London was worryingly as warm as Tuscany when we got home from staying with friends in the most perfect summer-cool garden near Montalcino. Their house, vineyards on one side, olives on another and an oak wood on a third, is blessed with a gushing, crystalline, never-failing spring. I have always dreamed – really dreamed – of living where water springs from the ground. Here it flows down little stone channels into glinting basins, chuckling as it goes, then takes another run and spouts in crystal arcs into basins big enough to plunge and wallow in. It’s cold of course, but under a Tuscan sun the ultimate luxury.
It is not easy to keep your bearings on the endlessly winding roads of Tuscany. All the ancient settlements are perched on hilltops reached by a series of hairpin bends. The campanile or farm or orderly olive grove you take as a landmark gyrates around you as you follow the road in countless twists, in and out of the shade of oak or pines, then dazzling sunlight. The wide Val d’ Orcia comes as welcome relief, a definitive break, a broad pause in the confusion with the signature profile of Monte Amiata blocking the way to the south.
Villa La Foce is perhaps the nearest Tuscany comes to a stately home, at least in its setting, a near-English garden poised like a balcony looking south across the valley with the summit of Monte Amiata in its cross-hairs. It is famous as the home of the Origo family, where the author Iris Origo lived through the Second World war and wrote War in the Val d’Orcia. TheMerchant of Pratois her unique account of a Tuscan merchant’s life in the 14thcentury when she found his correspondence in the 1950s.
The Origos employed Cecil Pinsent as their architect, as Bernard Berenson had at Villa I Tatti, so they can hardly have been looking for a totally Tuscan result. To blend the orderly intimacy of English tradition with the wild breadth of the Tuscan landscape, where distances are measured in purple ranges of receding hills, is a challenge – which he overcame with the almost inevitable staircases, alleys of cypresses, staircases and hedges. In steep hillside gardens, which almost all Italian gardens are, changes of level are the key decisions. Slopes are usually a mistake: you need to cut and construct terraces. Then you can contrast and balance intimacy and wide skies, detail and bravura. French windows (is there anything more Engish?) on to rosebeds, cloistered plots, vine pergolas, lemon pots, fuchsias and hydrangeas……. The ingredients may be universal, but the scale and sentiment are something an Italian would not conceive. And the upkeep, the planting and the tidiness: utterly English.