Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Exquisite corpse – Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957), Brompton Cemetery

“Quite suddenly and simply by chance, I once met a bizarre lady while taking tea with some friends in London. She arrived wearing black velvet from head to foot, her mouth painted blood red, and carrying a very tall umbrella with a decorated handle. And, you must understand, this ensemble was being worn in the middle of the day. This picturesque ruin of a woman was very tall and thin, and gave the impression of formidable strength. It was then I was introduced to the Marchesa Luisa Casati for the first and last time. She had made her entrance into that room looking wonderful and saying very little. She wasn’t beautiful—she was spectacular. Here was a woman possessing a presence one would never forget.”

Quentin Crisp

Luisa Casati in Paris,
photographed by Man Ray
Once fabulously wealthy and a member of all the most elite European social and artistic circles,  the Marchesa Luisa Casati lived in London after the war in relative poverty, moving from one rented flat to another and only just keeping one step ahead of her creditors. Her belongings once filled mansions and townhouses across the continent but were now reduced to a tattered collection of frocks and fripperies; a stuffed lions head, a broken cuckoo clock, a fragment of finger, supposedly a relic of St Peter, amongst other worthless junk. She dressed only in black, someone once described her late London outfits as resembling 'the plumage of a shabby raven'. She rummaged in the bins outside the Chelsea Palace Music hall and came away with scraps of monkey fur,  fabric and feathers to tart up her outré costumes. Because she could no longer afford kohl she ringed her eyes with boot polish. Towards the end of her life all her old friends were dead but she stayed in touch with them through séances conducted in her flat. In time she came to believe she had powers of telepathy and stopped contacting even her living friends, preferring to rely on thought transference to communicate.

Another Man Ray portrait of the Marchesa
When she died of a stroke in 1957 Harrods handled the funeral arrangements, laying her out in their chapel before the interment at Brompton Cemetery. Her funeral finery consisted of her best black dress, a leopard skin coat that had seen better days and a new pair of false eye lashes. An old friend for former days, a stuffed pet Pekingese, joined her in the coffin. The day of the funeral was unseasonably cold and there were few mourners Her memorial is modest for a woman who once amassed debts amounting  to millions of dollars and her name is misspelled Louisa as though she were English.


Luisa by Augustus John
Luisa Amman was born in January 1881 in Milan, the youngest daughter of a father who, when he died in 1896, reputedly left the 15 year old Luisa and her older sister the richest women in Italy. She married Camillo, Marchese Casati Stampa di Soncino in 1900  and became the Marchesa Luisa Casati. The couple had one child and then lived apart until the Marchese died in 1946. Luisa became a celebrated society hostess, muse and patron to innumerable artists, the lover of Gabriele d'Annunzio, an eccentric and femme fatale. She commissioned portraits or sculptures of herself by Giovanni Boldini, Paolo Troubetzkoy, Romaine Brooks, Augustus John (whose judgement on his patron was “Luisa Casati should be shot, stuffed and displayed in a glass case”), Kees van Dongen, and Man Ray. Before the First World War she took up residence in at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal in Venice where she held fabulous parties with gold painted servants, mechanical birds in gilded cages, a pride of white peacocks and a pair of cheetahs with jewelled collars that she took for walks along the canal side. According to one of her biographers  “for a summer of drug abuse on the island of Capri, she packed a wardrobe of black Morticia gowns, dyed her hair green, and paraded through the village streets with a crystal ball, followed by a retainer in gold body paint.”

Her clothes were as eccentric as their owner and she has become something of a fashion icon, influencing designers such as John Galliano and Alexander McQueen and even has a fashion house, Georgina Chapman and Keren Craigs ‘Marchesa’, named after her. High living destroyed Luisa’s fortune and by the 1930’s she had debts amounting to $25 million dollars. She was forced into bankruptcy and the houses, villas, paintings, jewels, exotic animals, and haute couture were all sold off to pay her debts. Her only daughter had married into the British aristocracy and  a penniless Luisa had to live in London as the only alternative to starving in Paris, Rome or Milan.   

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