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Antonio and Iris Origo with baby daughter Donata, at La Foce in 1943

Dame Iris Margaret Origo, Marchesa Origo, DBE (15 August 1902 – 28 June 1988), née Cutting, was an English-born biographer and writer. She lived in Italy and devoted much of her life to improving the Tuscan estate at La Foce, near Montepulciano, which she bought with her husband in the 1920s. During the Second World War, she consistently sheltered refugee children and assisted many escaped Allied prisoners of war and partisans, in defiance of Italy's fascist regime and Nazi occupation forces.


Origins and upbringingEdit

Origo was born at Beechwood Cottage, Birdlip, Gloucestershire, England,[1] the granddaughter of William Bayard Cutting, her mother Lady Sybil Cuffe (daughter of Lord Desart, an Irish peer) having married the diplomat eldest son (also named William Bayard Cutting Jr.) of the rich and philanthropic New York family. Her parents travelled widely after their marriage, particularly in Italy, where her father contracted tuberculosis. Her father, who came from an extremely wealthy American family, travelled the globe in search of relief from symptoms of the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1910, at the age of 29. Before he died, he wrote to his wife, Sibyl, a British aristocrat, that he wanted their young daughter, Iris, to grow up in Italy, "free from all this national feeling which makes people so unhappy. Bring her up somewhere where she does not belong."[2] Iris and her mother settled in Italy, buying the Villa Medici in Fiesole, one of Florence's most spectacular villas. There they formed a close friendship with Bernard Berenson, who lived not far away at I Tatti. Iris was briefly enrolled at school in London, but was largely educated at home, by Professor Solone Monti and by a series of French and German governesses.[3]

In April 1918 her mother, Lady Sybil Cutting, married the architectural historian Geoffrey Scott. She divorced him in 1926 and took a third husband, the essayist Percy Lubbock.[1][4]

Personal lifeEdit

Iris Cutting travelled to England and the United States in order to be launched in the society of both countries. In 1922, she first met Colin Mackenzie, a young Scottish businessman working in Milan; a romantic correspondence was followed by a passionate affair.[4] On 4 March 1924, Iris married Antonio Origo, an illegitimate son of Marchese Clemente Origo. They moved to their purchased 7,000 acres (2,800 ha) estate, La Foce, near Chianciano Terme in the Province of Siena. It was in an advanced state of disrepair, but by dint of hard work, care and attention, they managed to transform it. Their son, Gian or Gianni Clemente Bayard (24 June 1925 – 30 April 1933), died of meningitis at the age of seven. They also had two daughters, Benedetta (born 1 August 1940) and Donata (born 9 June 1943).

Writing careerEdit

After the death of her son, Gianni, Iris Origo embarked on a writing career, with a well-received biography of Giacomo Leopardi, published in 1935. A reviewer notated that "an unobtrusive scholarship gives alimentation to a deft power in narrative, and the style is always alive and sometimes very beautiful."[5] She followed this in 1938 with a biography of Cola di Rienzo, a 14th-century populist revolutionary and would-be dictator in Rome. Her 1957 book The Merchant of Prato is an invaluable source for students of Italian city and mercantile life, based on extensive research in the archives of merchant Francesco di Marco Datini (1335–1410). She also cast light on a little-known facet of medieval and early Italian life in her article "The Domestic Enemy: the Eastern Slaves in Tuscany in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries".[6]

During the Second World War, the Origos remained at La Foce and looked after refugee children, who were housed there. Following the surrender of Italy, Iris Origo also sheltered or assisted many escaped Allied prisoners of war, who were trying to cross the German lines, or simply to survive. Her account of this time, War in Val d'Orcia, was the first of her books to be a popular, as well as a critical, success.[4][7]

After the war, she divided her time between La Foce and Rome, where the Origos had bought an apartment in the Palazzo Orsini, and devoted herself to writing. The Origos also holidayed at Gli Scafari, the house built by the architect Cecil Pinsent for Iris's mother[8] at Lerici on the Gulf of Spezia. Antonio Origo died on 27 June 1976. Iris Origo died at her estate in Tuscany on 28 June 1988, aged 85.[9]


Iris Origo was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1967.[10]

On 31 December 1976 she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) "for services to British cultural interests in Italy and to Anglo-Italian relations".[1]


Every year, in July, a music festival is held at La Foce in her memory. This is organised by her grandson, the cellist Antonio Lysy, and has been held since 1989, the year after her death.[11]


  • Allegra (1935), a short life of Byron's daughter
  • Leopardi A Study in Solitude (1935/1953), a biography of Giacomo Leopardi
  • Gianni, a privately printed memorial to Iris's son
  • Tribune of Rome: A Biography of Cola di Rienzo (1938), on the 14th-century Roman revolutionary
  • War in Val d'Orcia (1947), a diary of the last years of Fascism and the liberation of Italy
  • The Last Attachment (1949), on Byron and Countess Guiccioli
  • Giovanni and Jane (1950), a children's book
  • A Measure of Love (1957), biographical essays
  • The Merchant of Prato (1957), on the life and commercial operations of Francesco di Marco Datini
  • "Pope Pius II" (1961), in Plumb, J. H. et al., The Horizon Book of the Renaissance, Collins 1961
  • Images and Shadows (1970), an elegiac autobiography
  • The Vagabond Path (1972), an anthology
  • The World of San Bernardino (1963), a life of Bernardino of Siena
  • Un'amica. Ritratto di Elsa Dallolio (1982), a memoir of an old friend
  • A Need to Testify (1984), biographies of Ignazio Silone, Gaetano Salvemini, Ruth Draper and Lauro de Bosis, four opponents of Fascism
  • A Chill in the Air – An Italian War Diary 1939–1940 (2017), Pushkin Press
  • A Chill in the Air – An Italian War Diary 1939–1940 (2018), New York Review of Books
  • War in Val d'Orcia (2018), New York Review of Books


  1. ^ a b c Moorehead, Caroline. Dame Iris Origo (article). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press, October 2011; online edn., May 2012. Accessed 24 January 2016]
  2. ^ Stille, Alexander (21 September 2018). "Living With Fascism in Italy". Retrieved 20 January 2019 – via
  3. ^ Origo, Iris (1970). Images and Shadows. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-5671-6.
  4. ^ a b c Colegate, Isabel. Coming Home to Heroism) The Spectator, 7 October 2000. Book review of Caroline Moorehead's Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d'Orcia.
  5. ^ Evans, B. Ifor. Books of the Day: "The Stricken Poet of Recanati" The Manchester Guardian, June 1935, at ProQuest (registration required)
  6. ^ Speculum, vol. XXX, no. 3, July 1955.
  7. ^ Owen, Richard "To the Tuscan manor born" The Times London, 25 July 2002: 32. Retrieved at The Times Digital Archive, 26 June 2014
  8. ^ Murdock Eleanor, My Years at Villa I Tatti Coop. Officine Grafiche, 1980, p.52. Retrieved at Google Books, 26 June 2014
  9. ^ Obituary: "Marchesa Iris Origo, Byron biographer who helped war's victims" The Times, 1 July 1988, p. 16. Retrieved at The Times Digital Archive, 21 July 2014
  10. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter O" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 22 July 2014.
  11. ^ Dabbagh, Selma (7 July 2012). "Iris Origo: the author honoured by a music festival". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 June 2014.

Further readingEdit

  • Giffuni, Cathe. "Iris Origo: A Bibliography," Bulletin of Bibliography, Vol. 47 No. 3 September 1990, pp. 169–176.
  • Laskin, David. Echoes of History at a Tuscan Estate. New York Times May 9, 2014. [1]