Places: Place Vendôme

Perspective: it’s a remarkable thing.

Consider the Italian aristocrat and courtesan Countess de Castiglione, who lived much of her life in France. Those in whom her name elicits recognition will most likely know her as the subject and co-author of the most remarkable series of photographic portraits of the 19th century. Now largely in the possession of New York’s Met, this body of work would also – you might think – be a gift to a biographer, abounding with details of Castiglione’s life and rich in psychological portent. And that’s before you consider its wider significance – its impact on fellow aesthetes, inspiration for artists and the astonishing premonition of the present age’s image-saturated culture of narcissism which it represents.

Read the most recent biography of Castiglione, however, and you’ll find one paragraph about the countess’s photographic works in 230 pages which detail Second Empire intrigue and espionage in bewildering detail. The author, French historian Claude Dufresne, has also written a biography of Maria Callas; I can only imagine it dwells at length on her relations with Onassis, noting towards the end that she was known, on occasion, to sing.

Dufresne’s 2002 study of Castiglione does at least illuminate the countess’s later years, when she retreated to her quarters on Paris’s Place Vendôme which, then as now, occupy the floor above a Boucheron boutique. The beauty which she and others had raised to an ecstatic cult had left her, and Castiglione mourned its passing, dressing her walls in black, sleeping through the day and banishing mirrors lest she catch sight of time’s impertinent progress. Meals were delivered from a restaurant through a door left ajar and the countess only ever left the apartment under veils and the mantle of night. It was a thrillingly morbid scenario, a gothic mise-en-scène authored by a woman who transformed her life into an unprecedented artistic gesture. It’s appropriate, then, that we must raid literature to find Castiglione’s true kindred spirits: Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, The Fall of the House of Usher’s Madeleine and Des Esseintes, hero of Huysmans’ À rebours who hosts an entirely black-themed banquet to “mourn” the loss of his virility.

The octagonal square where Castiglione lived out her twilight years in crepuscular gloom was erected under Louis XIV to celebrate his military glory. Its elegant arcaded facades were once just that: facades, erected by speculators to attract investment to the area. During the Revolution the heads of aristocrats were brandished here on spikes; later Napoléon speared the Place Vendôme with a vainglorious column made from melted-down enemy cannons in the shape of a field marshal’s baton and set himself, in Roman imperial drag, at its summit.

Frédéric Chopin died on the Place Vendôme in 1849, bitching that George Sand wasn’t around for him to die in her arms, as she had promised. One of his last acts was a signed order that his veins be opened before interment to prevent premature burial (more shades of Poe!). His death chamber became quite the A-list hotspot; in her book Chopin’s Funeral, Benita Eisler refers to a contemporary cartoon of a weeping woman, “identified in the caption as the only noblewoman who had not been present at Chopin’s deathbed.” After the great composer breathed his last, he was subject to what was most probably the first invasive paparazzi raid when two enterprising photographers tried to get shots of the corpse. It was long thought that they left without their quarry, but a collector came forward earlier this year with what he claimed was an image of the dead Chopin.

Place Vendôme’s Napoleonic war trinket was toppled during the 1871 Commune; Bohemian painter Gustave Courbet, who had previously rejected a Legion d’Honneur from Napoleon III as a matter of principle, was on the committee which ordered its dismemberment. Once order was restored and revenge dispensed, the artist was singled out for blame, a photo supposedly showing him at the site used as evidence against him. Courbet was charged for the re-erection of the column; unable to pay, he fled into exile. Considering the artist had used his powers to protect countless art treasures against looters, it was a grave injustice.

Celebrity Belle Époque gynaecologist Samuel Jean de Pozzi also lived on Place Vendôme, and during Castiglione’s tenure it welcomed its most famous resident, the Ritz Hotel, which offered succour and respite to the exhausted mega-rich after their circuits of the luxury boutiques which lined the rest of the square. It was in the Ritz pool in 1997 that the “last courtesan”, Pamela Harriman, took her last swim, during which she suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, dying the next day. And of course later in the year Diana embarked for her last spin from the same hotel; like Chopin, she would face the paparazzi in death.

Connecting the square to the Tuileries gardens is the rue de Castiglione (a strange coincidence – it has nothing to do with the countess, rather an Italian town which was the theatre of a Napoleonic victory). It was at the now-vanished Tuileries Palace that Castiglione first captured the heart of Emperor Napoléon III, in 1856. Needless to say, the infatuation failed to delight the Empress Eugénie (to whom Napoléon III had proposed, as it happens, on Place Vendôme). One of the countess’s most notorious public appearances saw her arrive at a ball in a sheer dress, slashed at the sides, decorated with hearts. The Empress caught sight of one such strategically placed ornament. “Your heart seems a little low,” she commented coolly.

As the 19th century drew to a close, both women were in internal exile. Castiglione returned to her collaboration with photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, though she exhibited signs of incipient madness. The images which resulted are all the more remarkable because so few actually laid eyes on her in this time. Sadly there are no images of Castiglione’s tenebrous interior, which only serves to intensify its mystique, but a photographic fragment taken by Pierson depicts the exterior at the time she was living there. The Countess de Castiglione died on this day in 1899.

We’ve already covered Castiglione’s aesthetic legacy at some length, but I recently came across the work of contemporary American artist T.J. Wilcox, whose collages and videos incorporate images of Sissi, Marlene Dietrich, Marchesa Casati, Marie Antoinette – and Castiglione. He pictures her, Godzilla-like, stalking the Place Vendôme. A selection of his images is included in the slideshow below.

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20 comments

  1. La Divine Comtesse! I have been obsessed with her since I got this book several years ago:

    http://www.amazon.com/Divine-Comtesse-Photographs-Castiglione-Metropolitan/dp/0300085095

    One of these days I’m going to write a chamber opera about her. Because I’m almost as delusional as she was!

    • Hmm, I didn’t know an Amazon ad was going to appear. What next?

      • What an age we live in! And I DIE for the idea of a Castiglione chamber opera. Do it!

      • A few years back I had started work on an aria in which she sings the praises of her feet, which she had scandalously allowed to be photographed—bare—up to the ankle. Unfortunately my notebooks from that time were lost back in Portland, under dubious circumstances. Once I’m settled back here in Chicago I may resume that project. It will have a Stephen Sondheim meets Philip Glass feel to it, if that makes any sense at all. And it will feature the young, pretty countess along with the crazy old one. Why not?

      • In my compulsive babbling about my own crazy ideas, I neglected to mention what a wonderful post this is, and how surprised I am about that book barely mentioning the photographs! Now that I have, I shall move on.

      • Babble on! I love the idea of the mad old countess duetting with her younger self. Have you seen this by any chance? It’s a touch academic for my weekend-addled brain, but I plan to return to it with a carafe of coffee some time.

      • I have not seen that but it looks great, thanks for sharing! And again, if you don’t already own it I highly recommend the above-mentioned catalog from the Met show. A must for any fan of La Castiglione!

  2. Bernard Yenelouis

    What a pleasant post. I have interests in both the in the Comtesse & the Place Vendome, for very different reasons; to see them situated together makes it all the richer. In the early world of photography there was a also a new public sphere of images: the Comtesse’s images were collected by Robert de Montesquiou, along with (if I am remembering properly) a plaster cast of her well-photographed feet.

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