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By special guest writer Philippa Campsie, Toronto, Canada

Place Vendôme, Paris, by Barbara Redmond

Place Vendôme, Paris, by Barbara Redmond

The rue de Castiglione runs north from the Tuileries Gardens and opens into the Place Vendôme. This glittering street of high-end boutiques and elegant arcades was created in 1802 and named for one of Napoleon’s military victories, the Battle of Castiglione. But the name today evokes one of the later inhabitants of the Place Vendôme, at number 26: the mysterious Countess de Castiglione.

The story goes that in the 1890s, she lived there as a recluse, venturing out only at night, heavily veiled, in a carriage with the curtains drawn. Only a few servants ever saw her face, and there were no mirrors in her apartment.

The veiled countess of the Place Vendôme

The Countess was mourning the death of her former beauty and fame. She had arrived in Paris in 1855 at the age of 18, the teenaged wife of an Florentine count, and almost immediately became the mistress of Emperor Napoleon III. She had an oval, pale-skinned face framed by long blond hair, deep blue eyes, and a willowy body that she was not afraid to show off. At first, she wore only black, and she favoured gauzy, see-through fabrics that left very little to the imagination. At one ball, she wore a black dress slit to the waist, and hired a little boy as a page to carry her train, holding it high, so her legs were on display. Pretty daring for the 1860s.

Countess de Castiglione: fashion and politics

The emperor’s wife Eugenie was quite a fashionista herself (as we’ve mentioned in a previous post), but she hadn’t a chance against the Countess. Napoleon was mesmerized by her, and gave her gifts of jewels and an apartment on the rue de la Pompe (in what is now the 16th arrondissement). Black was her colour. She covered the walls of the apartment in black silk and the furniture with black taffeta. Her sheets were black satin. The only thing that shone in the dark were the many mirrors; she enjoyed looking at herself in them.

Now this would be enough to be remembered as a footnote in a history book, but there was a bit more to the Countess than just sexy clothes and a kinky decorating style. She did some freelancing as a political lobbyist, using her influence with the Emperor to get his support for causes in Italy (her cousin was highly placed in the court of Victor Emmanuel II, king of Piedmont, Savoy, and Sardinia). And during the France-Prussian war, she met in secret with the German minister Otto von Bismarck and (it is said) successfully discouraged him from ordering a German occupation of Paris.

Countess de Castiglione: photographer’s model

She was also a famous and unusual photographer’s model, in the days when photography was a very new technology. Over the years, her collaboration with the photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, produced about 400 photographs. In some she wore elaborate costumes. In one, she holds an oval picture frame to her face; only one eye is visible, peering out. Some of the strangest photographs show only her bare legs and feet, also visible through a picture frame. For early photography, the pictures have a surprisingly surrealist look.

The relationship with Napoleon lasted only a couple of years (he never kept his mistresses very long), but by then her marriage was finished too. After spending some years in Turin, she returned to Paris and to her life in society and as a model. When her beauty began to fade, she withdrew from the world to her apartment in the Place Vendôme. You can still see the house; it’s the one on the north side, on the corner. The jeweller Boucheron now occupies the ground floor of the building.

Towards the very end of her life, she came out of her seclusion briefly to sit for some final photographs. She wore some of her old costumes, but her hair had thinned and some of her teeth had fallen out and the results were depressing.

The Countess died in 1899 at the age of 62 and is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery. Her memory was kept alive in a biography by Robert de Montesquiou, a society dandy and the author of some very odd poetry, who collected the famous photographs.

We have not told you her full name. It was Virginie Elisabetta Luisa Carlotta Antonietta Teresa Maria, née Oldoini. But she wanted to be remembered as the most beautiful woman of the century. Perhaps she was.

Vocabulary: French to English translations

Miroir: Mirror
Photographe: Photographer
Photographie: Photograph
Un cadre: Frame
Une glace: Hand mirror or framed mirror

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Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond
All rights reserved.