Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Origos' villa with a view

This captures, I hope, the big moment in the garden of the Villa La Foce where the travertine path through the fountain and lemon tree gardens comes to an end at a balcony and the formal garden of scallop-shaped box hedges below opens out for the first time. In the distance are the rather less verdant fields on the other side of the Val d'Orcia below the highest peak in Tuscany, the extinct volcano of Monte Amiata. It gave me the requisite goosebumps, of course. I was being led on an extremely privileged tour by the current chatelaine, Benedetta Origo, whose marriage to the Menuhin protege Alberto Lysy has turned an Origo strain to the most musicianly imaginable: their son Antonio Lysy, a superb cellist, has been running the Incontri in Terra di Siena Festival since 1989, bringing with him students from the University of California, Los Angeles where he teaches.

One thing led to another, and this year's festival, to which I was invited, featured an even more significant augmentation of youth and mentoring. But details of all that are to be found in the two TAD articles in which I sang for several suppers: an interview with the wonderful Ashkar brothers of Nazareth, and a piece on the festival itself with a bit in passing about the superb Tuscan and Umbrian locations.

What I didn't have time to expand on was the garden tour given exclusively to lucky me by Benedetta, pictured above heading down the first of many travertine paths. The first building we passed on our way out from the main wing was the osteria built in 1498 for pilgrims and merchants travelling the Via Francigena, a branch of the road from northern Europe to Rome. It's thought - though never verified - that Sansovino had a hand in the project, commissioned by the wealthiest landowner, Siena's Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala. Coats of arms of families like the Piccolomini and Chigi on the side of the building reveal sources of its riches.

Chastening to think that, just as Goths had wiped out the Roman farms and settlements long before the osteria's foundation, devastation came to the Val d'Orcia again shortly after its construction as Cosimo de' Medici lay waste the area in Florence's war with Siena. Iris and Antonio Origo came here in 1924, just after their wedding; less than two decades later, death and destruction returned, as Iris describes in her most famous book, War in Val d'Orcia.

Back in the 1920s, it was a kind of love at first sight. 'We only knew at once,' wrote Iris in her very selective autobiography Images and Shadows, 'that this vast, lonely and uncompromising landscape fascinated and compelled us. To live in the shadow of that mysterious mountain [Amiata], to arrest the erosion of those steep ridges, to turn this bare clay into wheatfields, to rebuild these farms and see prosperity return to its inhabitants, to restore the greenness of these mutilated woods...that, we were sure, was the life we wanted'.

Benedetta is no great fan of the main English-language biography of Iris, by Caroline Moorehead; she feels that Antonio is too shadowy a figure in it, just as Iris seemed to ensure - possibly out of respect for her husband's privacy - and that if another book were to be written, it should be about him. Certainly there are problems about telling the story of the early years at La Foce, though I think Moorehead does it even-handedly and clearly; it seems like an admirable piece of work to me, though very poorly proofed.

Having promised a progressive social reform which would favour the poor, Mussolini gave huge subsidies to the gentlemen landowners to maintain the status quo in the country; the Origos were among the most enlightened, building a school and a hospital among other amenities which still survive in one form or another, but theirs remained a patriarchal society for all that. And while Iris and Antonio gave courageous, dangerous support to partisans and escaped soldiers throughout the Second World War, he remained a conservative aristocrat the evolution of whose views on Mussolini still remain unclear.

Iris, on the other hand, moved from a 'blank vagueness' about politics to a very late realisation of the horrors Mussolini had inflicted on her adoptive country. It does seem rather surprising to us that throughout the late 1920s and much of the 1930s she ignored the murders and exiles of opponents, the suppression of a free press, the annexation of Abyssinia (to which the United Nations reacted with sanctions much as we do with Putin today; astonishing how all of Mussolini's moves seem to be echoed in everything that other would-be totalitarian leader does). In effect, while Antonio managed the estate, she cultivated her garden with the help of the English architect Cecil Ross Pinsent, whose work Iris knew well from the Berensons' Villa I Tatti and his landscaping of her mother's nearby garden at the Villa Medici in Fiesole.

He carried out his work over 12 years, from the garden near the new wing in 1927 to the stupendous lower garden pictured up top in 1939. Slowly Iris came to understand what would and wouldn't work in this climate: English style borders could be only selectively planted, roses did briefly flourish but no longer. The wisteria arbour must be a glory of the late-ish spring; lavender flourishes in abundance.

But the formality remains; it is not a 'deep' garden, planting wise. The chief virtue is the setting, of course, and the way that Pinsent's longest travertine path runs round the edge of the hill and out from formality into the woods: the Renaissance ideal of balancing manicured perfection with wilderness beyond.

The Villa La Foce is more of a hive of creativity now than it was before, despite the distinguished visitors. Two of them were Diana and Yehudi Menuhin, introducing the Origos to a brilliant violinist protege, Alberto Lysy, who became Benedetta's husband, in spite of Iris's disapproval. Here's the gracious and very natural Benedetta, somewhat in shadow, on the travertine path overlooking the lower garden.

One of her daughters, Giovanna Lysy, is a remarkable sculptor who has a studio and a wonderful exhibition space among the olive presses.

She works in travertine - remembering its heat on her bare feet as she walked the paths of La Foce as a child - as well as iron and glass.

The light is everything, and it works perfectly in this space.

I especially admired this image of an explosion - at its centre an instrument of war Giovanna found in the grounds.

A quick whizz round the dreamspace, and then Giovanna drove me to the station at Chieti - so often a changing-point, but never yet visited, an omission we must remedy next time - in the company of her daughter Allegra, off to Japan very shortly. And my festival taster was serendipitously rounded off by meeting on the train that most enthusiastic of communicators as violinist and musicologist Nicholas Kitchen of the Borromeo Quartet, his wife Yeesun Kim who's the cellist in the quartet, and their son Christopher, who was fascinated by the Proust wordrose on my watch. Nicholas gave me a taste of his interest in the detailed dynamic markings of Beethoven's manuscripts - he has four categories below piano, for instance - and we exchanged ideas. I think they had a good day out in Florence: they'd not been able to pinpoint the Masaccios they'd seen in a book, so I told them how to get to the Brancacci Chapel, my favourite spot in the city.

But perhaps I ought to finish with the man they all left out - Antonio Origo. The Tuscan scene most often reproduced on postcards is the one of a zigzagging road up a hill dotted with cypress trees.

It was, in fact, one of Antonio's constructions, part of the 10-point plan he read out to the Accademia dei Georgofili in Florence in 1936. Perhaps this shadowy figure should have the last word, as eloquent as his wife's measured, sometimes (to me) slightly chilly prose. I conflate two passages from different contexts:

It is a vast and solemn landscape, where precipitous crete [Senesi, the low clay hillocks resembling craters of the moon] alternate with fertile oases and stretches of barren land, and in its silent immensity the spirit lays itself down and rests. The powerful spirit of a lost mythology hovers in the air above the valley, and an eternal sense of expectation reigns...I am not a specialist, nor a scholar. I am simply a keen amateur farmer, who at a given point in his life - perhaps the most romantic one, coinciding as it did with marriage - felt...the eternal fascination of the country and decided to make it, and the people who cling to it for their livelihood, the main purpose of my life.


Susan Scheid said...

There is always something heart-stopping when a view, like the one you show here, appears and opens out to the wider landscape beyond. Olana was designed with that in mind, and Wethersfield, though without the glorious patina of age you show here, reveals beautiful vistas beyond the gardens, too. I've read your related TAD pieces, and appreciated particularly your providing the complex history as context. A reminder that we should never take serene beauty like this at face value, but need to understand the price.

The TAD article was particularly moving in the context of what's occurring in Israel right now. Nabeel's closing statement provided a wonderful summation of the significance of Polyphony's work: "Because these young kids know that music can be their voice, and they were so committed to every single note."

David said...

Actually, Sue, it's quite easy to believe from the weathering of the travertine that the garden at La Foce is old, whereas it's nowhere near reaching its century yet. Another such is Iford Manor near Bradford upon Avon, the Italian garden sloping down the hill to the river. Its Roman antiquities give it the patina of age, but it's entirely the stone-and-vegetation perfect formula of Harold Peto. Will be back there soon.

As for Olana's situation, how well I remember arriving there with my New York friend John just as a storm was about to break, and watching the forked lightning darting around the Hudson valley from the eminence and shelter of the house. Never did get to see much of the garden there. Wonderful exhibition of Church's smaller watercolours at the National Gallery recently.

Those two Ashkar brothers are among the most dignified and genuine people I've met. No self pity, just dedication to the work and total belief in its value.

Laurent said...

Interesting about these Italian aristocrats, the Mussolini period in Italy is not seen by Italians in the same light we see it. After all Il Duce was in power for 20 years and he is often remembered with some admiration whereas we have a very negative picture of him. Many of the Italian Princes like the Torlonia were supporters of Fascism. Others like Doria Pamphilij were opponents. Many simply looked after their own interests and stayed out of any political involvement and pretended not to know. It has been 70 years since that era and it is passing into history. Nonetheless interesting how Italians view it all, but in Italy I never heard anyone condemning Mussolini and Rome still has large monuments to his memory and that of his regime. I love those Italian gardens and the mise en scene of how they are crafted, such elegance and refinement.

Susan Scheid said...

Ah, that's interesting about the relative youth of La Foce. As for the Ashkar brothers, what you describe comes across enormously in your interview. What a wonderful set of experiences you've described here!

David said...

Laurence, I can see why people supported Fascism in the very early days when it seemed to be a very proletarian solution to Italy's troubles, but not beyond. Everyone knew of the disgusting murders and attempts to stifle opposition, the beatings-up by the thuggish Blackshirts, and Iris, mixing as she did in circles both left and right, could not have shut her ears to the news circulating at the Villa I Tatti (several visitors there were soon dispatched or fled into exile). The situation, I repeat, is so analogous with apologists for Putin today. Don't people add up the facts?

Indeed, Sue, you have to keep reminding yourself that the garden hasn't been there since Renaissance times. Though even before Iris interfered with the planting, it was already an Italian-English fusion.

Laurent said...

David no people do not add up anything. People never remember and repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Sad but true.

wanderer said...

This is a treasure I've now read three times. (I've been in the sick bay, a winter thing and not so serious that a day or two off work - quite unheard of - and a warm bed with mists and soaking rains outside fixed in no time). We have spoken of this place before.

I was satisfied by Images and Shadow, aware of the criticisms, and still have little desire to read the biography. Should I?

To be, perhaps, contrary I thought it worth trying to invert your sentence to read ; 'from formality into the woods: the Renaissance ideal of balancing manicured imperfection with perfect wilderness beyond.' I mean to say I forever wonder at the need to 'control' nature and the more rigid and dominant the outcome, as these great gardens are, the more reinforced we feel in our ability to conquer. It is the contrast of the both, as you beautifully describe here, where the truth lies, for me.

David said...

Sorry for your sickness, wanderer, but in the light of previous discussion I suspect it's been good time out, with Millie as the icing on the cake, perhaps. Was impressed as a teenager reading of Arabian Lawrence's convalescence from a fever as the right stage for constructive thought.

Yes, I think you should read Moorehead's biography, for the reasons I gave. The bigger picture, and certainly not unsympathetic or likely to knock an idol off her pedestal.

Italian gardens do tend to be a bit over-ordered for my taste. I like the Christopher Lloyd idea of anything going with anything, of a managed abundance. In any town or city, if there's a botanical garden, I try to head for it. The fascination is seeing what nature then does with it. London honey, for instance, is so good, with the bees having such a wealth to choose from, and filtering out the pollution...