Yesterday was spent exactly as I always dreamed Saturdays in France would be spent. Beloved husband attended a statistics class while I sat in a cafe in Fontainebleau sipping tea and reading. In the evening we put down our books and headed for Paris and for a table under the glittering lights and before the leggy, feathered show boys and girls of the Lido caberet. And if that sounds decadent – that is before I have even let on what I was reading. The book that I devoured in the cafe yesterday was an example of my chief vice – it was an art book. They cost too much, they are full of pictures and they certainly do not fit in your handbag – and yet I find them compulsive.
“The Marchesa Casati: Portraits of a Muse” by Scot D Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino is quite a thing to find compulsive. It is the story in words, pictures, fabrics and collages of one of the strangest, most narcissistic, most creative and downright outrageous women known to history – Luisa, the Marchesa Casati. Luisa (which I shall take the liberty of calling her) was born in late 19th century Milan and at 13 was Italy’s wealthiest heiress. She made a consensual but loveless arranged marriage early and had a child. But the world of respectable wife and mother was not one that she would inhabit for long.
Almost overnight Luisa transformed herself into a man eating, drug taking international muse. She said that she wanted to become a work of art and to this end her image was her only real focus. Any artist who came within kissing distance was commissioned to represent her appearance – she was painted on canvas, captured on film, sculpted in clay and cast in bronze. She accentuated her emaciated 6 feet tall figure with elaborate headpiece and sky high heels. In an age where some still considered piano legs to be risqué she attended parties wearing nothing but a fur cape and high heels. Her look was completed with a menagerie of exotic animals - monkeys, panthers and snakes which would be worn live and venomous around her white neck.
Such was her self-absorption that she dissipated her entire fortune on costumes, parties, paintings and the furnishing of gin palace homes. By the 1940s she was living in a bed-sit in London kohling her famous eyes with cherry blossom boot polish. There she died in 1957. Before her death she had taken to wearing a waste paper basket sheathed in black velvet on her head. She had even been seen foraging in a Mayfair bin. The cultural legacy associated with her image is colossal. In our own time it has been represented by Tennessee Williams, Cecil Beaton, John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld and Tom Ford to name but a few.
For me, Luisa is a most confusing figure. One side of me is frustrated that a woman so narcissistic, so intellectually insubstantial could ever become a figure of cultural resonance and in anyway represent her sex. Equally, one has to admire the sheer subversion of Luisa Casati – she was not willing to do one single thing that society demanded of her and she pursued all that was not allowed and disapproved of. The urge to disobey exists in us all, but Luisa was brave enough to respond to it. At the same time, she became a figure of fun and her life, at its end, was a profoundly sad one. The authors of this pictorial biography are quite right though, when they write that her cultural legacy is so huge that we hardly even notice it anymore. This was the thought that struck me as the lights in the Paris lido dimmed and out strutted a troupe of men and women, scantily clad, gold heeled, heavily made up and topped with crowns and feathers. The image which the Marchesa Casati invented in the early part of the twentieth century, is still with us today.