Do our homes and gardens speak of us, reflecting our cultural and aesthetic memories and revealing our attachment to sentiments and emotions, past and present? If so, what led to the making of La Foce? What exactly did Iris Origo have in mind when she first came to the bare clay hills of Val d’Orcia and how did she realize her dream of a garden (always her priority compared to the house) in which to find refuge from the dust and heat and bareness?
Now, of course, Val d’Orcia is a byword for unspoiled countryside, cypress-lined roads and picturesque villages nestled in rolling hills. But not when Iris and Antonio Origo first arrived.
It must have taken a great deal of imagination and daring to plan and execute a garden on such a large scale in such a hostile environment. So what memories did Iris draw on, and who helped her carry out her plans?
A quick look at the gardens of her cosmopolitan childhood is surprisingly revealing.
In Images and Shadows, her autobiography, she herself talks of the three houses (complete with gardens) that played a major role in her life, each one representing a different aspect of her character and cultural education, each one linked to the different nationalities to which she belonged and to a specific part of her past. All together, these three very different homes give us a glimpse (not more, she was a very private person) of a multi-faceted, incredibly cultivated and unexpectedly modern personality.
America, Ireland and Italy. Westbrook, Desart Court and Villa Medici.
Westbrook was the luxurious Long Island home of Iris’ American grandparents, linked to the memory of her beloved father, who died when she was only seven. “A carefully planned and planted world” designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (Central Park, among others!), “an earthly paradise” for children, who could play in the woods, take a canoe out on the river and run in the meadows. The Arboretum, with its collection of exotic trees, was the symbol of Westbrook and of “Granapa”, so much so that even decades after his death he was perceived as a benign presence protecting his family: “[my Grandmother] would point out the trees and shrubs that he had planted and the paths he had planned so that we still felt him to be our invisible, protecting host”. After their death Westbrook was donated by the family to the Long Island State Park Region and named The Bayard Cutting Arboretum.
Desart Court, in Kilkenny County, belonged to the Anglo-Irish side of Iris’ family. She loved it dearly for its informal, easy-going atmosphere. The Palladian-style eighteenth century house in grey Kilkenny stone with its reassuringly overgrown Italian garden revealed an innate aristocratic elegance that had no need for the rigidly controlled rules enforced at Westbrook. Iris was a lonely little girl and Desart Court was the place where she could be with her cousins and her adored grandfather, Lord Desart, who never really recovered after Desart Court was burned down during the 1920s Troubles.
Villa Medici in Fiesole
Villa Medici in Fiesole, near Florence, was Iris’ home after the death of her father when she was a very young child. A beautiful Renaissance villa where Lorenzo dei Medici entertained poets such as Poliziano, set in the green hills overlooking Florence and furnished with the help of neighbouring art historian Bernard Berenson. At Villa Medici Iris met a man who was destined to play a fundamental role in the making of La Foce. The British architect Cecil Pinsent designed the garden at Berenson’s home, Villa I Tatti and then the one at Villa Medici, becoming a friend of Sybil and later, of Iris. “We were in love with each other, just not at the same time”, says Iris. A wonderful phrase that could be used to describe many relationships.
So when Iris and her husband Antonio bought La Foce the first person she turned to was Cecil Pinsent, who undertook a thorough, decades-long process of restoration and planning of the house and garden.
In some ways they were opposite yet complementary: Cecil was enamored of geometry, renaissance harmony and the pure beauty of uncluttered greenery, Iris was the champion of colour, abundant flowering, the informal yet controlled wilderness of the English garden.
Yet the common element, the factor seamlessly joining such very different concepts, is the landscape of the Val d’Orcia. In this majestic setting all is harmony, grace and symmetry in a timeless atmosphere – and when visitors to La Foce learn that the garden is less than a century old they all seem surprised.