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A Labour of Love

Iris Origo and the transformation of La Foce

by Margaret MacKinnon

It did not seem like a marriage made in heaven. The groom, Antonio Origo, was the illegitimate son of a cavalry officer and artist, the Marchese Clemente Origo, a friend of the poet and political adventurer Gabriele d’Annunzio. In the gossipy ex-pat community of Florence, Antonio was rumoured to be a fortune-hunter and philanderer. The bride, Iris Cutting, was the only child of Bayard Cutting, the scion of a wealthy American family which had made its fortune in real estate and railroads, and Sybil Desart, a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy.

The wedding had been delayed for as long as possible by Sybil, who was dismayed that her prospective son-in-law was Italian, Roman Catholic and ten years older than her daughter. Eventually, in March 1924, the ceremony took place in the “extremely ugly chapel” on the family estate. Iris herself described the wedding guests as belonging to “that section of the British colony which looks as if it had been buried and dug up again for the occasion.” Sybil stayed in bed with a migraine.

So far, so Henry James. But the marriage of Iris and Antonio did not play out like an Edwardian novel. Both were outsiders who wanted to leave Florence and its social intrigues – Antonio to pursue his dream of farming and Iris to “find something useful” to do with her life. While it had its ups and downs (there were numerous affairs on both sides, for example), the main adventure of their shared life was the transformation of an ancient farming community in the remote Tuscan countryside.

The young couple had set out to find a place with enough work to fill a lifetime and found what they were looking for in the estate of La Foce which was built in the late 15th century as a hospice for pilgrims and merchants traveling on the Via Francigena, the ancient road running from France to Rome. The task ahead of them must have seemed daunting, to say the least. The house itself, which had not been lived in for several years, had no electricity, no telephone, no indoor plumbing and stood in 3,500 acres of the poorest farming land in the province of Siena. Iris later described the view from the house as a ‘lunar landscape, pale and inhuman’. There were 25 farms on the estate which had suffered decades of neglect; some were inaccessible by road, they had leaky roofs and draughty windows, stuffed with old rags.

Each tenant held his individual farm by the feudal system of mezzadria, according to which the farmer shared his produce with the proprietor and depended on him for equipment and capital. In truth, the barren, overworked soil produced very little, and owners were often indifferent to the living conditions of the tenants and their children, most of whom were desperately poor and illiterate. They were also superstitious and instinctively opposed to innovation.

To say that this was outside of Iris’s experience is a massive understatement. She had lived a life of extreme privilege, thanks to inherited wealth on both sides of her family. Her father, who died when Iris was eight, had expressed a wish that she should be brought up ‘somewhere where she does not belong’ in order to avoid developing a narrow patriotism that he feared would make her unhappy. Her mother decided that they would live just outside Florence, in Fiesole, where she acquired the Villa Medici, an impressive palazzo designed in 1450 by Michelozzo for Cosimo de’ Medici. Here, Iris was educated by a private Classics tutor recommended by Bernard Berenson, and many friends of the family were other rich, sophisticated intellectuals. Antonio’s training had been in business and diplomacy, but he was an indifferent student at best. Now they would have to learn a new set of skills and forgo the attractions of Anglo-Florentine life. They were determined that together they would rebuild the farms and see prosperity return to this landscape in the shadow of Monte Amiata.

To his credit, Antonio threw himself enthusiastically into the work, slowly introducing modern farming techniques and a rational system of cultivation. Among the most urgent tasks were road building, modernising the farm buildings and raising money for equipment such as a tractor and combine harvester. In this he was aided by the fascist administration of Benito Mussolini which had an interest in assisting the backward agricultural regions of Italy – to the benefit of landowners - and at a cost that was, perhaps, overlooked in favour of the beneficial social changes that modernisation brought about.

It was more difficult for Iris to adjust to her new life at La Foce. As a foreigner and still only twenty-two, she did not relate as easily to the peasant women whose dialect and domestic rituals were unknown to her. She was nonplussed when the women walked for many hours to present her, the new padrona, with gifts of cheese and eggs, or asked her to recite prayers of intercession for sterile cows.

Iris eventually found a way to be accepted through the children on the estate. It had always been intended that she and Antonio would not simply farm the land but would bring schooling and basic health care to the families living there. It became her project to convert the outbuildings next to La Foce’s main gates to classrooms, to assemble a library and to source benches, little tables and other supplies. She hired a teacher and provided her with a bicycle. The children from outlying farms were collected every morning by horse and cart; at mid-day they were given a proper lunch and then a second meal at four before they set off back home. As the children began to thrive, their mothers’ appreciation for the new padrona grew. Later additions included a small medical clinic for emergencies or childbirth as well as an apartment for the resident nurse.

Improvements to the house, farms and school continued over the course of the next fifteen years as Mussolini’s excesses and the threat of war became harder to ignore. But during that time Iris had overseen the creation of La Foce’s garden, designed by Cecil Pinsent, and even found time to write a well-received biography of the poet Giacomo Leopardi. Her next book would be her diary, War in Val d’Orcia, in which La Foce and its outlying farms would play a central role as a safe haven for orphaned children, Italian partigiani and, later, Allied soldiers making their way back to their units in southern Italy.

Iris Origo could have chosen a much easier path. There were other, less exigent properties that she and Antonio could have purchased, where they might have lived lives of leisure and prosperity. How much poorer they, and we, would be if they had.

This article was original published in Restoration Conversations Magazine

Issue 1 - Summer 2022


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