A countenance of sculptural quality, with imposing proportions, bold lines, and rigid planes, in which the brow, magnificent and broad, attracted my eye and held it, as a focus of light…what struck me, in this cast of features, during this rapid minute and the memory that it left me of them, was that it seemed less supernatural than superhuman, almost without sex; that one could just as well have taken it to be that of a great man, an illustrious captain, or a famous poet.
– Robert de Montesquiou, La Divine Comtesse
Saints are generally commemorated on the day they die. Because that day, providing the post-life paperwork goes through and the candidate is verified as being in the company of You-Know-Who, is when they really go to work: listening to prayers, interceding, guest-starring in visions.
The Countess de Castiglione clocked on as an aesthetic divinity on this day in 1899 and has had a hectic afterlife, her legacy rich in dark glamour and layers of meaning for an image-obsessed age such as our own. Because unlike most saints she had gone to great trouble to create her own iconography, and by staging tableaux which recreated key scenes in her life, her own hagiography as well. Today, curating one’s own image is a pursuit available to anyone with a Facebook account and a digital camera; this phenomenon arguably began with the countess in Second Empire France.
Born Virginia Oldoini in Florence in 1837 to a venerable aristocratic family, she was married at just 16 to the Count di Castiglione. Soon after, the countess was sent to Paris on a mission by Italian Prime Minster Count Cavour to curry favour with the imperial court, and in 1856 she landed the boss himself, Napoleon III, as a lover.
From the same year dates her first encounter with the relatively new medium of photography. Working with photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson over almost 40 years, she created an unparalleled body of work in which she would pose as historical figures or in the manner of famous paintings, or simply lie languidly under the camera’s gaze. Castiglione was considered one of the great beauties of her day (though with downturned mouth, sharp nose and dark-ringed eyes more suggestive of insomnia than sensual allure, her look is definitely of its time). But she was by no means a mere model; she determined the costumes and poses and had many photographs hand-coloured to her specifications. Pierson’s contribution is comparatively minor.
Following an attempt on the emperor’s life carried out by Italian agents but in which she was entirely blameless, Castiglione retreated from public life, separating from her husband and returning to Italy, though in 1861 she was once more in Paris and soon in imperial favour again.
As her looks began to fade, Castiglione retreated once more, and towards the end of her life she rarely left her apartment on the place Vendôme, whose black-painted walls were devoid of mirrors. She nonetheless returned, half mad, for a few last sittings with Pierson before her death in 1899.
The company Castiglione kept after death gives you some idea of her personality. Above all, it was narcissistic aesthetes who were drawn to her cult and saw themselves reflected in her; three examples will suffice to illustrate this thesis.
Chief among the postulants was poet Count Robert de Montesquiou. The opening quote records his thoughts as he saw the countess in her coffin; note his conjecture that her features could just as easily be those of “a famous poet”. Despite a couple of close calls Montesquiou never got to see Castiglione in life, but his obsession with her became all-consuming and resulted in the book La Divine Comtesse in 1913. In the meantime he had collected a huge amount of her relics, and most of the extraordinary pictures which we admire today were once in his possession. He also imitated the Castiglione’s artistic feat with his own staged photographs. The count borrows much from his beloved countess: historical costume, impersonation of literary characters, hand-colouring.
Then there was the Marchesa Casati; most of the Castigliana not snapped up by Montesquiou seems to have fallen into her hands. Living in a palace once inhabited by Montesquiou (wheels within wheels…) Casati identified to an unusual degree with her countrywoman and in 1924 appeared at a ball in Paris dressed as the countess in a costume made by Erté.
Finally there was Ganna Walska, whose operatic career we recently examined, and who also coincidentally commissioned one-off pieces by Erté (…within wheels…), and bought most of the photographs of Castiglione which had belonged to Montesquiou (…within wheels). She also played the countess in a 1929 musical based loosely on her life in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, which her husband Harold McCormick had thoughtfully bought for her.
“She retreated into herself rather than retreating into God,” said Montesquiou of the countess. And in the afterlife, the woman he called “the Carmelite of her own beauty” continues to exert a deathless fascination through her eternally compelling portraits.
Tomorrow: The countess in the cinema