The Garden of La Foce located in the Val d’Orcia region of Southern Tuscany is considered one of the great gardens of the 20th century. The garden is indeed beautiful, in an incomparable setting; it is the story behind the creation of the garden and the events which took place there during World War II, however, which makes this garden so compelling. The story of La foce is of the restoration of a land and the spirit of its people, and of human decency and personal heroism in a wretched time of war.
Newlyweds Iris and Antonio Origo seached for a place where they could make a difference, when in in 1923 with the impetuosity of youth the couple purchased La Foce. Located in the wilds of the Crete Senesi, La Foce was far removed from the Tuscan countryside of ordered gardens and tidy vines of Iris’ childhood. The Villa Medici where Iris had grown up was a remarkable Renaissance villa overlooking Florence; art, beauty and the aroma of luxury pervaded. In contrast, La Foce had few roads other than a rutted cart track. There was no electricity, no telephone and most importantly very little water. The soil had seriously eroded over centuries, and the forests decimated. The farms on the estate were all in great disrepair. The people had little access to health care and education; the land was a desert, its people wary.
Working together, Antonio and the people of the estate addressed erosion and added arable land, dug wells, ditches, added livestock and improved farms with electricity and lavatories. Roads were built to connect the isolated farms with the result that children could attend the school Iris set up (in a region with 80% illiteracy) and people could visit the dispensory (ambulatario) in times of sickness.
All energies and capital had gone into improving the farms, but the gift of a water pipe to a spring six miles away by Iris’ American grandmother meant that the house had an abundant water supply for the first time. Iris called upon her friend, the architect and noted landscape designer Cecil Pinsent to create the garden plan. Iris first met Cecil when he restored the grounds of her mother’s estate in Fiesole, and Pinsent employed a similar approach at la Foce. The first garden to be created was just off the Villa. Terraces were shaded by a wisteria clad pergola, and clipped box centered a fountain with dolphin supports resting in a cartouche shaped pool.
A few years later a larger terrace was linked to the house by geometic clipped box headed by twin pillars of travertine surmounted by urns. Pinsent’s use of strong form gave the garden structure, and evoked qualities found in Tuscan Renaissance gardens.
While Pinsent gave the garden bones, Origo added flowering plants. She learned along the way what would survive in the gardens conditions. Delphiniums, phlox, and the like had to be rejected, but lavender grew in profusion and roses flourished despite the clay soil. Stone steps connected the various parts of the garden. On an upper level a wide pergola clothed in wisteria created a bower.
Large terra cotta pots on stone bases planted with lemon trees studded the landscape
The lower garden is pure Pinsent with its theatrical composition of cypress hedges, clipped box and large trees of Magnolia grandiflora
I was moved to visit La foce after reading her remarkable memoir “War in Val d’Orcia”. Written as a diary during world war II, Origo recorded a dreadful period when the war itself came to La Foce. Origo opened her home to 24 children evacuated from Genoa and Turin and provided food and refuge for 200 partisans hiding in the woods and farms on the estate. Origo writes:
So at last the old barriers of tradition and class were broken down, and we were held together by the same difficulties, fears, expectations and hopes. Together we found shelter for the fugitives who knocked on our door-whether Italians, Allies or Jews, soldiers or civilians-together we watched the first bombs fall on the bridges of the Val d’Orcia, and listened hopefully for the rumours of landings in Tuscany which never came. And together-when the Germans had turned us out of the cellar which had become our air raid shelter and had obliged us to walk to Montepulciano with all the refugee children and our own, as well as three new born babies – we came home after the allies’ arrival to bury the corpses in the woods and farms, to reap the harvest, to remove the mines still concealed in the woods and farms and in our own front garden, and then rebuild the shattered farms.
On the road descending from the villa one can see that La Foce has preserved and protected its agrarian character.
Just after the war Iris Origo recognized that many children were in need: the orphaned, the abandoned and the malnourished. A permanent children’s home was established in what had been the nursery for refugee children at La Foce. She created a place that was not like an institution, but a place where the children could feel they were a part of a family. Iris worked tirelessly to find adoptive parents for the children. She was not able to find places for all, and those children returned to La Foce as adults with their respective families for Easter and Christmas. La Foce was home.