From courtesan to celebrity. The Queen of the Ball on the Polish Titanic died 200 years ago

Owing to her innate cunning and male gullibility, a beautiful Greek woman made a great social career in pre-partition Poland. She seduced, had affairs, and sometimes married generals, chamberlains, as well as Russian and Polish princes. Oddly enough, many of her suitors were men who acted to the detriment of the Polish Commonwealth

The career of Zofia, primo voto de Witte, secundo voto Potocka, confirms that beauty supported by cunning can readily equate with wealth and social and educational status. This beautiful Greek woman, sold to a Polish diplomat by her own mother, was to conquer the salons of Warsaw and Europe. In doing so, she managed to avoid the fate of other women who had followed a similar path. She never had to kneel to the guillotine like the Countess du Barry. She didn't end up like Lady Hamilton. She led a luxurious life until her death in Berlin on November 24, 1822, from cancer of the reproductive organs.

In her novel "Garden of Venus" (Harper Collins, 2005), author Ewa Stachniak takes pity on Zofia, allowing her to die painlessly by creating a French doctor who administered opium and laudanum to the dying woman. Even more fantastic, yet true, is what followed her death. Sanitary regulations in force in the Kingdom of Prussia meant the corpse could not be transported right away to Ukraine. Officials kept on delaying permission, even though the body had been embalmed.

The daughters who were with the countess in her last days, decided on a ruse for the removal of her body. They dressed the corpse, carefully applying make up and placing a fan in their mother's hand before arranging her in the carriage. The border guards were fooled, believing the elderly passenger was indisposed.

Successful woman

A harlot who manages to climb to the top of the social pyramid is not that unusual. However, Zofia lived in special times. In the second half of the 18th century, the foundations of the old order were crumbling, faith in the Church and in divine-ordained monarchies was collapsing, and among the elite there was a growing conviction that religion was obsolete. No rules in private life and politics became the new rule. Stronger countries devoured weaker ones.

  Philosophers were intrigued by the possibilities of power exercised in the name of the people. Libertines, having rid themselves of the last vestiges of shame and fear of public condemnation, were carrying the torch of another revolution -- morals.

"Open relationships", in which spouses were allowed complete sexual freedom, were the norm in high society. In moral terms, Zofia, forced from an early age to sell her charms, was no different from ladies with aristocratic titles. In fact, comparatively speaking, she was less haughty and egotistical. Nor was she considered to be a schemer. She cut a sympathetic figure with her smile and a carefree spirit that bordered on naivety (probably feigned). While she spoke Polish poorly, this was not uncommon in the cosmopolitan company she mixed with.

Undoubtedly, Zofia's greatest asset was her appearance. Her beauty was widely admired and not only by professional flatterers such as the poet Stanisław Trembecki.

Even the King of Prussia Frederick the Great, a misogynist and a tease, made her acquaintance and was complimentary. In the novel "Garden of Venus", Sophia dominates the minds of men even on her deathbed. She is smarter and less hypocritical than all her partners. The author refutes the heroine's reputation for promiscuity in a very simple way: the priestess of the goddess of love cannot live without love (including physical love).

From female readers' comments it is clear that they consider the Zofia portrayed in the novel to be the embodiment of a successful woman. Likely, men would have a different opinion, but they rarely read such books. Ironically, the "beautiful Bithynian" [Bithynia is a region of north-west Asia Minor, where Zofia came from] met many interesting men in her life. So instead of summarizing her biography, described, in all its juicy detail by Jerzy Łojek in "Dzieje pięknej Bitynki. Opowieść o życiu Zofii Wittowej-Potockiej" (The Story of the beautiful Bithynian, PAX, 1982), let's take a closer look at the the black-eyed countess's suitors.

Naked corpse of a dyplomat

Number one: Karol de Boscamp-Lasopolski, probably of Dutch descent and a person typical of the era.

Having started out as a Prussian agent in Turkey, he became the factotum of the Tatar Khan, before finally coming under the wing of King Stas [King of Poland Stanisław Poniatowski], who gave the talented vagrant Polish citizenship, awarded him the title of chamberlain, the Order of St. Stanislaus, and a full-time position in the Permanent Council, (the first real Polish government, according to historians). However, a clerical salary was not enough to satisfy the ambitious de Boscamp, who proceeded to get involved in usury, the amber trade and trafficking women. Also, he took money from the Russians.
Not all Sophie's men. From the left: Karol de Boscamp-Lasopolski (author unknown), Grigori Potiomkim and Stanisław Szczęsny Potocki (both painted by Jan Chrzciciel Lampi the Elder). Photo: Wikimedia
Poniatowski as king liked to surround himself with such individuals, and the chamberlain, having learned his benefactor's weaknesses, was quick to exploit them without scruples. We should be grateful that he he was not especially discrete. Had it not been for his work "Mes amours éphémères avec une jeune Bythiniènne. Roman Véritable: ou bien biographie pittoresque de la fameuse beauté gréco-asiatique... Le tout tiré du journal d'un ancien ministre près la Porte" ("My fleeting love affairs with a young Bithynian. A True Story, or a Picturesque Biography of a Famous Greek-Asian Beauty", S. Widłak, Kraków, 1963) the beginnings of Zofia's career would have remained shrouded in mystery. De Boscamp wrote the story in 1789, in French, of course, aiming to entertain the hedonistic king, who was already familiar with the title character (perhaps even physically).

The manuscript dealt with events twelve years earlier when de Boscamp was representing the interests of his adopted motherland in Istanbul.

Wanting to live like a sultan, he did not refuse when a local prostitute offered him the virtue of her underage daughter. Dudu's father (as the girl was called) traded in cattle in Bursa, but died soon after moving to the capital. While the diplomat liked Dudu, he did not fail to point out her flabby breasts, her lack of temperament and her pretence to being a virgin. Nonetheless, he acknowledged Zofia's "accuracy of judgement, astuteness and finesse, much higher than average".

De Boscamp inadvertently became the "father of Dudu's career". He taught her good manners and the French language, took her to official parties and on suburban excursions, not caring that the news of the 17-year-old mistress would reach his wife and superiors. When his mission was over, the envoy said goodbye to Zofia, but retained such fond memories that a year later he sought to bring her to Poland. She accepted the invitation, but did not make it to Warsaw.

Thus ends the role of the chamberlain-polyglot in the life of "the most beautiful woman in Europe". Having benefited as much as he could from his association with King Stas, he intensified his cooperation with the Russian embassy. Among other things, he helped recruit Poles who wanted to profit from the fall of their homeland. De Boscamp-Lasopolski's enthusiasm to legalize the second partition of Poland was well known, so in the course of the Kościuszko Uprising [1794] not so enthusiastic Warsaw residents hanged him without trial. The author of political memorials and pamphlets published under the pseudonym Apathomachos Wyjaśnicki ended up a naked corpse, taken outside the city and deposited in a field.

The One-Eyed Prince's Harem

Number two: Józef de Witte, son of the commander of the fortress in Kamieniec Podolski [Kamianets-Podilskyi, now a city in western Ukraine]. A Dutchman after his father, a Pole after his mother. A carouser and a careerist.

On seeing the pretty Greek woman who had stopped at the fortress on the way to the capital, he fell passionately in love, perhaps mindful that he himself wasn’t particularly attractive. Rightly dubious about the constancy of the feelings of her "guardian" at the time, Zofia agreed to walk down the aisle with her new admirer. Moreover, she also managed to charm her in-laws, who were initially appalled by the mésalliance, and she also won over various dignitaries visiting Kamieniec.

Warsaw was to capitulate to Madame de Witte instantly and thus encouraged the couple embarked on a journey around Europe.

In Berlin, Spa, Paris and Vienna, a new Zofia emerged as the star of the salons. There were rumors that (with the full approval and knowledge of her husband) she would not spare sharing her charms with the mighty of this world. Major de Witte ignored all the vile gossip, taking advantage of his wife's social triumphs without scruple.

He introduced himself as an earl before he actually became one. He inherited the rank of general along with the position of commander of Kamieniec from his father. Russian plans to take over lands on the Black Sea allowed him to monetize his function by providing intelligence services to the Tsarina's subordinates.

Meanwhile, Zofia dreamed of breaking out of the fortress into the wider world. Accompanied by another adventurous lady, she sailed from Kherson to Istanbul. The outbreak of another Russo-Turkish war opened up new opportunities for Mrs. de Witte. Yet another man appeared on the horizon.

Number three: Prince Grigory Potemkin. He and Mrs. de Witte were alike insofar as he, the son of a poor nobleman from Smolensk, also made a career via the bedroom.

The strength of a country woman

A woman, brought up with love for her patrimony, which rests at the bottom of the reservoir on the Dunajec River.

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Potemkin surpassed all others among Tsarina Catherine the Great's favorites. It was only with him that she shared power. She made him the richest Russian and allowed him to vet and select her next lovers. Potemkin bought a lot of land on the western side of the river Dnieper and dreamt of securing a crown, whether Polish or that of a new state to be established on land seized from the sultan.

Zofia was often seen in the camp near Oczaków, and then in Jassy. The one-eyed prince was surrounded by pretty ladies, whom he used to shower with expensive gifts. Meanwhile, he was once witnessed telling Mrs. de Witdte, "You're the only woman who surprises me".

Potemkin seemed omnipotent, so many Poles -- from Józef de Witte and King Stas, to the future leaders of Targowica [the confederation - established by Polish and Lithuanian magnates in 1792 in Saint Petersburg that led to the Second and Third Partitions of Poland] -- sought his protection. However, more and more frequently, he was behaving like an insane man, probably the result of syphilis. He died in October 1791, just before making peace with Turkey and the planned intervention in Poland. The prince's last moments were witnessed by Aleksandra Branicka, his favorite niece and possibly his lover.

The grief-stricken Greek woman was spared a return to boring Kamieniec, because a new man appeared on the horizon.

Number four: Stanisław Szczęsny Potocki, owner of half of Ukraine.

They met when he was visited Jassy in a bid to get Potemkin's help in overthrowing the May 3rd Constitution [the second written constitution in the world and the first in Europe, adopted on May 3, 1791, in Warsaw, by the the sejm (parliament) of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth]. Catherine, realizing the political aspirations of her favorite summoned Polish malcontents to St. Petersburg. Zofia was not keen on this adventure and in vain she tried to persuade her suitor to travel in the opposite direction.

Aphrodisiacs killed a national traitor

Potocki had been married since 1774 to Józefina née Mniszech, who far surpassed him in intelligence and talent for intrigue. She was also notorious for having given the count horns. Of the eleven children born to her, only three are said to have been conceived with her husband.

Szczęsny, mindful of the tragedy that ended his previous relationship with Gertruda Komorowska who fell victim to hitmen sent by her in-laws, was fearful of another scandal. Nevertheless, Zofia, younger than Józefina by eight years, prettier and more straightforward, had him wrapped around her finger.

She parted ways with Józef de Witte, although not without a bribe. The court in Lviv declared their marriage invalid because it was concluded under duress (!). The general, as a Russian subject, refused to recognize the judgment of the Austrian court. Potocki ended up having to buy his mistress for half a million zlotys (not counting other bonuses).

His divorce from Józefina, however, proved to be more complicated. Anticipating what was going to happen, the clever woman and her children took refuge in St. Petersburg, where she led a lively social life. Trusting in the support of her Russian lovers, she hoped that the Tsarina would order the Greek woman to be locked up in an Orthodox convent. After lengthy bargaining, an agreement was reached: Potocka gave in, having been compensated with a large piece of Ukrainian land. However, no sooner had the ink on the divorce papers dried than she departed this world. Polish historian Jerzy Łojek suspected that Józefina had committed suicide.

In the spring of 1798, Zofia and Szczęsny got married in Tulczyn. It was a quiet wedding (given the resources of the bridegroom), celebrated first according to Catholic and then Orthodox rites. The Polish-Lithuanian state was already in its grave, and Potocki was weighted down with the odium of betrayal. If only he had used the Russians just for money, like Boscamp or Witte but pride and incurable stupidity led him to Targowica. Now the disgraced magnate could only hide in his Ukrainian estate while assuring the Tsarina that he felt like a Russian. His associates made no such confessions.

Ironically, it was his new wife who contributed to Szczęsny's decline more so than his embittered compatriots. The Greek woman was unfaithful to him. As Potocki became more and more weird, finally developing persecution mania, the temperamental Zofia got embroiled in an affair with her own stepson. Her husband died shortly after his 54th birthday. An autopsy showed that he had been abusing aphrodisiacs for a long time.
"Zofiówka", work from the photo contest "Wiki Likes Monuments" Photo: Wikimedia/ Folkerman - Own work
De Witte outlived Potocki. He kept on visiting his ex in Tulczyn and was constantly corresponding with her. In his old age, he was involved in yet another moral scandal. He married 16-year-old Karolina from Ostrogów. She ran away from him in an advanced state of pregnancy, "because the defendant’s household was full of his bastards, concubines with whom, in front of her innocent eyes, he was having sex, and domestic staff infected with a venereal disease". Some Turkish influences in Kresy lasted longer than the sultan's rule over Crimea.

The discreet charm of giantesses

"The Beautiful Bithynian" cared for her family now left on the Bosphorus. She tried to be a good mother, but the children inherited their parents' faults along with their fortune. The eldest, Jan de Witte, turned out to be the worst. He spoke Polish and wanted to pass for a Pole, but he zealously served the tsars. He wore general's epaulettes, served as the governor of Novorossiya, and as a curator of Odessa schools.

For this reason, he took care of the young Adam Mickiewicz [famous Polish poet]. Sailing to the Crimea for an inspection, he brought the poet and Karolina Sobańska, his [de Witte’s] lover and secret collaborator, along with him. Adam couldn’t resist this temptation, but the expedition resulted in him writing "Crimean Sonnets", so it was probably worth it. In the autumn of 1831, the treacherous couple appeared in Warsaw captured by the tsarist army. Witte headed the tribunal that tried the insurgents [the of November Uprising].

When Mickiewicz arrived in Odessa, Zofia had already been dead for two years, but he met her daughter Olga, who married General Lev Naryshkin. A popular rumor, however, said that the real father of her child was Prince Mikhail Vorontsov (married to Elżbieta Branicka, a daughter of another Targowica participant,). Olga's brother, Aleksander, also lived next door, and later supported the poet financially in exile. Count Aleksander was a helpful man, but his eccentricities shocked his contemporaries. He ran around Europe in search of gigantic women. He was truly obsessed with giantesses.

Olga's older sister also married a Russian, but quickly changed her mind. Countess Kisielev settled in Paris, demonstrating Polish patriotism at every step. An eccentric addicted to gambling, while in Egypt, she insisted on riding a camel at the foot of the pyramids and playing "Desert March" on a piano placed on the animal's back. Her wish was fulfilled. The calmest of the siblings, Bolesław, was remembered with gratitude as a founder of schools on his estates in Podolia.

Zofia’s son Mieczysław was considered the black sheep of the family. His mother claimed that while on honeymoon in an inn near Venice, she was raped and that Mieczysław's biological father was a thug named Caracolli. The trouble is, she didn't reveal the episode until years later, when her son declared war on her. Of course it was about money. Young Potocki threw his mother and younger siblings out of Tulczyn, taking over the lion's share of his patrimony.

His reign was marked by a series of rapes and scandals, the scale of which astonished even the tsar. Nicholas I imprisoned the magnate, and the property was taken over by the state. And this is probably what it was all about, because even the conversion to Orthodoxy did not help Mieczysław. He could only congratulate himself for his foresight, insofar as he managed to transfer a large part of the Potocki fortune to Parisian banks before his arrest. After the Tsar's death, he bribed the guards and fled abroad. He spent the rest of his life in luxury.

As long as there is the sun

The Dominican church in Tulczyn, in the crypt of which Szczęsny was buried, was turned into an Orthodox church, and later suffered a sad fate. Zofia was not buried with her husband but in Uman. The funeral ceremony lasted till late night and was reportedly attended by 50 priests and crowds of Ukrainian peasants. In the mid-nineteenth century, the coffin was moved closer to the Dnieper, to Talne, where Olga Naryshkin resided. In the basement of the temple, which was converted into a bakery in Soviet times, it proved impossible to find the remains of "the most beautiful woman in Europe". Only the tombstone has survived. Today it is in the courtyard of the Shuvalov family's hunting lodge.
Zofiówka (the 160-hectare park named after Zofia in a picturesque canyon of the Kamionka River) has best stood the test of time. Since the monument to Szczęsny's love for his Greek wife was intended to rival the Radziwiłł family's Arkadia and the Czartoryskis' Pulawy, the magnate did not spare a penny. Costing a total of 15 million złoty, once built, the facility immediately became one of the outstanding features of Kresy [Eastern Borderlands, a term coined for the eastern part of the Second Polish Republic during the interwar period 1918–1939]. The marble and sculptures imported from France and Italy, its fountains, artificial ponds and canals, the exotic trees and shrubs, all were praised by Stanisław Trembecki, whom the Potockis took in after the death of King Stas. He skilfully wove flattery for his new employers and Tsarina Catherine (the main perpetrator of the destruction of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), as well as her grandson, who then reigned, into a philosophical poem.

When the countess's favorite son, Aleksander, became involved in the November Uprising, the Russian government confiscated the Uman estate. Zofiówka was renamed Tsaritsyn Sad [Orchard], then the Park of the Third International, but somehow it survived and today it is the pride of Ukrainians. Who knows, maybe after the war they will rebuild the monuments of Kościuszko and Prince Józef Poniatowski, erected in the park by the last of the Polish owners?

Initially, the countess had tried to persuade her husband to place Zofiówka in the Crimea. The peninsula, taken from the Tatars, was the apple of the eye of the Russian authorities, and many foreigners contributed to its gentrification. The leading families of the empire built summer residences on the Black Sea. Why should the Potockis behave differently, given that enlightened Europe openly or secretly supported the actions of Potemkin and Catherine? It was left to the following, less cosmopolitan generation to be moved by the fate of Poland.

The elites, with their weakness for philosophy, turned a blind eye to the beautiful Greek woman's conduct, since they disregarded conventional morality. However, even before the outbreak of the French revolution, the more intelligent realized that the ball was coming to an end. As the old order collapsed, the poet Trembecki provided some consolation: "Taking the measure of returns from the eternity of images / We were what we are millions of times / And as long as the earth lasts, as long as there is the sun / We will live, die and reborn endlessly".

– By Wiesław Chełminiak

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: Zofia née Glavani (her aunt’s name since her real one is unknown), primo voto de Witt, secundo voto Potocka, also known as the "beautiful Phanariot"; (Phanariots was the name given to Greek aristocrats living in Phanar, a district of Constantinople, after the Turks conquered their country in 1453). Lithograph by Gaetano Riccio, "Poliorama Pittoresco", April 15, 1843. Photo: Gettyimages/De Agostini
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