–The Marchesa Luisa Casati     

or the first three decades of the twentieth century, the fabled Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957) triumphed as the brightest star in European society. Possibly the most artistically represented woman in history after the Virgin Mary and Cleopatra, the portraits, sculptures and photographs of her would fill a gallery. In a quest for immortality, she had herself painted by Giovanni Boldini, Augustus John, Kees Van Dongen, Romaine Brooks and Ignacio Zuloaga; sketched by Drian, Alberto Martini and Alastair; sculpted by Giacomo Balla, Catherine Barjansky and Jacob Epstein; and photographed by Man Ray, Cecil Beaton and Baron Adolph de Meyer. She frightened Artur Rubinstein, angered Aleister Crowley and intimidated T.E. Lawrence. As muse to the Italian futurists F. T. Marinetti, Fortunato Depero and Umberto Boccioni, she conjured up an elaborate marionette show with music by Maurice Ravel. Accompanied by her pet boa constrictor, she checked into the Ritz Hotel in Paris, where it escaped. Considered the original female dandy, Léon Bakst, Paul Poiret, Mariano Fortuny and Erté dressed her. She adorned herself with the jewels of Lalique and directly inspired the famed 'Panther' design for Cartier. Her parties and appearances at others became legendary–at one celebration in her Venetian palazzo, Nijinsky invited Isadora Duncan to dance; Picasso attended a soirée at her Roman villa; while she costumed herself as a living artwork inspired by Dali for another. She was a subject of intrigue to Marcel Proust and the Comte Robert de Montesquiou. She whirled through Parisian nightlife, making an unforgettable impression on Colette, Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel. She was the only woman ever to astonish her lover Gabriele D'Annunzio, one of Italy's most notorious and revolutionary writers.

Nude servants gilded in gold leaf attended her. Bizarre wax mannequins sat as guests at her dining table, some of them even rumoured to contain the ashes of past lovers. She wore live snakes as jewellery and was infamous for her evening strolls, naked beneath her furs whilst parading cheetahs on diamond-studded leashes. Everywhere she went, she set trends, inspired genius and astounded even the most jaded members of the international aristocracy. Without question, the Marchesa Casati was the most scandalous woman of her day.

All the while, Luisa journeyed wherever her fancy took her–Venice, Rome, Paris, Capri–collecting palaces and a menagerie of exotic animals and spending fortunes on lavish masquerades. Her personal visual aesthetic made her a legend throughout the continent. She was tall and thin. A thick blaze of flame-coloured hair crowned her pale, almost cadaverously white face with its sensually vermilioned lips. Above all, however, the Marchesa’s large green eyes cast the strongest spell of her unique beauty. She exaggerated these further still with immense false lashes and surrounding rings of black kohl, while droplets of poisonous belladonna made them glitter like emeralds. It’s no wonder she caused a press sensation during a sojourn in the United States during the 1920's that featured stays in New York City and Hollywood. So intriguing was her fantastic persona, Casati also influenced playwrights and filmmakers both during and after her lifetime. Characters based specifically and more loosely on her came to be portrayed by Theda Bara, Tallulah Bankhead, Vivien Leigh, Valentina Cortese, Elizabeth Taylor and Ingrid Bergman. The lore of her riveting gaze even inspired famed American writers Ezra Pound, Tennessee Williams and Jack Kerouac.

There would be those who would accuse her of conducting an utterly frivolous life as Europe’s most decadent hostess. But in truth, Luisa had a passion of a much more serious nature–the commissioning of her own immortality.

The Marchesa Casati achieved this by seeking out and patronizing the talents of both experienced and novice artists. Her only requirement of them was a daringness of vision, capable of transforming their muse in constantly new ways. And consequently, Casati would come to distinguish herself in a way significantly different from similarly privileged women also rendered by the day's most important society portraitists. For unlike them, the Marchesa remained actively involved in the lives, minds and movements of the artists capturing her incredible image. Many of their careers first obtained recognition through her generous patronage, and this often included a valuable friendship or romantic affair. Casati's tireless pursuit of the vanguard in everything would allow her to satisfy an endless yearning for novel experiences and fresh audiences.

Casati remained a loyal patron or simply an inspirational icon to innumerable artists on more than one continent for nearly thirty years–forever offering her considerable wealth, influence and ideas to a legion of painters, sculptors, photographers and fashion designers. In addition to those already mentioned, a partial list includes: Federico Beltran Masses, Jacques-Émile Blanche, Umberto Brunelleschi, Vittorio Matteo Corcos, Guiglio de Blaas, Natalia Gontcharova, Paul-César Helleu, Roberto Montenegro, Gustav Adolf Mossa, Lotte Pritzel, José Maria Sert, Prince Paul Troubetzkoy and Madeleine Vionnet.

All the while, the Marchesa established several dreamlike homes, each designed to her exacting and high-priced tastes. In Venice, there was the Palazzo dei Leoni on the Grand Canal–a fabulous half-ruin, its gardens set ablaze with enormous Chinese lanterns, where albino blackbirds trilled overhead and pet cheetahs prowled along twisting pathways below. Years later, this same building would be purchased by Peggy Guggenheim to become The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, the most important museum in Italy for European and American art of the first half of the 20th century. Just outside of Paris lay the Palais Rose–the Marchesa's fantastic mansion built of red marble, featuring a detached pavilion converted into a private art gallery where Luisa housed more than one hundred and thirty images of herself. She summered on Capri at the famous Villa San Michele where she startled even the most bohemian of the island's residents with a thoroughly non-conformist lifestyle. Even so, although the masquerade balls given and the paintings commissioned seemed endless, Luisa's fortunes were not.

By 1930, Casati had amassed a debt the equivalent of twenty-five million U.S. dollars. Unable to satisfy countless creditors, her personal possessions were confiscated and auctioned off, including numerous original artworks of her. Today, many of these works remain untraceable or in private collections. Casati then fled to London to lead the next two decades in markedly less grand conditions than those enjoyed as a continental celebrity. But even so, her indomitable spirit remained undimmed as she went on to amaze a new set of admirers. On 1 June 1957, Luisa Casati died at 32 Beaufort Gardens, her final residence. She was seventy-six years old. Following a requiem mass at Brompton Oratory, the Marchesa was interred in Brompton Cemetery, with one of her taxidermed Pekinese dogs resting at her feet. In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare evokes the lure of the unforgettable Egyptian queen by declaring: 'Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.' This fitting tribute is inscribed upon Casati's gravestone.

As she would surely have desired, the Marchesa’s substantial artistic and cultural legacy continues to be recognized to this very day. Major artworks of and inspired by her continue to provide provocative centrepieces for important exhibitions worldwide. Of major relevance today is Casati's innovative fashion sense, which remains a constant resource for major and fledgling designers everywhere. These include most notably John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld, Tom Ford, Alexander McQueen, Alberta Ferretti, and Dries Van Noten.

From the original 1999 publication of Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati to the autumn 2017 release of its ‘Ultimate Edition’, as well as the now sold-out The Marchesa Casati: Portraits of a Muse, the only full-length, family-authorised and official biographies of this fascinating woman, Casati’s incredible life story has been preserved for and kept vividly alive in this millennium.


Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati (The Ultimate Edition) has now been officially released. Official biographers Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino have completely revised, updated and expanded the text with an additional dozen years of intense research since the publication of the most recent English-language edition. The hardcover book is illustrated with stunning imagery, some being seen for the very first time. Prepare to be astonished!

The notorious photo-portrait of the Marchesa Casati with a favorite pet boa constrictor wrapped around here appears in the catalogue for the exhibition 'Animalia Fashion' at the Museo della Moda e del Costume at the Palazzo Pitti (Florence, Italy), January 18, 2019-May 3, 2019.

The stunning 1925 pastel portrait by Alberto Martini of the Marchesa Casati resplendent in a golden suit of armor in the guise of the Renaissance nobleman Cesare Borgia was on-view alongside an astonishing ensemble inspired by it from designer John Galliano at the exhibition 'Dior: From Paris to the World' at the Denver Art Museum (November 2018-March 2019).

The notorious 1920 portrait of La Casati by painter Romaine Brooks was on view as part of the exhibit 'Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde' at the Barbican Art Gallery in London (October 2018-January 2019).

British designer Anthony Moorhouse (The Elvish Tailor) premiered his Casati-inspired autumn/winter 2018 artisan couture collection in October 2018. See the collection here.

A photo-portrait of a snake-entwined Marchesa Casati was on view for the Serpenti exhibition at The New Curiosity Shop, Bulgari's concept ultra-luxe boutique in Rome (May-November 2018).

The rarely publically displayed 1908 portrait of the Marchesa Casati by Giovanni Boldini from the private collection of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber was one of the star attractions at the exhibition 'High Society: Four Centuries of Glamour' at The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (April-June 2018).

Two photo-portraits of the Marchesa by celebrated American artist Man Ray were on view at an exhibition at Kunstforum Wien in Vienna (February-June 2018).

La Casati was celebrated as inspirational muse to legendary American fashion designer Normal Norell who was the subject of an exhibition at The Museum at FIT in New York City (February-April 2018).

Legendary Burlesque Queen and style icon Dita Von Teese chose Infinite Variety as one of her most cherished books and inspirations behind the creation of one of her perfume scents.

The Autumn/Winter 2017/18 Ready-to-Wear collection by designer Bill Gaytten for John Galliano was completely inspired by the Marchesa.

The Marchesa Casati is discussed extensively in the new book The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in Venice by Judith Mackrell as one of the three extraordinary women who made famous the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal.

The Autumn/Winter 2016/17 Collection by legendary designer Alberta Ferretti was inspired by Casati.

The Autumn/Winter 2016/17 prêt-à-porter collection by renowned designer Dries Van Noten was in homage to Casati and her love affair with Gabriele D'Annunzio.

Illustrated by famed designer Christian Lacroix, the new book Fashion Quotes: Stylish Wit & Catwalk Wisdom by Patrick Mauriès and Jean-Christophe Napias features a quote by La Casati on how to avoid a major fashion faux pas.

From March 10-May 8, 2016, Casati was celebrated in the exhibition 'SerpentiForm' by Bulgari on serpent-inspired jewelry held at the Palazzo Braschi (Roma).

For winter 2014/2015, Jeroen Oude Sogtoen and Maison Mona di Orio unveiled the first fragrance inspired exclusively by La Casati.

During autumn/winter 2014/2015, the Fortuny Museum (Venice) gave the first major exhibition celebrating the Marchesa Casati's artistic and culture legacy.

In 2014, Meike Kopp and Manifest Destiny released a uniquely designed and scented, award-winning luxury candle lit by Luisa's dark allure.

At the 2014 Ashmolean Museum (Oxford University) exhibition A Bestiary of Jewels, Britain's leading artist-goldsmith Kevin Coates unveiled A Snake for Casati, a one-of-a-kind brooch constructed of precious materials. Click Here to see a short film by Nel Romano on the artist's work and the exhibition. Click Here to see A Snake for Casati and read the exhibition catalogue entry on it written by the artist.

In 2004, Katrina Markoff and Vosges Haut-Chocolat first unveiled a limited-edition chocolate truffle celebrating Casati's passionate taste for the exotically decadent. Featured in the New York Times and AnOther Magazine among many others, this divine treat has sold out completely every year offered and will return in future. In 2011, Markoff unveiled the Black Salt Caramel Exotic Candy Bar. This confectionary tribute to Casati won the 2011 Gold Sofi Award for Chocolate given by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.

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