Since I’m in Piedmont, let’s talk about “La Contessa” the biography by Benedetta Craveri, which retraces the destiny of Countess Virginia de Castiglione. Based on numerous unpublished documents, Benedetta Craveri draws a more subtle portrait than that drawn by the previous biographies of the extravagant Countess, which often stopped at her gallant life only.

Born Virginia Oldoïni in 1837 in Florence but Piedmontese by marriage, the beautiful woman who was once the only, spoiled and imperious child of a couple of minor Florentine nobles, would successively become the mistress of King Victor-Emmanuel II, the mistress of Emperor Napoleon III and a pioneer of photography.

The young girl, celebrated for her beauty by a city whose spirit is free, is married at 16 to the Count of Castiglione and settles in the rigid Turin. Even if the marriage is a marriage of love, Virginia quickly becomes disenchanted with the realities of married life. Free as her Florentine city of birth, she quickly throws aside her marital obligations and takes lovers.

She is quickly commissioned by Cavour, her cousin and incidentally the minister of the King of Piedmont-Sardinia Victor-Emmanuel II, to convince the French Emperor Napoleon III to take up the cause of the creation of a unified and independent Italy.

The Italian peninsula is divided into several territories: the Duchies of Tuscany, Parma and Modena, the Papal States, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia and Lombardy and Veneto which are both controlled by Austria. Despite this fragmentation, an Italian national feeling (the “risorgimento”) is rising in opposition to the Austrian occupation.

Victor-Emmanuel II and Camillo Cavour fully embody this desire for national unification but seek European alliances.

French Emperor Napoleon III lends them a favorable ear, because he sees in their cause the occasion of placing France back in the center of the European diplomatic game. The imperial entourage is however hostile to any French involvement in Italian unification, fearing a conflict with the Papal States, which remain the cornerstone of a very Catholic Second Empire.

Instrumentalized by Cavour and Victor-Emmanuel II, Virginia moves to Paris in 1855 – it cannot be invented – Castiglione street (which has had this name since 1801). Before leaving for France, she becomes the mistress of Victor-Emmanuel II.

She is 18 years old, Napoleon III is 47. Adultery is quickly consummated, and will be so publicly for almost two years. Her contemporaries, even if they praise her exquisite beauty, point out her lack of charm and kindness. Moreover, the eccentricity of the young woman contrasts with the bourgeois court spirit that Empress Eugénie imposed on the Tuileries palace. The Emperor of the French soon tires of this narcissistic and domineering mistress.

Virginia goes into exile in Turin in 1857, for two long years of solitude, excluded from Piedmontese noble society. Her reputation and her perpetual conflicts with her husband preceded her.

This will not prevent her from presenting herself as the craftswoman of the Franco-Italian alliance.

The Treaty of Plombières of 1858 seals the alliance between Napoleon III and Cavour. It provides for military assistance from France to the Kingdom of Sardinia in the event of a conflict between the latter and the Austrian Empire, in return for the cession of the Duchy of Savoy and the County of Nice to France. In 1859, Austria enters the war against the Kingdom of Sardinia and, in accordance with the treaty, France intervenes alongside the Kingdom of Sardinia. Napoleon III, who faces a public opinion increasingly hostile to war, negotiates an armistice with Austria. Lombardy, the duchies of Parma, Modena and Tuscany are annexed to the Kingdom of Sardinia. The Kingdom of Italy is proclaimed in 1861 and the Duchy of Savoy and the County of Nice are attached to France, in return for French aid.

The names of Victor-Emmanuel II and Cavour will forever be associated with the victory of Italian unification – that of Castiglione, much less.

The clandestine and horizontal nature of her mission and her belonging to the female gender probably explain this lack of recognition, but it is certain that she served as an effective and intelligent messenger between French and Italian leaders.

Although she is no longer welcome in France, Virginia nevertheless returns to Paris in 1861. Always in debt, she tries to get into Napoleon III’s favor less for the prestige of a position of imperial mistress than for the financial advantages that such an affair would bring her. But her attempts fail.

Traveling constantly between France and Italy, she seduces Victor-Emmanuel III again, who pays her a pension until the end of her days.

In 1870, she is again used as messenger by the political power – French, this time. Adolphe Thiers, who was appointed national defense representative following the Sedan military defeat and the end of the French Second Empire, appeals to Virginia to ease the conditions of the Parisian occupation with Bismarck. The Countess has never ceased – both out of pure personal interest and a passion for the diplomatic game – to cultivate her contacts since the Parisian triumph of her youth. The number of letters and telegrams that she sends all over Europe between September and October 1870 is staggering.

We will never really know to what extent her involvement will have spared Paris, but one thing is certain, she instinctively anticipates the rebellion of the French capital that the Commune episode will constitute.

Alongside her career as a diplomatic courtesan, Virginia discovers photography when she meets Pierre-Louis Pierson, photographer-portraitist, in 1856. Their collaboration, which intensified upon her return from exile in 1861, will last, intermittently, forty years. She is a model and, even if the term does not yet exist, an artistic director. She decides on poses, costumes, props and retouching.

Virginia seeks theatricality where society seeks decent posterity. Her outfits and poses, far removed from the standards of portraiture, will often cause scandal. Through the lens, Virginia discovers the invention of the self and unknowingly foreshadows the culture of the selfie.

She will be immortalized in more than 400 photos – a staggering figure for the time – which represent the longest collaboration in the history of portraiture.

Aging, Virginia hides in her Parisian apartment, but the world – what is left of it at least, because the break-ups and deaths have been numerous over the years – comes to her.

Her legendary beauty is no more, but she decides, after twenty-five years, to find her way back to Pierson’s photography studio. We do not know if she deludes herself about her beauty or if on the contrary, she morbidly takes pleasure in her physical and social decline.

Virginia dies in 1899, at the dawn of a 20th century as turbulent as she was, poor and anonymous in a world that is no longer hers.

Her image will probably have been the artwork of her life, while her intelligence destined her, in other times, for a much richer future. She dreamed of being a diplomat, her time will have reduced her to the rank of “most beautiful woman of the century”. The staging and numerous photographic retouchings certainly say a lot about an assertive artistic approach but say even more about the deep narcissism that agitated the beautiful Countess.

She will not have cultivated any of the qualities that nurture inner magnetism – heart, empathy and kindness. Manipulative, narcissistic, perverse, she will have inflicted great pain on many lovers, her husband and her only son. Perhaps too spoiled as a child, afflicted by a fragile physical and mental health, depressed, often prone to delusions of persecution, Virginia will ultimately never have been in love with anyone but herself.

She wanted to be buried in the shirt she wore during her last night of love with Napoleon III. Her vanity in clinging to a 40-year-old night of love lead her to believe that it was her greatest feat of arms.

Her wish will not be respected, and on the announcement of her death, the Italian ambassador in Paris will immediately send an emissary to put under seal all the documents in the apartment of the Countess.

A figure of a forgotten Second Empire, her burial will take place without much pomp.

She will have inspired, in her innovative artistic approach and her search for staging, many past and contemporary portrait photographers.

She will also have inspired French writer Emile Zola for the character of the Italian courtesan Clorinde Balbi, who is as beautiful, manipulative and impudent as her model – and who prides herself on diplomacy.

She will finally have inspired Robert de Montesquiou who will publish, after a long investigation, “La Divine Comtesse” which will lay the foundation of a legend still alive – and almost always distorted.

This is indeed the tour de force of “La Contessa” by Benedetta Craveri: departing from the old legend, going back to the facts, searching the French and Italian national archives and discovering new sources which shed a new light on this Countess who devoted herself so much to mystery. Benedetta Craveri’s second tour de force is to make reading the biography of such an unlikable character breathtaking.

Dress found in an Italian village – Dior belt – Chanel sandals – Bulgari purse

And as I am also between France and Italy, here is the same dress in Menton.

Dress found in an Italian village – Dior belt – Chanel sandals – Valentino purse – Chanel sunglasses

August 25, 2023