Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione (1837 – 1899), better known as La Castiglione, was an Italian aristocrat who achieved notoriety as a mistress of Emperor Napoleon III of France. She was also a significant figure in the early history of photography. Here are some of stunning vintage portraits of Countess De Castiglione:


Three versions of Frayeur (or “Fright”), photographed by Pierre Louis Pierson, c. 1860.

These photographs depict the Comtesse de Castiglione, an Italian noblewoman who became notorious figure in 1860s Paris, posing for a scene in which she flees from a fire in a ballroom. They not only show a desire to colorize photographs as early as the 1860s, but also illustrate the active role the Countess played in her collaborations with Pierre-Louis Pierson. Coloration in early photography was also a simple way to alter the appearance of the model, and the Countess’s features and expression are considerable softened in the final photograph. 

The first image is an albumen print from the glass negative taken by Pierre-Louis Pierson. The second is a salted paper print with color added by the Countess herself, and it even includes handwritten instructions for the rest of the coloration on the back. The third, another salted paper print, was colored by a professional artist.


Various photographs of the bare legs of La Comtesse de Castiglione.

The countess enjoyed transgressing the standards of propriety for women of her social class. By addressing herself directly to male fantasies of the day, fixated on women’s legs concealed by modesty and the demands of fashion, the countess unashamedly drew inspiration from actresses and dancers from the variety theater, who wore stockings intended to tone down the shocking indecency of such a spectacle. She committed a double transgression when she had both her legs photographed naked, without protective stockings, as only low-class prostitutes and models dared. The photograph, however, shows only the lower part of the body, thereby concealing the sitter’s identity (source).

I believe I once read that the Countess thought that her legs were the most beautiful part of her body.