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Dora d’Istria (Elena Ghica), Romanian writer, 1828-1888

By Ileana Mih?il?, University of Bucharest

Elena Ghica, later known by her pen-name, Dora d’Istria, was born in Bucharest, January 22, 1828. Daughter of ban Mihail Ghica and of Catinca Ghica, she was also the niece of reigning Wallachian Prince Grigore IV Ghica (1822-1828). Although the Ghica were among the 18th century Greek families that would seek promotion from the sultan in order to rule over Wallachia or Moldavia for a short period, Grigore IV Ghica was the first Wallachian prince who had not been named by the Ottoman Empire (after the Greek War of Independence in 1821). This is of note, since the Ghica were henceforth considered a Wallachian family, and not a foreign one. On the other hand, it is a fact that the Ghica were already personae non gratae to the sultan due to a diplomatic incident in 1777. Grigore III Ghica had been openly against the sultan’s agreement to the Austrian annexation of Northern Moldavia (henceforth known as Bucovina), and had been subsequently assassinated by the Turks, unwillingly turning him into a martyr for the Romanian cause. That being said, the contemporary Italian writer Angelo de Gubernatis considered that the reason she took this pen-name might have been that she feared that people would admire her not for her own efforts, but simply because she was a noblewoman of such high rank.

In 1842, she was exiled along with her family, and in 1848, in Potsdam, at Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s court, she met Alexander von Humboldt, in whose presence she was asked to translate an Ancient Greek inscription – which she did successfully. In 1849, after returning to Romania, in Moldavia, she married Russian duke Alexander Koltsov-Massalski and lived in Russia until 1855. There is no clear explanation as to why she left him. According to some, she never came to terms with the conservative views of the Russian Imperial Court and, on one occasion, was physically admonished in a well-described manner. Such accounts, however, are nowhere to be found in contemporary sources and are likely legends tailored to go hand-in-hand with her later activity. In 1855, she went to Switzerland, where she became the first woman to climb to the top of the Moench, in the Alps. In 1860 she moved to Italy: she lived in Turin and Genoa, before finally moving to Florence, where she lived in a villa later called “Villa d’Istria”. She died there on November 17, 1888.

Aged 15, she translated fragments from Iliad in German and was said to have know seven other languages – Latin, French, English, Italian, Modern Greek, Russian and, of course, Romanian. Although some sources consider her to have written in many of these languages, the truth is that her works were written only in French – all other published versions even specified their translator. Paolo Mantegazza, one of her friends, wrote in 1887 that the education she received was neither French, nor Romanian, nor Russian, nor German and that she took what was best from each school, learning from both teachers and observing society. He considers that the reason so many literatures – French, Greek, Romanian or Italian – claim Dora d’Istria’s works is that she was the most cosmopolitan of all modern writers and thinkers. According to the Italian translator of Dora d’Istria’s works, Bartolomeo Cecchetti, her writings could be divided into 9 categories: 1. literary history (Balkan folk poetry, literary portraits); 2. religious issues; 3. social issues (feminism); 4. political economy and agriculture; 5. artistic issues. 6. politics; 7. history; 8. poetry; 9. Oriental lifestyle. Some commentators dismissed her endeavors as “superficial”; however, one could consider that she was in many ways a pioneer. In those days, the people in the Balkans were relatively unknown to the Western public, which spurred Dora d’Istria (who had named herself after the ancient god of the Danube, Istros) to offer a vast and accurate image of this area. As such, she contributed with many studies to the Revue des Deux Mondes. While her works on Romanian subjects were certainly patriotic, she did warn people not to exaggerate and become xenophobic, since “the idea of patriotism should work hand-in-hand with the idea of mankind”.

For her literary merits, Dora d’Istria was awarded in May 1876 the Golden Bene Merenti Medal (First class) by the reigning foreign prince Charles I of Hohenzollern. The medal and order had been created via Royal Decree nr. 314 (February 20, 1876 – only four months earlier), based on a similar order created by the House of Hohenzollern in the year 1857.At her death, Dora d’Istria would leave her entire Romanian fortune to the City Hall of Bucharest. In 1860, she founded the first primary school in Bucharest, which was named after her (currently called “St. Sylvester”). Her efforts were also recognized beyond Romanian frontiers: in 1867, she was given Honorary Citizenship of Athens – an honor awarded to Lord Byron in 1824. Albanians adopted her and the ideals she upheld – to them, she was the foreigner who would be the “Saint” of a small nation; to her, Albania was the land whence her family originally came. She would represent their own sacred ideals, just like Byron had done for the Greeks.

Since she never wrote in Romanian, even though her books are widespread in public and private libraries, her work was less assimilated in Romanian culture (there is only one, dated and mostly incomplete translation of her writings in 1876). Nevertheless, most Romanian literary historians did her justice.


Key Works:

  • La Suisse allemande et l’ascension du Moench (Paris: J. Cherbuliez, 1856, 4 volumes)
  • La vie monastique dans l’Église orientale (Geneva: Cherbuliez, 1855)
  • Les Femmes en Orient. I. La Péninsule orientale. II. La Russie (Zurich, Meyer et Zeller, 1859-1860, 2 volumes)
  • Excursions en Roumélie et en Morée (Geneva: J. Cherbuliez, 1863)
  • La Vénitienne (in Le Calendrier, Athens: Vretos, 1865)
  • Des femmes par une femme (Paris: Librairie internationale / A. Lacroix, 1869)
  • Gli Albanesi in Rumenia, storia dei principi Ghika nei secoli XVII, XVIII e XIX su documenti inediti degli archivii di Venezia Vienna, Parigi, Berlino, Constantinopoli, etc. Traduzione dal Francese di B. Cecchetti (Florence: Tipografia editrice dell’associazione, 1873)
  • La Poésie des Ottomans (Paris: Maisonneuve, 1877)

Relevant publications:
Twentieth and twenty-first century editions

  • Merita Sauku-Bruci, Elena Ghika a Girolamo De Rada. Lettere di una principessa (Tirana: 2004)


  • Armand Pommier, Profils contemporains – Mme la Comtesse Dora d’Istria (Paris: Lécrivain Toubon, 1863)

  • Cristia Maksutovici and Georgeta Penelea-Filitti, Dora d’Istria (Bucuresti: Criterion, 2004)

Criticism and Comparative analysis

  • Antonio d'Alessandri, Il pensiero e l’opera di Dora d’Istria fra Oriente europeo e Italia (Roma: Gangemi, 2007)


AsK May 2011

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