Villa La Foce; a magnificent garden in Tuscany

I’ve been a few places.  I’ve seen a few gardens. So you can trust me when I tell you that   Villa La Foce, the villa and farm created by Iris Origo and her husband, Antonio Origo, is truly magnificent.

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The villa is located in the crete sense (clay hills of Sienna) overlooking the beautiful Val d’orcia in souther Tuscany.  La Foce is located near the site of an Etruscan settlement and  burial-place that were in use from the 7th C. BC to the 2nd C. AD.

La Foce has been continuously inhabited for many centuries, partly because of its location on the Via Francigena (“the road that comes from France,” this ancient highway was a pilgrim route running from France [some say Canterbury, England] to Rome. In medieval times it was an important road and pilgrimage route for those wishing to visit the Holy See and the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul).

 

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 The Origos dedicated their lives to bringing prosperity and cultural and social changes to this formerly poverty-stricken area of the Val d’Orcia.  Years of work were devoted to preparing the difficult terrain for modern agriculture.

The gardens and estate of La Foce are among the most important and best kept early 20th-century gardens in Italy. Amid 3,500 acres of farmland in the countryside near Pienza, with sweeping views of the Tuscan landscape, La Foce was the dream garden of Iris Origo.

Passionate about the order and symmetry of Florentine gardens, she and Antonio employed the talented English architect and family friend Cecil Pinsent,  who had designed the gardens at Villa Medici, to enhance the natural beauty of the site. Pinsent designed the structure of simple, elegant, box-edged beds and green enclosures that give shape to the Origos’ shrubs, perennials and vines, and created a garden of soaring cypress walks, native cyclamen, lawns and wildflower meadows.

Today the estate is run by the Origo daughters, Benedetta and Donata, and is open to the public one day a week.

 

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The property was purchased in 1924 by Antonio Origo and his Anglo-American wife, Iris. Iris was the daughter of Lady Sybil Cutting who owned the Villa Medici at Fiesole, where Iris spent much of her childhood.

 

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The Villa itself was built in the late 15 C as a hospice for pilgrims and merchants traveling on the via Francigena.

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The garden is divided into three distinct sections on different levels, and was created between 1927 and 1939 in several stages, all parts composed to follow the lay of the land.

 

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http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/italy/tuscany/articles/Italy-Val-dOrcia-Tuscanys-happy-valley/

Basilica Santo Spirito, Firenze

Brunelleschi, Michelangelo and many other important artists have major works within this Renaissance architectural masterpiece in the Oltrarno that is so easy to miss.  The church’s facade is so unimposing,  it is almost invisible.

But step inside and behold: Brunelleschi’s lovely basilica.

 

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Brunelleschi began designs for this interior as early as 1428. The first pillars to the building were delivered in 1446, ten days before his death.  After his death, his plans for the church were carried on by his followers Antonio Manetti, Giovanni da Gaiole, and Salvi d’Andrea; the latter was also responsible for the construction of the cupola.

Unlike the Basilica of San Lorenzo, where Brunelleschi’s ideas were thwarted, his designs were carried through here with some degree of fidelity, at least in the ground plan and up to the level of the arcades.

The Latin cross plan was realized and the contrast between the nave and the transept, that caused such difficulty at S. Lorenzo, was here also avoided. The side chapels, in the form of niches, all the same size and 40 in number, run along the entire perimeter of the basilica.

Brunelleschi’s facade was never built and left blank. In 1489, a columned vestibule and octagonal sacristy, designed by Simone del Pollaiolo, known as Il Cronaca, and Giuliano da Sangallo respectively, were built to the left of the building. A door was opened up in a chapel to make the connection to the church.

Dominating the interior of the basilica is a Baroque baldachin with polychrome marbles, by Giovanni Battista Caccini and Gherardo Silvani, and placed over the high altar in 1601.

The church remained undecorated until the 18th century, when the walls were plastered. The inner façade is by Salvi d’Andrea, and has still the original glass window with the Pentecost designed by Pietro Perugino. The bell tower (1503) was designed by Bacio d’Agnolo.

The exterior of the building was restored in 1977-78.

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The Augustinians had begun building the church and the convent in 1252.  It was originally dedicated to Mary, All Saints and the Holy Spirit, changing by the end of the century to Mary, the Holy Spirit and Matthew.

The churches and convents of various mendicant orders were constructed with the financial support of the commune; the same is true for Santo Spirito beginning in 1267, and then again from 1292 to 1301.

The convent of S. Spirito became a center of scholarly activities and was recognized as Studium Generale of the Augustinian order in 1284. The first Rule and Constitutions of the Augustinians were approved in 1287 by the general chapter of the order that was held in Florence.

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Santo Spirito was associated with the early humanism in Florence. One of the groups, led by Bocaccio, gathered there in 1360s and 1370s. Upon his death in 1375, Bocaccio bequeathed his library to the convent.

In the 1380s and early 1390s another circle of humanists met daily in the cell of Luigi Marsili (1342–94). Marsili had studied philosophy and theology at the Universities of Padua and Paris. He came into contact with Petrarch at Padua in 1370 and later became a friend of Bocaccio. This group included Coluccio Salutati  (1331-1406), Chancellor of Florence from 1375. He soon became the central figure of the circle.

The most important of Salutati disciples was Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444), a future Chancellor of Florence. Another member of the circle was Niccolo de’ Niccoli,  a humanist and an associate of Cosimo de Medici.

 

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It was after the Florentine victory over the Milanese in 1397 during the second Milan war on the feast day of Saint Augustine (28 August), that the Florentine signoria decided to rebuild this church to honor the saint, and placing it under the patronage of the city.

Despite this decision, nothing much happened until 1434, when the operai retained the services of Filippo Brunelleschi. Work on the new church progressed slowly until March 1471. During the Descend of the Holy Spirit sacra rappresentazione organized by the laudese in honor of the visit of Galeazzo Maria Sforza the old church caught fire and was heavily damaged, together with parts of the convent.

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The walls of the cloister to the left of the basilica are lined with tombstones from all nationalities and eras.

The convent attached to Santo Spirito has two cloisters; they are known as the Chiostro dei Morti (cloister of the dead) and Chiostro Grande (Grand Cloister). The former takes its name from the great number of tombstone decorating its walls, and was built c. 1600 by Alfonso Parigi.  The latter was constructed in 1564-1569 by Bartolomeo Ammannati in a classicistic style.

The former convent also contains the great refectory (Cenacolo di Santo Spirito) with a large fresco portraying the Crucifixion over a fragmentary Last Supper, both attributed to Andrea Orcagna  (1360–1365). It is one of the rare examples of Late Gothic Art which can still be seen in Florence.

The room also boasts a collection of sculptures from the 11th-15th centuries, including two low reliefs by Donatello, a high relief by Jacopo della Quercia (Madonna with Child) and two marble sculptures by Tino da Camaino (1320–1322).

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The central courtyard of the cloister is lovely and green.

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The bellower, as seen from within the cloister.

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A fountain graces the center of the garden within the cloister.

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One of the hundreds of tombstones within the cloister walls.

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Michelangelo’s Crucifix

 

The young Michelangelo was allowed was allowed to make anatomical studies of the corpses coming from the convent’s hospital; in exchange, he sculpted this wooden crucifix,  which was originally placed over the basilica’s high altar. Today the crucifix is in the octagonal sacristy that can be reached from the west aisle of the church.

Frescoes Crucifixion and The Last Supper were painted by Andrea Orcagna and his workshop in the 1360s.

Dateline: Florence, August 4, 1944

In liberated Florence, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn—Mrs. Ernest Hemingway—filed this heartbreaking report:

“The botanical gardens are now a graveyard and they are the most frightening place in Florence. The Germans had taken all the hearses; the cemeteries of Florence lie to the north of the city and are in German hands, and there is no wood for coffins. Add to these basic facts the daily normal deaths in a city of three hundred thousand and the daily deaths resulting from mines, mortars, shells and snipers and you have the ghastly problem of Florence. Dead had been left unburied by the Germans, and it was not always possible to retrieve bodies. For instance, one body lay for days on the stumps of Alle Grazie Bridge. No one could reach it, first because of snipers and then because of mines. So trenches are dug in the botanical gardens and the uncasketed bodies are laid in them.”

Even after Allied forces gained control of the north side of the Arno, life remained miserable for Florentines. People accessed the north and south sides of the city by walking across the broken remains of the other shattered bridges. Few buildings had intact windowpanes.

Stretches of what had once been one of the world’s most cultivated city centers had been replaced with piles of rubble thirty to forty feet high along sections of both sides of the Arno.

Women picked through the pieces searching for heirlooms. Men, armed with picks and shovels, hacked away at the remnants of their beaten city to clear paths for workers and begin the process of rebuilding. Gaunt faces conveyed the hardship endured by the Florentines.

Barefoot women, standing shoulder to shoulder, prepared spartan meals on outdoor stoves in the Boboli Gardens. Others hunched over on their knees along the banks of the Arno, using its dirty water to scrub even dirtier clothes on pieces of stone debris created by the blasts. Despite the filth, thousands of people sought relief from the heat and dust by swimming in the muck.

No one indulged in vanity. Young, dark-haired women looked thirty years older, with their once-well-coifed hair standing on end, caked with grayish dust. Men patched and repatched their ragged clothes. A cluster of people usually indicated the location of one of the city’s temporary clean-water supplies. Such oases were fairly easy to find; just follow someone carrying straw-covered wine jugs or gasoline cans in each hand. The children of Florence sat in circles on the ground, devouring meager suppers.

It was a desperate moment in the city’s storied history.

Here’s a diagram of what was destroyed in Florence on that fateful day:

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The Ponte Vecchio is in the middle of the image, Ponte Santa Trinita  to the upper left.

 

 

Edsel, Robert M.. Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis (p. 189). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The first day of summer.

I went to Settignano to visit a hard to see garden.  It is so hard to see that I didn’t see it.  I couldn’t find the gate!  You can’t win them all!  I’ll make another reservation for another day, but it won’t be in the heat of this summer!

But, apart from the problem above, I’d describe the day as blue, green and red hot.  Italy is in a heat wave and its only going to get hotter the next few days.  It was too hot to be walking in the hills outside of Florence.  But, I did it anyway

 

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