22 March 2016

'La Castiglione' – model and secret agent

Beautiful woman helped the cause of Italian unification

This portrait of Virginia Oldoini was painted in 1862 by Michele Gordigiani
Virginia Oldoini, captured in a
portrait painted in 1862
Virginia Oldoini, who became known as La Castiglione, was born on this day in 1837 in Florence.

She became the mistress of the Emperor Napoleon III of France and also made an important contribution to the early development of photography.

She was born Virginia Oldoini to parents who were part of the Tuscan nobility, but originally came from La Spezia in Liguria. At the age of 17 she married the Count of Castiglione, who was 12 years older than her, and they had one son, Giorgio.

Her cousin was Camillo, Count of Cavour, who was the prime minister to Victor Emmanuel II, the King of Sardinia, later to become the first King of a united Italy.

When the Countess travelled with her husband to Paris in 1855, Cavour asked her to plead the cause of Italian unity with Napoleon III.

Considered to be the most beautiful woman of her day, she became Napoleon III’s mistress and her husband demanded a separation. During her relationship with Napoleon III she influenced Franco-Italian political relations, mingled with European nobility and met Otto von Bismarck.

She became known both for her beauty and elaborate clothes, such as a Queen of Hearts costume she wore and was later photographed in.

When she returned to Italy she lived with her son at the Villa Gloria in Turin for a while, rejecting her husband’s appeals to her to resume their life together.

Virginia Oldoini was Napoleon III's mistress
Napoleon III of France: Oldoini became
his mistress after they met in Paris
But even though her relationship with Napoleon III was over she eventually chose to return to France, where she lived for the rest of her life, forming liaisons with aristocrats, financiers and politicians while cultivating the image of a mysterious femme fatale. In 1871 she met Bismarck and explained to him how the German occupation of Paris wouldn’t be in his interests. She must have been persuasive because Paris was spared

She began sitting as a model for photographers and later directed Pierre–Louis Pierson to take hundreds of photographs of important moments of her life, wearing elaborate outfits such as the Queen of Hearts dress.

Some of the photographs showed her in risqué poses for the time, for example with her legs bare.

It was the Countess who decided on the expressive content of the images and chose the camera angles

She died in Paris in 1899 at the age of 62. Her biography, La Divine Comtesse, was written after her death by Robert de Montesquiou. It was published in 1913 with a preface by Gabriele d’Annunzio.

Her life featured in a 1942 Italian film, The Countess of Castiglione and a 1954 Italian-French film, La Contessa di Castiglione.

Travel tip:

The Castello san Giorgio has recently been restored
The restored Castello San Giorgio is
among the attrractions of La Spezia
La Spezia, where the Countess of Castiglione’s family were originally from, is an important city in Ligura, second only to Genoa. It is a point of departure for visiting Lerici, Portovenere and the Cinque Terre by boat. The recently-restored Castle of San Giorgio, the 13th century Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and a number of Art Nouveau villas are all worth visiting.

Travel tip:

Turin, where the Countess lived for a while on her return to Italy, has many buildings with royal connections to see. Piazza Castello, with the royal palace, royal library and Palazzo Madama, which used to house the Italian senate, is at the heart of royal Turin.

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