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Cultural Observations

Age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety

by Renée Gruszecki

The Marchesa Luisa Casati. Image from: http://theerrantaesthete.com

I began my first submission to this blog with an epitaph inscribed on the ornate grave marker for the Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957) in Brompton Cemetery, a Victorian burial ground in the Kensington district of London. This quote is taken from Shakespeare’s description of the Queen of the Nile in Antony and Cleopatra and fittingly encapsulates the life and death of the notorious Italian heiress and muse who captivated and continue to inspired many of worlds leading artists and thinkers including Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, Augustus John, Jack Kerouac, Tom Ford and John Galliano.

Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957), Brompton Cemetery, London, England. Source: http://www.findagrave.com/

Casati was an eccentric wide-eyed Grande dame who extravagantly spent her fortunes on decorating her lavish palaces, hosting elaborately themed parties and occult gatherings, and dressing herself in only the finest black velvet cuts of couturier clothing and veils.  She was infamous for burnishing her servants with gold leaf, wearing live pythons as necklaces, dinning with waxed mannequins of her former lovers and parading through the streets naked beneath her furs often accompanied by a cheetah on diamond-studded leash. However, by 1930, most of Casati’s assets had been exhausted and owned more than twenty-five million dollars to her creditors.  Yet despite her financial troubles, she still managed to maintain her status as a trendsetter by sporting brown paper bag frocks, smearing large rings of black boot polish around her incandescent eyes and hosting spiritualist sessions employing a Ouija board in lieu of fancy séances.

On June 1st, 1957, Casati died of a cerebral hemorrhage in her tiny one room flat in London’s Knightsbridge district near Harrods department store. A small group of mourners attended her simple funeral. Casati was buried wearing a new set of false eyelashes and adorned in a black and leopard ensemble. Before her coffin was sealed one of her taxidermed Pekinese dogs was placed at her feet.

Had Casati preserved her financial means, I cannot help but wonder at what exorbitant lengths she would have gone to had she pre-planned her funeral.   Would she have had a large white marble and mirrored tombstone featuring carvings of exotic animals? Would her bier have been surrounded by peacock feathers, leopard skin pelts and guarded by gilded servants instead of plain white carnations? One thing is certain, it would not have gone by unnoticed.

For further reading I highly recommend Scot D. Ryersson and Micheal Orlando Yaccarino thoroughly researched text Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati, University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

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