June 1 (2007) marked the 50th anniversary of the death of the extravagant Italian Marchesa Luisa Casati Stampa, but her legend lives on and she is constantly re-discovered.
From 1912 until 1927 Munthe rented Villa San Michele to Luisa Casati Stampa (1881-1957). In an eccentric, sensual and very bizarre spirit she succeeded in transforming Villa San Michele into something more like a theatrical stage than the art museum that Munthe had created. There are pictures that illustrate this, and her servants lived in the Foresteria.
Contemporary artists, photographers, and sculptors stood in line to interpret this woman, who walked around with her tame cheetahs, snakes, and crocodiles, held avant-garde costume balls, and spent her enormous fortune to achieve her goal.
Munthe was scandalised by Stampa’s rampage in the villa, at the same time that he must to some extent have admired her. When Munthe reproaches the marchesa for her radical intrusions on the villa, she answers:
The doctor certainly knows that no one else can live in this place except me. (Bonde 1946, pp 73-79)
During the 1920’s Munthe tried several times to get rid of Casati but was unsuccessful.
Brett Young writes:
Munthe and Casati are drawn into a crossfire of lawsuits. (Brett Young to Martin Secker Aug. 10, 1920).
According to Jessica Brett Young Munthe describes his tenant: "Although I have succeeded in taming my wild tenant into a kind of temporary submission, prospects for the future are very uncertain and my desire to grab her by her red scalp and throw her degraded body off the cliff is stronger than ever.”
Faith and Montague Compton Mackenzie had some contact with Casari.
There was a golden gazelle on each side of the heavy door that was opened by a black servant, clad in blue velvet tails and breeches. The Cisisbeo fluttered around the entrance hall to announce that the Marchesa was ready to receive me; we shortly would be having tea in the pergola. I continued to the drawing room and went in. Surprise is not the right word for my reaction when I saw my hostess lying on the large bearskin rug in front of the fireplace without a stitch of clothing. (Bonde 1946, p 176)
In 1925 Lucia Casati Stampa is still living at San Michele. According to rumours Munthe refuses to rent any more but she returns without an invitation and occupies the villa. When she fails to pay the rent there is a legal battle. Eventually there is a settlement, and the peculiar marchesa gets a three year extension.
Wivica Ankarcrona says to her brother Sten about Munthe and Casati: "He always says that he is so poor, but he has now leased out San Michele for 70,000 lire a year to the same marchesa he sued to get rid of before the contract ended. Try to figure that out!" (Wivica Ancarcrona to Sten Ankarcrona Nov. 19, 1925 and Dec. 8, 1927)
During the period when the marchesa was staying on Capri, it happened that even Doctor Munthe visited San Michele. Their meetings were on the full moon. The couple wandered arm in arm up the cypress avenue to admire the heavens from the sphinx (Massimino). These are the years during which Munthe closed himself in his tower and wrote his book about San Michele. (Ur Levente A. S. Erdesös, 1998, p 55)
In 1927 Victoria’s grandson, Prince Lennart Bernadotte, comes to Capri and visits Luisa Casati Stampa in the villa. He writes in his diary: “lovely and sympathetic marchesa. Seldom have I seen so much beauty all at once as there. There was just one lovely thing after another. I took many photographs, which I hope will come out well. Everything was extremely interestsing, not least the hostess herself” (Källa: Kan just nu inte komma på, men letar källan, möjligtvis att den kan finnas i Leventes bok enligt ovan)
Casati had one clearly expressed goal in life – “I want to be a living work of art” which she became. She became a living work of art, a pioneer of luxury consumption, and was probably the 20th Century’s first streaker.
An Internet search on her name reveals more than 100,000 references. Fashion designers such as John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld, Tom Ford, Giorgio Armani, Alexander McQueen and the new design duo Marchesa have all been inspired by Luisa Casati’s colourful style and personality.