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  • Ilinca Stroe

Dora d’Istria: the Coordinates of Female Romanian Genius

The name’s imbued with poeticity and nostalgia for sweet old times: Dora relates to “dor”, the untranslatable Romanian word and feeling of longing for the blessed far-away Home; d’ (“de”) follows, the particle signalling aristocratic origins; and “Istria” conjures up noble classicism, reminiscent of the ancient Roman name of the river Danube (“Ister”) and the serene surroundings of the 7th-century BC Greek settlement of Histria, on the Black Sea shore.

The perfect pseudonym for a polymath princess born in Bucharest and hailed as one of 19th-century Europe’s most impressive cosmopolitans. Elena Ghica (1828-1888) did everything a free female spirit of her time could (but was barely allowed to) do: she wrote historical monographs and literary criticism; she painted and exhibited her works; she criticised Habsburg and Russian imperial politics; she championed female emancipation; she did shooting sports, horse riding and music; she climbed three of Europe’s highest peaks; she expressed her political views so freely that she almost got herself exiled to Siberia; she gathered accolades from dozens of academies and institutions in Greece, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Argentina... – the feats of an outstanding adventurer of mind and spirit.

Elena Ghica was the daughter of an ex-Minister of Internal Affairs (Mihalache Ghica) and of the first Romanian woman who ever published a book in her country (Catinca Ghica) [1]. Her uncle Gregory IV Ghica was the first local ruler of Wallachia, after a century of Phanariote leadership, and the princess spent her youth among the aristocracy and intelligentsia, while surprising her elders with her child prodigy achievements: when she was five she learnt six languages (Greek, Latin, French, Italian, English and German); at 11 she wrote her first literary piece; aged 14 she translated Homer’s Iliad into German hexameters (the translation was published in Leipzig); before she turned 17 she’d had her first painting exhibition in Dresden. [2]

And then, one day in 1849 she married a Russian nobleman whom she had met at a ball in Iaşi. Alexander Koltsov-Massalski was at the time a young lieutenant whose ancestry apparently went back to none else than the legendary founder of the Russian state, Rurik the nomad – the kind of appeal that few cultivated young ladies could resist. So Elena Ghica became duchess Helena Koltsova-Massalskaya against her parents’ will, and followed her husband to a tsarist Russia where nationalism and bigotry soon got the better of her: she was reprimanded for her liberal views, warned to stop showing interest in politics and eventually got a humiliating corporal punishment from the Saint Petersburg police (knouting for “insubordination”), in 1855. That same year, she separated from her husband and left Russia – but not before winning the silver medal at a painting contest organised by Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.

That same year, too, Elena Ghica scored one of the several important firsts in her life: she became the first Romanian female alpinist – the first woman to climb the 4,105-metre Moench peak in Switzerland (a 3-day trip at the end of which she stuck the flag of Wallachia on the Swiss peak), the third to reach the top of Mont Blanc, and one of the few who had climbed Mount Vesuvius to that date.

She was also Romania’s first feminist. Two of her works stand out as powerful feminist studies: Les Femmes en Orient (Zürich, 1859), in which she championed the emancipation of women in the Levant; and her best-known book, Des Femmes par Une Femme (Brussels, 1969), which is a pioneering sample of avant-la-lettre comparative feminism discussing the situation of women in Latin Europe as opposed to that in Germany. The latter work analyses the 19th-century status of women, their social and material circumstances, while pleading for equal rights. (Nota bene, all of Elena Ghica’s plea occurred a few good decades before women’s rights became a point on the West’s social agenda.)

Other significant firsts? Dora d’Istria was the first woman to receive, in April 1867, the title of honorary citizen of Athens from Greece’s Deputy Chamber (only Lord Byron had been granted this quality as a foreigner, previously). She was also the first woman to whom King Carol I of Romania awarded the “Bene Merenti” Order for “remarkable literary merits”. And she was certainly the first Romanian female personality who had a coherent visionary political project for the Balkans: their federalisation - as detailed in her correspondence with Giuseppe Garibaldi, she thought the descendants of the Pelasgians (the Italians, the Greeks, the Albanians and the Romanians) should come together under the same federal state.

Scores of 19th-century personalities described her in superlative terms: she was dubbed “the uncrowned Queen of Albania” [3], included “among the most beautiful women of her time, with a voice like an awakening angel’s” [4] and a forehead “under which all the lights of a genius were shining” [5], considered “a true walking encyclopaedia” [6] and commended as “above all, a thinker” [7]. Today, there’s a Dora d’Istria stamp series in Albania, a Place Dora d’Istria in Strasbourg and a street in Athens bearing her name. And yet, as an important Romanian cultural site laments, “her exceptional personality has unfortunately remained virtually unknown in our country, up to the present” [8]. It may well be because all of her works are in French (it was her first language and her family tongue), and contemporary translations are sparse to non-existent. Hence, the spiritual inheritance she left behind is very little known by Romanians.

The 1915 memorial plaque at the site of her last home in Florence, Italy (Vila d’Istria, destroyed by WWII bombing), states: “Of Albanian origin, Romanian by birth, Florentine by adoption, she reached nobility and glory through her own merits, for select virtues of heart and talent, under the European name of Dora d’Istria” [9]. Her property was left by will to the Bucharest and Florence City Halls, respectively, her body was incinerated, and ashes buried in the Trespiano Cemetery in Florence. Will she ever come back home, extraordinary Dora d’Istria?...

Notes & Sources

[7] Ibidem.

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