Ballet history is rich in astonishing muses, but there are none like the Marchesa Luisa Casati. “I want to be a living work of art,” said the woman who emerged at the Fin de siècle with cavernous kohl-rimmed eyes, moonstruck skin and a flame-tinted Medusa coiffure. The Milanese heiress and socialite possessed an outré style which has inspired countless artists, writers and designers, including Marcel Proust, Jack Kerouac, Man Ray and Karl Lagerfeld. Infinite Variety: the Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati chronicles her extravagant quest for the extraordinary in all its rococo richness. The authors, Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Yaccarino, explore the making of an icon who remains unsurpassed in her eccentricity.
Casati was inspired by artists from a young age, and for her dressing up was the chief embodiment of her creative vision, a type of living theatre, where there was no discernible difference between costumes and clothes. This idea extended to all aspects of her surroundings: her houses were exquisitely decorated temples of decadence, and even the song-birds in the gardens were hand-dyed to match her colour schemes.
Casati’s public appearances became spectacles that captured the artistic imagination, and she was described variously as a goddess, a vampire and a bird of paradise.
Of particular interest to ballet enthusiasts is the chapter of Casati’s life that saw her turn the Palazzo dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal in Venice (now home to the Peggy Guggenheim collection), into a playground of excess. There she hosted dinner parties which became the stuff of legend – some guests recalled her wearing live snakes as jewellery – and many were held for members of the Ballets Russes. In the summer of 1910, Serge Diaghilev arrived in Venice with Vasalav Nijinsky, as well as Russes designers Leon Bakst and Alexandre Benois. Casati invited the quartet, along with Isadora Duncan, to dinner at her palazzo, and the evening ended with Nijinsky and Duncan performing a wild-eyed pas de deux.
One of Casati’s most enduring friendships was with the ballet designer Oliver Messel, who likened his first meeting with her in Venice to a design for a Russes Ballet. “Casati stood on the steps of her palazzo …with a leopard on each side of her in the mood of Bakst’s Scheherazade”, he recalled. Amongst her many pets were a boa constrictor named Anaxagarus, a pet monkey which she described to a guest as like “something in a Chinese painting”, greyhounds, ocelots, tigers and brightly coloured parrots.
Around 1910, feeling limited by the elegant simplicity of the Mario Fortuny gowns she usually wore, Casati enlisted Bakst as her couturier, and he designed her a new wardrobe. Just how many costumes he created for her is unknown, but the surviving ones are a testament to the vitality of their collaboration.
One example we have is that of an animal tamer with a macaw on one shoulder; Danse Indo-Persane is a concoction of blue-and-gold veils, a towering pearl-embellished headdress, golden talons, and slippers which curl impishly at the toes. One of the most striking creations was the “Queen of the Night” costume, which Bakst made for Casati to wear to a Paris Opera Ball in 1922. Casati commissioned Charles Worth to translate Bakst’s celestial, diamond-netted fantasy into reality over three months, at a cost of 20,000 francs.
Casati was known for her propensity to perform exotic dances, including a rendition of a Persian ballet at her Roman villa, where she danced against a backdrop painted by Bakst, flanked by two naked gold-painted men, who stood motionless like statues for the duration of her performance.
Some sources have even suggested Casati was cast for the mise-en-scene of certain Ballets Russes productions because of her aesthetic appeal and dramatic presence. According to Infinite Variety, a costume design by Bakst titled La Marchesa Casati en costume romantique masculine appeared in an exhibition; the catalogue entry explained that Marchesa had convinced Diaghilev to let her appear in Le Dieu Bleu. An account written by Mrs Hwfa Williams, a society hostess, says: “It was known that Diaghilev, the famous impresario, had offered her any amount if she would only go in a ballet. This sounded so very impressive that we all expected a wonderful exhibition from her. What was our amazement to find that she did not dance at all! Diaghilev had wanted her for the sake of her marvellous silhouette.”
Central to Casati’s legacy is the way she lived her life as if in the glow of stage lights. By night she could be seen walking her pet cheetahs on diamond leashes around the Piazza San Marco in Venice, her alabaster figure concealed only by sumptuous full-length furs. Her black servants carried torches, illuminating this strange and wonderful vision for history to remember.