Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione  

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Scherzo di Follia (circa 1863-66): Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione photographed by Pierre-Louis Pierson
Scherzo di Follia (circa 1863-66): Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione photographed by Pierre-Louis Pierson

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Virginia Oldoini, Countess di Castiglione (22 March 183728 November 1899), better known as La Castiglione, was an Italian courtesan and secret agent who achieved notoriety as a mistress of Emperor Napoleon III of France. She was partly responsible for Italian unification due to the influence she had upon the Emperor. She was also a significant figure in the early history of photography as a model and collaborator of photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson.


Early life

Born née Virginia Elisabetta Luisa Carlotta Antonietta Teresa Maria Oldoïni, (French: Virginie Élisabeth Louise Charlotte Antoinette Thérèse Marie Oldoïni) on 22 March 1837 in Florence, Tuscany to Marquis Filippo Oldoini and Marquise Isabella Lamporecchi, members of the minor Tuscan nobility, she was often known by her nickname of "Nicchia". Virginia married Count Francesco Verasis di Castiglione at the age of 17. He was twelve years her senior. They had a son, Giorgio.

Her cousin, Count di Cavour, was a minister to Victor Emmanuel II, king of Piedmont, Savoy and Sardinia. When the Castigliones traveled to Paris in 1855, the Countess was under her cousin's instructions to plead the cause of Italian unity with Napoleon III of France. She achieved notoriety by becoming Napoleon III's mistress, a scandal that led her husband to demand a marital separation. During her two years relationship with the French emperor (1856-1857), she was permitted to enter the very exclusive circle of European royalty. Among others she met Augusta of Saxe-Weimar, Otto von Bismarck and Adolphe Thiers.

Photographic model

The Countess was known for her "divine beauty" and flamboyant entrances in elaborate dress at the imperial court. One of her most infamous outfits was a "Queen of Hearts" costume. A portrait of the Countess was painted by George Frederic Watts in 1857. In 1856 she began sitting for Léopold-Ernest Mayer and Pierre-Louis Pierson, the favoured photographers of the imperial court. She was described as having long, wavy blonde hair, pale skin, a delicate oval face, and eyes which changed colour constantly from green to an extraordinary blue-violet.

Over the next four decades she would collaborate with Pierre-Louis Pierson on 400-700 photographs in which she re-created the signature moments of her life for the camera. Most of the photographs depicted the Countess in her theatrical outfits, such as the Queen of Hearts dress. All of the compositions were directed by Castiglione herself. One of these was Scherzo di Follia (Game of Madness), a photo which is one of the earliest efforts in fine art photography, even showing a certain self-reflexivity of the new medium photography. The photo has become iconic.

A number of photographs depicted the Countess in ways that were undoubtedly risqué for the era -- notably, images that expose her bare legs or feet (Le Pé [The Foot], August 1, 1894, also known as "The Foot, the Amputation of the Gruyère")[1][2] (depicted while lying down as if she were dead person) and this photo of her feet[3]. In these photos, her upper body has been cropped out.

Another similar photo depicts only her legs[4], showing a quaint sexual fetishism unseen at the time.

Italian unification

By 1857 the brief affair with Napoleon III was over, inducing her to return to Italy. Four years later, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed, conceivably in part due to the influence that the Countess had exerted on Napoleon III. That same year, she returned to France and settled in Passy.

Just after the defeat of France during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, she has been called by France to meet, in secret, Otto von Bismarck to explain to him how fatal could be the German occupation of Paris. She may have succeeded, as Paris stayed free of Prussian occupation.

Later years

Virginia spent her declining years in an apartment on the Place Vendôme, where she had the rooms decorated in funereal black, the blinds kept drawn, and mirrors banished—apparently so she would not have to confront her advancing age and loss of beauty. She would only leave the apartment at night. It is said that later in life, she began a brief collaboration with Pierson again, though her photographs were not as they had been when she was younger. She wished to set up an exhibit of her photographs at the 1900 Paris World's Fair, though this would never happen. On November 28, 1899, she died at age sixty-two, and was buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.


Robert de Montesquiou, a Symbolist poet and avid art collector, was fascinated by the Countess di Castiglione. He spent thirteen years writing her biography, La Divine Comtesse, published in 1913. After her death, he collected the majority of her photographs, of which 275 were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1975.

The Countess's life was depicted in a 1955 French film, La Contessa di Castiglione, that starred Yvonne de Carlo.

Further reading

  • Abigail Solomon-Godeau, "The Legs of the Countess." October 39 (Winter 1986): 65-108. Reprinted in Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, Emily Apter and William Pletz, eds. (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993):266-306.
  • Heather McPherson, "La Divine Comtesse: (Re)presenting the Anatomy of a Countess," in The Modern Portrait in Nineteenth Century France (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001): 38-75.
  • La Divine Comtesse : Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione (ISBN 0-300-08509-5) by Pierre Apraxine is a catalog for a 2000 exhibition of the Countess de Castiglione photos at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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