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Quarantine Reading

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

View of La Foce from the hills

Not being able to leave the house is getting a bit wearing. Life seems to be made up of trips to the kitchen and the terrace, Zoom classes, online grading, and an occasional masked outing to the market, followed by the next day, a repeat of the one before. It is remarkable how this disease has not only affected the whole world but also reduced so many of our lives (if we are fortunate enough) to the same limited activities while we are all sitting in the same clichéd boat.

Lots of people are writing about quarantine activities and reading lists, so we share those activities, too. Given that seemingly unlimited time to read is one of the only pleasures of lockdown, I have finally been able to pick up books that have been sitting on my shelf, unread because life before coronavirus was very full.

Iris Origo

I just finished War in Val d’Orcia by Iris Origo. Iris Origo, or Marchesa Origo, was the daughter of privilege; her father was an extraordinary rich American, and her mother was the daughter of an English peer. She was only seven when her father died, and his will stipulated that she be brought up in neither America nor England (where she was born). He was an ardent anti-nationalist and wanted her to live in a country to which she did not belong, and he preferred that country to be Italy. Lady Sybil honored his request, so Iris grew up in the Villa Medici, in Fiesole above Florence, surrounded by a group of Anglo-American expats right out of an E.M. Forster novel. In fact, Forster, Edith Wharton, Bernard Berenson, and Henry James swanned in and out of the villa, thanks to her mother’s third husband Percy Lubbock, more Jamesian that James and author of the oft-disparaged The Craft of Fiction.

In 1920 she fell in love with Antonio Origo, ten years her senior and the illegitimate son of the Marchese Clemente, though both were fully integrated into the family. In 1924 they bought La Foce, not far from Montepulciano and Pienza, cultivating the arid crete senesi, and transforming the entire region into a self-sustaining enterprise that supported about 50 farms, a school, and a health clinic.

War in the Val d’Orcia is Origo’s diary from the years 1943-1944, in which she gives us a clear-sighted, elegantly restrained day-to-day account of life at La Foce as it becomes the frontline in the Allies battle for Italy. The diary is exhilarating reading, full of beautifully rendered stories of the courage and generosity of the contadini, who along with the Origos risked their lives harbouring refugee children, P.O.W.s, Italian Jews, refugees, and anti-Fascists. All under the nose of the Germans, who at one time were billeted in the house.

It was interesting reading during what is being called the biggest crisis since WWII. I was struck by the constant danger they lived in, danger of arrest, deportation, and bombing, always caught between the cruelties of the retreating Germans and the destruction of the Allied assault. There were always difficulties finding enough clothes and food for the desperate stream of people who arrived at La Foce in need of help. During the two years covered in the diary, she is taxed to the limit of endurance at times, but after shepherding 70 children and injured refugees across enemy lines to Montepulciano under Allied bombardment, she writes that it was the days long wait for the allies to break through that was the most taxing. It made me think about the differences required of people during crises. War requires action and solidarity, pandemic requires passivity and isolation, and enforced passivity is psychologically exhausting in a different way.

This book also reminded me of happier times. I visited La Foce in October 2016 on a wine trip to the Val d’Orcia, and I wanted to see the villa because I had read Origo's biography a year earlier. Driving through the Val d’Orcia, with its charming towns of Montepulciano, Pienza, San Quirico d’Orcia, Castiglione d’Orcia, and Chiusi, where you can find La Solita Zuppa, one of my favorite family-run restaurants in Tuscany, it is hard to imagine the poverty Origo found when she first arrived. It is even more difficult to imagine it as a war zone. With the poetry of its hill-top towns, skirted by grapevines, and its roads lined with dark candled Cyprus, it is now the playground of tourists.

The seven thousand acres that were once part of the Origo estate are now parceled off, but it is still possible to visit the house and the gardens. The gardens are ordered and lovely, their formality a calm contrapposto to the wild grey hillocks of the crete senesi. In fact it is thanks to Iris and Antonio Origo that we have one of the most iconic images of Tuscany, the perfectly balanced zigzaggy road that winds up the hill towards Chianciano Terme. The Origos improved the road and planted the cypresses as part of their land development scheme, but it also clearly improved the view from their villa.

The last trip I took in late February, just a week before the lockdown, was to this part of Tuscany, a visit to the Benvenuto Brunello wine festival in Montalcino. We drove past La Foce and took in that magnificent view. Little did I realize that would be my last excursion for a while. Now, I read the words Iris Origo wrote in her diary on November 24, 1943 in a very different way: “I have a strong presentiment that this is the end of something: of this house, of a whole way of living. It will never be the same again.”


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