Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione

Franck Fernandez – Translator, interpreter, philologist

There was a province called Italy, in times of the Roman Empire, but at the fall of the Empire, it was split in different independent regions. It was after Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, which gave birth to a contemporary and common Italian language, that, once more, all the different regions were unified into which what we know today as Italy.

Italy was divided and by the middle of the 19th century. The main states that formed the ancient Roman province of Italy, were the Kingdom of Sardinia and Piedmont, the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, the Papal States, which belonged to the Vatican; the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venice, in the hands of the Austro-Hungarian empire; and the duchies of Parma, Modena and Tuscany.

The Crimean War, 1853 – 1856, joined the British Empire, the Second French Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the small Kingdom of Sardinia and Piedmont; against Russian expansionism, in the Black Sea area, to favor the expansion to expense of the ottomans.

The King of Sardinia and Piedmont, Víctor Manuel II, was clever enough as to join the coalition against the Russians, and belong with the great empires of the moment. It was its Prime Minister, Count Cavour, who planned for his country to sit next to the great ones at the Paris Peace Conference of 1856. He knew that they would tall not only about the defeated Russia, but also about the Italian unification. This last one included as an obstacle, affecting the Austro-Hungarian empire, as the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venice was part of its terrotries.

At the time, France was ruled by Napoleon III, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew. He was called the III because he was the illegitimate son and heir of the Corsican. He had only one legitimate son, (he called him the Eaglet and King of Rome), but had passed away in Vienna, at the age of 17, to tuberculosis (Napoleon repudiated Josephine for failing to give him children and married Maria Luisa Habsburg). Napoleon III was first proclaimed President of France and then after a self-coup d’ètat, he proclaimed himself Emperor of the French. He was married to the very intelligent and beautiful Spaniard, María Eugenia de Montijo, who belonged the lower nobility of Córdoba. Napoleon III was an extremely womanizing man.

Count Cavour knew this, and he had a beautiful cousin, Virginia Oldoini, who belonged to the low Tuscan nobility. She was refined and well raised, she spoke five languages perfectly, and was gifted in music and dance. She married the Count of Castiglione. They had a son, Giorgio, from that marriage, who sadly died at a very young age, in Paris.

Count Cavour knew how his beautiful cousin, an unfaithful woman to her husband, could be useful in his efforts to convince the French emperor to support the claims of the small Kingdom of Sardinia and Piedmont, in their desire to unite all of Italy under the reign of Víctor Manuel II (who became King of Italy later on and became Víctor Manuel I).

The Castiglione family moved in right away, under the pretext of returning a visit to the cousin of the Countess, Maria Walewska (Polish mistress of Napoleon I), and whose son, Count Alexander Colonna Walewski, was Napoleon I’s illegitimate son.

The Earls of Castiglione were introduced to Napoleon III and María Eugenia de Montijo at a dance. Later, they met again, at Saint Cloud Castle and, by mutual agreement, became lovers. This was a scandal at court and the count had to move back to to Italy, and sold all his properties to pay his wife’s debts. María Eugenia de Montijo had to do what she always did: keep quiet. The truth is that Virginia was very successful in persuading Napoleon III, and pressure the Austria-Hungary empire to return the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venice.

The Castiglione’s family fall from grace began when, a group of 4 Italian anarchists, tried to assassinate the Emperor while leaving the Countess’s apartments. The French Ministry unfairly considered her as a participant in the plot, and expelled her from their territory.

Then came the defeat of Napoleon III at the Battle of Verdun, under Prussian troops. The beautiful Castiglione continued working as a diplomat, asking the Prussian Prime Minister, Otto von Bismarck, to avoid a humiliating occupation of Paris by the Prussian.

Virginia, countess of Castiglione, was a forerunner in the art of photography. The French photographer, Pierre Louis Pierson, took more than 450 pictures of the countess, for which she (herself), organized the scene and chose the costumes she would wear for them. She spent almost all her personal fortune on this project, but it was her way to give free rein to her narcissism. She even called herself “the most beautiful creature that has ever existed, since the beginning of the world”. Most of these clichés belong to the Metropolitan Museum of New York nowadays.

During the Third French Republic, with a defeated Napoleon III, and with her son and husband dead, Virginia Castiglione retired to her apartments, in Place Vendôme, all upholstered in black. She covered all mirrors with black fabric, to avoid seeing herself age. She died at the age of 62, forgotten by all, and accompanied only by her dogs, toothless, almost bald and suffering of senile dementia. It is said, that the Italian ambassador at the time, rushed to his apartment upon her death, to burn all the correspondence she had maintained with all the great men at the time, including the Pope.

Today her rests remain at the renown Père Lachaise cemetery, in Paris. Italy surely owes part of her independence to this great courtesan, because, she was one, no doubt.

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