“I want to be a living work of art”







During the first half of the 20th century, Marchesa Casati was considered one of the most influential and important figures in Europe. Born in 1881 into a family of Austrian-born Milanese cotton producers, she devoted her life to becoming “a living work of art.” She epitomized the character of a sophisticated, emancipated, and extravagant woman with an eccentric personality and lifestyle that defied convention. From childhood, she was passionate about art, spending her time drawing and gradually constructing her own unique image. She pursued the goal of embodying an ideal, becoming a being of her own invention, without a specific shape, gender, or size.


From her privileged upbringing to her marriage into aristocracy, Casati used her wealth and social status to challenge the boundaries of conventional beauty and behavior. Rejecting societal norms, she embraced a form of self-expression that transcended traditional notions of femininity, espousing ambiguity and theatricality.


With the outbreak of war, her love for art intensified. She aligned herself with avant-garde artists and became the muse of the Futurists, associating with figures such as Marinetti, Balla, Boccioni, CarrĂ , and Depero. Over time, her relationship with art and artists grew stronger: her financial means allowed her to support many artists, serving as a true patron. Many painters, including Augustus John, Kees Van Dongen, Ignacio Zuloaga, Alberto Martini, Umberto Boccioni, and Giacomo Balla, depicted the Marchesa. Even Giovanni Boldini, captivated by her beauty, painted her several times, capturing Casati’s true essence. His paintings portrayed her as an almost otherworldly creature, androgynous and simultaneously sensual, with a mesmerizing gaze.


The Marchesa Casati was also photographed by Man Ray in 1922, who produced an image that, due to a development error, showed her with three pairs of eyes. Casati was enraptured, feeling that the artist had captured her soul. This photograph became perhaps her most famous image and the one in which she felt most accurately represented. However, her continuous collecting of art and financing of artists eventually led to significant debts, and she ended up impoverished, possessing nothing.

She died in poverty, yet left an inedible mark on the art world, never to be forgotten. She inspired the 1998 Dior spring-summer Haute Couture fashion show at the Opera Garnier, designed by John Galliano. Intended as a tribute to the Marchesa, the show featured tango dancers weaving around the models and guests, tables draped with red velvet cloths, and garlands of roses hanging among the statues and Art Nouveau paintings. Her poignantly reads, “Age cannot wither it, nor custom stale its infinite variety.”

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