I found this fantastic story in Piya Pal-Lapinski’s The Exotic Woman in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction and Culture.
In one of Pal-Lapinski’s later chapters, she talks about the influence of relics from the ancient world found in archaeologic digs, and how these began to influence women’s fashion–jewelry, in particular. She writes, “The complex cultural resonances of these pieces, therefore, conferred a considerable amount of power and mystique on their owners and wearers. They were often displayed on the bodies of powerful women in Europe – female rulers as well as adventuresses – and at times, commissioned especially for them” (96).
With that in mind–that jewelry recalling the ancient world made you seem more powerful and mysterious–FEAST YOUR EYE SOCKETS ON THIS:
This fierce hunk of dynamism, my friends, is the Countess Castiglione.
Pal-Lapinski writes that my new best friend the Countess was a “courtesan, adventuress, and Italian revolutionary . . . [who] repeatedly constructed different personas, which she had recorded by the French photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson. Dripping with archaeological-style jewelry made of gilded copper, Castiglione had herself photographed in 1863 as the “Queen of Etruria” brandishing a dagger in various poses (one of which she entitled “Vengeance” and sent to her husband who had threatened to take away her son, because of her sexual liaisons and ‘scandalous’ public self-display)” (96).
Right, we need to back way the fuck up to the beginning of this story, because I want to hear every sordid detail about literally every single thing she ever did in her entire life, ever.
She was born Virginia Elisabetta Luisa Carlotta Antonietta Teresa Maria Oldoïni to a pimp-ass aristocratic family in Florence in 1837. When she was 17, she married an Italian count 12 years her senior, and bore him a son named Giorgio. She was apparently stunningly beautiful, with delicate features, blonde hair, and eyes that changed color constantly from vivid green to bright blue-violet. I imagine that mercurial, difficult-to-pin-down quality made her incredibly attractive.
When she was in her mid-twenties, she and her husband traveled to France on a diplomatic mission, which ended with her becoming the mistress of Napoleon III. Hey, whatever gets your treaty signed, baby. She became the most fabulous of all fabulous members at court and used to like making dramatic entrances in elaborate clothes.
Her husband found out about the affair and got all butt-hurt and demanded a marital separation. When her affair with Napoleon III ended in 1857, a couple of years after it started, she returned to Italy. Despite the affair being over, it seems she had enormous influence over some of his decision-making policies and likely swayed major events like Italian unification and the Franco-Prussian War. Eventually she moved back to France permanently.
But what she really loved more than anything, it seems, was being photographed. She posed for more than 700 photographs over 40 years, and even went into debt to keep up her expensive habit. She is sometimes credited with starting the field of fashion photography, since it didn’t really exist (certainly not as an industry) before her.
Oh, you’d like to see some photographs?
I THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER ASK
In her older years, she remained as wonderfully dramatic as possible and kinda pulled a Havisham: she moved to France and decorated her beautiful house all in funeral black, with the blinds all drawn and all mirrors banished, only daring to leave the house at night where no one could see her vanishing beauty. She died in 1899 at age 62.