Queen of the 19th Century “Selfie”

The 19th Century woman we’re going to meet today wasn’t a professional photographer. Rather, she was a woman who had a passion for photography …. and marched to the beat of her own drummer …. and who, in her own lifetime, was unforgettable, some say even notorious. Unaccountably, though, here in the 21st century, this woman has been all but forgotten.

I’m talking about Virginia Oldoini Rapallini, Countess of Castiglione (1837 – 1899). Born in Italy, she was known during her lifetime as “La Castiglione (= “The Castiglione”).

La Castiglione was obsessed with having photos taken of herself. More specifically, she loved doing the “art direction” for the photos, controlling everything about the setup and content of these self-portraits. Controlling everything, that is, except the camera itself. For more than 40 years she partnered with the photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson to have self-portraits made according to her own artistic vision.

[In that way, she could, perhaps, be considered a 19th century Cindy Sherman? Ms. Sherman is a modern photographer noted for her stylized self-portraits.]

Anyway, I’ve included below just a few examples to show the types of photos La Castiglione and Pierson collaborated on. They aren’t quite “selfies” in the modern sense, I guess, but knowing that La Castiglione ‘designed’ them of herself makes them a type of selfie, I think, even if she didn’t actually *take* the photo:

La comtesse de Castiglione, photographiée by Pierre- Louise Pierson (cira 1865) From Wikimedia Commons
La comtesse de Castiglione,
photographed by Pierre Louis Pierson, circa 1865
(photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Countess Virginia di Castiglione, Circa 1865 (courtesy Wikimedia)
Countess Virginia di Castiglione, Circa 1865
(photo from Wikimedia Commonds)
Countess de Castiglione - photograph by Pierre-Louis Pierso, circa 1895
Countess of Castiglione
photographed by Pierre-Louis Pierson, circa 1895.
(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

There are hundreds more of these artistic portraits of La Castiglione’s available on Wikimedia Commons, if you want to see other examples.

Beyond the photos, La Castiglione led a rather controversial life. Once known in Europe as the most beautiful woman in the world, she was initially pushed by her family into having an affair with the Emperor of France. Later, she had an affair with the King of Italy. Through these affairs, she literally changed the course of history in Europe. Seriously.

Overall, I would say that her life story takes a series of remarkable — and ultimately somewhat tragic — twists and turns. Below are links to write-ups on the Internet that include more details about La Castiglione’s life:

With a story that intertwines intrigues, scandals and art, La Castiglione would make a fascinating subject of a Hollywood movie or multi-part TV mini-series. She definitely earned her moment in the spotlight.

In many ways, she even designed it herself.

P.S. In case you’re wondering how I heard about La Castiglione ….

I accidentally ran across a mention of her while reading a diary written by Caroline Crane Marsh [CCM], who was the wife of the first U.S. ambassador to Italy in the 1860s. The years that CCM’s diary covers — from 1861 to 1865 — were pivotal in the histories of both the USA (CCM’s country of birth) and Italy (her country of residence while writing the diary). As the wife of the American ambassador in Italy, CCM writes about meetings with people who were prominent at the time [e.g. Garibaldi, Victor Emmanuel, to name but two.] In 1862, CCM met the Countess of Castiglione in Italy and wrote that she [CCM] was ultimately impressed by her. After reading that, I was curious to find out who this mysterious (to me) Countess was, which led me to discover the stories … and photos … of (and by) La Castiglione.