Rarely have my eyes been arrested and unable to move from a portrait, as they were when I saw Chrysogon Dacre.
And I wasn’t the only one. The room was full of people, there to see the sumptuous home of one of England’s great families at The Vyne, in Hampshire. But they all stopped short of the door where, to the left, next to the window, the solemn little girl stared out of the canvas from the 16th century.
Six years old, she was, when it was painted in 1579. And already betrothed.
It was the custom in those days, to settle unions well ahead of time in the interests of the great dynasties of England.
And to make it official a portrait of the little girl was commissioned, in finery beyond her years.
There she stands in a splendid dress, her hair intricately dressed, the whole visage redolent of the Virgin Queen, fair Oriana herself.
The clothes would have been stifling, the length of time to sit a supreme challenge to a little one who, these days, would only just have started school.
She would have worn a tunic close to her skin, silken stockings and a corset to draw an already tiny frame in. A roll to accentuate hips, a hooped skirt called a farthingale; a boned stomacher to flatten the stomach, a kirtle or under-smock, and a neckpiece, a gown with separate cuffs and a ruff.
Poor little Chrysogon, cooped up in clothes and a persona not entirely her own. A very small Oriana indeed.
I stand and gaze at the picture and all those madrigals I ever sang, in praise of Fair Oriana, a fond nickname for Elizabeth I, weave through my memory. The woman on whom Chrysogen was modelled inspired such awe.
She is not, of course, the only one ever to have gloried under the name Oriana. It may ring Tudor, but we have had an Oriana of our own time: a woman of such startling intelligence and assertive wit that she coloured decades of Italian news reporting.
Oriana Fallaci was born in 1929, a Florence child born of principled parents. Her cabinet-maker father Eduardo was a key rebel against the might of Mussolini and she was exposed early to the ugliness a war could bring. Despite being only ten when World War II began she joined the resistance movement ‘Giustizia e LIberta‘.
The year after the end of the war found her taking up her first post as a journalist with Il mattino dell’Italia centrale. It was the beginning of an illustrious career peppered with prestigious awards. She covered Vietnam in 1967; she was there at Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Massacre, when government forces killed students and protesters just ten days before the ’68 Olympics.
During the massacre she was shot three times, dragged down the stairs by her hair, and left for dead by Mexican police.
She had an affair with a Greek rebel leader; she interviewed Henry Kissenger who later confessed their interview was “the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press.”
An Oriana for our times.
But it was her interest in the women of Iran under the direction of Ayatollah Khomeni which made me think of her today.
Dressed head-to-toe in the chador, which was a requirement of every woman living under his regime, she wanted to ask him: why must women wear this?
“I am not only referring to the dress,” she explained,” but to what it represents; I mean the apartheid Iranian women have been forced into after the revolution.
“They cannot study at the university with men, they cannot work with men, they cannot swim in the sea or in a swimming-pool with men. They have to do everything separately, wearing their chador. By the way, how can you swim wearing a chador?”
The Ayatollah retorted: “None of this concerns you…If you don’t like the Islamic dress you are not obliged to wear it, since it is for young women and respectable ladies.”
I know what I would have done at this point.
And Oriana did not disappoint. “This is very kind of you, Imam,” she answered, “and since you tell me that, I’m going to immediately rid myself of this stupid medieval rag. There !”
And she took it off there and then.
The little girl wearing clothes too old, and too stiff, and uncomfortable for her; the journalist wearing head-to-toe black. They were doing so because the people around them said they must.
Chrysogen lived until she was 56 years old.
And I hope that this little Oriana knew some moments of freedom, just as our twentieth century Oriana did.