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Origo [née Cutting], Dame Iris Margaretlocked

  • Caroline Moorehead

Origo [née Cutting], Dame Iris Margaret (1902–1988), writer and historian, was born on 15 August 1902 at Beechwood Cottage, Birdlip, Gloucestershire, the only child of the American-born William Bayard Cutting (1878–1910) and his wife, Lady Sybil Marjorie Cuffe (1879–1943). Iris's father was a member of a prosperous and philanthropic family of New York financiers and real-estate developers; her mother was the second daughter of the Anglo-Irish peer Hamilton Cuffe, fifth earl of Desart, to whom the young Iris developed a deep attachment. Believing that all feelings of nationalism led to unhappiness, Bayard Cutting wanted his daughter to grow up free of any sense of belonging, something the family's wandering lifestyle would provide. But it also left Iris with a feeling of being a stranger and she was often restless.

Bayard Cutting suffered from tuberculosis and, until his death in March 1910, the family moved constantly in search of better cures and warmer climates, travelling to California, Italy, Switzerland, and Egypt. In 1911 Iris and her mother returned to Italy, where Lady Sybil rented the Villa Medici in Fiesole, located in the hills above Florence and built by Michelozzo Michelozzi for Cosimo de' Medici. Here, Sybil—a woman with a will of iron and an all-consuming obsession with her own health—allowed her life to be dominated by a series of imagined or real maladies. With the exception of a brief spell at a school in London in 1914, Iris was educated by a succession of French and German governesses at the Villa Medici. She found their company dull, but was eventually allowed to take lessons in Greek, Latin, and literature with Professor Salone Monti, a scholarly man who gave her, as she wrote later, 'a love of study and poetry that have never left me' (Moorehead, 45). From late 1911 Sybil and Iris became close friends of the American art connoisseurs Bernard and Mary Berenson, whose house, I Tatti, lay not far from the Villa Medici. Bernard Berenson's considerable standing in Florence owed much to his reputation as an authority on Italian art, and it was from him that Iris acquired, as she later wrote to him, 'something of your own gift of vision' (ibid., 241). By the time she was introduced into society, with parties in Florence, London, and New York, Iris Cutting was a shy, clever, somewhat solitary girl, more elegant than beautiful, and well versed in Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and German. In April 1918 her mother was remarried, to the poet and architect Geoffrey Scott.

In 1922 Cutting met Colin Hercules Mackenzie (1898–1986), a former British army officer, seriously injured in the First World War and now working in Milan, who shared Iris's love of literature, painting, and music. They formed a close friendship, much of it conducted via letters in which Iris spoke repeatedly of her feelings of alienation: 'I am 38 Scotch, 38 French (which may account for a good deal), ¼ Irish and ¼ English—the complete mongrel' (Moorehead, 76). They might have married but in Florence in 1920 Iris had also been introduced to Antonio Origo (1892–1976), the illegitimate son of Marchese Clemente Origo. Antonio proposed in the autumn of 1922 and, despite the protests of her mother and other members of her Anglo-Irish family, Iris accepted. After a long engagement the couple were married on 4 March 1924 at the chapel of the Villa Medici.

Now in search of somewhere to live, Iris and Antonio Origo dreamt of finding a Tuscan villa to restore. They found it at La Foce, near Chianciano, a remote and semi-derelict estate in southern Tuscany, without electricity or telephone, but with magnificent views across the Val d'Orcia to Monte Amiata and the creti senesi, low, bare, clay hillsides carved with deep gullies. It was, wrote Iris, 'a lunar landscape, pale and inhuman', and she fell in love with it (Moorehead, 86). The estate of La Foce included twenty-five working farms and their 200 inhabitants. The Origos, using Iris's inheritance to bring water to the property, turned it into a flourishing community, complete with a school, clinic, blacksmith, and an olive press. On 24 June 1925 Iris gave birth to a son, Gian Clemente Bayard (Gianni), on whom she doted. In 1926 her mother divorced Geoffrey Scott and was married for a third time, to the essayist and biographer Percy Lubbock. A year later Iris resumed her friendship with Colin Mackenzie, conducted almost exclusively by correspondence—in eight years they met just seven times, but exchanged almost 2000 letters.

As fascism enveloped Italy the Origos survived, as did many other Italian aristocratic landowning families, by lying low, though fascist legislation in fact proved very favourable to their plans for La Foce as a school, for example. Iris, assisted by the architect and landscape gardener Cecil Pinsent, who had restored the Villa Medici, created a magnificent garden, combining Italian Renaissance formality with an English taste for flowers. She loved scented red roses, and filled the garden's borders with daffodils, tulips, and irises, set among pergolas of wisteria and alleys of cypresses. The family spent their summers at the Villa gli Scafari, a house on a rocky promontory jutting out into the sea at Lerici, where Sybil had settled with Percy Lubbock. Then, on 30 April 1933, Gianni Origo died from meningitis, aged seven. It was a loss from which Iris never quite recovered.

Origo had long thought about writing, and it was now, with too much time on her hands and too many painful thoughts to keep at bay, that she embarked on a biography of the early nineteenth-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, whose poems she had translated as a girl. From now until her death she was seldom not at work on a book, writing with very little fuss, seldom saying anything to anyone, wherever she happened to find herself. The Leopardi biography, published in 1935, was well received, as was a life of Byron's daughter Allegra, which appeared in the same year. What was becoming apparent was that Iris Origo had a real talent for evoking historical scene and period, in a style that was both formal and pleasing. She was a writer who went repeatedly over every line, writing and rewriting, and she took a keen interest in every aspect of a book's production. To the despair of her editors her handwriting was barely decipherable.

When Italy entered the Second World War Iris Origo volunteered for the international committee of the Red Cross and at La Foce housed children displaced by the fighting. By 1944 she was helping partisans and escaped prisoners of war, and the diary she kept for this period became one of her most successful books when it was published in 1947 as The War in Val d'Orcia. A work distinguished by its simplicity and lack of artifice, it received widespread praise in English reviews (by L. P. Hartley and Elizabeth Bowen, among others) and also brought her to the attention of Italian critics and readers. By now Iris and Antonio had two daughters, Benedetta, born in August 1940, and Donata, in June 1943.

As a writer Iris Origo had two episodes of the extreme good fortune most researchers only dream of. The first came when the descendants of Teresa Guiccioli gave her a mahogany box containing previously unseen letters between Teresa and Lord Byron, as well as a locket of Teresa's hair worn by the poet at his death. This material became a widely praised book, The Last Attachment (1949). Later, searching for documents for a monograph about the use of slaves in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy, Origo came across one of the richest collections of medieval documents ever discovered: 575 account books and 126,000 private and business letters concerning the family of Francesco di Marco Datini. These she used to write the scholarly The Merchant of Prato, published in 1957. This was followed by a collection of biographical essays, A Measure of Love (1957), a biography of San Bernardino (1961), and an anthology of little-known quotations, The Vagabond Path (1972), which reflected her wide interests and catholic tastes.

Iris Origo was always fascinated by the nature of biography. In 'Biography, true and false', one of her most impressive essays from A Need to Testify (1984), a collection of short portraits of acquaintances, she set down the rules by which she had long believed all biographers should abide: humility, enthusiasm, veracity, never sitting in judgment, and never inventing or suppressing anything. 'Perhaps this is the most that a biographer can ever hope to do', she wrote, 'to clear, in the icy crust of each man's incomprehension of other men, a little patch, through which a faint, intermittent light can shine' (Origo, Testify, 48). However, when she came to write her own autobiography, Images and Shadows (1970), Origo agonized over revealing too much and in the end revealed very little. No book ever caused her so much pain. In suppressing so much, she also suppressed much of her own warmth, humour, and affection, though the book remains an engaging portrait of a long-gone world.

Some time in the 1960s Origo was received into the Roman Catholic church. This was also a period of ill health and of operations for cancer and cataracts. As she grew older she assumed a protective mask of reserve with strangers, but was a devoted and loving friend, and close friendships marked her entire life. Antonio Origo died at La Foce in June 1976, and on 31 December of that year Iris was appointed DBE for services to British cultural interests in Italy and to Anglo-Italian relations.

Origo lived on at La Foce for a further twelve years, confronting the rawness, discomfort, and loneliness of old age with great fortitude. She remained elegant, with her skin tight over her high cheekbones, but she said increasingly little, as if she had lost the desire to talk. Iris Origo died of heart failure at her home on 28 June 1988, and was survived by her two daughters. She was buried at the chapel near La Foce, with her son and husband.


  • C. Moorehead, Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d'Orcia (2000)
  • I. Origo, Images and shadows: part of a life (1970)
  • I. Origo, A need to testify (1984)
  • B. Berenson, Sunset and twilight: from the diaries of 1947–1958, ed. N. Mariano (1964) [introduction by I. Origo]
  • O. Hamilton, Paradise of exiles: Tuscany and the British (1974)
  • b. cert.


  • priv. coll.
  • Villa i Tatti, Florence, Italy, Bernard Berenson archive


  • BL NSA, documentary recording