Vissi d’Arte, Vissi d’Amore

It’s one of those questions that occasionally gets academics, students of culture, and cocktail-party conversationalists in a lather. Indeed, merely asking the question can be enough to get you into hot water. Regardless what side you happen to lean toward, you’re likely find an index finger stabbed in your direction and palm slapped loudly against your Louis Quinze table. In all likelihood you will be pilloried as either a stuffy reactionary or fashionably intellectual provocateur.

The question, of course, is whether a woman can be a dandy.

Feminist intellectuals latch onto the dandy, citing what they see as his show-biz quality in order to substantiate their pet theses about the nature of gender — mainly that it is a social construct, an unending performance that has little to do with the performer’s genetic heritage, biological make-up, or the shape of his or her wedding tackle. As evidence, they cite long lists of “female dandies,” women who prefer trousers to skirts and bow ties to bustles — George Sand to Romaine Brooks — to illustrate their points about “transgression” and all that claptrap.

This naturally meets with some derision from strict dandiacal constructivists. “Bah!” they exclaim. “That’s not dandyism; that’s drag!”

About this time the finger-pointing and table-slapping starts, and the next thing you know you find yourself taking sides over less theoretical issues, such as women’s membership at Augusta National Golf Club and executive pay parity. It only goes downhill from there.

So I have good reason for doing what I am about to do, which is avoid this argument as if it were a colony of badly tailored lepers. I live a comfortable and quiet life married to a beautiful young woman who loves me, and I will be damned if I’m going to spoil it now by getting into an argument over just who wears the dandy pants in the family. In fact, I would not touch that valise full of rattlesnakes with a ten-foot cigarette holder.

What I am going to do instead is tell the story of a remarkable woman, one who has been called a “dandy” by some very important persons, including Quentin Crisp.

Perhaps the only thing that can be certain about the Marchesa Luisa Casati, 48 years after her death in 1957, is that she was the most flamboyant and dramatic character to flit through the early 20th century European beau monde. They simply don’t make her kind anymore: richer than God, gloriously semi-sane, with outrageous taste in friends, art, décor, clothes, houses, pets and lovers. Guests of Casati’s boudoir were a veritable who’s who of the aristos, aesthetes, artists, bons vivants, poets, dancers and dandies that made the early 20th century’s art scene what it was: totally, utterly, and delightfully mad.

In fact, Casati made Peggy Guggenheim look like an ariviste Midwestern hausfrau by comparison. No doubt Casati served as the inspiration for the crazy aunt archetype later celebrated in books such as Partick Dennis’s “Auntie Mame.”

Like Brummell, Casati was known not only her style but for her wit, though, also like Brummell, hardly anyone who met her could remember anything she ever said. Her most memorable exclamation, “I want to be a living work of art” was hardly original, given Wilde’s famed bon mot, “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.” But, then, as Dorothy Parker once wrote:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

Never mind. Casati never really was a work of art, anyway. She was, rather, muse to more artists than just about any other muse in history. According to her biography, “Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati,” by Scot Ryersson and Michael Yaccarino, the marchesa’s personality was captured in one form or another by nearly every important artist of her day: Guiglio de Blaas, Gabriel D’Anunnzio, Giovanni Boldini, Catherine Barjansky, Kees Van Dongen, Augustus John, F.T. Marinetti, Erté Alberto Martini, Baron Adolph de Meyer, Roberto Montenegro, Joseph Paget-Fredericks, Man Ray, Hans Henning von Voigt (the famed Alastair), Cecil Beaton and Dali.

Luisa Amman was born in 1881, an era when the rich were mad for titles and the titled mad for riches. As the daughter of a fabulously wealthy Milanese textile mogul, Alberto Amman, Luisa was eminently desirable among Europe’s extravagantly penurious aristocracy, despite her curiously horsey features, frizzy hair and skinny, boyish figure. As a debutante of 18, Luisa (perhaps with the help of her fortune) managed to catch the eye of the young Marchese Camillo Casati Stampa di Soncino, a devoted sportsman and hunter from one of Milan’s oldest and noblest families. Soon the couple got engaged, and Casati sat for her first portrait. Though the painting was never finished, the act of posing for it sparked in Luisa what was to become her most enduring romantic attachment: a love-affair with her self-image. Luisa and Camillo were married in the summer of 1900.

Their marriage was hardly the stuff of legend. Between Camillo’s hunting trips and Luisa’s parties, the couple entertained themselves with amateur theatricals and dabblings in the occult, a hobby that for Luisa would become almost a mania. It was during a foxhunting excursion that Luisa met the soldier, poet, aesthete and dandy Gabriel D’Anunnzio, who would eventually give her the nickname “Coré” after “Koré” the mythical queen of hell. The two would remain lovers on and off for the next two decades or so. Camillo was too busy hunting, drinking, whoring and spending his wife’s money to care much about how Luisa kept herself entertained, and he behaved with a suitably aristocratic nonchalance toward his wife’s lovers.

“Liberated” by her association with D’Anunnzio’s artistic milieu, Luisa at last gave full rein to her eccentricities. She dyed her hair in vibrant reds, powdered her skin a milky white and stained her eyes black with kohl. By night, she could be seen prowling the streets outside her Venetian palazzo leading a pair of live cheetahs. She gave elaborately staged entertainments that included, among many other decadences, Nubian slaves painted gold.

Naturally, it was bound to end in tears. By 1930, according to Ryersson and Yaccarino, the marchesa was a cool $24 million in debt. In 1932 she was forced to auction off most of her treasures, including many of her portraits. (Peggy Guggenheim bought Casati’s palazzo in the late ‘40s to make into an exhibition hall for her own collection, rather like a Stone-Age hunter eating the heart out of boar in order to usurp the animal’s spirit.) Casati spent most of the next two decades in exile in London where, though nearly penniless, she amused a new set of acquaintances that included Cecil Beaton, Peter Quennell, Philippe Julian and none other than modern literary dandyism’s kindly grandmother himself, Quentin Crisp.

It is likely due to her relationship with these mid-century artists and writers that the marchesa’s memory lives on after her death. Recently that memory has been the subject of some attention in fashion circles, with Karl Lagerfeld, for example, authoring a series of photos and sketches for The New Yorker. Last year, Casati was the inspiration for Tom Ford of Yves Saint Laurent. Ford said of Casati: “[She] was the first European dandy of the early 20th century. And therefore, she is the perfect ideal of a woman for Yves Saint Laurent. I thought it was appropriate to return to her sort elegance, that kind of chic and eccentricity.” The September, 2005 issue of Elle awards Casati the dubious posthumous honor of “world’s first Goth fashion plate.”

According to my wife, if a man can be a diva, a woman can be a dandy. She cites Freddy Mercury and the younger David Bowie as male divas that could express their diva-hood by coming close to cross-dressing.

Casati was certainly a diva. But a was she a dandy? I’m not so sure. The quality most often associated with dandyism is elegance; or more precisely, sartorial and behavioral expressions of elegance. Certainly, Casati was very sophisticated and could at times be very refined. But was she elegant? Judging from her many portraits, photographs and descriptions, Casati was always ostentatious, usually flamboyant, often spectacular, frequently outrageous and occasionally ludicrous. But, despite what Tom Ford says, only very rarely was she elegant. She simply tried to hit too many notes at once, layer on too many details, slather herself in too much paint. In short, Casati appeared to try far too hard for far too long and in the end, failed to imbue her style with the effortless appearance that elegance demands. Certainly other great women — Grace Kelly, Princess Diana — have achieved this, but no one would call them dandies, either. Perhaps, then there does exist an attribute even more subtle than elegance, one that is inextricably linked to masculinity, whether perceived or innate, that tips the scales in dandyhood’s favor. Then again, maybe not.

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5 Responses to “Vissi d’Arte, Vissi d’Amore”

  1. L.Alchorn Says:

    Generally, the female equal to a dandy is called a new woman.

  2. Gaby den Held Says:

    ‘The quality most often associated with dandyism is elegance; or more precisely, sartorial and behavioral expressions of elegance’. Well, if that’s the case then Marchese Casati may not be a dandy, but Dame Edith Sittwell very much is! http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/biographyandmemoirreviews/8373893/Edith-Sitwell-eccentric-genius.html

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