Thursday 27 January 2011

Other Gardens 1. La Foce

 La Foce, Chianciano Terme, Siena, Italy.

My garden is not worth writing about at this time of year, there is nothing much to look at and it is far too cold to be outside doing the digging and pruning that should be occupying my time. Instead I would like to share with you some other gardens that I've visited and enjoyed in far better weather, although the day that we went to La Foce was quite dramatic, weather-wise, because the sky went bruise-blue and we had to shelter from large hailstones! As we waited for the gardens to open we were joined by visitors from Canada, America, Japan and another couple from England, less than twenty in all.
We visited this garden as a result of reading first of all a biography and then the books of the Anglo-American writer, Iris Origo. She was the daughter of William Bayard Cutting, the diplomat son of a wealthy New York family and Lady Sybil Cuffe, the daughter of the Lord Desart, an Irish peer. 
After the death of her father in 1910 from tuberculosis, Iris and her mother lived at the  Villa Medici in Fiesole, one of the most beautiful villas in Florence, where they became friends with Bernhard Berenson who lived not far away at I Tatti.

In 1924 Iris married Antonio, the son of Marchese Clemente Origo, a painter and sculptor. In the same year they bought the run-down estate of la Foce, an old osteria built on crossroads that link the towns of Montepulciano, Chianciano, Pienza and Sarteano. ("Foce" means 'opening' or 'meeting-place'.)

During the Second World War the Origos continued to live at La Foce. They led a complicated life, sheltering escaped Allied prisoners of war, Italian deserters and a variety of people hiding out or passing through the surrounding woods, whilst also dealing in the daytime with Italian and Germans officials. 
Iris' book, 'War in the Val D'Orcia' is a vivid description of that time. As we drove away from the garden it was easy to imagine the people who had passed through this wooded landscape, coming out of hiding at night to collect the food that Iris provided.

Antonio and Iris employed the English architect Cecil Pinset (1884 -19630) to enlarge the house and farm and create the garden with its wonderful views of the Orcia valley and the Amiata mountain. The garden follows the slope of the hill and is subdivided into several terraced rooms outlined in box.

La Foce.

Beneath a well shaped ilex tree some strangers stand.
 A black sky cracks and thunder rolls.
 Springtime in Italy and our guide is well prepared,
she wears two jackets.
Hailstones jump from her umbrella
drowning out words.
Into the loggia we retreat,
well-heeled tourists, middle aged
who've read about the subject, are alert.
And Benedetta serves us well,
was born to stories of this house.
The ground hail-white and crunchy underfoot,
ice drifts beside pink peonies blousy blooms,
a great wisteria droops its colour down
as hill and valley fight for light and shade.
Here every box edge is so crisply made
and well displayed against the whitened ground.

Now, having shared this drama
we are loathe to part,
so stand and say
perhaps we'll cross the world to meet again.
I'm sure , if there'd been sunshine,
we would not have felt the same.

A short woodland walk away from the garden there is a cemetery, designed in 1933 by Pinsent following the death of the Origos' seven year old son, Gianni.

After the war Iris divided her time between La Foce and Rome, where the Origos owned a flat. She was appointed a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1977 and died in June 1988 at the age of 85.


  1. Thank you for taking me on such a lovely trip. I love the description of the "bruise blue" sky. Beautiful post.

  2. What an interesting story, and the way you tell it, along with the lovely pictures is wonderful. The whole area mentioned is a favourite of mine and Amandas, and we can remember laying down on the warm red bricks of the square in Siena and falling asleep. Thank you.