Castiglione, Virginie, Countess de (b. 1837)

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Castiglione, Virginie, Countess de (b. 1837)

Florentine noblewoman sent to France to influence Napoleon III. Name variations: Virginia Oldoini or Oldoïni; Contessa Virginie di Castiglione. Born in Florence on March 22, 1837; died after 1875; daughter of Marchese Filippo Oldoini (a diplomat and erstwhile tutor to Prince Louis Napoleon) and an invalided mother; granddaughter of jurist Lamporecchi; cousin of Count Camillo di Cavour; married the Count Francesco di Castiglione, in 1851 (some sources cite 1855); children: (with Castiglione) one son; (with Napoleon III) one son, known in later life as Dr. Hugenschmidt, a dentist.

Emperor Napoleon III had a habit of listening to the views of his many paramours on affairs of state. After consulting with his advisers and Empress Eugenie , he was known to do an about-face the morning after a night of love, and Eugenie once told a friend that she hated these "influences by night."

In 1855, one Virginie Oldoïni, countess de Castiglione, arrived from Italy: a present to Napoleon from Count Camillo Cavour, an Italian aristocrat and master manipulator of Europe's diplomatic scene, and the chief counsel to the king of Sardinia. Cavour and his king, Victor Emmanuel II, were intent on the unification of Italy. Because Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria held Italy's rich northern provinces, Cavour needed the help of the French military to take on the Austrian emperor. Thus, the Countess Castiglione was sent to Napoleon with instructions to obtain a Franco-Italian alliance, stipulating that if Austria made war, France would join with Italy in combat.

The daughter of a diplomat, Virginie di Castiglione grew up lonely in a large palazzo in Florence, the home of her grandfather, Lamporecchi, a well-known jurist. By age 12, she was a great beauty, and her ailing mother was actively seeking suitors for marriage. At age 14, in 1851 (some sources claim age 18), she became the wife of a young widower, Count Francesco di Castiglione, equerry to Victor Emmanuel. Francesco was also the king's procurer. Thus, the countess was soon involved with the king, as well as others, including her cousin Count Camillo Cavour. Cavour soon realized that her talents could be put to better use. He groomed her for espionage, provided her with an eyecatching wardrobe and a codebook, and sent the 20-year-old to Paris. "A beautiful countess has just been enrolled in the Italian diplomatic corps," Cavour wrote to the foreign minister of Turin: "I have invited her to flirt with the emperor, and I promised her that if she succeeds, I will get her brother the position of secretary to the embassy in St. Petersburg."

Cavour sent word ahead that Paris was about to visited by the "most beautiful woman in Europe." Because of the advance notice, when the countess made her first public appearance—a tardy, contrived entrance at a Tuileries ball—the dancing stopped, along with the orchestra. After she made her obeisance to the emperor and empress, Napoleon asked her to dance; their affair began soon after. The countess spent weekends at his villa at St. Cloud and could be seen strolling the evening paths at Compiègne. As a member of the Florentine nobility, Castiglione easily accessed the French upper strata, getting to know Princess Mathilde (1820–1904) and Countess Marianne Walewska . Looking back, Lady Holland (Mary Fox ) wrote that, in all her years of entertaining, she could recall only one woman: "as being absolutely faultless, alike in figure and feature, from the crown of her head to the sole of her foot," la belle Castiglione.

Eugenie, who always knew of her husband's affairs, knew immediately. At a time when French actresses appeared at Parisian balls in sparing attire, Countess Castiglione outdid them. She pioneered the see-through top, sometimes wearing little more than her beauty, and quickly became a Paris sensation. On the streets, citizens climbed lampposts to see her; in England, those of quality stood on chairs to glimpse her latest outrage. When the countess arrived at one ball as the Queen of Hearts in a gown so low-cut that only decorative hearts covered her breasts, Eugenie commented, "You wear your heart rather low down, don't you?," and sent her home.

Even so, Castiglione had the emperor firmly in her pocket. Napoleon loved the intrigue, sending missives back and forth between Florence and Paris. But she was also in league with two of Napoleon's enemies: Thiers and the duke d'Aumale. Much that has been handed down of the countess comes from the many letters she sent back to Florence and to one of the duke d'Aumale's secretaries, a man named Estancelin with whom she had a 45-year relationship.

By night, she and Napoleon III plotted French-Italian strategy, while he blithely bypassed his ministers. By day, she carried documents from one embassy to another or drove to the border to deliver information in person to her husband who, in turn, met with Cavour. She was ambitious and calculating. Despite the warnings of his police, Napoleon continued his evening talks. His ministers brought in Marguerite Beranger , an ex-circus rider, to counter the effects of the countess, but to no avail.

In 1858, with none of his ministers the wiser, Napoleon had a secret meeting with Cavour at Plombières, France, and offered the Italian diplomat all that he was after: the services of the French military. Soon, the countess told Napoleon that Austria had infiltrated Italian borders, and Napoleon immediately led his troops to Italy. The French were quickly victorious. But to the countess' and Cavour's fury, with a war only partially won, Napoleon made peace with Francis Joseph of Austria and brought his troops back to France. Eugenie had called him home.

"I would have made him a conqueror," the countess fumed to a friend, "in word, in deed, in private and in public … but my Napoleon did not dare, and I abandoned him and his concerns." Some say Napoleon was getting bored with his countess, possibly because she might have been involved in a half-hearted attempt on his life. There are two versions to the story. In the first, Napoleon left Castiglione's house in the Avenue Montaigne one early morning and was attacked by three Italian thugs but saved by his driver. In another version, as the emperor entered the countess' room during an assignation, her maidservant signaled someone in the shadows of the darkened stairwell. A man appeared and climbed the stairs. As luck would have it, a member of Napoleon's secret police was standing in a separate shadow. When the man, armed with a revolver and a poisoned stiletto, turned the handle to enter the room, the constabulary stabbed him in the back and killed him. Though this might have been a French setup to put the countess in a negative light, Castiglione was quickly banished from France, and Eugenie had one less mistress to deal with.

In Turin, the countess lived in an isolated hilltop house with her small son. To all appearances, she was haughty, self-absorbed, and vain (she sat for 190 photograph sessions), a cold-hearted beauty who did not suffer anyone gladly and received few visitors. But a French diplomat, Henri d'Ideville, was granted an interview and returned often. Eventually, the countess spoke candidly with him. Henri wrote that he discovered a warm, generous, intelligent person. When asked why she wore the haughty mask, she responded: "I scarcely began my life, when my role was ended."

Eventually the countess returned to Paris where she entertained and tried to maintain her beauty, hiding her age and that of her son, dressing him as a groom in her household (he lived with the servants), conspiring with Thiers to overthrow the French empire. Reportedly, Lord Hertford gave her £20,000 for one night of love. In 1867, her often absent husband fell from a horse, landed under the wheels of the wedding coach during the nuptials of Victor Emmanuel's brother, and died. The countess continued shuffling between delegations but now more openly. She is credited with bringing about a reconciliation between

Victor Emmanuel and the pope, and helping France work out the terms of the armistice with Prussia after the Franco-Prussian war.

Late in life, she wrote Estancelin: "What I wanted was a serious, deep, lasting bond, to be handed down by us to our descendants, to be hidden under no iron mask, without fear, shame, or scruples: no half-love, no carefully concealed affection; a connection accepted by the world, admitted by society, received at court, recognized by our families, sanctified by time."

On Christmas Eve, 1875, she moved to the Place Vendôme, painted the rooms black, the shutters black, the ceiling black, put locks on every outer and inner door, and removed all mirrors. She lived in deep seclusion, no longer left the house, except in the dark of night to walk her dogs. "The more I see of men, the more I love dogs," she wrote Estancelin. She continued her correspondence with him until her letters became unintelligible.


Kelen, Betty. The Mistresses: Domestic Scandals of 19th Century Monarchs. NY: Barnes and Noble, 1966.

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Castiglione, Virginie, Countess de (b. 1837)

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