Virginia Oldoini—known better to history as the Countess of Castiglione—might be the original Queen of the Selfie. The Italian aristocrat’s legendary beauty and photographic adventures led to her reputation as history’s first modern fashion model. Of course, she didn’t get by on looks alone. From her courtesan exploits to her tragic end, say “Cheese!” to these 42 beautiful facts about the Countess of Castiglione, the First Fashion Model.
1. Skip to the End
Born to a family of minor nobles in Tuscany on 22 March 1837, she was formally named “Virginia Elisabetta Luisa Carlotta Antonietta Teresa Maria Oldoïni.” Understandably, the future spy and model was known to her loved ones more simply as “Nicchia.”
2. Sow Your Wild Oats Before You Spit Them out
Virginia Oldoini earned her famous name and title through marriage. At the age of 17, she was wed to Count Francesco Verasis di Castiglione, who was 12 years older. They only had one child, a son named Giorgio. Right before her arranged marriage to this older man, Oldoini embarked on an affair with a naval officer, which suggests she desired things beyond domestic bliss from the beginning.
3. Belle of the Ball
Oldoini followed her husband to the court of King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia-Piedmont (today we just call it “Italy”). The Countess quickly outshined her hubby, winning ministers and courtiers alike over with her charm. In fact, she was known to the court as “la divina contessa.”
4. CIA: Cute Intelligence Agency
Oldoini’s true career, however, began when she was “discovered” by her cousin, Count di Cavour. Her first gig wasn’t for modeling: It was for espionage. Cavour saw the value of Oldoini’s charms and singled her out as the perfect candidate to deploy to the Parisian court of Napoleon III.
5. Lie Back and Think of Italy
In 1855, the Countess of Castiglione was tasked with pushing the cause of Italian unity onto Emperor Napoleon III of France—even if it meant pushing other parts too. Her cousin reportedly told her, “succeed by any means you wish—but succeed!” If that’s not a state-sanctioned licence to commit adultery, I don’t want to know what is. Indeed, political gears weren’t the only things that got turned, and Castiglione soon became the French ruler’s mistress.
6. I’m Keeping the Title
Oldoini’s husband did not take well to his wife becoming a spy and seducing the French emperor. Their very public affair led him to demand a marital separation. Nevertheless, she would address herself as the “Countess” for the rest of her days…
7. Hot Gossip
From 1856 to 1857, Oldoini served as Napoleon III’s mistress. This new gig brought her into close contact with powerful folks like Queen Augusta of Saxe-Weimar and the first German chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck. Between rubbing elbows with elites, she passed intelligence from this powerful court to her allies in Italy.
8. Broken Heart Queens Club
By 1860, Oldoini’s affair with Napoleon III had soured, and she had completely lost favor at his court. The reasons for her sudden fall from grace remain a private mystery.
9. The Eyes Have It
To no one’s surprise, the Countess of Castiglione met the Eurocentric beauty standards of her day. She is typically described as a wavy-haired blonde with pale skin, delicate features, and an oval face. According to lore, her eyes could change color from green to an almost supernaturally blue-violet. Pretty handy trick to have if you’re a model and spy.
10. Dress up, Not Mess up
Not all spies are subtle. Case in point: The Countess of Castiglione favored extravagant costumes. She became notorious for her elaborate entrances, which sometimes included a “Queen of Hearts”-style outfit.
11. My Heart Is With France
Italy was proclaimed its own kingdom less than five years after the Countess’s deployment. Her mission accomplished, she returned to Italy…only go back to France, where she carried on her fashion and courtesan career.
12. A Model of Diplomacy
According to legend, Oldoini saved Paris. In 1871, France was all but defeated in the Franco-Prussian War. The former royal mistress deployed her connections and arranged a personal sit-down with Otto von Bismarck himself. She explained to the statesman that an occupation of Paris by the Germans would be more trouble than it was worth. Bismarck seemed to agree, and the capital was spared.
13. The Original Influencer
Oldoini’s modeling career began when she was still royal mistress at Napoleon’s court. Starting in 1856, she sat for court photographers Mayer and Pierson. Her relationship with Pierre-Louis Pierson would go on for four decades, and produced over 700 photographs.
14. Humans of the French Court
Unlike modern fashion spreads, the theme of Oldoini’s photos were not exactly “high-style” but rather “moments” from her life, recreated for your viewing pleasure. In one famous photo, she is wearing her infamous Queen of Hearts costume, which was her go-to for greeting court party-goers. I guess that counts as an “everyday moment” when you’re Virginia Oldoini.
15. This Little Piggy Asked to Be Censored
Some of Oldoini’s photos put her in “risqué” positions (at least by 19th century standards). In such scandalous poses that—gasp!—exposed her bare feet and legs, her head is cropped out.
16. Labor of Love
Oldoini’s “career” as a model actually cost her money. To fund her modeling ambitions, the Countess invested her personal fortune, and even went into debt.
17. Lucky Thirteen
Symbolist poet, dandy, and art collector Robert de Montesquiou was arguably the Countess’s biggest fan. At the turn of the 20th century, he spent thirteen years writing her biography, La Divine Comtesse, which didn’t come out until 1913.
18. Gallery of the Self
As her number one fan, Robert de Montesquiou collected no less than 433 photographs of Oldoini after she died. Mind you, this is before JPEGs; owning a physical photo meant a lot more back then. Luckily, he donated them all to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
19. One of the Boys
Despite her own feminine charm, the Countess of Castiglione was not fond of the ladies. At those French court gatherings, she often refused to even speak to other women. Maybe the OG beauty queen didn’t like competition…or she only had time to deal with the country’s most powerful. In 19th-century Europe, this often translated to “men only.” Sorry, girls.
20. Too Hot to Be a Writer
At one point, the Countess tried her hand at writing. Her autobiography was to be humbly titled The Most Beautiful Woman of the Century. Tragically, she never completed the book. She was probably too busy being beautiful.
21. Executive Fashionista
The Countess of Castiglione was no passive prop on her photo sets. She dressed herself, posed herself, and even chose her own camera angles. It’s perhaps more accurate to say she was a model-meets-art-director.
22. Too Self-Involved to Be Art
Art scholars still fight over how seriously to take the Countess’s contribution to photography. Did this original selfie queen leave a meaningful impact on art? Curator Pierre Apraxine thinks so, but he also notes that to her contemporaries, “The Countess, who was perceived as a disturbing character whose motives were unclear, was understood to have taken up photography merely to satisfy her narcissism. Her project…could not therefore be regarded as that of a true artist.”
23. The Countess of Cosplay
In addition to mythologizing her own life story, the Countess drew from a rich canon of literary and historical characters for her photoshoots. She posed as Lady Macbeth, the doomed Anne Boleyn, and even figures from the Bible.
24. The Conceit Has Limits
The Countess’s legendary charm was not universally effective. Someone else observed that while she was definitely beautiful, that self-obsession streak could wear thin, and “after a few moments…she began to get on your nerves.”
25. I See You
The Countess of Castiglione is sometimes called “The Queen of Surrealism.” Indeed, the playful and jarring nature of her photoshoots evokes the oncoming sense of Surrealist aesthetic that would dominate the art scene after her death. In one meta photo, she peers at the viewer through a camera—drawing attention to the mechanics of gazing and being gazed at all at once.
26. Mommy’s Little Co-Star
For most of his life, it appears the Countess’s son Giorgio remained in his eccentric mother’s custody. It’s theorized that he is even in some of her photos. In certain shoots, the Countess of Castiglione is posing with a child who is also extravagantly dressed. It’s not for certain whether this is Giorgio—but I’m pressed to imagine other children who were just lying around and waiting to be props.
27. Making My Own Corner in Heaven
In an unfinished draft of her autobiography, the Countess assumes a (somewhat pretentious) literary device and speaks about herself in the third person. Regarding her own relationship with God, she wrote, “The Eternal Father did not know what he was creating the day he sent her into the world; he modeled and modeled and when he had finished he looked at his wondrous work and was overwhelmed…He left her in a corner without assigning her a place. Meanwhile, he was called away, and when he returned, he found the corner where he had left her empty.” Deep stuff.
28. Ugly Selfie Challenge
Contrary to the image of her as a vain glamor girl, not every photo of the Countess of Castiglione showed her at her “best.” In later years, she seems okay with being photographed veiled and toothless. There exist even “ugly” photos of her laying in a coffin. To me, this willingness to be ugly speaks to some level of self-awareness and whimsy about her quirky project.
29. Less Money, No Wife, More Problems
In addition to cheating on her husband, the Countess of Castiglione apparently bankrupted her beau with her extravagance. He had originally gone with her to that diplomatic mission to Italy—but he missed that government “seduce the Emperor is necessary” memo, and spent all of his money trying to keep her happy.
Financially and sexually humiliated, the Count left France—and his wife. He declared, “Our separation is irrevocable!” and never reconciled with Oldoini.
30. Twelve Hours of Hard Labor
At the height of her fame as a courtesan, the Countess could still rake it in. Reportedly, Richard Seymour Conway offered 1 million francs for just 12 hours of her “company.”
31. Dear Penthouse
Napoleon III was not her only lover. The famed noblewoman had a string of other affairs, which she documented in her diary. Contrary to being illicit and hushed about it—as the diary form would suggest—she wrote about each flirtation as a celebration of her own desirability.
32. Super Duper Model
Some scholars argue that the Countess of Castiglione wasn’t just the first model of our time—she was the first supermodel too. The noblewoman transcended the dress to become a cultural symbol in herself. To quote one scholar, “In the case of Virginia Oldoini, her strong personality is the real content of the pictures. People didn’t care about the clothes anymore, because during the time she became a star.”
33. Leaving Them Wanting
One of the first extant pictures of the Countess was titled “The Black Dress.” In stark contrast to the spectacles these photos would become, this image is rather modest. Newly-arrived in Paris, she’s dressed in a black evening gown with demure ringlets. I guess she was saving up her juices…
34. Non-Motion Picture Show
It was decades in the making, but the Countess was finally ready to show her photos to the public at the turn of the century. The aging model had big plans to display her collection of over 700 photos at the Exposition Universelle in 1900 in her biggest group photo display yet. Most tragically, this was not to be…
35. Maybe Next Century
After a lifetime of being camera ready, Virginia Oldoini, the Countess of Castiglione, spy and mistress to rulers, passed away on November 28, 1899. She would not live to see the Exposition Universelle, where she planned to debut her photos. By dying in 1899, she also missed out on the 20th century—an era where photography would only continue to dominate media society.
36. Rest in Good Tourism
The Countess was buried in Paris at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. The graveyard is currently the most visited necropolis in the word. I’m sure the Countess would appreciate the attention.
37. Putting the “Snap” in Snapchat
Oldoini’s fashion shoots also doubled as warning shots to her enemies. When her estranged husband tried to claim custody of their son, she sent him a photo herself in loose hair…and a knife in her hand. Naturally, the photo was titled “La Vengeance.”
38. She Wears Her Heart (and Your Hubby) on Her Sleeve
Dressed in her Queen of Hearts gown, Oldoini once scandalously entered a royal ball on the arm of her (married) lover, Emperor Napoleon III, right in front of his wife. At least the empress got one snipe in. The spurned wife reportedly gave Oldoini’s sexy outfit a once-over and told her, “The heart is a bit low, Madame.”
39. If I Can’t See Me, You Can’t Either
Oldoini did not cope well with aging. Unwilling to confront her fading looks, she spent her final years in black-colored rooms with closed blinds and no mirrors. Not even she was entitled look at the waning beauty of the Countess of Castiglione.
40. The Dark Ages
Despite her self-exile later in life, the Countess still found time to do the occasional photoshoot. She and Pierson took up the camera work again—but critics did note how these projects where smaller, shorter, and even “more morbid, more disturbed, more deranged” than before.
41. Not a Morning Person
In her later years, the Countess did leave her house now and then—but only under veils, and only with the cover of darkness to hide her “shameful” age.
42. The Prodigal Son Doesn’t Return
The Countess of Castiglione’s self-seclusion might have been rooted in more than vanity. In 1879, her beloved and only son Giorgio passed away from smallpox, predeceasing his mother by 20 years. Suddenly, her regime of funeral black rooms, veils, and never leaving the house makes tragic sense…