Virginia Oldoini’s proto-perfomance, Contessa di Castiglione.

photo Virginia Oldoini was a young and charismatic descendent of a noble Florentine family. From her birth, in 1837, she had been pampered due to her rare beauty. She had a proud and haughty demeanor and was thoroughly spoilt. When only seventeen she married Count Francesco Verasis of Castiglione, courtier of King Vittorio Emanuele II as the result of an affair which started as a frivolous flirtation. And so she rose to the rank of Countess, Countess of Castiglione and the legend of her desirability had begun. She was even rumoured to have been the king’s lover. However, it is only when her trail-blazing path met the magic of photography that she became truly immortalised [1].
The opportunity was provided through her cousin Camillo Benso Count of Cavour who, well aware of the Countess’ uninhibited charms. He asked her to go on a journey to France with a plan to target Emperor Napoleon III’s passion for beautiful women. The mission is evident: to frequent the French Court, to charm the Emperor, and then to seduce him to the anti-Austrian cause and to Cavour. For the Countess of Castiglione it isn’t difficult to achieve: as soon as she sets foot on French soil in 1856, she immediately becomes the star of all the parties and balls of the Tuileries. She becomes the Emperor’s favourite of the moment. The Countess being the most showy and talked-about in high society makes no effort to turn away the attentions of admirers and gossips: on the contrary she spends her efforts projecting her image and selecting her clothes, playing up to the audience. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ball she dresses as “Queen of Hearts”, wearing a semi-transparent organza, quilted with hearts, the hearts covering only the bare essentials. The Empress, jealous and rancorous, confides resentfully to her: “this evening, Countess, you have a heart that is a little low”. On another occasion she chose to embody Italy putting on her head the golden towered crown that was Napoleon III’s present, at another time she covers herself with soft swan feathers pinned to very close-fitting flesh-coloured tights - she plays the part of famous actresses, of opera heroines, of historical female characters such as Elvira, Ritrosetta, the Queen of Etruria, Beatrix, the Madonna, Rachel, Medea, Anna Boleyn, Virginia and Lady Macbeth. One evening she even dares to appear at a benefit party dressed as a Carmelite nun, while a violinist accompanies her with Chopin’s dead march.
But the most interesting thing in her story is her contact with photography. In fact, even though she changed residence many times during her years in Paris she remained a constant visitor of the famous Mayer&Pierson portraiture photographic studio until her death in 1899. From a certain moment of her life, the Countess began suffering from neurasthenia and depression, retiring more and more into her house, allowing only her family doctor, Dr. Blanche, and photographer Pierre Louis Pierson to visit her. It’s simple: the Countess instinctively realized that photography would give her the immortality she was looking for, that it would offer her the possibility to live again, virtually, the best moments of her life, to share them with her accomplices and lovers. The story goes as follows: after having performed at these outrageous and excessive parties, Castiglione ran to Pierson’s studio, dressed exactly the way she had just appeared publicly and once again played her role before the lens.
The scenes were re-constructed, the dresses once again put on, wigs and jewels all placed in their correct positions. Everything was accurately prepared and then by dint of Pierson’s sharp eye the magic of photography unfurled. She was so in love with herself and her image that as the years advanced and old age encroached she fell into a pathological state. To her the narcissism offered by Pierson’s work was a priceless gift. In those photographs Castiglione shows such star-quality and awareness of photography that she looks every bit a modern performer, a “body-artist” ahead of her time.
For one who lives by the cult of Self and of image the click of a camera is an voracious temptation. The possibility to play many roles and identities, to live the life you’d like, impersonating for a moment the roles of great heroines or characters. In the meantime those photographic sessions and performances become eternal, frozen into images, to be seen an infinite number of times, sent to lovers, distributed generally, to leave an indelible memory of fantasies made credible [2]. This is the reason why the Countess frequented so assiduously Pierson’s studio. Between the Countess and Pierson, it was she who was the real artist, the real creator - and also the true director of the performances. She made notes on the borders of the film negatives advising how to cut the images and how to give prominence or colour to certain details. She sketched and made the paper-pulp and lace frames for the photographs, she wrote the scenarios in which all the dresses, sittings and furniture were arranged.
Castiglione looks today like a complete artist, a director able to elaborate in its full complexity the whole aesthetic realm that follows from these reckless photographic adventures. Pierson embodies the excellent, irreplaceable, and perfect support that technical ability has to provide. Yet, the whole idea, the real conceptual dimension of the images that we can still see today, the art, comes entirely from the Countess [3]. She used to say: “All or nothing” and she faced photography with the same attitude. During the years from 1856 to 1958, from 1861 to 1867 and from 1893 to 1895 she posed infront of the camera about 500 times at Pierre Louis Pierson’s studio. Even during her final years whilst dogged by nervous illness, shy and full of fears (she used to leave by night and covered with black drapes the walls and mirrors in Place Vendome and Rue Cambon), she never failed to meet her appointment with the cold automation of the photographer’s lens. She realized that those moments before the click are the only thing allowing her escape and narcisistic flight that her life was no longer granting.
Dying at the end of the century she couldn’t complete the grandiose design she had in her mind: to celebrate her obsession with herself in an exhibition that had to be dedicated to “the most beautiful woman of the century”.
The Countess failed in her last mission, but her clever intuition of the power of photography ultimately made her myth defeat time: her performances and her disguises live on are considered extraordinary precursors to the works of many famous contemporary artists, such as Luigi Ontani, Pierre Moliner and Cindy Sherman.

[English translation by Claudia Borsari and Robert Watson]

[1] M. Corgnati-C. Ghibaudi (a cura di), La Contessa di Castiglione e il suo tempo, Milano 2000; AA.VV., La Divine Comtesse, Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione, New Haven e Londra 2000; M. Grillandi, La contessa di Castiglione, Milano 1980; F. Muzzarelli, Il corpo e l’azione. Donne e fotografia tra otto e novecento, Bologna 2007.
[2] In order to feed her love affairs the Countess used to send, as well as photographs, plaster copies of her feet, breasts and hands to her various lovers.
[3] Among the Countess’ remaining images (it seems that her heirs and other owners destroyed the ones they judged more obscene), 288 pictures are in an album kept at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, while 25 calotypes are in the album she personally gave to Costantino Nigra, and is now at the Museum of Risorgimento in Torino.

FOTO 1 > PIERRE-LOUIS PIERSON, Scherzo di follia, 1863-66
FOTO 2 > PIERRE-LOUIS PIERSON, Assasination, 1961-67