Thursday, 12 March 2009
Would that we could all construct our image for posterity like the fabled Virginia Oloini born into an aristocratic family from La Spezia in 1837. Feted for her beauty from childhood she was intelligent, capricious and a gifted linguist. At seventeen she married the Count di Castiglioni but that did not prevent her from having an affair with Vittorio Emmanuele II who was later to unify Italy. During the Congress of Paris which opened in 1856 she used her wiles, her glamour and her astute political instincts to promote Italian interests and she always believed that she played a key role in the eventual establishment of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.
Although she led a quixotic life in the highest social circles of Paris and Italy, she was never to regain the same political influence. However her true legacy lies in a remarkable series of portraits taken by the Parisian photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson which were sought after by collectors in her lifetime. They demonstrate her creativity and her narcissism, her shameless self-absorption and her constant need for admiration. Not surprisingly she came to mourn the loss of her beauty, grew increasingly reclusive and died alone in Paris in November 1899.
A couple of paragraphs here hardly do justice to her high octane life, played out in a fascinating and complicated period of European history. Her story and what now may be seen as her 'performance art' is being revisited and reassessed by feminists and art historians, and comparisons drawn with the work of Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura.
I have been reading 'La Divine Comtesse' Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione by Pierre Apraxine and Xavier Demange, Yale University Press in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2000 from which the images are taken.