The Naked Sorceress
Marchesa Luisa Casati wearing a costume that symbolizes light to a fancy dress party in Paris, 1922.
In the decadent 1920’s it was the notoriously naughty Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957), daughter of a wealthy cotton manufacturer, who reigned as the disreputable diva of her day. Everywhere she went, she set trends, inspired genius and astounded even the most jaded members of the international aristocracy.
Renowned as the most scandalous woman of her generation, the Marchesa was Europe’s most cosseted celebrity, and its most eccentric. For the first three decades of the twentieth century she traveled to Venice, Rome, Capri and Paris collecting palaces and a menagerie of exotic animals, all the while declaring:
“I want to be a living work of art.”
While many questioned her comportment, no one disputed her audacity. Nude servants gilded in gold leaf attended her. Bizarre wax mannequins sat as guests at her dining table. She bejeweled herself in live snakes and was infamous for her Lalique flask of absinthe that accompanied her evening constitutionals around the grounds, parading her beloved cheetahs on diamond-studded leashes, swathed in furs and nothing else, dubbing her thereafter the “naked sorceress.”
The Marchesa Luisa Casati cultivated celebrity through morbid eccentricity in dress and lifestyle, becoming before 1920, a darling of portraitists, photographers, designers and gossip columnists. With her androgynous figure, bizarre makeup and disorderly dyed hair, she became known as “the Medusa of the Grand Hotels.”
Her allure was undeniable. Her parties and appearances became legendary — at one celebration in her Venetian palazzo, Nijinsky invited Isadora Duncan to dance while Picasso attended a soirée at her Roman villa. She was a subject of intrigue to Dali, Marcel Proust and the Comte Robert de Montesquiou. She whirled through Parisian nightlife, making an unforgettable impression on Colette, Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel.
Boldini Portrait of Marchesa Luisa Casati with greyhound
Eccentric though she was, she did have her charms claiming mistress to many and captivating artists and literati figures such as Robert de Montesquiou, Erté, Jean Cocteau, Cecil Beaton, Augustus John and Jack Kerouac. Her great love, however, was author and adventurer Gabriele D’Annunzio; she pursued him as obsessively as she pursued notoriety.
Marisa Berenson dressed as the Marchesa Luisa Casati at the Rothschild Ball, 1972
Sadly, her extravagant oddity proved expensive and carried with it an inevitable obsolescence. By the time she was 50, she had gone from immense wealth to bankruptcy and from tantalizing and demanding muse to a lurid Miss Havisham on the edge of a diminishing clique of admirers. With her unnaturally red hair, a cadaverous pallor and scarlet lips, middle age unkindly rendered her with the unsettling appearance of a “Kabuki performer.”
After a life of parties at her home Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on Grand Canal in Venice, after patronising the major artists of the time, she had amassed a personal debt of $25 million. To satisfy her creditors, all her possessions were auctioned. In the bid room, Coco Chanel.
Georgina Chapman channeling the Marchesa for the March issue of Harper’s Bazaar, 2009.
At the end she was forced to constantly change her addresses in London, her fame in Italy and France having run out. To one English acquaintance, then, her attire resembled “the plumage of a shabby raven.” She was rumoured to be seen rummaging in bins searching for feathers to decorate her hair.
The Marchesa died in London on 1 June 1957, and was interred in Brompton Cemetery. The quote “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety” from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra was inscribed on her tombstone.
While her grave marker was modest by Brompton’s standards, she was buried wearing not only her black and leopardskin finery but a pair of false eyelashes; an exhibitionist to the end. Her trademark love of animals was evident in death, as well, with the Marchesa sharing her coffin with one of her beloved stuffed pekinese dogs. May they rest in peace.