New Imaginations of La Marchesa Casati

Even today we can perfectly imagine the Marchesa Luisa Casati walking down the waterfront stairs of Palazzo dei Leoni, dressed in yards of black Venetian lace and flanked by her two pet cheetahs. Although more or less forgotten since her death in 1957 at the age of 76, her image remains a cultural icon through the countless representations of her perpetuated in art and literature.

The Marchesa, an eccentric Italian socialite who sought to make her life a work of art – and succeeded in this – was strangely omnipresent in the cultural and social landscape of the early 20th century. She lived everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Literary accounts of her extravagant social life offers glimpses of lavish parties in Rome, Venice and Paris, of famous artist lovers and an incomparable ability to always make outrageous entrances to costume balls. Indeed, for the Marchesa the costumes were not just fancy dress, but means of transformation through which she evoked the dark heroines of myth. Clad in peacock feathers and heavy archaic gold jewellery, the Marchesa becomes Clytaemnestra, Theodora, or Salome. She is the embodiment of the decadent fin de siècle aesthetic of Gustave Moreau, Aubrey Beardsley and Félicien Rops. Her contemporaries describe her often as a Sphinx; the enigmatic androgynous creature of antiquity that only speaks in riddles and is half woman, half beast.

And yet, although firmly linked with the artistic movements of the belle époque she transcends any attempt to inscribe her in a given art historical context. Without contradiction she embraced – and was embraced by – the Futurist avant-garde, who’s very aim it was to expurgate the spirit of Decadentism. We see her with Marinetti and Giacomo Balla, and through her longstanding relationship with the poet-politician Gabriele D’Annunzio, whose aesthetic-political program held great influence on Italian fascist ideology.

It is precisely this connection that led the artist Johan Furåker to interest himself in the life of La Marchesa Casati. While exploring the story of D’Annunzio’s short-lived Regency of The Carnago, a proto-fascist experiment state with the poet as dictator of a small city state in present day Croatia, from 1920-21, Furåker learned that not only had she been D’Annunzio’s muse and lover, but she had also been the most depicted woman of her time and at the centre of artistic and cultural life from New York to Venice and everywhere in between.

In his artistic practice, Furåker is like a visual archaeologist who excavates traces of lost narratives from the visual fragments that remain. In the past he explored the case of Albert Dadas, a gas-fitter from Bordeaux who suffered of dromomania, a severe case of wanderlust which took him to far away places without leaving any traces in his memory. Furåker set out to capture these lost memories by following in Dada’s footsteps and rendering the possible sightings and landscapes in a large series of paintings.

This method of visual re-tracing is central for Furåker, but in recent work he has expanded into the third dimension by creating assemblages of paintings and objects placed on small shelves, almost resembling reliquaries of memorabilia. Books, statuettes and bijouterie together with postcard-sized paintings invoke the extravagance and theatricality of Luisa Casati. These are not intimate effects however, but carefully sourced from Parisian markets or re-produced through 3D printing.

Just as the Marchesa made the whole world her stage, the shelves become stages where the artist Furåker enacts the aesthetic discourses of Casati and D’Annunzio, outlining the incongruous relationship between Symbolist decadence and totalitarian ideology. It is a truly Italian paradox, which Furåker seeks to reconcile and understand, and one that occupied also the filmmaker Passolini. He traced its roots back in time, into antiquity. Furåker on the other hand reveals it is also a fruit of modernity, of social and technical development.

And still, the declining Roman Empire echoes not only through the writings of Gabriele D’Annunzio and the imperial excesses of the Marchesa Casati, but indeed also in the Fascist political project of Mussolini which borrowed heavily from the grandeur of Roman history as well as from the ideological and aesthetic legacy of D’Annunzio’s little anarco-fascist artist experiment in Fiume. The prolific pen of the artist-dictator D’Annunzio conjured the great cultural clash between Italy and ‘the Barbarians’, demanded colonial expansion and assumed that the State could be as extraordinary as a work of art.

In spite of the fact that The Regency of the Carnago only existed for little more than a year, it left an entire stage set which was to become the scenography of Fascist Italy. Il Vate, the Poet, designed even the black shirted uniforms. No one knew better the importance of costume than the Marchesa – she knew that if she dressed like a Byzantine empress she could ultimately become one. Immortality demands excesses. Bisogna sopra tutto evitare il rimpianto occupando sempre lo spirito con nuove sensazioni e con nuove imaginazioni, wrote D’Annunzio. ’Above all, we must avoid regret, always occupying the spirit with new sensations and new imaginations.’1

Joakim Borda-Pedreira

This text was written on the occasion of the exhibition Johan Furåker “Life of Leisure” at Galleri Flach, Stockholm, May-June 2015.

1 Author’s own translation. Quoted from D’Annunzio, Gabriele, Il Piacere, (Mondadori, 2013).