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Virginia Oldoini, The Star Of Early Photography


Virginia Oldoini, The Star Of Early Photography

Virginia Elisabetta Luisa Antonietta Teresa Maria Oldoini, in short: Countess of Castiglione was a real celebrity of her times. I imagine that in our times she would be someone as famous as Kim K., or at least as some superpopular fashion bloggers. You think you’ve never heard of her? In 19th century she was a very significant figure in the early history of photography. Actually, she could be named the most vain queen of selfie. That’s her:


Pierre-Louis Pierson, Scherzo di Follia (Madness Joke), Metropolitan Museum of Art

When I first saw this photograph I was at a loss for words. It was taken in 1863.

This woman, born in 1837 to an aristocratic family from La Spezia is now remembered among photography historians as a subject of 700 different photographs in which she re-created the signature moments of her life for the camera. Yes, she re-created not the photographer. She acted like a producer and art director of the photoshoots. In the second half of the 19th century.

When Virginia was 17, she married Francesco Verasis, Count of Castiglione. He was twelve years her senior. They had a son, Giorgio.

c. 1865 The Countess with a child, possibly her son Georges.

Pierre-Louis Pierson, c. 1865, The Countess with a child, possibly her son Georges, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Virginia’s cousin Camillo, Count of Cavour, was a minister to Victor Emmanuel II, king of Sardinia (that included Piedmont and Savoy). When the Count and Countess traveled to Paris in 1855, the Countess was under her cousin’s instructions and Virginia became special agent for the cause of Italian unification. She achieved notoriety by becoming Napoleon III’s mistress. Of course it was a scandal that led her husband to demand a marital separation. During her relationship with the French emperor in 1856 and 1857, she entered the social circle of European royalty. She became a star.

c. 1865

Pierre-Louis Pierson, The Countess of Castiglione, c. 1865, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Countess was known for her beauty and her flamboyant entrances in elaborate dress at the imperial court. She was loosing a fortune for dresses and costumes. She was described as having long, wavy blonde hair, pale skin, a delicate oval face, and eyes that constantly changed colour from green to an extraordinary blue-violet.

c. 1865

Pierre-Louis Pierson, The Countess of Castiglione, c. 1865, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1856 she began sitting for Mayer and Pierson, two photographers favored by the French imperial court. For the next 40 years she directed Pierre-Louis Pierson to help her create 700 different photographs. She spent a large part of her personal fortune and even went into debt to execute this massive project.

Pierre-Louis Pierson, The Countess of Castiglione

Pierre-Louis Pierson, The Countess of Castiglione, Metropolitan Museum of Art

She was a very conscious model. Most of the photographs depict the Countess in her theatrical outfits, such as the famous Queen of Hearts dress. She portrayed herself as various biblical and literary characters such as Beatrix, Salambo, Medea, Lady Macbeth, Judith, a nun, a prostitute, Anne Boleyn, Queen of Etruria, Queen of Hearts and even a corpse in a coffin.


Pierre-Louis Pierson, The Countess of Castiglione as Ophelia, Metropolitan Museum of Art

A number of photographs depict her in poses risqué for the era — notably, images that expose her bare legs and feet (!). In these photos, her head is cropped out.


Pierre-Louis Pierson, The Countess of Castiglione’s feet, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The end of Virginia was quite sad. She spent her declining years in an apartment in 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.


Pierre-Louis Pierson, The Countess of Castiglione, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the 1890s she began a brief collaboration with Pierson again, though her later photographs clearly show her loss of any critical judgement, possibly due to her growing mental instability. She wished to set up an exhibit of her photographs at the Exposition Universelle (1900) titled The Most Beautiful Woman of the Century though this did not happen. On November 28, 1899, she died at age sixty-two, and was buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.


Pierre-Louis Pierson, The Countess of Castiglione dressed for opera bal, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Robert de Montesquiou, a Symbolist poet, dandy, and avid art collector, was fascinated by the Countess di Castiglione. He spent thirteen years writing a biography, La Divine Comtesse, which appeared in 1913. After her death, he collected 433 of her photographs, all of which entered the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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