by Francesco Carelli
University of Milan and Rome

Venice recalls the figure and the legend of the woman who bewitched Gabriele D’Annunzio and became the muse of the greatest artists of the time, including Boldini, Bakst, Marinetti, Balla, Man Ray, Alberto Martini, Van Dongen and Romaine Brooks, with her wild stunts.

The Palazzo Fortuny in Venice – one of Luisa Casati Stampa’s best-loved cities and the stage of her craziest antics – hosts the first extraordinary exhibition entirely devoted to the lady D’Annunzio called the Divina Marchesa, a woman capable with her exaggerated make-up, transgressive, unconventional conduct and bizarre lifestyle of transforming herself into a work of art, a living legend, a provocative and challenging emblem of modernity and the avant-garde at the very dawn of the 20th century.

Jointly produced by the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia and 24 ORE Cultura – Gruppo 24 Ore, the kaleidoscopic exhibition features over a hundred items. On loan from international museums and collections, paintings, sculptures, jewellery, clothes and photographs of great artists of the time are on display in what was the home and studio of Mariano Fortuny. With his sophisticated silks and renowned Delphos gowns, Fortuny joined Paul Poiret, Ertè and Léon Bakst in clothing the wild life and dreams of Luisa Casati.

Of all D’Annunzio’s countless loves, she was the only one he truly esteemed. Enchanted for years by her inimitable charm, the poet – like many others – recalled and mentioned her in many of his works.
The ranks of the painters, sculptors and photographers who immortalized her, enthralled by her fascination and favours, include Alberto Martini, Augustus John, Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Kees van Dongen, Baron Adolph de Meyer, Cecil Beaton, Romaine Brooks, Ignacio Zuloaga, Jacob Epstein and Man Ray.
These artists are gathered together here to recall D’Annunzio’s queen of the underworld – a decadent dark lady but also the muse of Surrealists, Futurists, Dadaists and Fauves – bringing her story, legend, life and art back to life.
The Marquise was in fact not only spectacular, ever-changing, megalomaniac, narcissistic, wild and bizarre, ready to walk in Piazza San Marco with a panther, to drape real pythons around her neck and pioneer the nude look. The exhibition and the new studies presented in the catalogue ( published by 24 ORE Cultura ) capture her artistic awareness, tracing her activity as a collector and giving her actions and apparitions an aesthetic dimension that makes her a precursor of body art and performance.

In just a few years Luisa transformed her face into the icon of la belle dame sans merci with pitch black shadows, pupils dilated and gleaming through the application of belladonna, lips painted scarlet and hair dyed red.
Having squandered her immense fortune on breathtaking costumes, spectacular festivities that she devised herself and starred in, houses laid out like museums and purchases of art works, she died in London in 1957 in the grimmest poverty.

The extraordinary collection of works and portraits on show, some dedicated to her and some that she herself commissioned, all capture at least one of the three “dimensions” – performer, iconic vamp and sorceress – attributed to her by Robert de Montesquieu in his sonnets as well as her championing of Futurism and almost instinctive passion for photography, the art capable of immortalizing the instant and the most daring exhibitionism, transforming reality into legend.
The portrait of Casati from the Centre Pompidou was painted in 1912 by Léon Bakst, the costume designer of the Ballets Russes and creator from that year on of spectacular dresses for the Marchesa to wear at the most fashionable festivities. Her passion for dressing up reappears in the portrait with peacock feathers of 1911–13 by Boldini (Rome, Gnam) and in the two life-size works by Alberto Martini, now in a French collection, which show her as Cesare Borgia (1925) and a wild archer (1927).

Martini was also bewitched by the Divina Marchesa and recruited almost like a court painter of the Renaissance, as revealed by the correspondence on show together with a substantial body of works by the artist from the Veneto region, some of which previously unexhibited: the portraits in a gondola and with a panther of 1919–20, the metaphorical butterfly-woman series of 1912–15 and the 1931 portrait of her as Euterpe. Also exhibited are the artist’s drawings for his utopian Tetiteatro, a theatre on the water that the Marchesa wanted to create in front of Piazza San Marco.

Painted in the period 1914–19, the works from British and French collections by Alastair, a baron, aesthete and friend of D’Annunzio, capture the dimension of the femme fatale, identifying Casati with the then fashionable images of “idols of perversity” like Messalina and Salome.
It is, however, the more “Gothic” aspect of the Marchesa, her obsession with the occult and magical practices, that emerges strongly in the works on show: her extraordinarily delicate “double” in wax of 1908, an exceptional loan from the Vittoriale; the portrait of 1920 by Romaine Brooks, now in a French private collection, which presents her as a nocturnal bat; the witches’ sabbath by Ignacio Zuloaga (1923, now in Zumaia); and the painting by Beltrán Masses of 1929 from the Suñol Foundation in Barcelona, where Luisa appears as Eve, revelling in the coils of the diabolical serpent.

She appears with the flaming locks of an authentic muse in the painting by Augustus John of 1919, on loan from the Art Gallery of Toronto. Epstein presents her as Medusa in the bronze bust of 1918 and Paolo Troubetzkoy captures her for posterity with one of her greyhounds in a plaster schulpture of 1910–15 and a later bronze. The portrait that Kees van Dongen painted in Venice during a stay in 1921 (Art Museum of Milwaukee) and the wooden sculpture of 1930 by the Polish artist Sarah Lipska (Musées de Poitiers) are both highly imaginative.

The show in Palazzo Fortuny occupies parts of the artist’s house with which Luisa was very familiar in an evocative interplay of allusions to people, places and emotions.
D’Annunzio, whose relationship with the Marchesa lives on in the previously unpublished letters and the photographs of De Meyer and Man Ray, reworked by Casati herself and dedicated to the poet, is remembered in the portraits by Romaine Brooks (Musées de Poitiers) and Astolfo De Maria (Fondazione di Venezia). The Venice of the early 20th century is conjured up in the oils of Boldini. Count Montesquieu, another dandy of the period, whose house in Paris was bought by Casati, is present in a bronze by Troubetzkoy (Musée d’Orsay), while Gilbert Clavel can be seen in the portrait by Depero, his friend and guest on Capri, who met the Futurist muse on the island, where she had rented the Villa San Michele and transformed it into yet another theatre of wonder and transgression.

“The slow eyes of a jaguar digesting the steel cage it has devoured in the sun…” This is how Filippo Tommaso Marinetti saw the Marchesa in the dedication that he asked Carrà to include in his portrait as a gift for her in 1915.
The splendid painting, presented in 1912 at the first Futurist exhibition, marks a key stage in the process whereby the astonishing lady, having ended her affair with D’Annunzio around 1913, became the champion, collector and mentor of the Futurists.
Festive fancy dress now became a “single existential costume, a creative and modern daily mise-en-scène”. Casati turned from Martini’s Twilight Butterfly into “a modern, Futurist chimera”.
A substantial group of works by Giacomo Balla are on loan from the Laura Biagiotti Collection. By a curious quirk of fate, of the various sculptures by Boccioni originally in the Casati Collection, the one exhibited in Venice, namely Dynamism of a Speeding Horse + Houses (1915), now hangs in what was once the Marchesa’s Venetian residence, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, later bought by Peggy Guggenheim. The exhibits also include a “plastic synthesis” of 1912 by Russolo (Musée de Grenoble) and a portrait by Depero of 1917.

Her move to Paris in the early 1920s also made her an icon of the artistic avant-garde.
The photograph taken by Man Ray, which shows her with six eyes due to an error in the developing process, made a great impression on the Marchesa.
On show in Venice, the image circulated all over Europe and became a Surrealist icon, helping to fuel a legend that did not stop even after her death.
A dream that is not extinguished, that still burns and inspires so many artists, actors and fashion designers. Consider the series of 2008 by T.J. Wilcox, the interpretations of Georgina Chapman and Tilda Swinton in the photographs of Peter Lindbergh and Paolo Roversi, the great artists of today called upon to address the legend of the Marchesa, like Anne-Karin Furunes, Filippo di Sambuy, Marco Agostinelli and Francesco Vezzoli, who have created new works for this occasion, and finally the memorable collections dedicated to her by John Galliano for Dior and Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel.

Left penniless by years of extravagance, Luisa Amman Casati was forced to sell all her belongings. The photographs taken in the London period by Cecil Beaton, show a woman marked by time and hardship but still the fully aware architect of her eternal image.