Emperor Napoleon III
Empress Eugenie
Edouard Manet
Victorine Meurent
Virginia Oldoini
Duc de Morny


Virginia Oldoini

Virginia Oldoini, Countess de Castiglione (1837–1899), better known as La Castiglione, was an Italian courtesan who achieved notoriety as a mistress of Emperor Louis-Napoleon of France. She was also a significant figure in the early history of photography as a model and collaborator of photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson.

Born Virginia Oldoini in 1837 in Florence, she married Count Francesco de Castiglione at a young age. They had a son, Giorgio.

Her cousin, Count di Cavour, was a minister to the king of Italy. When the Castigliones traveled to Paris in 1855, the Countess was under her cousin's instructions to plead the cause of Italian unity with Louis Napoleon, Emperor of France. She became Napoleon III's mistress, a scandal that led her husband to demand a marital separation.

During her two year relationship with the French emperor (1856-1857), she was invited inside the very close circle of European royalty. She was hated by Empress Eugenie and the women at Court because the Countess was known for her "divine beauty" and flamboyant entrances in elaborate dress at imperial balls. One of her most infamous outfits was a costume in which she portrayed the Queen of Hearts, with the heart shaped medallion dangling in a suggestive area of her anatomy.

In 1856 she began sitting for Mayer and Pierson, the favored photographers of the imperial court. Over the next four decades she would collaborate with Pierre-Louis Pierson on over 400 photographs in which she re-created the signature moments of her life for the camera. Most of the photographs depicted the Countess in her theatrical outfits, such as the Queen of Hearts dress. A number of photographs depicted the Countess in ways that were undoubtedly risqué for the era -- notably, images that expose her bare legs and feet. In these photos, her head has been cropped out.

By 1857 the brief affair with Napoleon III was over, inducing her to return to Italy. Four years later, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed, conceivably in part due to the influence that the Countess had exerted on Napoleon III.

Just after the Franco-Prussian war, in 1871, she was called on by France to meet Otto von Bismarck in secret to explain to him how fatal would be the German occupation. She succeded, as Paris stayed free of prolonged Prussian occupation.

Virginia spent her declining years in an apartment on the Place Vendome where she had the rooms decorated in funereal 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 1899, she passed away at age sixty two, and was buried in Paris.


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