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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Indignant confusion and the Paris Lido: the strange legacy of the Marchesa Casati

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 Рshe 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 risqu̩ 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.

10 comments:

  1. Welcome to the world of blogging Hannah - I'm so glad you chanced upon my blog and thank you for following me, I have done likewise!

    Books and travel - what could be better? I hope you settle in well to your new home in France. I remember going to Fontainbleu some years ago, a lovely place but I was disappointed that you can't go inside the Chateau - not sure whether that's still the case.
    Luisa sounds like an amazing person - challenging society and the norms of the time was a brave thing to do. The early 20th century seems to have produced a number of these strong iconic women, paving the way for future generations.

    Jeanne

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  2. What a fascinating review and such a fascinating woman!

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  3. Your day in Paris sounds just perfect to me! The Marchesa Casati: Portraits of a Muse sounds fascinating... something a little outside my normal fare.

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  4. That sounds fascinating! I've never heard of her. Oh and welcome to the world of blogging!

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  5. Thank you all for your comments. She was an interesting character and I enjoyed writing about her... Jeanne - I haven't tried to get into the Chateau yet but hope that it is possible.... I will let you know. It is currently snowing heavily so I think I will leave it for another day! Hannah

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  6. Dear Hannah:

    It was with a fine mix of delight and appreciation that we read your generous and well-chosen words about our new book on the amazing Marchesa Casati. We hope you find continued inspiration in her.

    Sincerely yours,

    Scot D. Ryersson & Michael Orlando Yaccarino
    The Casati Archives
    Web:http://www.marchesacasati.com/

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  7. Dear Scot and Michael - thank you for your kind words - I am glad that you enjoyed the review. Your book is a real treat for its readers. Hannah

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  8. Hi Hannah
    I do love your wonderfully eclectic taste in books, and may even give that George Eliot a try, I am a Silas Marner fan myself.
    thanks for sharing
    martine

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  9. Thanks for your input Martine - I try to keep an open mind in the book department! Hannah

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  10. I had never heard of the Marchesa Casati, but your review piques my interest!

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