The most beautiful woman of her time couldn’t bear any man to ignore her. But when an artist painted her portrait, she was furious. The face the artist had painted was too much a dangerous rival…
Paul Boudry applied the finishing touches to the portrait of the woman who boasted, not without justification he had to admit, that she was the most beautiful woman in the whole world. And when Virginicchia, Comtesse de Castiglione, entered his studio to inspect his nude likeness of her, he, who had seen her many times as she posed for him, admitted silently that she was indeed superb, enchanting — and very vain.
For a few moments Virginicchia inspected her likeness then said proudly: “It is perfect, like me. Now, please, monsieur, lend me a knife.” Puzzled, the artist did as she asked then stood aghast, as, with a few fierce strokes, she cut the portrait to ribbons. “I will pay you your fee,” she said calmly. “But I did not want it. It is too beautiful. I want men to admire me, not my picture.”
Few beautiful woman, before or since, have been so charmed by the perfection of their own face and figure. Even as a child her good looks were famed far beyond her Italian birthplace of La Spezia.
When she was only 12 years old she outshone women twice her age and her parents’ home was rarely free of male visitors, all anxious to carry off the young beauty, then known as Virginicchia Oldoini. At the age of 14 she was married to Francesco, Comte de Castiglione and became mistress of two splendid homes in Italy — a castle near Turin and a palace in Venice.
Francesco spent most of his fortune trying to please Virginicchia, but she had other plans. She was a cousin of Cavour, the Italian statesman, and when he hinted that she could further his political aims, and her personal desires, at the court of France, she left her husband for France’s capital, Paris.
In Paris, she was invited to a ball and no woman has ever created a greater sensation. Almost at once she was dancing with the Duke of Saxe-Coburg. Then the Emporer Napolean III asked her to dance. Similar attention was shown to her at other parties and before long it was rumored, not without cause, that Virginicchia had become the Emperor’s mistress.
Where Virginicchia went actors, musicians, audiences, and guests paused to admire her breathtaking perfection and the vain Virginicchia reveled in their adulation.
Even supposedly undemonstrative Englishmen fell for her charms and when she visited the Great British Exhibition in London crowds stood on benches to see her pass and an opera was halted in mid-performance so that the actors could watch her as she took her seat.
But admiration, no matter how open and sincere, was not enough for Virginicchia. She wanted other proof that people adored and admired her and her conceit was so great that she asked every distinguished man she met to sign a document affirming how beautiful she was.
She was so proud of her shapely limbs that she unashamedly solicited invitations to lift her skirts and reveal her legs. She was ready to change a dress at any time so that a favored admirer could see her differently. In her own home she often went barefoot in order to show off the gold rings and bangles she wore on her toes and feet.
Virginicchia — An Elusive Enchantress
Virginicchia craved admiration, or at least she craved favorable comment, from perfect strangers. Once she saw a mother with a young baby and, although she did not know the woman, kissed the child and hung a necklace around its neck. “There,” she said, “when your boy grows up tell him that one of his first kisses was from the most beautiful woman of the 19th century.”
On one occasion she accepted an invitation to a charity ball and was furious when a newspaper, probably to help the sale of tickets, stated that the famous beauty, Virginicchia de Castiglione would appear “in the lightest of costumes in order to reveal to spectators, for the sake of the poor, the perfection of form which their eyes have so far only had a chance of divining from the suggestive outlines of a ball dress.”
Virginicchia was furious and retaliated by demanding that the ball be staged at The Hermitage at Passy, in the style of a rocky vault. She attended in the “graceless folds of a baize dress” her head covered with a nun’s coiff — and then departed.
For a while she was attracted to a Dr Arnal, who was unusual in appearing to be indifferent to Virginicchia’s charms. On learning that he was in Le Havre, Virginicchia went there and, pretending to be ill, sent for the handsome physician. She lay in bed in her most seductive negligee, had the room filled with exotic flowers and to their heady perfumes added some of her own costly scents. The furniture glittered with her many jewels.
Dr Arnal strode in, suspecting what his patient had planned and ready to tell her bluntly that he did not want to be dragged from his sick patients patients just to admire a woman. Within seconds, however, he was as much her slave as her other admirers. Instead of berating her he stammered words of praise and appreciation at being able to see for himself what an enchantress Virginicchia Comtesse de Castiglione really was. Satisfied, Virginicchia paid him his fee, bade him goodbye, and a few minutes later was making preparations to return to Paris for more conquests to add to her list.
Even regular guests to her home did not know that Virginicchia had a son. When he was 12 she became afraid that his presence at her soirees would enable people to asses her age, so she made him wear a groom’s clothes and live with her servants. Eventually, resenting this treatment, the boy left her and started on a diplomatic career.
Virginicchia’s Fading Charms
According to Virginicchia’s voluminous diaries she was frequently sent abroad on important missions of state. Certainly she was partly instrumental in recovering some jewels — some said they were her own — that were hidden in an Italian village at the outbreak of the Franco-German War. (She may have planned their return but the actual journey was made by her lawyer.)
Inevitably the day came when her charms began to fade. Admirers made fewer complimentary remarks. No one signed forms testifying to the perfection of her face and figure. Younger beauties supplanted her and that was more than Virginicchia could tolerate.
She might have continued her glittering social life on a more subdued note, but, instead, withdrew completely from Parisian society. The few people who visited her later in her life stated that there was not a single mirror in the place — and there had been a time when she had never strayed far from one.
Instead, portraits of her painted at various times were on the walls under the low light of candles or gaslight. By day the heavy drapes were drawn. At night she used to take out her best jewels — a diamond cross and a necklace of pearls, each pearl the size of a hazel nut — and handle the dresses she had worn at her most brilliant triumphs.
Now she regretted the contempt with which she had, more than once, refused pensions from admirers who had tried and failed to win her transient favors. She was reduced to selling costly presents and dismissing her staff.
Occasionally she walked along the streets to jewelers and couturiers where she had once been a lavish spender. Those who remembered her allowed her to examine their wares, though they knew she could no longer afford to buy them.
When she had visitors her constant talk of poverty annoyed them and they stayed away until Virginicchia de Castiglione, once the toast of Europe, was a lonely, haggard, pathetic shadow, almost forgotten by those who had once courted her.
Virginicchia, Comtesse de Castiglione died on November 28, 1899 and was buried without a soul attending her funeral. No one knew her real age, for the date of her birth, as she herself proclaimed, changed with every telling.