Since the invention of digital photography and social media it is not uncommon for people to amass hundreds of photos of themselves. In the nineteenth century, that was not so easy to achieve. Virginia Oldoini, the Countess da Castiglione managed to provide us with over 400 pictures of herself between 1856 and her death in 1899 and it is her birthday that I am celebrating today.
She was born in Florence in 1837 and was the daughter of a Tuscan marquis. At seventeen, she married an Italian Count, but it was not a happy marriage, she had numerous affairs and extravagantly spent all his money, eventually leaving him bankrupt. In 1856 the couple visited Paris and she was urged by her cousin to plead the case for the unification of Italy with Emperor Napoleon III. Italy was then, not a single nation but a collection of city states. Her instructions were “succeed by any means you wish, but succeed.” She dazzled everyone at the French Court with her beauty. At a ball hosted by the Emperor, her entrance caused such a sensation that the even the orchestra stopped what they were doing to look at her. It wasn’t long before she became Napoleon’s mistress. The affair caused such a scandal that it led to her divorce.
It was during her affair with Napoleon III that she first visited the studio of Mayer & Pierson and discovered the delights of photography. She was terribly self absorbed and narcissistic and probably quite annoying to know. The Princess Metternich, wife of the Austrian ambassador, described her thus: “Wonderful hair, the waist of a nymph, and a complexion the colour of pink marble! In a word, Venus descended from Olympus!…after a few moments… she began to get on your nerves.” After her first portrait she went back again and again but she was no passive subject. She literally called the shots. With the help of photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, she began to recreate moments from her life and the beautiful and sensational gowns she had worn. Then, she began to dress up as historical, mythical or fictional characters. In one photo she might be a courtesan, in another a nun. When her ex-husband tried to get custody of their only child, Giorgio, she sent him a photograph of herself dressed as Medea holding a dagger dripping with blood. She would choose costumes, props, even camera angles and directed the hand colouring of some of the pictures. She became totally obsessed with her own image, spending all her money and even getting into debt in the process. Virginia Oldoini enjoyed particularly using mirrors in her photographs. Even when she was capturing her image for posterity, she was looking at herself. Some of her later photographs have an almost surrealist quality. There are photographs that are of just her legs, which was not only unusual but quite shocking for the time. There is even a photograph of her, from the waist down, lying in a coffin.
As she grew older she became reclusive, living in an apartment of rooms painted black. The blinds were kept drawn, there were now no mirrors and she only ventured out at night. This made her very mysterious and intriguing to a poet and dandy named Robert de Montesquiou. He loved the idea of a great beauty locked away in darkened rooms. He really wanted to meet her, but the Countess was then living a rather squalid existence and she declined to receive him. After she died in 1899, he claimed that he arrived at her funeral just in time to glimpse her face as the lid of her coffin was shut. When her possessions were disposed of, he bought her nightgowns and 433 of her photographs. He also composed her biography ‘La Divine Comtesse’. It is clear from her later photographs that she was mourning her fading beauty. Although her life long project was born of extreme narcissism the photographs are beautiful and it is a truly unique 19th century record of one woman’s life.