My first disclaimer – this is not an attempt to completely rewrite Katie’s enjoyable presentation on Monday night – my hope is solely to stimulate readers sufficiently to find out more about this fascinating women and her extraordinary garden , shown below.
Iris Origo was born in England to Anglo-Irish-American parents who were undeniably wealthy – they travelled and worked world-wide until sadly her father contracted TB .whilst in Messina as an aide worker after the earthquake of 1908 , and finally succumbed to the disease when Iris was only eight years old.
Iris’s mother, Sybil Cutting settled in Florence at the Villa Medici
She bought the very same Villa Medici that was commissioned to architect Michelozzo Michelozzi by Cosimo il Vecchio when he wanted a Humanist Villa from which to continue to enjoy his favourite view over Florence, one that he had liked so much whilst on retreat at St Jerome’s Hut – shown above in my photo and below in the top right hand corner of the famous Annunciation by Ghirlandiao.
The painting of the time reflected the changing architecture of the time and also the importance of the family Medici – Sybil Cutting recognised the importance of the great Florentine family name and restored the connection when she bought the Villa.
Iris had a lonely childhood, partly because she was an only child, and most of her contemporaries were sent away to school in England or Switzerland but also because her father had wanted her to have an original education and to learn to think for herself.
Such an unusual education was certainly provided for her – famous art historians such as Bernard Berenson being amongst her private tutors.
Architect and garden designer Cecil Pinsent was also employed by Sybil Cutting to design and renew her garden in Fiesole and he – although 19 years her senior he became lonely Iris’s great friend and confidante.
After no less than three coming-out parties – none of which yielded her a prospective husband – Iris met and married the illegitimate son of Marchese Origo – much against her mother’s will – and they settled in Val D’Orchia on a huge tranch of unpromising farmland under the shadow of an extinct volcano – and set about using Iris’s family money to make life better for their tenant farmers and something workable for their own future.
A major improvement came about during the first visit of Iris’s American grandmother Mrs Cutting who, finding there was insufficient water for even modest bathing decided to pay for the diversion of a small stream so that it flowed into- rather than away from- the farm’s water supply. This generous gift gave the Villa running water, with just enough left over to fill the pond and run it’s fountain as shown above. Cecil Pinsent was responsible for the architectural improvements to the house and for the development of this small garden – the first of many!
Iris began to write seriously only after the tragic death of their only son, Gianni in 1930. He was aged only seven and had been deeply loved by both his parents even although their own relationship had faced some tough challenges. Iris considered leaving La Foce at this point but Cecil Pinsent built her a small chapel and developed a graveyard for both the family and their workers – and she stayed.
Cecil Pinsent also developed shady nooks and alcoves with especially lovely views so Iris had chairs and tables to research and write at all around her increasingly extensive garden area.
The final part of the garden was developed in 1939 – just before WW2. The double bank effect of the trim of the box parterre has elements of 30’s architectural design and a curtain of cypress that seems designed to keep the worst of the war out of the Origo’s world – little could they have know that by 1944 their property would form part of the retreating German “front line”
Amazingly – given that she was an Anglo-American Iris had managed to secure a job with the Italian Red Cross in Rome at the beginning of WW2 but after the birth of her second daughter Donata, in 1943 she came back to La Foce and established a home for displaced children, many of whom were orphaned, others bombed out of their homes, plus some siblings were sent to join their brothers and sisters in what appeared to be a safe place.
One of the most poignant episodes in Iris Origo’s classic war diary – War in Val d’Orcia arose when she and Antonio were finally evicted by the Germans from their previously “safe” home – because it was literally on the Front Line – and compelled to walk with 23 children – many of whom were babes in arms – across the their own land laid waste by battle and onwards for about 8 kilometres to the walled town of Montepuliciano.
The good citizens of the town, although held under curfew by the occupying German forces, broke through the gate when they saw the struggling group of children approaching and swarmed down the hill to provide assistance to the Origos and their family.
Dr Katie Campbell and I went with a group to La Foce yesterday – it was still beautiful – even through the cloud and rain – and as an added bonus there is now a restaurant , Dopolavoro La Foce nearby. It is run by Iris Origo’s granddaughter and her husband and we had an excellent meal there.
Dr Katie Campbell is the author of Paradise of Exiles, Anglo-American Gardens of Florence , which includes photos and histories of both the often eccentric exiled English and Americans who appropriated the hills around Florence in the early 20th century, and of the gardens themselves.
We hope to go back again in early September – please contact me if you are interested in joining Katie’s tour.