Under the Tuscan sun
Country Life UK|January 26, 2022
In contrast with the arid landscape of the Val d’Orcia, the exuberant gardens created by Cecil Pinsent for the writer Iris Origo at La Foce, Tuscany, Italy, are all the more astonishing
Charles Quest-Ritson

THE house and garden at La Foce in the Val d’Orcia are a monument to the energy and vision of Antonio and Iris Origo, who bought the estate in 1923. The house was built in the 15th century as a hospice for travellers along the Via Francigena, the ancient road that brought pilgrims from France and England to Rome. It was not an imposing residence when the Origos first set eyes upon it, because its owners for more than a century had been absentee or lazy landlords with no desire to make improvements. Iris described La Foce when she and Antonio first saw the estate: ‘Long ridges of low, bare clay hills—the crete senesi—formed a lunar landscape, pale and inhuman… grey as elephants’ backs, as treeless as the mountains of the moon.’

It is important to understand that the Val d’Orcia is not the Tuscany of enchanted villas, Renaissance churches, affluent villages and vine-rich hillsides. The valley is rugged, wide and open, bitingly cold in winter and drought ridden in summer; the rain that would otherwise make it fertile being stolen by an extinct volcano called Monte Amiata that dominates the south-western skyline. And yet, the Val d’Orcia is now the only agricultural landscape in Tuscany to be recognised as worthy of UNESCO World Heritage status.

Who were the Origos? Marchese Antonio Origo was the half-Russian son of an Italian cavalry officer best known as a painter and sculptor; Iris was the only child of AngloIrish Lady Sybil Cuffe and her American husband, William Bayard Cutting, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 31.

Iris had spent most of her life in Tuscany —her mother’s house was the Villa Medici at Fiesole—and was an intellectually precocious young woman who would become one of the best-known English writers about Italy. Antonio simply wanted to farm. Together, they established their mission to create a model estate. When money was available, they continued to expand their holdings until they extended to 57 farms and nearly 8,000 acres.

All their funds in 1923 went into purchasing the estate. Fortunately, however, Mussolini was keen to improve Italy’s agriculture with grants and loans to increase production. Antonio was able to access public funds to build estate roads, excavate reservoirs and irrigation channels, restore the woodland, plant vines and olives, put the arable land into good heart and introduce modern ideas of husbandry. His exertions brought prosperity to their tenants and employees.

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