Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione

Virginia Oldoïni, Countess of Castiglione (22 March 1837 – 28 November 1899), better known as La Castiglione, was born to an aristocratic family from La Spezia. She was a 19th-century Italian aristocrat who achieved notoriety as a mistress of Emperor Napoleon III of France. She was also a significant figure in the early history of photography.

Virginia Oldoïni
The Countess of Castiglione in a photo by Pierre-Louise Pierson, c.1863/66
Virginia Elisabetta Luisa Carlotta Antonietta Teresa Maria Oldoïni

22 March 1837
Died28 November 1899(1899-11-28) (aged 62)
Burial placePère Lachaise Cemetery
48.860°N 2.396°E / 48.860; 2.396
Known forPhotographic artist and supposed secret agent
TitleCountess of Castiglione
Spouse(s)Francesco Verasis di Castiglione (m.1854;sep. 1855)
ChildrenGiorgio Verasis di Castiglione
Parent(s)Marquis Filippo Oldoini
Isabella Lamporecchi

Early life

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

Her cousin, Camillo, Count of Cavour, was a minister of Victor Emmanuel II, King of Sardinia (that included also Piedmont, Val d'Aosta, Liguria and Savoy). When the Count and Countess 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 relationship with the French emperor in 1856 and 1857, she entered the social circle of European royalty. She met Augusta of Saxe-Weimar, Otto von Bismarck and Adolphe Thiers, among others.

The Countess was known for her beauty and her flamboyant entrances in elaborate dress at the imperial court. One of her most infamous outfits was a "Queen of Hearts" costume.[2] George Frederic Watts painted her portrait in 1857.[3] 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.

Italian unification

The Countess returned to Italy in 1857 when her affair with Napoleon III was over. 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.

In 1871, just after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War, she was called to a secret meeting with Otto von Bismarck to explain to him how the German occupation of Paris could be fatal to his interests. She may have been persuasive because Paris was spared Prussian occupation.[4]

Photographic artist

Circa 1860
Circa 1861-1867
Photographs by Pierson

In 1856 she began sitting for Mayer and Pierson, photographers favored by the imperial court. Over the next four decades she directed Pierre-Louis Pierson to help her create 700 different photographs in which she re-created the signature moments of her life for the camera. She spent a large part of her personal fortune and even went into debt to execute this project. Most of the photographs depict the Countess in her theatrical outfits, such as the Queen of Hearts dress. 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.

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.[5]

Later years

Virginia spent her declining years in an apartment in the Place Vendôme, where she had the rooms decorated in funeral 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. 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), 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.[6]


Gabriele D'Annunzio authored an appreciation of the Countess that appeared as a preface to Montesquiou's work. It was also published on its own in 1973.[7]

The Countess's life was depicted in a 1942 Italian film The Countess of Castiglione[8] and a 1954 Italian-French film The Contessa's Secret that starred Yvonne De Carlo.[9]

The Countess was painted by the artist Jacques-Emile Blanche after her death.

The Countess is also depicted in Alexander Chee's novel "The Queen of the Night."


  1. Michele Falzone del Barbarò, La divine comtesse: photographs of the Countess de Castiglione (2000)
  2. Metropolitan Museum: ""Queen of Hearts"". Archived from the original on June 28, 2011. Retrieved 2005-03-29.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link), accessed May 28, 2010
  3. Artnet: "Portrait of the Countess", accessed May 28, 2010
  4. (in French)Historia: Historia, no. 656 (August 2001), accessed May 28, 2010
  5. Munhall, Edgar, Whistler and Montesquiou: The Butterfly and the Bat (NY, 1995), 42
  6. Find a Grave: Virginia Oldoini, accessed May 19, 2010
  7. "La contessa di Castiglione in una prosa di D'Annunzio" (Rome, 1973), Mario Vecchioni, ed.; Tommaso Antongini, D'Annunzio (1938, 1971), 214
  8. Internet Movie Database: "La contessa Castiglione" (1942), accessed May 19, 2010
  9. Internet Movie Database: "La contessa di Castiglione" (1954), accessed May 19, 2010


  • Hamish Bowles, "Vain Glory" in Vogue (Aug 2000), 242-245, 270-271
  • Alain Decaux, La Castiglione, d’après sa correspondence et son journal inédits (Librairie académique Perrin, 1953)
  • Claude Dufresne La comtesse de Castiglione (Broché, 2002)
  • Massimo Grillandi, La contessa di Castiglione (Milan: Rusconi, 1978)
  • Max Henry, "Gotham Dispatch", review of an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art September 19, 2000 – December 31, 2000, accessed 30 March 2005
  • 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
  • (in French)Isaure de Saint-Pierre, La Dame de Coeur, un amour de Napoléon III] (Albin Michel, 2006), ISBN 2-226-17363-3
  • Abigail Solomon-Godeau, "The Legs of the Countess," in October 39 (Winter 1986): 65-108. Reprinted in Emily Apter and William Pletz, eds., Fetishism as Cultural Discourse (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993), 266-306
  • Roger L. Williams, Gaslight and Shadow: The World of Napoleon III (NY: Macmillan, 1957), Ch. 6: "The Countess of Castiglione"
  • "Indepth Art News", notice of an exhibit at the Musée d'Orsay October 12, 1999 – January 23, 2000, accessed 30 March 2005
  • "La Divine Comtesse": Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione, catalog for a 2000 exhibition of the Countess de Castiglione photos at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ISBN 0-300-08509-5
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