The vapid society we live in has produced in the last few years too many supposed style icons whose main occupation in life seems that of attracting the attention of the photographers by showing off their designer outfits (usually borrowed with the help of some complacent PR agent) at grand events and glamorous fashion shows.
Yet take away from them the carefully assembled layers of clothes and accessories, and you will struggle to find any real substance and any real purpose in life. History has proved, though, that there have been some genuinely eccentric, glamorous and bizarre characters worth of being remembered throughout the decades as real icons of style; one of them was Marchioness Casati.
A graphic novel by Italian artist Vanna Vinci, published a few months ago in both French and Italian as La Casati - La muse égoiste/La musa egoista by Dargaud and Rizzoli Lizard (the title in English means The Selfish Muse; non-French/Italian speakers don't be put off, because the drawings are absolutely magnificent) currently celebrates the heiress, muse, and living work of art.
Vinci starts the story with the birth of Luisa Adele Rosa Maria von Amman in Milan in 1881 into a family of cotton magnates of Austrian origin. Luisa and her older sister Francesca were still in their teens when, at the premature death of both their parents, they inherited an enormous fortune.
In 1900 Luisa married Marquis Camillo Casati Stampa of Soncino, giving birth to their only child, Cristina. The couple legally separated in 1914, but by then Luisa had already started recreating her persona and leading an extravagant life.
Vinci adopts a sort of documentary style to tell the story, interviewing the people who met Luisa Casati, from famous artists to writers and socialites. Muse and lover of Gabriele D'Annunzio who called her "Coré" and took inspiration from her in Forse che sì forse che no (Maybe Yes, Maybe No) and in the unfinished La Figure de Cire; made immortal in the artworks of numerous artists, including painters Giovanni Boldini, Kees van Dongen, Augustus John, and by the Futurists Giacomo Balla, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Fortunato Depero, Luisa Casati spent most of her life moving between Rome, Paris, Capri and Venice.
Furnishing her lavish houses, buying extraordinary fashion creations, organising magnificent balls and dinners (populated at times by disturbing life-size wax replicas of herself and other guests), were just some of her hobbies.
Her main aim in life was indeed just one - becoming a living work of art. The epitome of female dandyism, La Casati is often portrayed in the pages of this graphic novel as a dominant character who shocked, provoked and astonished people: Vinci draws her walking around Venice (where she took up residence in Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, today the Peggy Guggenheim Museum) wearing just a fur coat, accompanied by a black manservant, and a cheetah on a bejewelled leash, or staying at the Villa San Michele in Capri (where she shocked many with her exotic animals including a snake that she also used to adorn herself...) and posing naked for painter Romaine Brooks.
The life of Luisa Casati offers Vinci the chance to create a sort of visually intriguing summary of the early 1900s: while leafing through the pages of this book readers will meet key figures, including Paul Poiret, Serge Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Isadora Duncan, Romain de Tirtoff (Erté), Man Ray and Cecil Beaton.
Vinci's attention to details in the carefully assembled outfits favoured by La Casati is obsessive: though Mariano Fortuny's gowns are missing, there are lavish Oriental designs by Paul Poiret and Léon Bakst, iconic costumes that the marchioness donned at balls (the armoured Saint Sebastian costume for a ball organised by Count Etienne de Beaumont entered history since it accidentally eletrocuted her...) or drawings directly inspired by famous images of the rebel muse (in one page Casati wears the White Arlequin costume, appearing as a vision out of her portrait by Giulio De Blaas), characterised throughout the book by her cadaverous pallor, scarlet lips and disorderly red or green dyed hair.
Unfortunately, Luisa Casati's life of grand excesses, ruined her: with a debt of 25 million dollars and the impossibility of paying back her creditors, she declared bankruptcy, sold all of her estate and moved to London where her daughter Cristina was living.
Vinci chronicles also the last few years lived in poverty when Casati walked around the English capital in a shabby fur coat, veiled hat, red hair and inseparable fake eyelashes, a haunting ghost of a glorious past that was no more.
The graphic novel artist also shows her at lunch with her grandchild Moorea (the wife of politician and diarist Woodrow Wyatt; she later married the adman Brinsley Black, named as one of the best-dressed Englishmen in the inaugural issue of Men in Vogue in 1965), shortly before she died in 1957.
Luisa Casati was buried in Brompton Cemetery with her leopard-trimmed cape and false eyelashes; one of her embalmed Pekinese dog also accompanied her in the coffin. The epitaph on her gravestone, taken from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, read "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety".
The last two words on the epitaph perfectly summarised La Casati's life and her will to constantly reinvent herself: after dominating European society in the early 1900s with her peculiar style in which she mixed the sumptuous and the noir, the feminine and the masculine, Luisa Casati kept on inspiring artists and fashion designers, including John Galliano (Dior's Spring/Summer 1998 and Autumn/Winter 2007-2008 Haute Couture collections), Alexander McQueen (Spring/Summer 2007) and Karl Lagerfeld (Chanel Cruise 2009-10 collection). You can bet that not many modern icons from our times will manage to do the same in 50 years' time.
A larger-than-life individual, Casati granted herself and the artists who surrounded her immortality, but in her life of grand excesses there is a warning: Casati dilapidated her fortune on herself, the tangible proof that, in this constant process of blurring the edges between fashion and art, it was her heart and not her head that ruled.
Yet Vinci does not judge the indomitable muse and rebel as a self-centred and selfish individual, but provides the readers with a terrific story told through wonderful drawings. It doesn't matter if you can actually speak French or Italian - La Casati by Vanna Vinci is definitely a must.
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