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Posts Tagged ‘Marchesa Casati’

IMG_20180117_151930Marchesa Casati was quite the It Girl in early 20th Century Europe. With a family fortune backing her, she lived a large life in several Italian palaces and another one in Paris, bespoke and designer duds, jewels not just for her neck but also adorning the collection of the live exotic animals she kept close at hand – black panthers, snakes, and monkeys.

Infinite Variety The Life & Legend of the Marchesa Casati (University of Minnesota Press, 3rd ed.) by Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino fills us in on all the details of the Marchesa and her surrounding admirers.

Her grandfather and father made their money in cotton milling during a time when Italy was a great exporter of the fabric. Luisa Adele Rosa Maria Amman was born in January 1881. Although pampered, Luisa was not the favorite of the family and not the beauty her older sister was, which made her a somewhat shy child.

As teenagers the girls lost both parents and inherited a great fortune. It was after marrying Camillo Casati at age 19 that Luisa began to reinvent herself, her style, and she discovered ways to spend her money. She was an unusual looking woman for the times standing tall and thin with a long neck, large dark eyes, and a mop of curly hair. Luisa decided to “exploit her type to the full” by chopping off her long tresses and dying it red and outlining her eyes with black coal.

Here she is described in 1920 by a Russian royal exile:

In the room where I was introduced, a woman of singular beauty was (reclining) on a tiger pelt with translucent veils outlining her slender body. Two greyhounds, one black and one white, were sleeping at her feet … I hardly noticed the presence of  an Italian officer … Our hostess raised her splendid eyes. They were so large in her pale face, you could not see anything but them. With a slow and undulant movement, like that of a royal cobra, she offered me a hand decorated with rings of giant pearls. The hand itself was ravishing. 

IMG_20180117_133130Sporting a new look and money no object Luisa was soon holding grand parties for which she created outlandish costumes. She caught the eye of artists Augusts John, Man Ray and a host of others who painted, sculpted, and photographed her. Isadora Duncan was a friend, Worth and Leon Bakst, costume designer for the Ballet Russes, are credited with dressing her.

Luisa overcame her timidity and successfully created a persona that men and women alike could not resist. She had that certain elusive something, which made her an early 20th century icon such as a modern day Lady Gaga. Indeed at first she reminded me of British fashion follower and muse Isabella Blow (1958-2007) but the Marchesa went way beyond the antics of Ms. Blow.

It was the aim it seems of the Marchesa to be seen, clothed or not, (she would have fit quite nicely into our modern world of selfies and social media). But why is the question I kept asking and this book did not answer. Although a great documentation of just about every outlandish party she ever held, what I found missing is any discussion as to what made this woman tick.

Infinite Variety is an interesting peek at an interesting woman but description after description of party after party and quotes about how extraordinary she was got repetitious. After awhile I got fed up with the Marchesa whose superficial ways cost her her only daughter and the family fortune. (Although I do applaud Luisa for stepping outside the conventions of the day. Something only a woman with money could do.)

For anyone interested in fashion, the Marchesa is worth knowing about since she was such an icon and muse even in recent fashion history to the likes of Alexander McQueen, Tom Ford, and John Galliano, but it’s hard for me to recommend a cover to cover read of this 259 page book. A brief skim and for sure spend some time with the images.

 

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Portrait of The Marchesa Casati by Augustus John, 1919. 

Fashion dummies had more in common with ordinary human beings than had this new arrival. Everything about her seemed to be the product of art rather than nature, from the eyes, preternaturally enormous, extended beyond credibility by mascara, and by rows of eyelashes like two delicate grilles, to the hair that resembled an exquisite regency head of curls seen in some museum. And the hat, elegant, black, immense, was as menacing as some nocturnal bird of prey. 

Sir John Rothenstein (1901-1992), director of the Tate Gallery in London.

I found this quote in Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati (University of Minnesota Press).

Rothenstein had met the Marchesa at the London studio of artist Augustus John circa 1942. John was just one of many artists who found Louisa Casati an irresistible muse, during her time as a European “It Girl” in the early part of the 20th century. He painted her countless times and they remained friends throughout her youth and into advanced age, when life got complicated.

Intrigued? Check back later this week for my review of her biography – Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati. 

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