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Umbria and Tuscany, May 2019

Updated: May 10, 2021

This was a short visit or rather long weekend, staying with our generous friends Martin and Tessa in Canalicchio, just south of Perugia, with the special objective of going to La Foce in southern Tuscany, the house and, more important, garden created by the writer Iris Origo and her husband.

But first, Canalicchio. We install ourselves in the old farmhouse with its spectacular views over the rolling Umbrian countryside, along with their other guests, Anthony and Sue. We all have supper in the “pigsty”, Martin and Tessa’s highly inappropriate (although historically accurate) name for the separate building they’ve built for themselves out of the remains of the eponymous ruin.

Friday 10 May

As with so many places in Italy, Canalicchio is within driving distance of a plethora of cultural wonders. One of the easiest to get to is Borgo San Sepolcro, the birthplace of the great Piero della Francesca. So we decide to make a mini-expedition there, to see what Aldous Huxley famously described as the best picture in the world, Piero’s Resurrection.

San Sepolcro was relatively deserted. Despite having the best picture in the world, it doesn’t seem to have got itself on the regular tourist trail. Hooray!

The picture is certainly the main thing to see. It is still in the building it was commissioned for, some kind of religious hall of the local confraternity, and now the Museo Civico. It’s beautifully displayed, having been recently restored. They have a very clever video installation that shows how the whole painting – it’s a fresco – had to be removed from the wall and then put back. Of all the great Italian renaissance paintings, it must be one of the easiest to see and admire: in its proper place, well lit, not too far above eye-level – and no hordes of tourists. Compare that with the agonies of trying to see Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel – better to buy the postcards!

The museum also has another major work by Piero, not so well known, the Madonna della Misericordia (Mercy incidentally, not Misery). There is also a part of a triptych by another artist, of which the central part was the Baptism by Piero, now in the National Gallery in London.

We sped back to the little village of Torgiano, near Perugia, for lunch at the delightfully named restaurant WonderUmbria, where some of the party were persuaded to buy bottles the local Montepulciano wine.

After supper, this time not in the pigsty, we decided to do a play reading. I need to explain. Anthony is much involved in an amateur drama group in his Dorset village and will be playing the main part in one of Alan Aykbourn’s perhaps lesser works, Improbable Fiction, about a group of aspiring writers, all suffering from Writer’s Block. In Act 1 they indicate what they each want to write and bemoan the fact that they can’t. Act 2 moves into surreal territory as, together, they act out the complete rubbish they’ve tried to describe. We allotted the parts amongst us (I got the pompous and pernickety teacher – not quite sure why . . .) and then read it as we sat around the fire. Great fun, even though afterwards none of us reckoned that we had much clue of what was going on. Surreal farce is tricky on the printed page. We all thought we should do it again – maybe Oscar Wilde or even another Aykbourn.

Saturday 11 May

Today we go to La Foce. It’s near Montepulciano, so we decided to go there first, to see the sights and have some lunch.

Montepulciano is a challenge. It’s a spectacular hilltop town, as they all seem to be in that part of the world. You seem to have to park just outside one of the main gates, the one by an enormous statue of a horse. Then you march up the main street lined with lovely enticing bars and shops. But it sure goes on: it took us about half an hour of climbing till we got to the Piazza Grande and the (curiously unsigned) Duomo. The Duomo boasts a highly regarded altarpiece by the Sienese painter Taddeo di Bartolo, but – here we go! – it’s completely covered up for restauration. (Incidentally, I said that we seemed to have to park by the enormous horse, involving the long march, but the waitress at the restaurant suggested that there was a car park higher up. Worth investigating, I guess.)

Having made our way down (easier!), we visited one of those delightful High Renaissance churches that often seem to have been built just on the outskirts of the medieval town – like in Todi and other places. This one is called the Tempio di San Biagio and was built by Antonio da Sangallo in what the guide book refers to as “classical sobriety”. It has been recently and beautifully restored.

On to La Foce. This is the high point of the weekend. The story of its purchase in a dilapidated state, just after the First World War, by Antonio and Iris Origo and then its rescue and rebuilding, but particularly the construction of its gardens and the development of the 12,000 acre estate that came with it, is amazing, fascinating and inspiring.

We arrived late afternoon and were welcomed in the main office, located in what must have been the stables. We were then directed to one of the B&B establishments, a description that doesn’t quite do them justice. Each is a converted, probably rebuilt, farmhouse on the estate, run as part of La Foce. We were shown around by Patrizia, the maid and general factotum. All immaculate and very comfortable.

We had dinner in the local restaurant, also still owned by the Origo family. It’s called Dopolavoro (after work) and was originally built to feed the farmers and workers on the estate. It is pure Italian, by which I mean good simple meat and veg, excellently cooked in true Tuscan style, and enthusiastically served by the charming staff.

On the way back to our B&B, even though by car, we managed to get thoroughly drenched in a sudden storm. By way of an aside, the weather has been decidedly changeable and threatening, with black clouds hovering menacingly in every direction. They decided to deliver their content as we struggled from our cars, with much accompanying thunder and lightning. Luckily our rooms were well heated!

Sunday 12 May

Despite our experience the night before and despite dire warnings about rain for the following day, Sunday dawned bright and sunny.

This was the day for our tour of the gardens. We joined up with a group of about 20 others and were conducted around by the immensely knowledgeable Sybilla in fluent and lucid English.

Iris Origo was of Anglo-American descent, born in 1902 and brought up mainly in Fiesole as part of the coterie of artists and writers that included the great (and probably somewhat irritating) art historian Bernard Berenson. In her early 20s she married an Italian aristocrat, Marchese Antonio Origo, to the dismay of family and friends. But despite later problems and infidelities, they were an amazing couple, devoting themselves to the creation of a flourishing villa and estate at La Foce which, when they bought it in 1923, was a wreck surrounded by desolate farms and impoverished peasant farmers.

Sybilla told us a lot of the background. The main house had been an inn (an osteria) - not a large villa - set up for pilgrims on their way to Rome. The countryside of which the estate is part was a challenge, dominated as it is by Tuscany’s highest mountain, Monte Amiata, which apparently causes all sorts of problems, what with the prevailing northerly wind, the Tramontana, and the southerly Sirocco. The result, aided and abetted by the Etruscans who deforested the place a few thousand years ago, is that the terrain is largely eroded clay slopes, called locally crete sinesi. You can still see it in the distance. But the Origos’ great achievement was to regenerate the land of the estate and create the lush and flourishing garden that we see today.

It was all achieved with the help of the English architect Cecil Pinsent who had worked for the Berensons and Iris’s mother in Fiesole. He was happy to turn his hand to gardens, even though he didn’t care much about flowers.

The garden is certainly an architectural construct, built on three or four levels descending from the house, ending up at the bottom with a presumably unique design of geometrically arranged box hedges positioned, so we were told, to make it all look longer. One of the loveliest features is a long barrel-vaulted pergola or tonnelle covered with wisteria – although sadly past its best when we were there.

Another invention of Pincent was the gently zigzagging road up the surrounding hills, one of which, lined with cypress trees, is very much visible from the garden. The idea has been much copied elsewhere in Tuscany.

It’s a fascinating place, inspiring one to read Iris’s writings and Caroline Moorhead’s excellent biography, dealing with Iris’s complex life and amours, as well as her, and Antonio’s, heroic actions towards the end of the Second World War, helping Italian partisans and Allied prisoners of war from the attentions of the Fascists and the retreating Germans. Her diary of these times (War in Val d’Orcia) has never been out of print.

After our tour (you can only see the garden on a tour), we drove up to the neighbouring hilltop town of Pienza, founded by and named after Pope Pius II – as is the main square, which is famous and delightful. We got some lunch in the nearby Piazza di Spagna, named presumably after the dreadful (Spanish) Borgia pope Alexander VI, who apparently left his mark on the town. We chose a table outside in the sunshine, only to find ourselves darting inside when the heavens opened – actually only very briefly.

Supper again at the Dopolavoro – where else? We managed to avoid bankruptcy by selecting (again) a local Val d’Orcia wine (Adonis - a blend of Sangiovese and, unusually, Merlot) rather than the “Super-Tuscans” on offer at the usual staggering prices.

And so to bed. To prepare, in our case, for an early morning drive to Perugia airport. Achieved in good time, though under heavy cloud and light drizzle. Back to warm and sunny Stansted. We seem to time our Umbrian visits at times when Umbria is behaving like England and vice-versa.

Tony Herbert

14 May 2019

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