The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati

by Scot D. Ryersson & Michael Orlando Yaccarino

by Quentin Crisp

Quite suddenly and simply by chance, I once met a bizarre lady while taking tea with some friends in London. She arrived wearing black velvet from head to foot, her mouth painted blood red, and carrying a very tall umbrella with a decorated handle. And, you must understand, this ensemble was being worn in the middle of the day. This picturesque ruin of a woman was very tall and thin, and gave the impression of formidable strength. It was then I was introduced to the Marchesa Luisa Casati for the first and last time. She had made her entrance into that room looking wonderful and saying very little. She wasn’t beautiful—she was spectacular. Here was a woman possessing a presence one would never forget.

A few days later, an artist for whom I was posing started back in surprise upon seeing me. He asked if I had ever met the Marchesa Casati and I answered, "Yes, I did, just two days ago." He then asked what she had said to me on that occasion. When I replied, "Nothing," he said he didn’t wonder because I was so exactly like her! Presumably, he was joking.

Without question, the Marchesa Casati was an exhibitionist. But exhibitionism is a potent drug. After a short time, a dose strong enough to kill a novice no longer works. Many have criticized the extreme aspects of the Marchesa’s life. But I believe she had a specific purpose. She wanted to fulfill an ideal, a vision of how she should look and exist—to become a being of her own invention, not one of any particular sex, or time, or size, or shape. And the Marchesa had total self-confidence, never doubting herself for one single moment. She knew never to be too predictable. If the public can predict you, it starts to like you. But the Marchesa didn’t want to be liked. She wanted to incite. This shrewd lady had a knowing scorn of the world and presented those who adored her with an image of something they could never hope to be—a being somehow beyond criticism and convention.

The Marchesa Casati was part of a world that was as fragile as it was beautiful, one that has disappeared altogether from the face of the earth. It was a time of fabulous parties at which people wore the most extraordinary costumes designed for just a single evening. Never a day went by without these antics being mentioned in the press—they fascinated everybody.

Looking back, it all seems quite unbelievable now and possibly just a little bit absurd. But fun was both very extravagant and very serious then. In today’s age, everyone must be useful, independent, practical. To that I say, "What a tremendous bore!" I do believe the Marchesa would agree.

Text and accompanying images are copyright © Ryersson & Yaccarino/The Casati Archives. All rights reserved. The Definitive Edition: Published by University of Minnesota Press 2004. (Note: Quentin Crisp wrote the above Foreward for the original edition of Infinite Variety published in November 1999, the month of his death.)

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