From Riches to Rags

Portrait of La Marchesa Luisa Casati by Augustus John
I first came across 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 Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (she and her husband always maintained separate residences)

The palazzo, and Venice itself, soon became the stage for her famously extravagant masked parties. Luisa liked to astonish Venetian society by parading through the city, naked beneath her furs, with a pair of cheetahs for company. 
Obsessed by the idea of becoming "un opera d'arte vivente" ("a living work of art"), the Marchesa, stick-thin and almost six feet tall, became the inspiration and muse for writers and artists alike. 

Sadly, Casati's life was a tale of 'riches to rags'. By 1930 her ostentatious lifestyle had taken its toll and she was in debt to the tune of millions. She fled to London where she spent the remaining three decades of her life in somewhat straitened circumstances. 

Quentin Crisp, encountering Luisa towards the end of her life, described her as "a picturesque ruin of a woman".  

In 1957, the year of her death, she was living in a small flat near Harrods. The Marchesa was buried, with a pair of false eyelashes and one of her stuffed Pekingese pets, in Brompton cemetery. Inscribed on her tombstone are the lines "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety". 
The grave of Marchesa Luisa Casati, Brompton Cemetery, London
Perhaps the final indignity was to have her name mis-spelt, Louisa rather than Luisa.