Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Victor Emmanuel II’

c

“I equal the highest-born ladies with my birth, I surpass them with my beauty, and I judge them with my mind.” Thus spoke Virginia Oldoïni, Countess of Castiglione, who was convinced that she was the most beautiful woman since God had created the World. With this attitude, she managed to lead not one but several lives. Conspirator and diplomat in petticoats, an emancipated courtesan, a pioneer of photography,  an art director and producer, La Castiglione was, above all, a professional beauty. Aged only 18, married for a year and mother of a male child, Virginia—Nicchia to family and friends—already managed to add several lovers to her stable of admirers in her native land. One of them was Victor Emmanuel IIKing of Sardinia, who dreamt of a united Italy.

italy 1860

A part of Northern Italy (in yellow) was then a territory of the Austrian Empire and the Austrians were unwilling to part with it. An armed conflict could not be won without strong allies. One of the most desirable allies for this project was Napoleon III. Knowing the French monarch’s penchant for women, Victor Emmanuel and his minister Cavour (Virginia’s cousin) thought of the Pearl of Italy as Virginia was then known. They charged her with the mission of convincing the French emperor to lend a helping hand for the unification of the country. Impressed with the importance of the plot, she accepted eagerly. The king and his minister profited from their visit to France by spreading the rumor of her beauty so that when she finally appeared in Paris, in January 1856, she was the object of a wide-spread curiosity at the Court.

c-heart

A costume ball saw La Castiglione in her famous Queen of Hearts outfit. She wears it without a corset and the transparent gauze reveals her bosom. Empress Eugenie remarked with open sarcasm that the heart was seated too low

The diplomatic task was not as easy as Virginia expected. Napoleon III, usually easily seducible, resisted for four agonizing months.  During that time, the countess spent heavily on extravagant outfits with very low-cut necklines. One wit observed that the larger Virginia’s décolletages became, the less room there remained in men’s pants. She began to specialize in spectacular entrances, usually toward the end of social gatherings. On one such occasion, she entered the ballroom as Napoleon III was leaving. “You are too late,” he said to her. “No, Sire. You are leaving too early,” she retorted.

This marked a break in her bad luck. The emperor, who had considered her a dull doll, took notice. Her appearance at a masked ball as a Decadent Roman Woman finally brought result. With her abundant hair loose and her skirt split to show a nude leg, a ring on each toe, she caused a sensation. A crowd gathered around her to gape; some women even climbed onto the furniture to get a better view. Within a week, she became the emperor’s mistress and her letters describing successful pillow talks reached the Sardinian embassy to be dispatched by the diplomatic mail.

While Virginia enjoyed the status of the emperor’s mistress, her impoverished husband returned home to sell the family silver. His wife’s extravagance had ruined him and the pair separated for good. Virginia made no friends at the French court either. She was heartily hated by all for her stupid arrogance. They called her the Too Much Countess and when she kept bragging about her lover’s gifts, the emperor cut her off without mercy. Napoleon III would not tolerate indiscreet mistresses.

Capture

The Too Much Countess

After two years basking in the imperial favor, La Castiglione returned home to Turin, defeated, and soon sank into boredom. She brightened up when Victor Emmanuel granted her a pension for her diplomatic merits. She began to travel to the courts of Europe as her scandalous reputation led to invitations from people who wanted to satisfy their curiosity. During her stay at the court of the King of Prussia, she made the acquaintance of Chancellor Bismarck. Her second chance at diplomacy came much later (in 1871) when Napoleon III, ill, defeated, and with his empire in ruins, asked her to intervene with Bismarck to cancel his plan for the Prussian army to occupy Paris. Paris was spared the Prussian occupation.

giorgio

During her first stay in Paris, Virginia posed for many photographs. She returned in 1861 with her son Giorgio to have more pictures taken. This was a hobby, and a passion, that was to last for the next forty years. She spent her fortune on elaborate costumes and props

In 1863, she was invited to a costume ball in the imperial palace. She appeared disguised as Queen of Etruria. Virginia rushed the next day to the photography studio to immortalize her outfit. Convinced of her success and her return to the upper echelons, she took lascivious and suave poses, miming innocence. However, the costume was judged scandalous. The press was unleashed and she was accused of appearing naked at the party.

medea

Her husband, still in Italy, threatened to take Giorgio back. She responded with a photograph called “The Vengeance”. In this picture, she is dressed in the same costume of Queen of Etruria but with a cape covering her shoulders. Another addition is a dagger she holds in her hand. After this, her husband ceased to protest.

The volcanic countess continued to produce dramatic photographs of herself for many years. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has a collection of some 400 of them. Virginia appears as a tragic victim,  a pursued virgin, a nun, an Odalisque, and many other incarnations. She was the first to invent dramatic poses. By choosing the costumes, the angles, and the shots, she wrote a new chapter in the history of photography.

mirror

La Castiglione in 1875. As the years passed, the mirror returned a less satisfactory image.

Women, who build their life on their beauty alone, suffer when old age hits.  A few of the lucky ones accept their fate and do not fight the wrinkles. Others hang on using artificial means to keep their beauty until they become the caricatures of their former selves. Some go into hiding.  No longer able to admire herself in the mirror, Virginia banned all mirrors from her house. With both her husband and her son deceased, she ended her days alone, immured in a modest Parisian apartment with the walls covered in black and the shutters closed. She died in 1899, aged 62. The Italian embassy immediately dispatched an agent to burn all possible compromising correspondence.

Related posts:

The English Courtesan Who Made a French Emperor

Disdéri’s Photo Studio: Kings, Queens, and Pretty Legs

Traveller’s Bonus: Top 10 Free Museums in Paris

titles

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: