Showing posts with label Photography. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Photography. Show all posts

29 June 2020

Federico Peliti - catering entrepreneur and photographer

Italian became important figure in British Colonial India

Federico Peliti, pictured in traditional Indian headdress
Federico Peliti, pictured in traditional
Indian headdress
Federico Peliti, whose skills as a chef and pastry-maker led him to spend a large part of his life in India under British colonial rule, was born on this day in 1844 in Carignano, a town in Piedmont about 20km (12 miles) south of Turin.

He was also an accomplished photographer and collections of his work made an important contribution to the documentary history of the early years of British rule in India.

The restaurant Peliti opened in Shimla, the so-called summer capital of the British Empire in India, became a favourite with colonial high society and was mentioned in the writings of Rudyard Kipling and others.

Peliti’s family hailed from Valganna, near Varese in Lombardy. They had mainly been surveyors and Peliti initially studied sculpture at the Accademia Albertina in Turin. 

He was diverted from a career in sculpture by the Third Italian War of Independence, in which he participated as a cavalryman in the 1st Nizza regiment of the Italian army. By chance, during his active service, he made friends with a group of confectioners and pastry-makers, who taught him some of their skills.

Armed with this new talent and in search of a job after leaving the army, Peliti entered a competition organised by Richard Bourke, the sixth Earl of Mayo and Viceroy of British India, to find a personal chef. Peliti won, moved to India in 1869 and settled in Calcutta. 

A postcard advertising Peliti's restaurant
in Calcutta. The building still stands today
Lord Mayo was assassinated three years later but Peliti stayed in Calcutta, teaming up with business partner Thomas O’Neill to form O'Neill & Peliti, a bakery in Bentinck Street. 

When the partnership broke up, Peliti moved to the more upmarket Chowringhee Road in 1875, and in 1881 opened a restaurant at Esplanade East which became popular among British high society.

In the same year he set up in Shimla, the so-called summer capital of British India, opening a cafe next to the Combermere bridge in Shimla, which had a terrace overlooking a valley and became very popular. Peliti built a grand home in nearby Mashobra, which he called Villa Carignano, where he lived with his wife, Judith, the daughter of a British-Indian government official.

As his reputation grew, Peliti was invited to cater for a lunch hosted by the Prince of Wales in Burma in 1891. 

He expanded his operations, establishing Peliti's Grand Hotel in Shimla and starting a company that canned food for export.

Peliti also trained other Italian confectioners, such as Angelo Firpo from Genoa, who set up another restaurant in Calcutta, and Felice Cornaglia, who took over his business in Bombay.

Peliti's Grand Hotel in Shimla was part of the Italian's business empire in India
Peliti's Grand Hotel in Shimla was part of the
Italian's business empire in India
British expats took to Peliti's restaurants in both Shimla and Calcutta and they became centres of society life. The author and journalist Rudyard Kipling, who was born in Bombay in 1865, immortalised Peliti's Shimla restaurant Regent House by referring to it in his short story The Phantom Rickshaw and his poem Divided Destinies. 

Peliti never returned to sculpture but channelled his creative talents in another direction through his interest in photography. Formally trained by the Turin photographer and instrument maker Felice Bardelli, Peliti was fascinated by the exotic and picturesque and his images of life in India at the time of British rule provide a valuable record.  Much of his collection is now housed at the Istituto Centrale per la Grafica - the Central Institute for Graphics - in Rome.

In 1902 Peliti decided to return to Italy, handing the management of his company to his sons, Edoardo and Federico, and moving back to Carignano, where he had a house decorated with frescoes by the painter Paolo Gaidano, a contemporary of Peliti’s from the nearby town of Poirino.  Peliti died in Carignano in 1914. 

Today, the name of Peliti’s lives on in Peliti’s Vermut, a vermouth manufactured in Turin which is based faithfully on the liqueur Federico Peliti produced for an official visit by the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, in 1877, using a blend of Indian spices, Piemontese flowers, absinthe and muscat wine.

Carignano's 18th-century Baroque cathedral built by Benedetto Alfieri
Carignano's 18th-century Baroque cathedral
built by Benedetto Alfieri
Travel tip:

Carignano is one of the oldest towns in Piedmont with a rich history, going back to the Bronze Age.  It was an important stopping-off point on a road built by the Romans between Turin and Carmagnola and archaeological finds such as Roman tombs, pottery, cobblestones and weapons have been discovered locally.  Carignano became one of the most important municipalities of Turin in the late 19th century thanks to the Bona wool mill.  In the centre of the town, there is an 18th-century Baroque cathedral dedicated to Saints Giovanni Battista and Remigio, designed by Benedetto Alfieri and decorated by Paolo Gaidano, which overlooks the town’s market square.

The Badia di San Gemolo
in Valganna, near Varese
Travel tip:

The municipality of Valganna, from which Peliti’s family moved to Carignano, is a few kilometres north of Varese in Lombardy, in the heart of the Italian lake district, surrounded by the picturesque countryside of the Parco delle cinque vette nature reserve.  The Maggiore and Lugano lakes are nearby. Visitors to Valganna are often drawn to the Badia di San Gemolo, a church and abbey complex dedicated to the memory of San Gemolo, the nephew of a bishop who died after being attacked by robbers nearby, whose remains are preserved in the abbey.

Also on this day:

9 September 2019

Francesco Carrozzini - director and photographer

Famous for portraits of wealthy and famous

Francesco Carrozzini has photographed many celebrities from the world of movies, music and the arts
Francesco Carrozzini has photographed many celebrities
from the world of movies, music and the arts
The American-based director and photographer Francesco Carrozzini was born on this day in 1982 in Monza, Italy.

The son of the late former editor-in-chief of the Italian edition of Vogue magazine, Franca Sozzani, Carrozzini has directed many music videos and documentary films and a small number of feature-length movies, including one about the life of his mother.

In photography, he has become best known for his portraits of the rich and famous, including actors such as Robert De Niro and Cate Blanchett, models including Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista, musicians such as Lana Del Ray and Kanye West, and artists including Jeff Koons and Andres Serrano.

Carrozzini has also photographed a number of political leaders, including the former British prime minister Tony Blair, ex-Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg and former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

He is a founder of the Franca Sozzani Fund for Preventive Genomics, which he helped create following the death of his mother at the age of 66 from a rare form of cancer.

Carrozzini's mother was the fashion magazine editor Franca Sozzani
Carrozzini's mother was the fashion
magazine editor Franca Sozzani
Franca Sozzani’s prominence in the fashion and magazine industry meant that Carrozzini grew up in a house he described as being filled with creative energy. Sozzani gave her photographers a level of creative freedom that at the time was almost unique to Vogue Italia and, influenced by their work, Carrozzini began taking pictures and making short films in his early teens.

In 1999, he moved to the United States to study film at the University of California in Los Angeles before returning to Italy to study philosophy at the University of Milan. 

He embarked on his first commercial assignment, directing a 30-second video promoting Italian MTV, at the age of 19.

Indeed, film became his preoccupation from his early 20s, when his work ranged from a promotional film for the Venice Biennale and a documentary about a Polish theatre group to a short thriller set in New York’s reputedly haunted Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street.

Soon, he became sought after by commercial clients such as Apple Music, Fiat, Tommy Hilfiger and Ray Ban, and musicians such as Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Lenny Kravitz, for whom he directed music videos.  He has been based in New York since 2004.

Carrozzini began working on his film about his mother in 2010. The project was a documentary focusing on her life and legacy, highlighting the accomplishments of Sozzani's career while also exploring his relationship with her.

Carrozzini's portrait of the actor Robert De Niro
Carrozzini's portrait of the actor Robert De Niro
The film, entitled Franca: Chaos and Creation, took him around six years to finish. It premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in September 2016, just three months before she died, following a long period undergoing treatment for her cancer.

In March 2017, the film was honored with a Nastro d'Argento presented by the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists.

After his mother’s death, from a form of cancer that might have been prevented with earlier medical surveillance, Corrazzini joined Harvard geneticist Robert C Green and private investors in launching the Franca Sozzani Fund for Preventive Genomics in the hope of improving the reach of preventive genomics, which uses genetic sequencing to predict disease.

Carrozzini is married to Bee Shaffer, the daughter of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and child psychiatrist David Shaffer.

The grand Villa Reale in Monza, built in the late 18th  century for Archduke Ferdinand of Austria
The grand Villa Reale in Monza, built in the late 18th
century for Archduke Ferdinand of Austria
Travel tip:

Monza, a city of just under 125,000 inhabitants about 20km (12 miles) northeast of Milan, is best known for its international motor racing circuit, the home of the Formula One Italian Grand Prix. Yet the city itself is well worth visiting in its own right, one of the highlights being the 13th century Basilica of San Giovanni Battista, often known as Monza Cathedral, which contains the famous Corona Ferrea or Iron Crown, bearing precious stones.  According to tradition, the crown was found on Jesus's Cross.  Note also the Villa Reale, built in the neoclassical style by Giuseppe Piermarini at the end of the 18th Century, which has a sumptuous interior and a court theatre.

Part of the ceiling of the Camera degli Sposa in Mantua's Palazzo Ducale, decorated by Andrea Mantegna
Part of the ceiling of the Camera degli Sposa in Mantua's
Palazzo Ducale, decorated by Andrea Mantegna
Travel tip:

Carrozzini’s mother, Franca Sozzani, came from Mantua, an atmospheric old city in Lombardy, about 180km (112 miles) to the southeast of Milan, surrounded on three sides by a broad stretch of the Mincio river, which has always limited its growth, making it an easy place for tourists to look round. At the Renaissance heart of the city is Piazza Mantegna, where the 15th century Basilica of Sant’Andrea houses the tomb of the artist, Andrea Mantegna.  Mantua’s Palazzo Ducale, the seat of the Gonzaga family between 1328 and 1707, contains some of the finest examples of Mantegna’s frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi.

More reading:

How Franca Sozzani changed the world of fashion publishing

Mimmo Jodice: Photography meets metaphysical art

The girl who inherited the Versace fashion empire

Also on this day:

1908: The birth of writer and translator Cesare Pavese

1918: The birth of Italy's ninth president, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro

1943: Allied troops land at Salerno on the Italian mainland


12 August 2018

Vittorio Sella - mountain photographer

Images still considered among the most beautiful ever made

A 1909 photograph by Sella of K2, on the China-Pakistan border
A 1909 photograph by Sella of K2, on
the China-Pakistan border 
The photographer Vittorio Sella, who combined mountaineering with taking pictures of some of the world’s most famous and challenging peaks, died on this day in 1943 in his home town of Biella in Piedmont.

Even though Sella took the bulk of his photographs between the late 1870s and the First World War, his images are still regarded as among the most beautiful and dramatic ever taken.

His achievements are all the more remarkable given that his first camera and tripod alone weighed more than 18kg (40lbs) and he exposed his pictures on glass plates weighing almost a kilo (2lbs).  He had to set up makeshift darkrooms on the mountain at first because each shot had to be developed within 10 to 15 minutes.

Sella had exploring and photography in his blood. He was born in 1859 in Biella, in the foothills of the Italian Alps. It was an important area for wool and textiles and his family ran a successful wool factory.

Sella’s father, Giuseppe, was fascinated with the new science of photography A few years before Vittorio’s birth, he published the first major treatise on photography in Italian.

Meanwhile, Sella’s uncle, Quintino Sella, led the first expedition to the top of Monte Viso (or Monviso), the highest mountain in the French-Italian Alps, and in 1863 founded the Club Alpino Italiano, which remains Italy’s principal mountaineering club.

Le Siniolchu (6895 m) and the glacier Zemu, in the
Himalayas, often seen as one of Sella's greatest pictures
Sella’s father died when he was 16 and he was placed in the care of his uncle, which only encouraged Vittorio’s interest in mountaineering. His uncle was a famous man in his day, one of Italy's foremost mountaineering experts, who also helped establish a royal museum of mineralogy in Turin. 

Quintino Sella was also well known as a politician, serving as Italy’s minister of finance in 1862, after Italy was unified.

Vittorio decided he wanted a career that combine his father's passion with his uncle's and he was a pioneer in mountaineering as well as photography. In 1882, he led the first group to successfully climb the Matterhorn - Monte Cervino to Italians - the largest mountain on the Italian–Swiss border, during the winter.

He also made the first winter ascent of Monte Rosa and the first winter traverse of Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco).

Further afield, he undertook three expeditions to the Caucasus (where a peak now bears his name) and also climbed Mount Saint Elias in Alaska and the Rwenzori in Africa. He was part of the 1909 expedition to K2 and the Karakoram. 

Vittorio Sella attempted to climb the Matterhorn at the age of 76
Vittorio Sella attempted to climb
the Matterhorn at the age of 76
The remarkable fact of Sella’s climbing career is that, where most mountaineers consider reaching distant summits and returning safely home as the limit of their ambitions, Sella often repeatedly climbed to the same summits in order to create still more stunning photographic images.

Age did not lessen Sella’s appetite for climbing. He attempted to scale the Matterhorn at 76 years old, the attempt failing not because of any weaknesses on his part but because one of his guides was injured.

The American photographer Ansel Adams, who saw Sella make a presentation in the United States, said his photographic work inspired "a definitely religious awe".

Sella died in Biella a few days before what would have been his 84th birthday.  He was buried at the Monumental Cemetery of Oropa, a little over 15km (9 miles) northwest of Biella in the Sacro Monte di Oropa nature reserve.

The Vittorio Sella Refuge, once a hunting lodge belonging to King Victor Emmanuel II, located at 2,588m (8,490ft) in the Gran Paradiso National Park on the Piedmont-Aosta border, is dedicated to him.  The refuge has beds for 150 people and a restaurant.

His collections of photographs is now managed by the Sella Foundation (Fondazione Sella) in Biella.

Biella's Roman baptistery, which dates back almost 1,000 years, is next to the town hall
Biella's Roman baptistery, which dates back almost 1,000
years, is next to the town hall
Travel tip:

Biella is a well-established town of almost 45,000 inhabitants in the foothill of the Alps, about 85km (53 miles) northeast of Turin and slightly more than 100m (62 miles) west of Milan. Its attractions include a Roman baptistery from early 1000s and the church and convent of San Sebastian. Wool and textiles have been associated with the town since the 13th century and although the best years of the industry have now passed, with many mills and factories closed, brands such as Cerruti 1881, Ermenegildo Zegna, Vitale Barberis Canonico and Fila still have a presence.

A classic view of the Matterhorn, showing the east and north faces
A classic view of the Matterhorn, showing
the east and north faces
Travel tip:

The Matterhorn, also known as Monte Cervino, which straddles the Swiss-Italian border about 60km (37 miles) northeast of Aosta, is an almost symmetrical natural pyramid, with four steep faces, whose peak is 4,478 metres (14,692ft) high, making it one of the highest summits in the Alps. The north face was not climbed until 1931 and the west face, which is the highest of the Matterhorn's four faces, was completely climbed only in 1962. More then 500 alpinists have died on the Matterhorn, including four on the first attempted ascent in 1865, making it one of the deadliest peaks in the world.

More reading:

How bitter rivalry marred the career of climber Walter Bonatti

War hero who was first to complete more than 100 climbs

Felice Beato - the world's first war photographer

Also on this day:

1612: The death of Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli

1990: The birth of controversial football star Mario Balotelli


24 March 2018

Mimmo Jodice - photographer

Camera work with shades of metaphysical art

Mimmo Jodice celebrates his 84th birthday today
Mimmo Jodice celebrates his
84th birthday today
Domenico ‘Mimmo’ Jodice, who has been a major influence on artistic photography in Italy for half a century, was born on this day in 1934 in Naples.

Jodice, who was professor of photography at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Napoli from 1969 to 1996, is best known for his atmospheric photographs of urban scenes, especially in his home city.

Often these pictures reflected his fascination with how Italian cities habitually mix the present and the future with echoes of the past in their urban landscapes, with the incongruous juxtapositions of ancient and modern that were characteristic of metaphysical art occurring naturally as part of urban evolution.

His books Vedute di Napoli (Views of Naples) and Lost in Seeing: Dreams and Visions of Italy have been international bestsellers and he has exhibited his work all over the world.

Born in the Sanità district of Naples, Jodice was the second of four children. His father died when he was still a boy and the requirement that he find work as soon as he was able meant he had only a limited education.

Jodice is best known for his photographs of Naples
Jodice is best known for his photographs of Naples
Nonetheless, he was drawn towards art and the theatre, classical music and jazz and read as much as he could to expand his knowledge. He also taught himself to draw and paint.

He took up photography in the late 1950s and became part of the avant-garde revival that took hold in Italy in the 1960s.  Through his friendship with the Naples gallerist Lucio Amelio, he was introduced to artistic styles such as Pop art, Arte Povera and Fluxus, becoming acquainted with important contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys and Robert Rauschenberg.

He exhibited his work for the first time at Libreria La Mandragola in Naples in 1967 and took a collection to the Teatro Spento in Urbino the following year. As interest in his photography spread, he began to take his work to many more locations in Italy, and eventually beyond.

Having at one time specialised in portraits and nudes, he began using his photography to highlight the poor conditions in which some people lived in Naples, particularly after the city’s widespread social deprivation sparked a cholera outbreak in 1973.

The disease was linked to poor sanitation and the consumption of seafood caught in waters badly polluted by the city’s antiquated sewerage system.

Jodice's collection Vedute di Napoli was a bestseller
Jodice's collection Vedute di Napoli was a bestseller
Jodice’s focus on social conditions continued until the 1980s, when he began to concentrate more on urban landscapes, where buildings and ancient relics became the focal point of his work rather than people.

His Vedute di Napoli, published in 1980, was the first of many collections which captured the spirit of his home city.  He also took wonderfully atmospheric pictures in Venice and Paris and many other settings.

He worked with the concept of time connecting the old with the new, run-down monuments with modern cities.  His tour de force, Lost in Seeing: Dreams and Visions of Italy, which brought together photographs from his urban and rural collections in Italy, was described by one reviewer as “photos representing metaphysical visions interweaving signs of the past as they return to inhabit the present”.

In the 1990s, Jodice became also a photographer of art and architecture, producing series that highlighted the works of such giants as Michelangelo and Canova, and backdrops such as Paestum, Pompei and historic Naples.

Jodice grew up in the Rione Sanità  neighbourhood
Jodice grew up in the Rione Sanità  neighbourhood 
Travel tips:

The Rione Sanità area of Naples, also known as Stella, to the north of the city near Capodimonte hill, has been alternately wealthy and poor. Once the chosen location for aristocratic Neapolitans to build villas, in more recent times it has had the reputation as one of the most run-down neighbourhoods, rife with crime and with high unemployment. But there are projects under way to try to give the area new life, to which Mimmo Jodice has contributed with fund-raising exhibitions. As well as being his home, it was also the area in which the comic actor Totò grew up.

Hotels in Naples by

The Accademia di Belle Arti in Naples
The Accademia di Belle Arti in Naples
Travel tip:

The Accademia di Belle Arti is in the San Lorenzo district, north of Piazza Dante. Founded in 1752, it is one of the oldest academies in Europe. Situated in Via Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, it is at the heart of an area rich in cultural attractions, including the National Archaeological Museum, the Prince of Naples Gallery, the conservatory of San Pietro a Majella and the Teatro Bellini.

29 January 2018

Felice Beato – war photographer

Venetian-born adventurer captured some of first images of conflict

Felice Beato's graphic pictures from the Second Opium War in China shocked western audiences
Felice Beato's graphic pictures from the Second Opium
War in China shocked Western audiences
Felice Beato, who is thought to be one of the world’s first war photographers, died in Florence on this day in 1909.

He was 76 or 77 years old and had passed perhaps his final year in Italy, having spent the majority of his adult life in Asia and the Far East. 

Although he was from an Italian family it was thought for many years that he had been born on the island of Corfu and died in Burma. However, in 2009 his death certificate was found in an archive in Florence, listing his place of birth as Venice and his place of death as the Tuscan regional capital.

Beato photographed the Crimean War in 1855, the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion in 1857 and the final days of the Second Opium War in China in 1860, later travelling with United States forces in Korea in 1871 and with the British in the Sudan in 1884-85.

He also spent many years living in Japan and then Burma, where his photography introduced the people and culture of the Far East to many in the West for the first time.

Felice Beato, pictured in about 1872, when he was based in Japan
Felice Beato, pictured in about 1872, when
he was based in Japan
In addition, he developed photography techniques that put him ahead of his time, despite the crude nature of equipment compared with today’s technology.

These included adding colour using methods learned from Japanese watercolour artists and creating panoramas by carefully making several exposures of a scene and joining them together for pictures up to two metres (6½ feet) long.

Although not born in Corfu, Beato lived on the island from a young age after his parents moved there from Venice.  Corfu was a British protectorate at the time, which made him a British subject.  Later the family lived in Istanbul.

Equipped with what was thought to be the only camera he ever used, bought in Paris, he formed a partnership with the British photographer and his future brother-in-law James Robertson and began his travels by heading to Balaklava in Crimea, where his photographs captured the destruction of the Crimean War, including the fall of Sebastapol in 1855.

From there they went to Calcutta to observe and photograph the country in the wake of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and in 1860 on to South China to photograph the Anglo-French military expedition in the Second Opium War. Beato’s pictures there were the first to document a military campaign as it was unfolding. His pictures of dead Chinese soldiers brought home the horrors of war as never seen before.

After travelling to London in 1861, where he raised funds by selling many of his photographs, he ventured to Yokohama in Japan, where he formed a new partnership with Charles Wirgmann, an illustrator with whom he had worked previously.

A street scene in Nagasaki in Japan in around 1868
A street scene in Nagasaki in Japan in around 1868
The move began a new chapter in Beato’s career. He compiled albums of Japanese photographs, including portraits, cityscapes and landscapes, and despite restrictions imposed by Japan’s military dictatorship was able to reach parts of the country into which few Westerners had been.

Unlike his work in India and China, which tended to underline the might of British imperial rule and paid little attention to the indigenous population, he was keen to introduce the Western world to Japanese people and culture and many of his photographs were of local people going about their daily life.

At the same time, Beato was expanding his horizons in a business sense, acquiring several studios, venturing into property, investing money in the new Grand Hotel in Yokohama and setting up a business importing carpets and women’s handbags, although he is said to have suffered big losses on the Yokohama silver exchange.

Later, after selling his business in 1877, he settled in Burma, where he continued to focus on photographing local people, while again developing money-making sidelines, in this case an antiques and curios business.

It is thought Beato spent time in Belgium towards the end of his life before returning to Italy to live in Florence in about 1908.

The ancient Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello
The ancient Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello
Travel tip:

Venice is a very different place today from Felice Beato’s era and many visitors find the number of people concentrated on the area around Piazza San Marco in high season rather daunting.  But by venturing towards the outlying parts of the city it is possible to escape the crowds. Better still, try a trip to one of the islands. Murano and Burano still attract tourists but in smaller numbers, while Torcello – just a few minutes further on from Burano – is more or less undisturbed.  Once home to upwards of 20,000 people, albeit in the 10th century, there are now fewer than 100 living on the island, yet relics of the past remain, such as the oldest church in the Venetian lagoon, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in 639 and with Byzantine mosaics still intact from the 11th and 12th centuries.

The Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti in Borgo Ognissanti in Florence
The Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti
in Borgo Ognissanti in Florence
Travel tip:

A 10-minute walk west from the centre of Florence, the the Franciscan Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti – usually known simply as the Ognissanti – is a church worth venturing away from the main sights for. Once the parish church of the wealthy Vespucci family, including the explorer Amerigo, the church is rich in art treasures, including Ghirlandaio’s Madonna della Misericordia and his Last Supper, which was believed to have been the inspiration for Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. There is also a Madonna and Child With Angels by Giotto and works by Sandro Botticelli, who is buried in the south transept.

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.