Earlier this summer, I purchased my first book about vintage photography called Icons of Photography: The 19th Century. I got it from an Amazon seller at a low price, used but in good conditions. A great bargain!
On the cover of this book is a rather obscure but highly attractive ‘photo model’. She’s the Countess of Castiglione. I had only discovered her a few weeks prior my purchase, and I was obsessing on finding more material about her because her life encompassed several factors that I love about history and biographies: aristocracy, scandals and quirkiness.
All I found was a biography written by Robert de Montesquiou in the early 20th century, which is extremely rare to find, and La Divine Comtesse, a photo catalogue with biographical details and critiques from the Metropolitan Museum of Arts Series. I couldn’t afford to buy this one, but I was elated to receive it as a birthday gift from Matt in August.
Thus began my discovery of this enigmatic figure of the Second Empire.
Leaving the first marks in high society
Virginia was born in Florence, to the Marquis Oldoini, in 1837. By the time she was 18, she was already married to Francesco Verasis, Count of Castiglione, and mother to their only son, Giorgio.
Her beauty and temperament enabled her to make way in the Italian court, gaining the attention of none other than King Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoia. Camillo Cavour, the Prime Minister and cousin to the Countess, urged her to go to France to garner support for Italy’s unification.
It is not known to what extent her contribution affected the eventual success of the mission. The Countess thought herself to be important, but that perhaps could be attributed to her self-absorbed character. We know, however, that she won in another way. She became the mistress of Napoleon III.
Thus started Castiglione’s ascent in the French aristocracy, moving from one ball to another, sure of her beautiful countenance. She did attract attention at first, but she was soon hated because of her arrogance and self-importance.
Her favourable position in Paris did not last long. After an attempt on the Emperor’s life on his way out of her house, the Countess was abandoned by her now-bankrupted husband and eventually, she moved back to Italy in 1858 to lead a semi-reclusive life. Only to make a comeback in France – precisely in Passy – three years later.
Long before Kim Kardashian’s selfies… the narcissistic portraits of La Divine Comtesse
The great photographic collection (boasting more than 700 images) of La Castiglione is inexorably connected to the figure of Pierre-Louis Pierson, the photographer from the Mayer-Pierson studio.
The first set of photographs were taken during her first stay in Paris, from 1856 to 1858. As a young and conscious lady, photography was probably just another way of capturing her attractiveness on an image, aside from painting. So her first photos are pretty much standard, showing the usual postures and the fashion of those days. She bears the soft features of a teenaged mother and she’s prone to smiling. A timid smile that will soon disappear from the rest of her photographs.
I always find it fascinating to study portraits – either in full-length or from the bust up – of this era and appreciate their costumes. However, if I had to choose just one photograph of the young Castiglione from this period, it would be the one entitled La Baila (The Nursemaid). In this one, she is posing with her baby son and her chambermaid. What is striking here is the seemingly natural pose of the Countess, with her left hand raised on her hip while gazing directly into the lens. This is perhaps the first move of hers outside the conventions of portraiture.
The second batch of photos, from 1861 to 1867, came with her return to Paris. This is a slimmer, maturer Countess, back from a quasi-secluded life in her home country, but not yet ready to quit impressing the society around her. She is now more dedicated to photography, or to be more precise, more devoted to bringing her fantasies to life in the form of pictures.
Such fantasies are often rendered through fabulous costumes, which were often worn in balls. One of the most amazing is the Queen of Hearts, worn at a masked ball in 1857 and undeniably a symbol of her position with the Emperor. The photograph was taken years later as an attempt to recreate one of the Countess’s best social moments. The intricate dress and the puffed-up hair adorned with hearts frame Virginia’s deadpan gaze – an expression that will feature in the majority of her photos. This photograph will serve as the basis of the painting done by Aquilin Schad. Paintings will always be the ultimate aim of the Countess; she used photography as a first draft, later altered with her own drawings to direct the painters.
Another remarkable costume is that of the Queen of Etruria, worn at another ball in 1863. This time she caused a huge scandal and rumours said that she had been actually naked. This was only one of the rumours that would intensify the bad reputation of the Countess. One photo from a series taken with this costume, entitled Vengeance, was sent to her husband in Italy. Her cold, far-off stare and the dagger in her hand must have spooked the poor man, who by that time could not take anymore the news of scandal surrounding his estranged wife.
What would have caused more scandal – if they had been known at the time – were the photographs of her bare legs and feet. It was unthinkable in those days to expose these body parts, yet the Countess enjoyed the focus on them and because of the risqué nature of such images, her face did not appear. Yet she still liked the focus to be on other areas of her body as well, designing postures that would be of benefit to her eyes, shoulders and arms. In other photos, she is sitting with her gown evenly spread, in the form of symmetry. She also favoured reclining, either on a chaise or directly on the floor, paying particular attention to the position of her hands and neckline and the nature of her expression. A wink to the demimonde, populated by courtesans which were despised by her fellow aristocratic ladies.
Another intelligent way of enhancing her image was by using special props such as mirrors. The Countess would partially give her back to the photographer and look into the camera through the mirror. What better way to show off your beauty? The most notable use of props though is in the iconic photograph called Scherzo di Follia (featured at the very top of the post). Here, the Countess takes a black photo frame and holds it close to her face, peeking through the hole. The focus is thus on her eye, leaving the viewer curious about the actual nature of her expression behind the ‘mask’.
The last set of photographs was made from 1893 to 1895, after a long time away from the camera. With her youthful beauty long gone and replaced by a saggy skin, fallen hair and teeth, and painted eyebrows, the Countess once again turns to the medium of photography in her last attempt of re-experience her heydeys. Most of the photographs are modelled on her past creations. Alas, the result is rather depressing, for obvious reasons. What appears in these last photos – just a few years before her death – is the ghost of the Countess. Plagued by mental illness, her obstinacy in posing for more photos in the same manner as she used to in the past could have only made the people surrounding her feel uncomfortable. Amongst them was Jacques-Émile Blanche (son of the doctor who lived next door to the Countess back in Passy) who could not bring himself to paint her until well after her death.
Therefore, the second batch of photographs is what sealed Castiglione’s fame as a ‘photo model’. Questions naturally arise after analysing such pictures. How much of them was the work of Pierson and how significant was the influence of the Countess in their production? It is said that she was the mastermind. And could she have predicted the notoriety of her images? Most probably, she desired that but not for the reasons that actually make us admire her collection today.
She wanted to keep her cult alive after she was gone and in a way she did. Yet nowadays we study and appreciate her photographs as part of the progress of this medium in the 19th century. Through Castiglione’s ideas, photography passed from a mere projection of reality to a means of bringing imagination to life.
I wish I could browse this book with you readers and write something about each photograph, but it is not possible. So, I encourage you to find the book La Divine Comtesse if you are passionate about the history of photography. If you’re only just curious about this character, I urge you to look her up online (she’s featured in other articles and blogs) and to browse her images on the Pinterest board that I have created, which you can find below.
“La Divine Comtesse”: Photographs of the Countess of Castiglione
© 2000, The Metropolitan Museum of Arts