This will be my last review of books I read as part of the Travel Prep for Italy. In 2009 my husband and I spent a week in a monastery outside of Montepulciano. Surrounded by olive groves and grape vines this was our home base as we discovered the hill towns of Tuscany. It was ideal and everyday we jumped up and were ready to explore. At night we returned to visit with the other guests and compare notes over dinner. Driving in Italy can be very hectic, the Italians I am sure get tired of the slow pokey tourist moving as slow as a snail so they can see everything. One of the highlights of the week was our day trip to La Foce. La Foce, bought in 1924, is a large estate with a sixteenth century farmhouse, and the home of Iris Origo, an American, who with her Italian husband, Antonio, restored the baked barren olive green landscape, neglected by soil erosion and wars between the Italian states, back to life. Fifteen years of hard work produced one central fattoria (farm), where the Origo family lived surrounded by fifty farms of one hundred acres each with each farmer sharing all produce with the owner, but depending on the owner for a home, equipment and capital. This was the mezzadria system of farming similar to sharecropping in the United States. Here Antonio Origo introduced modern farming techniques and managed the estate while Iris (the Marchesa) set up a school for the children and adults (eighty percent illiterate) and a hospital for their growing farmstead, eventually six thousand people in all. Then came World War II.
War in Val D’ Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943 -1944 written by Iris Origo is the story of La Foce and its inhabitants during the war and the build up to it. It describes their life under the fascist administration of Benito Mussolini, who came into power in 1922, their move to La Foce and then their everyday life during the war, trying to survive. I think the most important fact for me was that Iris decided not to edit any of the pages she had written when the book was published, in 1948. Her papers were originally written as a personal journal during her pregnancy, as a pastime, in the middle of domestic isolation and boredom. When the war came to the Val D’ Orcia, her writings became a way to concentrate and clear her mind by writing each days events as she had heard or witnessed them first hand. She left it as it was written, sometimes in scribbles, sometimes lengthy, written in the cellar, or in her children’s nursery, hiding the papers among the children’s books because she didn’t think anyone would look there and eventually burying her diary in the garden. Good or bad they did what they thought at the time was the right thing to do. Coulda, woulda, shoulda times and more. Sometimes those decisions turned out for the best and sometimes not. She tells it all.
The road we took to La Foce was a two lane paved highway, surrounded by plowed olive green fields ( I have never seen a field that color before or since) bordered by the tall skinny plane trees, that everyone thinks of when they think of Italy. We zigged-zagged down that road and on the crossroads found La Foce, a bright yellow cheery pallazzo, surrounded by beautiful gardens and a pool flanked with lemon trees in big terra cotta pots. We took the tour with an English speaking guide, walking through the gardens and learning about Iris Origo’s garden design, statuary and the choice of flower variety for her garden. The estate was so beautiful, restful and peaceful. During the tour, the guide mentioned that the marchesa had written several books. I looked them up when I returned home and was pleasantly surprised that one of her books, the War in Val D’ Orcia, was written in English. So I read the book after returning to the United States. Little did I realize, before reading the book, that the beautiful home of La Foce and the families that lived there had seen so much hardship.
When we left La Foce, I thought I would give the Italians a break from driving an inch from my rear bumper and then speeding around me on the curves. We took a dirt road. I don’t think I ever saw a marking for any road except upon leaving the North-South A-1 corridor to and from Rome. After you got off the A-1 you were on your own. Even with GPS in the car it was nearly a day before I realized that the beautiful sounding Italian voice was actually speaking English. English with a very heavy Italian brogue. Seena? Does she mean the turn off for SI EN NA is this one? See what I mean? She pronounced cities that I was sure were not even on my map. Anyway, the dirt road seemed like a good choice at the time and we were not that far from Montepulciano. How bad could it be? The juts in the narrow dirt road seemed to get deeper and deeper and larger and larger. Sometimes I had to come to a complete stop and creep across them, the rental car bottoming out. In the middle of nowhere we came to four or five houses and an old castle. There was even one streetlight. Who lived out here? We stopped to look and to give the car a break. When we started up again that dirt road seemed to go on and on. It was getting dark when we pulled into a farm lot. The road had ended. There were clothes hanging on the line and a tied up barking dog going crazy with our arrival. The farmer (plaid shirt and everything) came out in total disbelief that we were in his barnyard. Loudly in case we were deaf, but in rapid Italian and gestures he told me in no uncertain terms to turn around and go back. I did. We finally did find our way back to Montepulciano, but I want to find that road on my trip this time, because now I know after reading the book what it was.
I never thought of soldiers from many countries being prisoners of war in Italy. There were seventy thousand of them. Early in the war the Fascists in compliance with the Germans informed the Origos that their home would be used to house the P.O.W.s. A high ranking official came to look the place over and decided he would be more comfortable at the castle up the hill. The Origo family and their tenants would be in charge of feeding them, and caring for them. The peasants kept them alive and helped them escape. General O’ Connor wrote after the war, “ I can only say the Italian peasants and others behind the lines were magnificent. They could not have done more for us. They hid us, escorted us, gave us money, clothes and food – all the time taking tremendous risks. Without their help it would have been impossible for us to live and finally escape.”
Iris had the hospital, meager supplies and the only nurse. This is not to say she helped only the Allied forces, but also young Italians, who took up arms against the regime and joined partisan groups, (she hid them in her forest, fed them and reported movements of troops from either side). She also cared for wounded German soldiers stranded from their units. Yes, she tells all about that castle and what went on there.
When Genoa and Turin were bombed and seeing heavy fighting the city dwellers begged those people who lived in the country to take in their children. The children would be safe, in the middle of Italy, so far away from the fighting, or so they thought. La Foce and Iris Origo took twenty-six children in, in addition to the two she had of her own by then. Eventually, when the American forces landed near Rome and moved north, the war came to her doorstep literally. As the war raged close to La Foce, she walked the children to safety in the hill town of Montepulciano, as the shelling went on all around them. The children were tied together so they would not get lost, and many of the children so accustomed to the bombing and planes thought they were playing a new game. After the war many men, from different countries, wrote her and told her they had survived the war thanks to her kindness. I am sure the children, who for the most part were re-united with their families felt the same way. There is a great deal to be learned of strength, determination and courage from Iris Origo. She shares her life, simple acts of everyday life during a war, with the hope of human kindness. Her book is a must read.
P S I hope I find that farmer too. I have studied Italian for two years and will be learning more in Montepulciano. Maybe we can discuss the weather!
The converted monastery we stayed in was: Sant’ Antonio/The Country Resort, Via della Montagna 6/8, Montepulciano, Italy. Web site: http://www.santantonio.it