Riveting. This portrait, one among many stunning likenesses, pulled me towards it. I saw it last spring in Amsterdam. But of course I was also drawn to it because Luisa Casati lived in Venice–lived largely, I should say. Here’s a short description of her exploits.
At one point, after her parents had both died, Luisa and her sister were the richest women in Italy. Other exploits: She sometimes wore live snakes as jewelry, and she kept cheetahs as pets, which she took for walks. Casati had an affair with Gabriele d’Annunzio and maintained friendships with Fortuny and Poiret. From roughly 1919 to 1924, she lived in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, which most people equate with Peggy Guggenheim, another eccentric patron of the arts. Casati’s parties there were legendary, with the menagerie of animals and the free flowing drugs available, plus of course the glittering array of fashionable folks.
Luisa Casati’s singular style and life inspired many artists, photographers, writers, filmmakers, and of course, fashion designers. It’s a long list. Even Jack Kerouac was reportedly enamored of her portrait, this one by Augustus John.
A new book, The Unfinished Palazzo by Judith Mackrell, tells the story of Luisa and the other two women who went on to own the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni: Doris Castlerosse and Peggy Guggenheim. I began reading it when I was at my friend’s house in Rome last summer, but I didn’t accept his kind offer to keep the book because my suitcase was too full by then! I want to finish it–though I feel a bit like a voyeur.
So next time you’re at the Guggenheim museum, close your eyes and imagine the rooms overrun by jungle animals, draped in exotic fabrics, peopled by the glitterati of a hundred years ago. Can you hear the cheetahs whisper their breathy chants to you?