Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Garden at Villa La Foce

Foreigners in Val d'Orcia
Cecil Pinsent's closed green garden at La Foce with its crisp hedges. Monte Amiata is palely visible to the south-east
If you look at the historical black and white photographs on the Villa La Foce website, as backdrop to the depictions of hardworking and celebrating sharecropping farmers, you will see a lunar landscape: harsh, barren-looking hills, and stretches of empty terrain succumbing to the plough for the first time. Today's intensely-cultivated, ordered and verdant sweep of valley and hills with the famous cypress-lined road winding up the hill opposite La Foce were unimaginable 100 years ago. 
Val d'Orcia before the new owners of La Foce intervened

This ostensibly timeless scene has come to symbolise Tuscany, despite the fact that it represents only the area south of Siena, that it is completely man-made and of recent creation, and that its creators were a British garden designer, a British-American woman and her Florentine husband.

When Iris Origo and her husband Antonio bought the roughly 3000-hectare (7000-acre) property at La Foce in 1924 they can have had little idea of the geopolitical upheavals that would rack their territory over the following twenty years. But they may have had an inkling of the changes they themselves would bring to La Foce.
Since the late 15th century La Foce was a wayside inn, built and run by Siena's Santa Maria della Scala hospital (which in those days meant hostel as much as hospital); it is conveniently situated between Montepulciano, Chianciano, Pienza and Sarteano on the ancient pilgrim route, the Via Francigena.
The villa's main buildings preserve the inn's original structure and have only expanded rather than altered it; the result is a relatively unpretentious architectural style
Sheer determination to bring life to a depressed, poverty-stricken area seems to have driven the Origos. Despite the loss of their only son and the vicissitudes of war, they succeeded. In the shadowy lobby of the villa's public entrance, before you get to the ticket office, hang a series of black and white photos, without captions. The casual visitor has no idea what she is looking at; indeed most people pass the photos by. The most striking is the photograph of what appears to be a gigantic hole dug for a dam. During the garden tour it is revealed that La Foce's new owners excavated and removed an entire stratum of heavy clay from the hillside and valley to replace it with good earth for farming and gardening. After which they proceeded to farm and garden over the next five decades.
While Cecil Pinsent and Antonio Origo worked on the structures of the neo-Renaissance style garden and its green embellishments, Iris softened the lines with her plantings of flowers and addition of colour

The clay-laden slopes facing the property were subject to erosion, so the Origos planted them with broom; the inhabitants of the farm on the top of the hill opposite had trouble getting to and from the valley, so the Origos built the winding road lined with cypresses which has become an icon of southern Tuscany.
Today the garden at La Foce but also the surrounding countryside look as though they have been sitting there for centuries uncountable. Naturally it is an illusion. The harmonious, joyful whole was created from next to nothing by these two energetic and determined people with the inimitable help of the architect and garden designer, Cecil Pinsent, who had already worked on other villas within the Anglo-American community in Tuscany.
the lemon garden and its clipped box
Pinsent's ideal was the green garden, architectural in design; he seems to have favoured a garden closed to its surroundings, a space unto itself, a kind of latterday cloister; the Origos instead wished to include the view, the sense of the infinite beyond the garden. Hence the cypress tops in the lower garden are kept trimmed so that the panorama can be enjoyed from the upper levels.
Cecil Pinsent's greatest influence is visible in the lower garden with is rigorous lines and exclusively green colour scheme which resembles other gardens designed by him, such as at Villa I Tatti and Villa Le Balze.
It is unclear how the Origos managed to finance this massive project. Antonio was apparently a marquis (despite being an illegitimate son) and although one can easily be marquis and destitute, it is more likely that land and power lurked somewhere in the family. Iris's paternal family were the philanthropist New York Cuttings who made their wealth in sugar beet, railroads and property development.
One hundred years ago, under the mezzadria system (see the post Sharecropping in Tuscany,) labour was literally dirt-cheap, favouring the landowner while assuring the loyal and hardworking farmer with a modest living. The Origos brought the countryside of their estate to life by building fifty farmhouses, and establishing a school and hospital, thereby creating a kind of 20th century version of the 'welfare capitalism' or paternalist benevolence of 19th century industrialists like the Cadburys at Bournville in the UK.

In fact, when the mezzadria or sharecropping system ended in Italy after the Second World War, La Foce was no longer financially viable: 50% of the farms were sold to their occupants and the property had to rely on other resources to survive. As in most analogous cases, today the garden, the villa and its outlying farmhouses have become holiday and tourist destinations.
a sculpture symbolising the search for water at La Foce was created by Antonio Origo's father Clemente Origo
In her war diary (War in Val d'Orcia, 1947) Iris often mentions her husband's visits to Rome. The couple seem to have been opposed to Fascism but never suffered directly at the hands of the Fascists despite having to flee the property before the Nazi retreat. Later in life Iris wrote biographies of four famous anti-fascist Italians (A Need to Testify, 1984).
a corner of the garden near the limonaia (which was added to the property by Pinsent)

 steps lead up into the woods above La Foce, where once partisans and foreign troops hid, sustained and protected by the owners of the property
During the war Iris and her husband housed and protected their resident sharecropper farmers, many war orphans, partisans, Allied troops plus assorted deserters and defectors. Iris describes the war and its toll on their lives in a forthright, courageous, highly-controlled voice; when the moment of liberation arrives the change in tone is formidable.
The sundial on the La Foce courtyard wall reads: 'the hours return, but those no longer'. Considering the troubled war history of the estate it is unclear whether this is said with relief or with regret
A visit to the garden at La Foce is not just a genteel stroll in a harmonious environment: it is a reminder of Italy's troubled history, of when the country was beset by foreigners and war. At the same time it demonstrates how much beauty is here for the world to admire today, largely thanks to the enthusiasm and vision of other, more benevolent foreigners.

Iris had a special place where she loved to sit and write, away from the formal garden, below the wood where the partisans hid and not far from the cemetery where her son and war victims lie buried: a stone bench flanked by irises. The view from her bench is the glorious sweep of the Val d'Orcia which, together with her husband, Iris created.

Iris's rose garden has been modernised with plantings from all over the world; today two full-time gardeners care for the garden
La Foce's original kitchen and scullery are also on view

The garden at Villa La Foce is open for visits between March 2 and November 1st on Wednesdays at 15, 16, 17 and 18 and on Saturdays and Sundays at 1130, 15 and 1630. The visit takes about 45 minutes and costs 10 euros per person. There is a small but attractive book and gift shop on the property and nearby a restaurant called Dopolavoro La Foce.
For more information, see the La Foce website.

1 comment:

  1. An enriching panoramic and historic tour of La Foce, seems rich in stories as it is in verdant landscaping!
    A commonality between La Foce and Le Ripe, to borrow a little from this post: a legacy of beauty here for the world to admire today, largely thanks to the enthusiasm and vision of former outsiders, who now call this home.


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