Virginia Oldoini (1837–1899), born to an old and noble Florentine family, entered into an arranged and loveless marriage at age seventeen to the Count Verasis di Castiglione. In 1856, then eighteen, the countess was sent to Paris by her cousin, the minister to King Victor Emmanuel of Piedmont, to bolster the interest of Napoleon III in the cause of Italian unification. Her beauty and vivacious manner caused a sensation at the French court—the Austrian ambassador's wife declared herself "petrified before the miracle of her beauty"—and she quickly became the emperor's mistress. Scandalized by his wife's flamboyance and indiscretion, the count demanded a separation. Although the affair with Napoleon seems to have been quite brief, ending in 1857, the countess continued to be a glamorous and influential fixture of Parisian society, forming numerous liaisons with notable aristocrats, financiers, and politicians.
After the fall of the Second Empire, in 1870, she lived an increasingly reclusive and eccentric life in her Paris apartment, venturing out only at night, shrouded in veils. Following her death, at the age of sixty-two, her reputation as a woman of mystery and "divine beauty" endured, thanks in large part to the legacy of her photographic oeuvre. Among the aesthetes of fin-de-siècle Paris, her life was the subject of admiring and often obsessive curiosity. Prominent among them was Robert de Montesquiou, who spent thirteen years writing her biography, La Divine Comtesse (published in 1913), and also assembled a large collection of her photographs, 275 of which were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in 1975. Her life has also been the subject of numerous subsequent biographies and a 1955 film, La Castiglione, starring Yvonne de Carlo.
Still, the most evocative and celebrated record of the countess's life is the series of portraits by photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, principal in the Paris studio of Mayer & Pierson. By the 1850s this elegant establishment—described as a veritable "palace of photography"—had an international clientele that included the Rothschilds and Rossini, as well as members of the French imperial court.
Pierson's earliest photograph of the countess, The Black Dress (Martini di Cigala Collection, San Giusto a Rentennano, Siena), dates from 1856, a few months after her arrival in Paris, and shows her demurely posed before the camera, her hair in ringlets and wearing a black velvet evening gown. Soon, however, the images began to take on the elements of fantasy and personal display that would become hallmarks of her collaboration with Pierson. In a photograph of 1856–57, for example, she appears pale and solemn in the white garb of a nun. In the Queen of Hearts (1861–63), re-creating her appearance at a masked ball, she is a personification of love in a voluminous gown and veil festooned with roses and hearts. In The Queen of Etruria (1863), also reprising one of her costumes for a ball, she is an exotic and imperious ruler from antiquity. Provided with titles of her own choosing, and often elaborately painted under her direction, these images were frequently sent to lovers and admirers as tokens of her favor. However, Vengeance (1863–67), was sent to her estranged husband following his threat to remove their son from her care. It shows the countess, with disheveled hair and a murderous look on her face, grasping a dagger. In Scherzo di Follia (Game of Madness, 1861–67), one of the most celebrated images in the series, the countess peers at the viewer with one eye, through the black oval of a photograph frame. Toward the end of her life, following a hiatus of some twenty-five years, the Countess de Castiglione resumed her sessions with Pierson. In Rose Trémière (1895), the fifty-eight-year-old countess appears girlishly costumed in a décolleté gown and wig decorated with roses. Le Pé (1894) is a photograph of her feet, a feature of which she had been especially proud in her youth, now distorted by age. The exhibition also includes a terracotta cast of these famous feet (private collection) and one of her lace fans.