In my first book, My Renaissance: A Widow’s Healing Pilgrimage to Tuscany, I discuss how after my husband’s death in the mid 1990s, I decided to go back to school to study art history, a part of my education that I felt had been greatly neglected.
It came about because I had known the Dean of an American university in Florence, Italy. Uncharacteristically, I bravely called him up from my home in Seattle to ask if he would consider letting me, a recent widow in the middle chapters of her life, come to Florence as an audit student. To my good fortune he said yes. So off I went to become one of 96 students where all my classmates, save one, were 20 year olds.
The experience was transforming. Mainly, it pulled me out of my grief. For three intense years as my husband lay dying, my mind seemed only to convulse with the sights, smells, and sounds of death. But with my new life in Florence, it was suddenly consumed with arches and vaulting systems. Had I sat at home and contemplated only my sorrow, I would be grieving still. But in the mind, as in physics, two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time.
Secondarily, my Florence experience filled in some of those educational gaps as I’d hoped. It taught me something about the whole sweep of art history––all the way from cave art to the Renaissance and beyond. But what it really did was expose my then weary spirit to beauty, which some say carries within it powerful healing properties. For example, Plotinus said:
“He who beholds beauty becomes beautiful.”
And the Florentine psychotherapist/philosopher, Piero Ferrucci (1946-), said in his book What We May Be,
“The moment we let ourselves be touched by beauty, that
part of us which has been badly bruised or even shattered
by the events of life may begin to be revitalized.”
It was as if Plotinus and Ferrucci were articulating what I had only been feeling.
• • •
As the weeks and months of my Tuscan experience unfolded, I grew ever more appreciative of the region’s glories.
A case in point: In art history class one day, our teacher, Professor Eleonora Raffanelli, devoted much of her lecture to Tuscany’s Renaissance villas and their gardens. “The villas and their gardens of long ago,” she announced, “were designed along precise geometrical principles using ordinary forms such as squares, rectangles, circles and semi-circles.”
Professor Raffanelli followed up her remarks with a power point presentation depicting some of Tuscany’s grandest country houses with their gardens, all seemingly nestled among rolling hills, intersected by pristine streams, and circumscribed by tall cypresses––all with an amazing sense of proportion.
Our teacher encouraged us to explore some of these houses in and around Florence, adding that her personal favorite was farther a field: It was La Foce (which means the “meeting place”), an elegant formal Renaissance manor with gardens, in an expansive valley called Val d’Orcia, south of Siena, near Chianciano Terme and Montepulciano, in the geographical sector called Maremma, which I mentioned in my previous blog.
La Foce was the inspiration of Iris Origo (1902-1988), an Anglo-American, who in 1924 married an Italian, Antonio Origo. Together they bought the property––then much in need of restoration. From 1927 to 1939 the Origos retained the services of the British architect Cecil Pinsent to restore La Foce and create a “new” garden in the Renaissance style.
After hearing Professor Raffanelli carry on about La Foce and learning that Iris Origo was also an accomplished writer and horticulturist, I read her memoir Images and Shadows and then took a day off from school to visit her home (open only one afternoon a week), which sits majestically on a hill overlooking the sweeping valley of Val d’Orcia.
Once on the Origo property, I saw lawns, wildflower meadows, beds of indigenous cyclamens, and a wisteria-draped pergola. Cypress trees framed a grotto carved of local stone. The extinct volcano, Monte Amiata, towered across the landscape.
Not far from the main house lay the private family chapel with graveyard that Origo writes about movingly in Images and Shadows. She tells of the solace the garden brought her after the death of her young son, Gianni, who died in 1933 at the age of eight from tubercular meningitis:
“The greater part of the eight happy years of his childhood had been spent at La Foce, and every inch of the house and garden, every field and tree, seemed full of his presence.”
Equally moving is the account of the Origo family’s contribution to the World War II war effort, providing hiding places for anti-Fascist partisans, fugitives, and escaping Allied prisoners of war––not to mention the care they provided to war orphans.
If such World War II details interest you, you might consider reading War in Val d’Dorcia: an Italian War Diary, 1943-1944, also by Iris Origo. In it, she describes how she and her husband, along with hundreds of peasants, risked their lives to feed and clothe pure strangers, Allied prisoners-of-war who’d managed to escape their captors. Putting their political views aside, Iris and Antonio employed compassion as their weapon of choice in the fight for humanity.
Although it had been years since I had last seen the Origos’ villa and grounds, I had never been able to shake the memory of its beauty. While in the township of Capalbio visiting my niece, I decided to return to La Foce to see if it had retained the grace and wonder of long ago.
Indeed, it seemed more beautiful than ever.