Described as the 1920s Lady Gaga, Marchesa Luisa Casati was destined to be larger-than-life. She loomed over the early-twentieth-century art world as a muse, lover, and enigmatic artist in her own right. Even after her star had long faded, her impact was undeniable.
From her glamorous heights to her horribly tragic end, slip on a fur-trimmed robe and read these scandalous facts about Marchesa Luisa Casati.
1. Are You Ready, World?
Casati had far from humble beginnings. She was born in the extremely fashionable city of Milan on January 23, 1881, and her father was Alberto Amman, a count in King Umberto I of Italy’s court. Baby Luisa had a birth name to match this opulence: her full name on the birth certificate was “Luisa Adele Rosa Maria Amman.”
2. Death Comes Knocking
None of little Casati’s immense wealth and privilege, however, could save her from heartbreak. When she was only 13 years old, her mother died—and that was just the beginning of the nightmare. Her father died two short years after that, leaving young Luisa and her older sister Francesca bereft, lonely orphans.
There was still an upside to all this tragedy. Daddy left his daughters a hefty sum of money, and the beautiful Luisa and Francesca were now the wealthiest and most eligible women in all of Italy.
4. Your Body Is a Weapon
Even from a young age, Luisa was a striking character in her glamorous Milanese social set. Nearly six feet tall, she was slim and long-limbed with deep auburn hair and pale skin. Though she cut quite a figure, she didn’t always leave a pleasant impression: one critic described her as “exceptionally tall and cadaverous, with a head shaped like a dagger and a little, feral face.”
5. Green-Eyed Girl
Perhaps Casati’s one great, undeniable beauty was her famous green eyes, which were large, oval, and dark. The Marchesa also made sure to accent her best feature with false eyelashes, kohl—and, rumor has it, something much more dangerous. Reports say she frequently dilated her pupils with poisonous belladonna.
6. Shrinking Violet
Despite her future reputation as a self-indulgent party girl, Casati grew up painfully shy.
7. The Bachelor: Italy Edition
With great wealth comes great responsibility, and young Luisa was expected to pick a proper man to marry. So in 1900, when she was still just a gangly 19-year-old, Casati married Camillo, the Marchese Casati Stampa di Soncino. Camillo was serious and a little dull, but what he lacked in charm he made up for in fabulous wealth and a very fancy landed title.
Sadly, it wouldn’t be enough to keep the yearning, free-spirited Luisa happy.
8. Loveless Marriage
Not long after the wedding, Camillo and Luisa’s marriage started breaking apart at the seams. They had a single child, Cristina, a year into the union—and after that duty was done, they started living in entirely separate residences. In 1914, things got so bad that they even legally separated, but they never quite quit: the two stayed married until Camillo’s death in 1946.
Then again, maybe the Marchesa just wanted to keep her shiny title.
9. You’re a Woman Now
When Lusia married Camillo, she was still a naive, uptight little girl in many ways—but that all changed when she met the handsome writer (and experienced lover) Gabriele d’Annunzio. Impassioned, intense, and extravagant, D’Annunzio was everything Camillo wasn’t, and Casati quickly fell into his arms, not to mention his bed.
10. A Whole New World
Camillo, well aware that any potential for passion in his marriage had long since cooled, turned a blind eye to Luisa and D’Annunzio’s tryst, and allowed them to carry on for years. Under D’Annunzio’s steamy tutelage—as well as her own inborn yearning—Casati began to open herself up to a world of dancing, daring, and immense debt.
11. All That Glitters
Casati soon became infamous around Europe for more than just her deadly beauty. Dark tales started circulating about her eccentric, extravagant behavior, including rumors that she ordered her band of personal servants to walk around naked when attending to her needs, excepting for a few well-placed gold leaves.
12. Ashes to Ashes
Another report about the Marchesa’s private life claims that she decorated the seats around her ornate dining table with bizarre wax figures—and that wasn’t even the worst part. These macabre waxen figures, people whispered, also contained ashes of her departed ex-lovers. There’s no telling the truth, but we’re sure the Marchesa would be happy to encourage the rumors.
13. Seeing Double
In fact, wax figures kind of became Luisa Casati’s “thing.” At some of her dim, candlelit dinners, the Marchesa reportedly sat next to a waxen replica of herself and then delighted in confusing her guests about which figure was the real Luisa. We’re sure her befuddled guests had as much fun with the prank as Casati herself…
14. Absentee Parents
Lusia and her estranged husband Camillo were far from the best parents. Bored with each other, the unhappy couple were nonetheless no more interested in their daughter Cristina. When the girl was still quite young, they frequently abandoned her for hunting trips together or went off on their own individual pursuits.
15. Stranger Than Fiction
Like many writers before and after him, d’Annunzio also likely wrote Casati into one of his works. His novel Maybe Yes, Maybe No contains a character named Isabella Inghirami who mirrors the Marchesa’s own dark allure.
16. Destroyer of Mediocrity
Though D’Annunzio would be far from Casati’s last love affair, their tryst may have been her most intense. They wrote each other secret, coded letters, with D’Annunzio calling Casati his “Kore,” another name for the Greek goddess Persephone, who was Queen of the Underworld. “To Core,” he wrote in one of his missives, “destroyer of mediocrity.”
It’s safe to say he was right.
17. Birds of a Feather
Even as a girl, Casati loved surrounding herself with exotic animals. As an adult, she kept a menagerie, the crown jewels of which were her pristine white peacocks. She even trained the extravagant birds to sit on her windowsills so she could show them off to guests and passersby alike. She also kept albino blackbirds, and dyed them various colors to suit the themes of her many raucous parties.
18. Look Into My Crystal Ball
The Marchesa had almost everything: beauty, wealth, influence—but the one realm she could never conquer was death. She became increasingly interested in the occult throughout her life, and sought to glimpse into the spiritual world with seances and attempts to contact long-dead Italian royalty. It was said that Casati never went anywhere without a crystal ball on hand.
19. Building a Mystery
Obviously, Casati’s scandalous life was bound to draw attention—and soon enough, she became the talk of the continent. European artist circles were obsessed with the striking diva, and countless big names like Kees van Dongen and Man Ray strove to paint, photograph, or sculpt her in order to capture just a glimmer of her essence.
Eventually, she became an undeniable muse of the twentieth century.
20. Eternity Is Priceless
Casati, for her part, encouraged the obsession with her looks: she often paid for her own portraits, saying she wanted to “commission her own immortality.”
21. Marchesa Medusa
One day, while sitting for a portrait for Man Ray, Casati wouldn’t stop fidgeting in her seat, leading the famous photographer to snipe that she was “a Surrealist version of the Medusa.” However, she might have been on to something: the eerie, smudged portrait it’s said to have produced, which shows the Marchesa with three blurred pairs of eyes, is now one of his most famous.
Casati was also a fan, and sent copies to her friends and lovers alike.
22. Pick Your Poison
At the height of her decadence, the Marchesa indulged in excessive amounts of gin and dash of opium to fuel her partying.
23. Midnight Stroll
Casati’s gorgeous white peacocks and albino blackbirds were not even her most opulent pets. She was infamous for strutting around town with two sleek, leashed cheetahs at her side. Of course, because she was the Marchesa Casati, she often went on these strolls at the stroke of midnight, buck naked except for a fur coat.
24. Marchesa’s Dream Home
During her travels across Europe, Casati purchased several properties in her name. Each one had a different indulgent theme and its own distinct character: for example, her home in Venice lay in decadent half-ruin with Chinese lanterns in its vast gardens, while her Paris abode was made out of fabulous red marble.
25. An Impolite Past
Her Venice home in particular was a site of much opulence and scandal during the Marchesa’s day. Lying on the Grand Canal on the churning banks of the city, the crumbling palazzo was host to many a masquerade, garden party, and torrid tryst. Today, however, it’s home to more upstanding activities: it’s currently the site of the Guggenheim Museum in Venice.
26. Simply Electrifying
Casati loved prancing around in the most attention-getting clothing she could find, often commissioning costume designers from the Ballets Russes to create her pieces—but this once had shocking consequences. One day, she was wearing an extraordinary dress made up of hundreds of tiny electric lightbulbs when it malfunctioned and gave her an enormous electric pulse.
The shock was so great that it forced the Marchesa into a very undignified backward somersault.
27. Paris? I Don’t Know Her
Perhaps the most memorable account of one of the Marchesa’s parties comes from famed artist Pablo Picasso in 1917. Picasso had just left the ruined, war-torn city of Paris to attend a lush, eye-popping soiree hosted by Casati in Rome. When he got there, Picasso saw the languid heiress in a startling gown with a neckline slashed down to her navel—and that was just the beginning.
The Marchesa had decorated the gala with a plush polar bear skin rug, footmen dressed in an 18th century-style, and a fireplace that glowed a bright green. Picasso, used to the war-time penny-pinching and drabness of a severely damaged Paris, was appropriately astounded by Marchesa Casati’s undeniable spectacle.
28. A Bigger Vision
Casati’s infamous soirees weren’t all frivolous self-indulgences, however. She was very aware of her place in society, and sought to become a “living work of art.” All her garments were really costumes, and her galas were actually elaborate “choreographed performances” reflecting the best and brightest of Europe’s art world.
29. Capri Sun
Casati lived for a time in the luxurious Villa San Michele on the gorgeous Italian island of Capri. While there, the Marchesa was the center of a vibrant, creative, and decadent social life. Capri at the time was a must-visit destination for artists and queer people in exile, and the Marchesa was more than happy to host these radical outsiders.
30. In the Red
Sadly, nothing good can last—especially something as lavish as the life Casati was living. By 1930, her outrageous spending (as well as the stock market crash) caught up to her with a vengeance. All of a sudden, an aging and increasingly frail Luisa found herself sunk into a whopping $25 million debt with no real way to pay the massive sum off.
31. Drawing a Crowd
With nowhere else to turn, Casati was forced to auction off the lion’s share of her belongings, from the paintings she had commissioned to her bizarre collection of jewelry, clothing, and sculptures. Even at this low point, she still had her fans. Allegedly, one of the more illustrious people at the auction was French fashion designer Coco Chanel.
32. Riches to Rags
After that, the Marchesa’s downfall was swift and cruel. She was forced to leave Italy and take up residence in England near her daughter Cristina, who was married to an aristocrat at the time. But if Luisa expected the same standard of living, she was sorely mistaken. She had to rent out a humble one-room flat that paled in comparison to her previous decadence.
33. Hard Habits to Break
Casati’s sunset years were spent in this one-room apartment, but she couldn’t help indulging in a few of her old habits. In her advanced age, her obsession with the occult, always present throughout her life, became all-consuming. She swore she could communicate through telepathy and forced her few remaining friends into seances and spiritual sessions.
34. Fact or Fiction
These days, there are so many excessive, gin-soaked stories about Marchesa Casati floating around that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. This is made all the more difficult by the fact that she never kept diaries or wrote a memoir. Thus, everything we hear about her should be taken with a grain of salt.
Yet for all that, most experts agree that even the most incredible rumors about the Marchesa have a kernel of truth.
35. Still a Shining Star
Despite her utterly tragic downfall, Luisa Casati still captivates our imaginations today. The high-end fashion label “Marchesa” is named after her, and takes its opulent style from her own extravagant tendencies. Likewise, many other fashion labels namecheck Casati as their muse for countless garments and lines.
36. Love at First Bite
The Marchesa’s expensive tastes were often scandalous: she delighted in wearing live snakes as jewelry, and once came to a party with a very drugged boa constrictor on her throat (it was also painted gold, naturally). At another soiree, she went a bit simpler, showcasing a raw arc of lover’s bites as her necklace for the evening.
37. How the Mighty Fall
Casati’s living conditions were so modest at the end of her life that neighbors claimed they saw the once-beautiful, still vain aristocrat digging through the trash to find feathers to decorate her hair or materials to fashion a scarf made of newspaper. “It took all of the dignity of the English,” one commentator lamented, “not to just gawk at this phantom.”
In short, it was a tragic, quiet, and brutal collapse.
38. Picture Perfect
In her later years, Casati also tragically struggled with her fading beauty. Her loyal friend Cecil Beaton once stopped by her apartment and began taking photographs of the Marchesa, but her response was utterly disturbing. She was cowering and shy rather than bold and declarative, as if detesting the mere thought of anyone seeing her in this state.
Heartbreakingly, some of the surviving photographs show a blurry Casati covering her face.
39. The Sun Sets on Casati
In the summer of 1957, Luisa Casati suffered a stroke and died in her modest home in England. She was 76 years old.
40. Woman’s Best Friend
Just after she died, one of Casati’s seance friends crept back into her apartment did something macabre. He got her taxidermied Pekinese dog and a pair of her false eyelashes so they could be buried with her. True to her life, the Marchesa went out in style, wearing leopard print, a soupcon of black to pay respects, and her beloved dog on her arm.
41. Written in Stone
Sadly, Casati’s name on her tombstone is misspelled: it says “Louisa” instead of “Luisa.”
42. A Fitting Comparison
Casati’s tombstone is a massive stone urn, sculpted with a sash and a bouquet of flowers on the front. The epitaph on the grave is a quote by Shakespeare, which reads: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” The quote describes Cleopatra, another woman immortalized in culture for her great wealth and beauty.