comtesse de castiglione

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Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione (La Castiglione) as Donna Elvira, a lady of Burgos abandoned by Don Giovanni, Photo by Pierre Louis Pierson, 1863.

Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione was a source of inspiration to Marchesa Luisa Casati.

Virgiana Oldoini (Italian, 1837-1899), countess of Castiglione. She was the spy and mistress of french emperor Napoleon III.

La Castiglione.

This was someone who didn’t follow the fashion trend. When she arrived at a party in Paris you could never figure out what she was wearing. It was like a costume, she invented everything. She was very mysterious and she didn’t want to talk. If she talked with someone, it was with men. She hated women. La Castiglione was a woman who left quite an impression.

At a certain point in finishing my first book, I realized, this will take everything I have. 

And the next thought I had was, Well, what was it all for, anyway?

And now as I finish the second one I can see, I’m at that place again. It should always be like that, I think. Everything goes there.

Here is my final cover art. The woman in the photograph is the Comtesse de Castiglione, and the photograph is perhaps known to some of you from the series of Pierson photographs exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’m very excited we could get permission to use it. During the Second Empire in Paris, the Comtesse was a married Italian noblewoman, a part of the Italian embassy, a spy, and is probably the most famous of the Emperor Napoleon the III’s mistresses. She was considered the most beautiful woman in Paris at that time.

Everyone always speaks of how important courtesans were politically, but they are also usually depicted as shallow professional beauties who met undignified ends. We never read of their alleged political importance. The Comtesse has always been considered a kind of demi-courtesan–too high-born to really be thought of as one, and yet she was, no question, a woman who survived in part on her beauty, and even used it as a weapon. People often try to fudge the distinction, but there is something important in there about privilege and the power women could have then. She was sent to Paris specifically by the Italian embassy to seduce the Emperor, and she did. And then she paid the price for it, not the embassy.

In one way, the Met Catalogue was no different from these kinds of narratives–you see her from her arrival in Paris at 19 as a beauty who literally stops the music as she enters her first court ball, to her end, as a woman who lived inside a house with black curtains and no mirrors, afraid to let anyone see her in decline, including herself. But as I read the catalogue’s essays, and the footnotes–in researching a novel, footnotes are incredibly important–I began to piece together what she might have been up to after her fall from grace, an intrigue that eventually shaped my novel’s plot.

She is not the novel’s narrator, but more the source, or anchor, for it’s subject. And the narrator’s most formidable antagonist.

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