.”
Another witness to Casati’s decline was Philippe Jullian, the French archivist of aesthetic arcana, who continued to rhapsodise about her dark magic after her death, perhaps seeing in her an incarnation of the mad-eyed, murderous heroines depicted by the fin-de-siècle Decadent artists whose work he also championed. He was almost a lone voice until the publication of the biography Infinite Variety in 1999, which re-introduced Casati to society and became something of a standard text for fashion historians. Since then her name appears regularly when designers like Karl Lagerfeld and John Galliano, and lesser, less original talents, raid the dress-up box of spirited personae. “Oh it’s all going to be so very Casati this season” is the kind of airy, non-committal mission statement with just enough going on to appear substantial.
Casati’s public appearances were essentially haute couture shows in miniature – profligate, other-worldly, scandalous, ridiculous. But what would the Marchesa herself make of those now invoking her name, just as she once invoked Sissi and Castiglione? Casati the narcissist would probably relish the attention, but Casati the arch-individualist would disdain the herd mentality of fashionistas. But then that’s one of the drawbacks of being dead – you no longer get to choose whose muse you’re going to be.