The name of Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione, is linked to Second Empire political and courtly intrigues, to the glamour of the Court at the Tuileries and to the splendour of a cosmopolitan Paris, the world capital of fashion and pleasure.
Born in Florence in 1837, Virginia Oldoini married the Count Verasis de Castiglione very young. A cousin of Cavour and a close relation of Victor Emmanuel of Savoy, king of Piedmont, she was sent to Paris in 1856 to plead the cause of Italian unity with Napoleon III.
Her arrogant beauty was a sensation at court. During the same year, she became the emperor's mistress. In 1857, after a heart-breaking rupture, she went back to Italy. She was not to come back to France to settle there permanently before 1861. Separated from her husband, she then had many liaisons in the world of finance, aristocracy and politics.
After the fall of the Empire in 1870, she lived more and more secluded from the world, keeping around her an atmosphere of mystery, exciting the curiosity of Robert de Montesquiou who developed a real fascination on her. They were never to meet, but he collected numerous objects previously belonging to her. In 1913, he published a book entitled La Divine Comtesse. La Castiglione died in 1899, aged 62.
Virginia de Castiglione left a real imprint on her epoch: photographs of her regularly illustrated publications of the time. She was behind some five hundred photographs made during a forty-year collaboration (1856-1895) with the photographer of the Imperial Court, Pierre-Louis Pierson (1822-1913).