After Napoleon’s death in exile on the Island of Elena, France was in political turmoil. The rightful successor was Napoleon II. Unfortunately, he was put on the throne at an age when he could barely go to the toilet alone (he was only three), which both France and Europe as a whole found ridiculous. The whole Napoleon family were forced into exile and Napoleon II was sent to Austria. Later, the only rightful successors to the throne were Napoleon’s nephews – Louis-Napoleon and his older brother Napoleon-Louis, born through incest between Napoleon’s brother and his niece Hortensia, who absolutely hated each other and couldn’t stand living even in the same country. I know, there were too many Napoleons running around so far. The point is that after Napoleon-Louis’ death at 22 after an attack of measles, the youngest Napoleon nephew, Louis-Napoleon, sat on the throne in 1852. He was a strange looking man, with a funny body, short legs, stooping to one side and Europe laughed at him and called him “a clown” and a fool in the least. He did great things for France, his restoration work, innovations, the massive building activities in Paris are far too many to be listed, and he also led France into a devastating war with Prussia, leaving France in ruins. He died in England in voluntary exile, having no possessions and severely ill with kidney problems.
That was the man who introduced the name Virginia de Castiglione into history and into history of arts in the most dramatic way – much as the way she lived. Virginia was born to a small Italian aristocratic family. Her beauty was recognized everywhere, she was adored. At the age of 18 she was married to count Castiglione and obtained the title “countess”. At that age she gave birth to her only son Giorgio. At that age she was also sent to Paris on her uncle’s command to seduce Napoleon III and win him over to the Italian side. At that age Virginia became both the most loved and most notorious mistress of Napoleon III (the clown, as everyone called him, was not such a fool after all and he appreciated her beauty.)
Virginia shocked Parisians with her lifestyle. Her dresses were absolutely unique. There was beauty, extravagance, lavishness and quite a lot of drama in them. Parisian women didn’t particularly like her. It is said she was obsessed with designing clothes, but truth be told, they were so brave, so different, cost astounding amount of money and only a woman like Virginia could pull wearing them off. Her parties were matched to that dramatic, even theatrical staging she achieved by entering a room. No wonder Napoleon III was smitten with her. She sustained that relationship, as she was ordered, although she was married and had a child. Then, Napoleon III was assassinated and 14 of his people were killed by Italian carabinieri and although she had nothing to do with it, she was asked to leave Paris for a while. When she returned, Napoleon III had moved on to another mistress, or mistresses, but Virginia continued living her life the way she saw fit, the way she wanted it. Her husband got tired of spending money to cover her expenses, obtained a permission for separation and left her.
Virginia was an extremely beautiful woman and she saw the advantage of bedding politicians, influential men of great power, who sustained her lifestyle. After all, that was what she had been taught to do from an age when she was just a child. She developed relationships which suddenly happened to be beneficial for France and they exploited her close connection with Otto von Bismarck. She was sent on another mission to soothe his temper and win his benevolence during the Franco-Prussian negotiations.
They used her as they saw fit and abandoned her when they saw no profit from her. Drowning in deep depression bordering madness after having realized how her life was being exploited, she didn’t really manage to mentally process the death of her only 24-year old son and spent the rest of her life in a state of utter madness. She was forgotten and abandoned by everyone, but… future generations. She is more known now than ever before for her brave and exceptional contribution to art. The Queen of Drama Photography and Selfies.
Her longest love affair was with the camera and the man who stayed longest in her life was the photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson. He took her first picture in 1856 and the last one in 1895 – four years before she died. By 1861, of 55 pictures of her, 34 were his, and later he made 289 more of Virginia, 110 of her son and five of her dogs. The frames were never exhibited publicly. They were arranged in her home and were shown only to a circle of chosen people. Pierre-Louis Pierson was the founder of “Maison Mayer Frères et Pierson” – the most famous photographic studio and a great deal of its popularity was due to her exceptional photographs. Later he took photos of Emperor Napoleon III, the Queen of the Netherlands, the King of Portugal, and the King of Norway and Sweden.
What makes her photographs special is the story each of them tells. She used to make the choreography and tied to convey meaning and a whole plot in one single shot. In each photo Virginia’s dresses were a real piece of art, stunning, lavish, exuberant. Probably, at times she was overdoing it – one look at “The Silk Dress” is enough for one to wonder how these countless meters of cloth were tailored into a dress, but then you get carried away with the beauty of it all and forget what the question was. Virginia was the first person to apply what we know today as “Photoshop”. On some pictures she would add colour to the dress adding shiny black paint, or drawing grapes of striking red and calming green. Then she would go on removing the hair and drawing grapes there. She wasn’t pressing the button of the camera and she wasn’t holding the brush, but she was doing all the thinking, the ideas were entirely hers and also the idea of making compositions of the photographs came from her. The series “The Fright” was based on scenes from her life, some were a product of her imagination and were also combined with ideas and episodes from theater, mythology, opera and literature. The whole chorography of each of her series is the very essence of today’s selfies, flooding social media, but the quality was exceptional and truly artistic. The exact source of “The Fright” is still unknown. Many speculate it was a story made-up by her, but what one sees in them is a woman who envisions herself as femme fatale.
To many, her obsession with photography was just vanity, a haunting desire to preserve the beauty of youth. To many, she was too obsessed with her looks. Given the circumstances in her life, it may be true. But let’s get back to the beginning – she was suffering from horrid depression episodes. She was not a happy self-absorbed person. What’s wrong with loving oneself anyway? But I don’t think that was the case. She was wounded, sold, passed from one political interest to the next with no regret and no regard.
So many portraits of women from old times have been preserved till now and women, who were once seen as exceptional beauties, look kind of… well, not that great if we have to be honest. Different times – different tastes. If there was a time machine and if we could show a picture of Angelina Jolie to a monarch in the 16th century, he would laugh at our obsession with skinny women. Virginia Castiglione was one of the very few women whose allure is appreciated today. In the photos she looks truly gorgeous and has the aura of a haunted and haunting beauty even when she was sixty years old. A woman’s body was a guided secret, her femininity being expressed only through the colours and shapes of her clothes and while most went along with the latest fashion, as is also the case today, she never let go of her own freedom to choose what to wear and she held on to that freedom at any cost.
In “Scherzo di Follia” (“Joke Madness”) made between 1863 and 1866, we see Virginia hiding a part of her face with an empty frame in her right hand, through which she is looking at the viewer. Her shoulder is bare, the other is covered by her hair. It’s like she’s trying to imply the idea that a woman with exposed skin is not really open to you. It could be any woman with a bare shoulder and in the end the observer, although noticing the bare skin, is looking at a face hiding so many mysteries. It’s almost impossible to decipher the expression of her face, but it seems empty, like a picture of a void within a picture of a woman with no face. Given the fact that taking photographs required longer time, it is really difficult to say whether the empty expression was a provocative act of feminism, or she was just too bored and tired.
Future generations will make so many assumptions, and assuming is the worst we can do when it comes to a person. Most certainly, Virginia never succumbed to the position society appointed to her, she was never the obedient wife and devoted mother. She disagreed with the role she was forced to play in politics, a role which involved lending her body. Probably photography was an expression of her own will, an obsession which was driven by her desire for emancipation through her own images.
In 1867 her portrait “Lady of Hearts” which she had staged, arranged, and given all the ideas for, was shown at the Paris Universal Exhibition. There were other photographs of the “Maison Mayer et Pierson”. Virginia hoped she would be given an exhibitor’s ticket and her efforts would be recognized, but she was denied the honor, because the rule was that the ticket went to the photographer only.
In the last year of her life, Virginia de Castiglione attempted to organize an exhibition of all her portraits, which she rightfully saw as her personal achievement and contribution. The exhibition was to be called The most beautiful woman of her century and it was arranged to show a deep self-searching process of inventing and creating, her beauty destined for immortality even when her life was marred with her decline and illness.
The photographic work of the Countess of Castiglione still stuns or at least fascinates the artist of the 21st century. It is brave, provoking contemplation on human’s identity, the soul and the body seen from an intimate perspective and then through the lens of society’s camera. How much of it was true, how much of it was her imagination? Is one’s imagination the true expression of the inner self or in her case, was it just vanity?
One thing is sure – she was not merely one of mistresses of the many Napoleons, as society at that time wanted us to remember her. She was a true artist, who I came upon accidently, while reading about the occupation of Paris in 1868, but that’s another story.
-By Geri Decheva