Bringing history alive at a storied Tuscany estate

07/11/2014 12:00 AM

07/10/2014 2:19 PM

Iris Origo was a 22-year-old newlywed Anglo-American heiress — as rich, brilliant and innocent as a Henry James heroine — when she and her husband, an Italian nobleman, decided to buy La Foce. “Treeless and shrubless but for some tufts of broom,” Origo wrote in October 1923 of her first view of the rundown 3,500-acre estate southeast of Siena; it was “a lunar landscape, pale and inhuman.”

As we zipped south down the A1 autostrada in our rental car last spring, my wife, Kate, wanted to know exactly why we were bypassing Lucca, Pisa, Florence, Arezzo and Cortona and making a beeline for what Origo called this “lonely, uncompromising” corner of Tuscany.

I waxed on about the rave reviews the estate-turned-rental-property had received from friends; about the garden, reputed to be one of the finest 20th-century gardens in Italy; about how Iris and Antonio Origo had transformed La Foce from a wasteland of degraded hardscrabble farms to an aesthete’s paradise with a rich, evocative history; about its proximity to Montepulciano and Montalcino and their superb wines.

But the real reason was Origo herself. Like Edith Wharton, whom she knew, Iris Origo (1902-1988) was not only a fabulously wealthy and well-connected expatriate but also a wonderful writer — not of fiction, like Wharton, but of biography, history and memoir. Her autobiography, Images and Shadows, is delicious and tear-inducing. War in Val d'Orcia, the diary Origo kept about life at La Foce during World War II, is a masterpiece of reportage about the simultaneous world war and civil war that ravaged Italy 70 years ago.

How often does the opportunity arise to live for three days on a property that you’ve inhabited in your imagination in stirring, beautifully written books?

We had no trouble finding the entrance to the estate on a wooded stretch of road a few miles from Chianciano Terme. But we were told that we’d need a maid to guide us to our room. We hopped back in the car and trailed the woman’s Fiat down an unpaved road, past the high stone garden wall, past huge horse chestnuts swaying at the edge of wheat fields, past a tiny fenced cemetery (the Origos’ family plot), olive groves and ancient battered cypresses. It was clear that the Origo family had nursed the valley back to productivity and released its monumental beauty.

We ascended the massive exterior stone steps to the second floor of the Palazzolo, one of 35 farmhouses that the Origos built in the 1920s and 1930s to house the families of their tenant farmers. Our bedroom was spartan but comfortable with big screened windows and a generous private bath. A delightful young couple from Singapore had the room across the hall; the other two bedrooms were empty.

There was no time to savor the silence from a picnic table out front or sip wine by the pool: We had signed up for the 6 o’clock garden tour, so we drove back to the fattoria courtyard, where the tour would begin.

“Of course you’re seeing it in the best light possible,” Sibylla Holtz, a local painter who doubles as a garden guide, assured the small group standing amid the orange and lemon tubs of the Origos’ poolside limonaia (winter citrus house — once de rigueur at fashionable villas). Rays of that light were tangled like purple foam in the wisteria blooming on a pergola that ran the length of an upper terrace — a rare splash of color in this classic Italian garden of carved stone, clipped shrub and etched shadow.

As she shepherded us around the garden, Holtz sprinkled forth equal parts history, botany, garden design and family gossip. The Origos’ two daughters, born during the war (and still living on the estate), grew up as tomboys roaming and riding the hills. Antonio, the illegitimate son of a marchese, was recognized by his father only at the time of his engagement to Iris. “During the war,” Holtz said, “Antonio wore the black shirt of the Fascists by day and he helped the partisans at night.”

The word “war” sounded a jarring note. I knew from reading Origo’s autobiography and diary how shattering the war years were at La Foce.

The fighting was literally at their doorstep at the start of the summer of 1944. German soldiers requisitioned the villa, and on June 22, the family was forced to evacuate. Origo hastily collected her two daughters along with 30 war orphans and refugee children and marched them 8 miles under a blazing sun to Montepulciano.

“Some corpses lay, uncovered, by the roadside,” she wrote in the diary. “We had been warned to stick to the middle of the road, to avoid mines, and to keep spread out, so as not to attract the attention of Allied planes.”

Once the front moved north, the Origos and the unharmed children returned to La Foce to repair and replant — but in some ways the postwar years were even more devastating. As the sharecropping system that dated back to the Middle Ages broke down, tenant farmers left to find work in the cities. By 1970, when Origo wrote her autobiography, most of the stone farmhouses were abandoned and falling into ruin.

After the death of their parents, the Origos’ daughters sold off more than two-thirds of the estate and divided the rest between them. In 1996, they opened one of the farmhouses to paying guests — and over the years they have made a total of 18 structures of various sizes and configurations available for holiday rental. Even in its reduced state, La Foce is so vast and secluded that we woke each morning with the sense that we had come into an immense, if fleeting, fortune.

On our last afternoon, we returned to find that two American couples had arrived to claim the Palazzolo’s empty bedrooms. One of the men said he had seen the property featured on the TV show The Victory Garden some years ago and had wanted to see the garden ever since. He had never heard of Iris Origo or her books.

I felt a tad offended on behalf of my deceased but still vivid hostess. Of course, it’s possible to have a wonderful holiday at La Foce without knowing a lick of its history. But somehow it seemed unmannerly to show up at the Origos’ door with no idea what the family has created and endured here.

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