She was born in Bucharest, Romania in 1828 as a member of the Ghica family and was the daughter of Mihai Ghica and the niece of the reigning Prince of Wallachia Grigore IV Ghica). She received a thorough education that was continued abroad - first in Dresden, then in Vienna, then in Venice, and finally in Berlin where she gave a sample of her mastery of Ancient Greek to Alexander Von Humboldt.
D'Istria returned to her home country in 1849 and married the Russian duke Alexander Koltsov-Massalski making her the duchess Helena Koltsova-Massalskaya . They lived for several years in Russia, mostly in Saint Petersburg, but Dora never cherished the Russian nationalist views of her husband or the Eastern Orthodox bigotry of the Court of the Despotic's Emperor Nicholas I. As her health decayed in the Russian climate, she took her husband's advice and travelled to Central Europe. She first went to Switzerland for several years and then journeyed through Greece and Anatolia. Finally, she returned to Italy and lived in a villa in Florence, while occasionally traveling to France, Ireland and the United States.
As a writer she was first noticed in 1855 while she was writing mostly in French under the name d'Istria. She published a number of works that not only showed her proficiency in Romanian, Italian, German, French, Latin, Ancient and Modern Greek, and Russian, but also her knowledge of scientific topics, her liberal views on religious and political topics, as well as a talent for presenting her points. Her general world view was cosmopolitan, but she also worked hard to bring the resources and technologies available in Western Europe to Eastern Europe, and worked towards the emancipation of her gender.
She died in Florence on November 17, 1888.
Her first work was La vie monastique dans l'Église orientale ("Monastical Life in the Eastern Church") (Brussels 1855; 2.Ed., Paris 1858) in which she called for the abolishment of monastic orders. It was followed by La Suisse allemande ("German Switzerland") (Geneva 1856, 4 Vols.; German, 2. Ed., Zürich 1860, 3 Vols.), a description of Switzerland and it's people with a passage describing a climb up the Mönch.
In the tract Les femmes en Orient ("Women in the Orient") (Zürich 1859, 2 Vols.) she spoke out for the emancipation of women in the Levant; in Des femmes, par une femme ("About Women, by a Woman") (2. Ed., Brussels 1869, 2 Vols.) she compared the situation of women in Latin Europe of with those in Germany and demanded with strong words the equal treatment of men and women. Before this volume, Excursions en Rouméllie et en Morée ("Excursions in Rumelia and Morea") (Zürich 1863, 2 Vols.) was published, in which she tried to show that 19th century Germany had the same civilizatory task as Ancient Greece.
She also published the narrative Au bord des lacs helvétiques ("Sailing the Swiss Lakes") (Geneva 1861), the novels Fylétia e Arbenoré prèj Kanekate laoshima (Livorno 1867) and Gli Albanesi in Rumenia, a history of her own family the dukes of Ghica from the 17th to the 19th century (2. Ed., Florence 1873), and La poésie des Ottomans (2. Ed., Paris 1877), as well as numerous writings on literary history, poetics, political social and religious questions, history, art and more in renown journals including the French Revue des Deux Mondes, the Belgian Libre Recherche, and the Italian Diritto, Antologia nuova, Rivista europea and more, as well as various Swiss, Greek, Romanian, and American journals.
D'Istria was also a painter. She was a member of many scholarly societies, such as the Italian academy; she was also named honorary citizen by the Greek parliament and many Italian cities.
The Albanian cause
Her family's history and fame, as well as its putative Albanian origins, are mostly known to the Western readers from Princess Elena Ghica's memoirs Gli Albanesi in Rumenia. Storia dei principi Ghika ("The Albanians in Romania. The history of the Ghica Princes").
For Dora d'Istria (Elena Ghica's nom de plume), the crumbly theory of the Albanian origin of the family's founder, resurrected after several centuries of latent existence, proved to be very lucrative; it gave a new reason for her Romantic involvement in the Balkan people's emancipation struggle (she had previously adopted - and later abandon - a Hellenophile attitude courtesy of her Greek maternal ancestry and the influence of her Greek tutor Gregorios Pappadopoulos), as well as in her anti-establishment attitude generated by the entrenching of the Hohenzollern in the Romanian Principality to the detriment of her family who had high hopes for a return on the throne. She started learning Albanian history and in 1866 she became the main advocate in Western Europe for the Albanian cause, despite the fact that she never learned the Albanian language.
Her book Gli Albanesi in Rumenia. Storia dei principi Ghika, which upon its publication in 1873 in Florence caused her family to repudiate her, managed to forever shift the public perception towards the Albanian theory for the origin of the family at the expense of the Aromanian theory.
The book was preceded by a series of articles on the nationalities from South-Eastern Europe and their struggle for independence. After articles on the Romanian (1859), Greek (1860) and Serbian (1865) ethnic identities came out, Dora d'Istria published in 1866 an article entitled The Albanian nationality according to folksongs. The study was translated into Albanian in 1867 by the Italo-Albanian patriot Dhimitër Kamarda, and was prefaced by a revolutionary poem written by an Albanian author and addressed to his countrymen urging Albanians to rise up against the Ottomans.
Henceforth Dora d'Istria became known in Albanians nationalist circles that used her name to gain support for their cause. This situation was mutual and nurtured her writings (most notably her correspondence), and she cultivated relationships with notable Albanian patriots such as Kamarda and Jeronim de Rada. After the publication of Gli Albanesi in Romania... the Albanian nationalists in Italy declared Elena Ghica as the uncrowned queen of Albania.
These speculations were tacitly entertained by Elena Ghica; soon other members of the family were drawn into this Albanian nationalistic tradition. At the end of the century another member of her family, Romanian writer and socialite Albert Ghica, would likewise encourage vocal demands for the Albanian throne.
- Antonio D'Alessandri, Il pensiero e l’opera di Dora d’Istria fra Oriente europeo e Italia (Istituto per la storia del Risorgimento italiano, Biblioteca scientifica, Serie II: Memorie, vol. 54), Roma, Gangemi, 2007
- Meyers Konversations-Lexikon. In turn, it cites as references:
- François Buloz, Revue des deux mondes, 1875. Fragment.
- Pictures and texts of La Suisse allemande et l'ascension du Moench by Dora d'Istria can be found in the database VIATIMAGES.
- Liviu Bordas, Dor de Dunăre şi alte nostalgii cosmopolite - Preţul cosmopolitismului in Observator Cultural (in Romanian)
- Liviu Bordaș, Dor de Dunăre şi alte nostalgii cosmopolite - Preţul cosmopolitismului, in Observator Cultural, No. 437, August, 2008.
- Liviu Bordaș, Operele incomplete ale Dorei d’Istria. Istoria unei ediţii la 1870, in Caiete Critice, Bucureşti, nr. 10-11, 2008, pp. 51-56. Online at: Ghyka.net
- Paul Cernovodeanu et al., Elena Ghica - Dora d'Istria. Online at Ghyka.net
- Nathalie Clayer, Origins of Albanian nationalism, Karthala, Paris, 2007, p.209, apud Paul Cernovodeanu et al., Elena Ghica - Dora d'Istria. Online at Ghyka.net