Thursday, July 10, 2014

La Foce ..... a pilgrimage to the gardens (Tuscany)

The garden and villa of La Foce are  the legacy of two quite amazing, if not heroic individuals, Iris and Antonio Origo.
  Together, with esteemed architect and garden designer, Cecil Pinsent, a masterpiece was created.

In 1924, Iris and Antonio purchased the run down  Tuscan villa and with their vision created the wonderous place that is La Foce.
La Foce means" a meeting place", in this case it refers to the place where two valleys meet,
 the Val d'Orcia and the Val di Chiana,  one of the most magical places James and I have visited.
To visit La Foce is more a pilgrimage than a garden tour.

The Pinsent designed Limonaia that houses the lemon trees during the winter months.

James and I made our most recent visit to La Foce in late May so the lemon trees had taken their places in the garden.

We have visited La Foce often, usually in early spring when the wisteria is in full bloom. Our visit this past spring was later, after wisteria but with the lemon trees out of the limonaia and in the garden, along with the roses coming into bloom.

The garden is the centerpiece of a visit here , but beyond is the incredible story of Iris and Antonio Origo and the history of La Foce.
 In 1924 when they purchased the villa, the surrounding landscape, known as 'crete senesi' was that of hardened clay.
It was barren. Some call in a "moonscape".
Iris and Antonio dedicated their efforts into creating a land that could be farmed to produce  food and income for the impoverished families of the Val'd Orcia.

 Work began to improve  the condition of the land and bring farming to the Val'd Orcia, meanwhile, architect Cecil Pinsent was hired to work on the villa and create a garden at La Foce.
Iris hired Pinsent,  for the garden design because she herself imagined a garden like those she knew from her home, Villa Medici in Florence, geometrical and of formal order.

Standing atop the staircase that descends to the lower garden, you can see
 the landscape of the Val d' Orcia centered on Mount Amiata. This is an important idea, the viewer sees the lush ordered green of the garden and then beyond to the beautiful vista of the ordered landscape of Tuscany and  farther yet, Mt. Amiata.

This formal staircase with grotto, designed by Pinsent, takes one from the upper garden into the lower garden with it's geometrical plan of boxwood, meant to create ever changing shadows and patterns as the sun moves across the sky.

The lower garden is framed with cypress, Pinsent's interest was in creating garden rooms. To create garden  rooms at La Foce he guides us along pathways through arches and stone walls, boxwood, cypress, and a pergola with wisteria. 

With  time, money and hard work Iris and Antonio, brought irrigation, wells, and ideas like crop rotation to area farmers and that lead to the  planting of wheat, grapes and olives trees.
An economy was started for this impoverished area.

 When the wisteria is in bloom, a walk down this path is better than any red carpet laid out for royalty. The air is perfumed and the violet blossoms cascading down are all together too magical in the dappled sun.

But, this visit we are here to see the roses, and a few lingering wisteria.

I have read that Iris had a real love for flowers, she would have been pleased by these roses .
Pinsent on the other had was less charmed by flowers, but did add wisteria and lavender to his design.
The roses and other flowers were for Iris.

Well, back to Iris and Antonio...
They were very committed to this place, La Foce and the Val d'Orcia, not only to improving the land and farming but also to the health and education of the people living here.
Both Iris and Antonio came from wealthy backgrounds, so they could have easily looked after themselves and lived a life of ease and comfort, but they chose a different path.

 World War II changed everything in Italy.
The Origos stayed at La Foce with their family. They could have readily escaped Europe and returned to Iris' family in the United States, but their hearts were at La Foce where they remained.
During the war years they took  wounded soldiers to their infirmary, and hid partisans.
Refuge children were welcomed by Iris to La Foce and a small school was built for them.

1943-44  brought the war to Val'd' Orcia and La Foce.
The villa had to be evacuated and the children led by Iris (along with her own children) had to walk  to Montepulciano. Along the way they had to avoid mined roads  and other dangers of war.
 German troops moved in and occupied La Foce.

After the war the Origo family moved back to La Foce , restored the war damaged  villa and garden and continued on their mission.
Their daughters continue to live there to this day.

 Post war, Cecil Pinsent returned to assist in the rebuilding of the gardens.

 This is a stunning view. Once again the garden and the landscape beyond become as one.

During a visit here I always see the beauty of the villa, garden and landscape but in my heart or soul, I don't know which, there is a feeling that this place the Val d'Orcia, has survived  the miseries  of drought, Medieval feudal lords misuse of land and population,  small wars and great wars and yet today survives as a place of beauty. So does La Foce.
It takes your breath away.

La Foce:
Chianciano, Tuscany
Open  to the public Wednesday afternoons .

Related Reading

The War in Val d' Orcia, by Iris Origo
Images and Shadows, by Iris Origo

La Foce, A Garden and Landscape in Tuscany, by Benedetta Origo, Morna Livingston, Laurie Olin & John Dixon Hunt

An Infinity of Graces, Cecil Ross Pinsent, An English Architect in the Italian Landscape, by Ethne Clark

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