The island of Capri, Axel Munthe and the Marchesa Luisa Casati

I love a good Internet rabbit hole as much as the next person (probably more), and I came across a great one recently while searching for information on the island of Capri in Italy. Since some friends and I were planning a trip there, I was looking up some of the sights to see, including the Villa San Michele, which was built by the Swedish doctor (at one time physician to Queen Victoria) and author Axel Munthe in the early 1900s.

The Wikipedia entry mentioned in passing that when he ran short of money, Munthe had to rent the villa “unwillingly” to the Marchesa Luisa Casati. Why unwillingly? So I looked up the Marchesa, who was described as “a muse and patron of the arts” and a legendary figure. According to her entry in Wikipedia, the Marchesa was known for “eccentricities that delighted European society for three decades” including her penchant for parading around with two cheetahs on a leash and “wearing live snakes as jewellery.”

From there, a Google search found an excerpt from a book that mentions her dispute with Axel Munthe over the villa. He apparently decided not to rent to her after learning about her behavior, but she came anyway and stayed for several months and drove him mad with her requests. Munthe designed the villa to be as open to the air as possible, but the Marchesa — who “was dressing herself entirely in black that summer” — ordered black curtains for every window. Guests often arrived to find her reclining naked on a black rug.

A New Yorker article says: “She blackened her eyes with kohl, powdered her skin a fungal white, and dyed her hair to resemble a corona of flames; her mouth was a lurid gash. Her totem animal was the snake. Her contemporaries couldn’t decide if she was a vampire, a bird of paradise, an androgyne, a goddess, an enigma, or a common lunatic. Her clothes were esoteric and memorable––i.e., the suit of armor pierced with hundreds of electric arrows; the iridescent necklace of live snakes; the headdress of peacock tail feathers accessorized with chicken’s blood.”

She also invited a wide range of guests to the villa, including some of the gay and lesbian artists who hung out on Capri at that time, and people like the Baron Jacques d’Adelsward-Fersen, described as a “self-styled diabolist” who liked to smoke opium with the Marchesa. A separate entry from the book describes her later setting up residence in Paris with her cheetah Anaxagoras and a pet cobra named Agamemnon, and mentions that after Anaxagoras passed away she had him replaced with a stuffed black panther that had a clockwork mechanism inside that made its eyes flash and the tail swing back and forth.

Not a happy ending to this story, unfortunately — Wikipedia says the Marchesa built up debts of more than $20 million (equal to $200 million today) and had to sell her possessions. She moved to one-bedroom flat in London and later died there of a heart attack in 1957, at the age of 76. The New Yorker says “spent her last days in a cheap bed-sit, casting spells on her enemies and compiling three volumes of a strange journal… Poor, and increasingly addled by gin and drugs.” According to Wikipedia, she was buried “wearing her black and leopard skin finery and a pair of false eyelashes,” along with one of her stuffed Pekingese dogs.

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