For English and American travellers on the “Grand Tour” of Europe in the 19th century, Italy and most especially Florence, was the desirous destination of choice. The flower of the Renaissance, Florence offered not only intellectual pursuits in art and architecture, but also the promise of “la dolce far niente” (carefree idleness). Life was considerably less expensive in Florence for the English and American expatriate with inexpensive lodgings and atmospheric villas, and the Siren’s call of wine, sunny skies and an agreeable countryside proved irresistable. The “Anglo Florentines” as this group camed to be called actually constitued many nationalities and backgrounds. But it is the poets such as the Brownings, Keats and Vernon Lee; artists such as John Singer Sargent and the wealthy Bohemians who inhabited the historic villas in the hills above Florence for whom this group is remembered.
Iris Origo writes of the Anglo Florentines in her memoir, Images and Shadows: “If they had a villa, though they scrupulously preserved the clipped box and cypress hedges of the formal Italian garden, they yet also introduced a note of home: a Dorothy Perkens rambling among the vines and the wisteria on the pergola, a herbaceous border on the lower terrace, and comfotable wicker chairs upon the lawn.”
It was into this milieu that Lady Sybil Cutting, recently widowed from her American husband, announced to her young daughter, Iris “This is where we are going to live.” “Home” was the Villa Medici in Fiesole, the humanist masterwork of Michelozzo for Cosimo de’ Medici.
Built in the mid 15th century, The Villa Medici was a radical departure from the enclosed medieval estate villas which preceded its construction. Commanding a sloping site above Florence in Fiesole, the villa incorporated a mathematical relationship between the house and its related garden terraces. Never concieved as a working agricultural estate, the property was for the singular intellectual and aesthetic delight of its occupants.
After Lady Sybil’s purchase of the villa in 1911, the garden was restored to its original design by Cecil Pinsent and Geoffrey Scott, revealing its rigorous geometry. The young architects were in the process of creating one of the greatest of Anglo Florentine gardens on the neighboring estate of I Tatti when the young Iris first met them: “No picnic or expedition was complete without Cecil, no luncheon or dinner party, without Geoffrey’s stories” (Images and Shadows).
The restored garden was the scene for numerous visitors and tea parties, and Iris dutifully escorted her mother’s guests, gleefully regaling the gullible with imagined Medici murders and wandering ghosts. It was to the wild slopes in an Ilex wood above the terraced gardens that Iris escaped and made her own domain: “The great stone blocks of the Etruscan wall were as good for climbing, with their easy footholds, as were the low-branched olive trees; the high grass between the rose bushes was the perfect place to lie hidden on a summer’s day, peering down, unseen, at the dwarfed figures of the grown-ups staidly conversing on the terrace far below.” (Images and Shadows).
Iris expressed that as a child the talk of garden design and art was overwhelming. She longed to escape with a book or kept busy with the picnic hamper. She shied away from Edith Wharton, and the art critic and owner of I Tatti , Bernard Berenson, with his olympian pronouncements. Years later she found she possesed information which, once consciously rejected, now informed her as to what a great garden could be. Cecil Pinsent, now a great friend, helped her to create it: the garden of La Foce.