• Print
  • Email First Flower Email

First Flower

The masterful garden of La Foce in southern Tuscany was the creation of a young and now forgotten English architect with almost no horticultural experience.

"Ah yes," says 59-year-old Benedetta Origo, getting up from a table spread with cherries and tiny strawberries to greet me. There, auburn-haired, moving with the quick grace of a young girl, she leads me into the echoing stone interior of her house, then outside again and down to a front courtyard. Behind us are two old ilexes, topiarized into toadstool-hoods; and above and all around are cypresses on guard against winter wind and the eyes of strangers, some standing tall and solitary like bearskinned officers, others lopped into plump hedges, as if reduced to the ranks for being overweight.

"This is the original part of the house my parents made here in the 1920s," she says, turning and pointing up at a simple loggiaed stone building with inlaid patterns of russet brick. "It was originally a wayside inn, owned by the Sienese hospital of Santa Maria della Scala and built in the 16th century right on the road up from the valley. Behind it there was a one-story building which was used by the estate manager. But apart from that, until my parents came here, there was nothing here at all."

If you drive too fast down into the valley below the Tuscan spa town of Chianciano Terme, you can easily miss the home of the Origos—and one of Italy's 20th-century horticultural masterpieces, the garden of La Foce. A meadow dotted with broom and poppies, an anonymous forked farm entrance, a sign offering olive oil for sale, a cluster of cypresses—and it's gone by. And you soon find yourself in one of the oddest landscapes in Tuscany—of bare clay hummocks and treeless gullies corrugating the hillsides. It was here, in this countryside devastated by wars ancient and modern and stripped of its topsoil, that in 1924 Benedetta's then newlywed parents, the Marchese and Marchesa Origo, decided to settle. He was Italian; his wife, Iris, an Anglo-American who'd grown up in the Villa Medici in Fiesole, just outside Florence, 80 miles to the north. They were serious, idealistic, and came here to dedicate their lives to bringing back to life this forgotten part of Tuscany. Over the next 13 years, on an estate that ultimately grew to 7,000 acres, they built, with the assistance of government subsidies, roads and farms, workshops, a school, a hospital. They extended the estate house and introduced new ideas of husbandry. And in stages they made this extraordinary private garden.

Like many of the estate's buildings, the garden was designed by a now almost forgotten British architect, Cecil Ross Pinsent (1884-1963). He arrived in Florence at age 24, joining his friend Geoffrey Scott on a study-tour of Tuscan architecture. Scott had recently been appointed secretary/librarian to the famous expatriate American art historianBernard Berenson; and although he and Pinsent had almost no practical experience (Pinsent appears to have designed but one garden in the south of England), they were soon put in charge of the new buildings and plantings at Berenson's Villa I Tatti in Settignano. After that Pinsent worked for members of Berenson's sophisticated and rich circle in and around Florence. He made a garden for the philosopher Charles Augustus Strong; another, at Bellosguardo, for Edward VII's ex-mistress Alice Keppel (the great-great grandmother of Camilla Parker Bowles); a third, for Benedetta's grandmother, Lady Sybil Cutting, at the Villa Medici. It was while Lady Cutting's daughter and son-in-law (the Origos) were still on their honeymoon that Pinsent started work at La Foce.

"All the details you see around you are Pinsent's," says Benedetta. "And you have to bear in mind that when he came here, there was no garden." She leads me away from the ilexes toward a little lawned garden with a pool in the middle. Behind it is a long low building with window-filled arches, topped with a decorated stepped cornice and plinthed urns. "First the road was moved back to create the driveway and to give my parents some privacy. Later on he built this limonaia, where the lemon trees are brought in the winter. Though he was English, you can see from the limonaia—and you'll see again in the garden proper—he had a real feeling for the architecture of the Renaissance and the settecento."

As we round the old part of the house and the central part of the garden comes into view, I see exactly what she means. Here there is a series of terraced, Renaissance-style chambers, surrounded by cushion-topped box hedges and set at intervals with laurel-shaped lemon trees in plinthed terra-cotta pots, like those at the Villa Reale in Marlia. The retaining walls Pinsent built at each end to contain the flattened slope are covered with roses, honeysuckle, and Trachelospermum jasminoides; and the geometrically placed pathways and decorative urns are made of beautifully aged travertine stone. Campanulas and aubrietas spill out from the cracks wherever they can get purchase. The steps within the terraced rooms are formally planted with lavender and rosemary, but at one end, above them, there is a graceful pillared wisteria pergola with table and chairs backed by the rampant vivid green of Hydrangea quercifolia's leaves. And beside it is a formal stone staircase leading up to a rose garden and a vine-covered pergola that curves away around the shoulder of the hillside like a long, living feather boa. The overall impression is of restrained English exuberance swarming over and softening a rigorously classical line and order.

According to the public gardens designer Lynden B. Miller, who planned gardens at New York's Bryant Park and the highly esteemed Conservatory Garden in Central Park, this approach was not uncommon in the landscape architecture of early-20th-century Italy. Tuscan villas were being acquired by expatriates who wanted either to refurbish centuries-old gardens, or to add completely new ones. In the case of the latter, she says, "it was completely logical to implement Italianate gardens, though not strictly Italian."

At the side of the house, off to the left, there is another garden, hidden away behind a laurel hedge. "This is where Pinsent started," says Benedetta, hitching her green suede shirt-jacket around her slim shoulders. "Here he added two stories to the house. He built the courtyard and work buildings at the back. And then three years later, after my American great-grandmother had given my parents enough money for a water pipe from a spring six miles away, he was able to start this first little garden." Right up against the enlarged house, there is a long, rustic-columned pergola covered with roses and wisteria. Facing it—hemmed in—is a box-hedge parterre framing a little stone fountain standing on two 18th-century dolphins. Behind and to the left of the fountain, there's a humped laurel arbor with a stone seat and table inside. The effect—apart from the English-style lawn— is of a self-contained, miniature settecento cottage garden. In fact, the only element to suggest that there's anything outside it is a pathway that carries the eye through the parterre and surrounding hedge to a clump of cypresses outlined against the horizon. It is a classic landscape formula executed brilliantly: Confinement, followed by openness, then surprise. "Garden architecture complements building architecture," states Miller. "The lines in Pinsent's design at La Foce subtly draw the eye from the house itself, across the length of the garden."

Iris Origo was raised amidst a circle of sophisticated émigré authors (among them Percy Lubbock, D.H. Lawrence, Norman Douglas, and the Huxleys), and she too became a writer, turning out a string of elegant, beautifully written books. Every one was a monument, one way or another, to her abiding love for the country she'd adopted. There were studies of the poet Leopardi and St. Bernardino of Siena; a biography of the 14th-century Tuscan merchant who invented the promissory note that's extraordinary for its grasp of the minutiae of medieval commerce; and an account of Lord Byron's love affair with the Contessa Teresa Guiccoli. (She introduced him, he announced happily, to "all classes, from the conti to the contadini.")

Much more evocative than any of these, though, is War in the Val d'Orcia, the diary Iris kept while living at La Foce during World War II (still in print from David R. Godine). Although a foreigner, she'd been allowed to join the Italian Red Cross in Rome when the war had started. But at the beginning of 1943, she found herself back at La Foce, expecting her second daughter Donata, and facing a raft of problems which threatened to engulf the 600 people who by now lived and worked on the estate. Refugee children from bombed cities had arrived; there were the Fascist authorities, then the Germans to placate, as partisans, draft dodgers, and escaped Allied prisoners-of-war flocked here and to outlying farms for help and hiding. Food had to be buried to escape requisition; every kind of commodity became scarcer and scarcer, and it became more and more difficult for the marchese and his wife to protect their remote little rural community against dissolution and the brutal, swift punishment of the German authorities. Finally, the front line itself came to La Foce; the Germans ordered them to leave. And Iris Origo led a straggling march of 60 children along a mined, corpse-strewn road—under heavy shellfire—eight miles to refuge in Montepulciano.

"Do you remember anything at all of that time?" I ask Benedetta as we walk back down the horizon-path across the central terraces. "I remember the march," she says. "It's among my very first memories. And I recall a little of what we found when we came back." She gestures up toward the pergola curling along the hillside above us. "Up there, there were trenches." And then, as we come to a balustrade at the end of the path, she points downward toward the feet of the cypresses seen from the house. "There, at the end," she says, "there was a machine-gun emplacement."

Confinement, openness, surprise—and this is indeed a surprise. For below us, unexpectedly, is a large lower garden, projecting like the deck of a ship over the valley. Centered on the clump of cypresses and a statue of a slave in front of them, it is a stage set with elements borrowed from Renaissance precedents such as the Palazzo Piccolomini in nearby Pienza. At the near end are four superb magnolia grandifloras in standard, fanned out across the garden within two-tiered box hedges; and in front of them are four more double box beds—wedge-shaped, like blunted arrows—tapering toward a pool at the foot of the statue. The entire garden is protected by a thick curtain of enormously tall cypress hedges; and beyond it, around it, there is nothing but sky and distant mountains. But there is more yet to come. For once around the edge of the sunken garden, along the upper pergola, there is a sudden break in the screen of evergreens. And there, across the garden and the long stretch of the Val d'Orcia beyond, is one of the most famous sights in all Tuscany: a double helix of cypresses marking an Etruscan route across and up clay hillocks toward one of the estate's farms. Prince Charles has been to La Foce to paint them, I know. I've seen them on postcards, and on the label of a bottle of Montepulciano wine. "They were even featured in an advertisement for Volvos not long ago," says Benedetta, as if echoing my thoughts. Then she adds simply: "They were planted by my parents."

Looking out over the valley toward the extinct volcano of Monte Amiata, it's easy to see what an achievement it was to build the landscaped estate and this extraordinary garden. (The barrenness of the countryside and 90 percent illiteracy of its people were only two of the problems the Origos had to face.) So as we walk back through the terraces, I ask Benedetta what's happened to the area since the war.

"The same thing that has happened everywhere in Tuscany," she says. "Between '51 and '71 the farms were abandoned bit by bit. The old Tuscan sharecropping system, which my parents inherited, became a target for the Communists. The whole texture, unity, and family feeling of a large estate disappeared." She shrugs her shoulders. "My father was bitter about what he came to think of as ingratitude. He died in '76. My mother died ten years later; my sister and I divided what was left of the estate, with me keeping the house here."

And Cecil Pinsent? What became of him? "He came back after the war," she says. "His clients in Italy had disappeared. And he became a sort of fixture here until he died in the early '60s. I remember him: this mild gentleman, walking round the gardens—though he wasn't, I have to say, much good with small children."

"Has his garden been altered much since you took it over?" I ask. "Well, there used to be a lot of annuals in the beds and borders," she replies, "but it was a terrible lot of work, and there were many fewer people to do it. So I put in more roses and tried tulips and irises, but the porcupines loved them. Apart from that," she says as we emerge into the enclosed garden by the house, "the only major change was here. There was no place to have meals, so I enlarged the pergola and took out some of the box hedges. Then I opened up a way into the house, where there was just a little flower-room." The room, I remember from her mother's memoir, where Iris once hid a British officer when German soldiers arrived unexpectedly at the front door.

Pinsent's plans and drawings for the little hortus inclusus, as well as for all the rest of the garden, were destroyed during the war, Benedetta tells me: used by the partisans to light fires at the farmhouse where they had been stored. The designs for his urns and balusters have gone too, thrown away by the management of the travertine quarry where they were made. All that is left here as a monument to this nearly forgotten Edwardian is the garden itself. After we say goodbye, then, I wander through it for an hour or so with my young daughter, Katya, who's come along for the ride.

Katya loves the campanulas and honeysuckle that spout out from the stonework. She loves the scamper of tiny lizards among them; and the bees nosing around the geraniums planted in the urns Pinsent used as punctuation. She also wants to show me everything I may have missed: a bronze of a buffalo drover nestling in ivy in a little cypress room of its own; the nymphaeum in the lower garden that is placed between the grand double stairway descending from the upper bastion. The thing she most wants me to see, however, is a wild woodland garden above the winding pergola.

So we walk round the shoulder of the hillside, then climb up among Judas trees and flowering quinces, broom, wild gladioli, and poppies. At the top there's a Venetian statue of a Nubian, and below it a stepped pathway guarded by cypresses and dog roses. Katya walks slowly down the path. And then, at the bottom, she stops. "I didn't really want to come today," she says gravely; "But I'm glad I did. I think it's lovely." Then she adds sunnily, with all the weight of a seven-year-old's experience, "Which shows that in life it always pays to be adventurous."

I look out over the house, the garden, the valley—over the whole enterprise of the young couple who brought Berenson's protégé into this once-desolate area more than seven decades ago. "Yes," I say, looking out over Cecil Pinsent's finest creation. "And don't you forget it."

Tours of La Foce's gardens: Wed. 3:30-7:30 p.m. (April-Sept.) and 3:30-5:30 p.m. (Oct.-March). Landscape architect and lecturer Peter Curzon will lead a one-week "Garden Course" focusing on the history and philosophy of garden design, with field trips to prominent Tuscan villas and gardens. Dates for 2000: May 21-27 and Sept. 24-30. The $1,825 fee includes lunch, dinner, and lodging at La Foce. To enroll: 43-676-313-2307; fax 43-676-313-2308. For general information: phone/fax 39-0578-69101.

Directions to La Foce from Florence: Take the A1 south to the Chiusi-Chianciano Terme exit. Follow signs for Chianciano Terme, then go left on the road that leads uphill. Follow signs for Via Cassia SS2, bearing left at forks. Seven km along, at the top of the hill, turn left toward the cypress trees. La Foce is on the right.

Most Recent Features