"I want to be a living work of art"

Portrait of La Marchesa Luisa Casati by Augustus John
I first came across the Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957) when I was a student. It was in a lecture on the British artist, Augustus John, and the professor showed us a portrait of a woman with flaming red hair and penetrating black eyes.  

Fast forward more years than I care to think about and here she is again on posters promoting La Divina Marchesa, a new exhibition on her life and times at the Palazzo Fortuny
La Divina Marchesa exhibition, Palaazzo Fortuny, Venice
Born in Milan, in 1881, to the industrialist Alberto Amman, Luisa would become one of the most extraordinary figures of the early twentieth century. In 1900, at the age of 19, she married Marchese Camillo Casati Stampa di Soncino and ten years later the Marchesa moved into the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (she and her husband always maintained separate residences). The palace, and Venice itself, soon became the stage for her famously extravagant masked parties. Luisa liked to astonish Venetian society by parading with a pair of cheetahs and wearing live snakes as jewellery. 
Obsessed by the idea of becoming "un opera d'arte vivente" (a living work of art), the Marchesa became the inspiration and muse for writers and artists alike. 

Sadly, the Marchesa's life was a 'riches to rags' tale. By 1930, having amassed a colossal personal debt, the party was over and she fled to London where she lived the rest of her life in comparative poverty. Luisa died in 1957 and is buried in Brompton Cemetery. Inscribed on her tombstone are the lines "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety" from Shakespeare's play, Antony and Cleopatra. 

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