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Bringing Tuscany Home: Sensuous Style from the Heart of Italyby Frances Mayes
In 1990, we bought Bramasole, an abandoned, scorpion-inhabited, blackberry-choked villa perched on a terraced hillside just outside Cortona. My husband, Ed, and I were first known as "the French" (because we had a French license plate on our rented car). Later we were called the stranieri, the foreigners. We chose Tuscany for the serene landscape, the frescoes, the piazzas with their fountains and liveliness, the wine, the markets, the festas, and the perfect espresso. We stayed for the people and the way of life we learned from them. Now, after fourteen years of eating pasta al dente, we've found ourselves inextricably folded into the intense life of a small town. Without our permission, our private vacation and writing retreat became home.
Ten thousand joys attract us to life in Tuscany. Each time we push through the arrival doors at the Florence airport and speed toward Cortona, we both feel rushes of excitement as we pass toasted farmhouses surrounded by vineyards and, in the distance, silhouettes of walled villages. We still marvel: a castle! When we stop at an autostrada grill, Ed tastes his first espresso. Inevitably, he says, "At last, real coffee," and he thanks the barista as though he's been handed a gift. After that, he drives even faster. Just off the Valdichiana exit, we pass the tenth-century abbey of Farneta, our first marker that we're near home. I always look back to see the rounded brick apses, as Ed straightens out the curved roads through gentle fields of wheat and sunflowers. Climbing toward town, we love to see the golden stones, rippled tile roofs, and aqua dome of our little città nestled on the hillside. We stop at our gate. Bramasole looks mysteriously down on us, and we remember the first time we saw it, when I stepped through weeds taller than I, and said, jokingly, "This is it."
This is it. I didn't have the prescience to know that our lives were about to change profoundly and that we would become deeply married to this plot of land under the Medici fortress and the Etruscan wall. We live on the Strada della Memoria, where every cypress tree memorializes a Cortona boy killed in World War I. Six hundred local boys, what a horror. One of our current projects is replacing a hundred missing trees along the road. At night, with only moon and stars as light, these immense dark trees sentinel the road, and as I walk in the tide of cool currents that stream across the hills, I think what a good tribute the cypress trees are to those who forfeited the chance to live their full lives in this sublime landscape.
Entering the house after an absence brings back the first time I ever walked inside. The small rooms-so many of them and all the same size-were crammed with chests that provided homes for generations of mice and upright upholstered chairs that looked like Abraham Lincoln died there. Someone's bad attic. Lugubrious religious paintings hung over tubular iron beds. I was fascinated by the bleeding sacred hearts, the sappy Madonnas, and the saint-eyes rolled to heaven-with a dagger in her chest. I grew more excited by the minute. Stepping out on the balcony overlooking a classic Tuscan landscape, dotted with toffee-colored farms, I scarcely heard the agent's warning: Signora, at any moment, please, the floor might collapse.
Is it an homage to that initial impression that I, too, have my collection of religious paintings? Two Christs crowned with thorns, two Mary Magdalenes, several crucifixions, one Madonna and Child, and a few of the eye-rollers, too. I was stunned to open a gift from a friend and find a painting on tin of the saint with the dagger in her chest. The antique markets have stacks of these religious paintings, as well as other objects of fascination to a South Georgia Methodist. A visitor would view my bookcases as a study in holy dismemberment, filled as they are with a collection of heads, arms, and legs of various saints and putti, but my collection of relics protects us (so far) from harm.
My study walls hold the studio portraits of an Italian family I have imagined for myself-a serene mother holding a letter (from whom?); a stray Fascist uncle all puffed up in his uniform; a cousin with scrolled curls and first communion white; a propped-up baby, his tiny penis proudly poking forward; and the sturdy grandmother of considerable girth, who looks as though she could tell off the butcher, stir the minestrone, and deliver twins all at once. The still life painting of cherries we found at an antique market, the iron bed we've dragged out of a junkyard near Olmo, and the chestnut armadio lugged up to the third floor-everything in our house reminds us of an adventure.
While I visit every room, Ed heads for the olive terraces. He knows each one of our original 160 olive trees by name. This year we bought a grove just below us, adding another 250 trees-more bottles of that liquid poetry, olio d'oliva. Ed named it Il Oliveto di Willie, Willie's olive grove, in hopes that someday our grandchild will continue the good work of husbanding a grove.
When we hand-label our oil for gifts to friends, we write, organic, handpicked, unfiltered, extra virgin, cold-pressed by stone. Extra virgin is oil with less than 1 percent acid, but we've learned to scoff at such a high bar. Ours, like other growers' oil in our area, has but a small fraction of 1 percent, so it is the virgin among all virgins. We bring it home from the mill and invite friends over for the tasting every year. By now, Ed simply scoops up a spoonful, while others of us dip in a finger, a piece of bread. This ritual links us to the deep taproot of Mediterranean life.
Another ritual is seed planting-always connected to the moon's phases. We're stunned to see our seeds sprouting, growing, flourishing so quickly in the ancient dirt. We, too, feel a rich connection to the land and the procession of the seasons. Our roots have spread. We have a tribe of Italian friends who put up with our version of Italian, and who show us, by example, the pleasure of living everyday life in this bellissimo landscape.
The first revelation from these friends-and the most influential-centers on home and friends and the table, the focus of celebration. Tuscans passionately love whatever plot of terra they live on and cultivate every inch with flowers and vegetables. They thrive on their local markets, which provide not only food but social life. Food, in Italy, is not cult but culture. In all my years in Italy, I've never once heard food connected to guilt. The pleasures of eating and drinking are never tortured into psychological struggles. The intense sense of community we feel in Cortona revolves around the table. Mangiare bene, stare bene-eat well, be well.
We hear constantly two Tuscan expressions, per ora, for now, and per piacere, as you please. These are links to why the Tuscans know how to live. After living so long in California, where being in the here and now is a mantra, in Italy I've finally absorbed per ora. You inquire about someone's health and they answer "Good, for now." That tacked-on phrase speaks to the realization that the moment is just that, and, almost superstitiously, we are wise to acknowledge the transitive nature of good fortune. Per piacere appears on menus-as you please. You can have whatever you want, the chef suggests. This carries over into daily exchanges. We relax into the laissez-faire attitudes of these anciently sophisticated people. Absorbing the resonances around these two concepts, our lives have changed. Friends drop by spontaneously for a chat. Just-picked wild asparagus translates instantly into an invitation to make a frittata with neighbors. A mention of a shop or Renaissance well or ruined borgo provokes an "Andiamo" response that appeals to me. We have learned to live by seasons and sun, rather than by the clock.
Once we were summer people. Now we just live here. Occasionally, when we go in a shop, the daughter calls to her father in the back, "Babbo, i stranieri sono qui," "Daddy, the foreigners are here." But mostly we just glide in and about among all the others who are also lucky, by birth or choice, to have landed in such a place.
We live here. We also live in California, where we have family, a house and a garden, and twenty-five-years' worth of friendships. From the beginning, we began to bring Tuscany home. Pillows. Parmigiano. Stationery. Chocolate. Wine. Duvet covers. And, of course, shoes. Then we began to bring home something more lasting-a mind-set, a way of being in the world. Members of our family, who have established their own relationships with the Tuscan way of life, have done the same. Frequently, we talk about how living in Italy has changed our California home, our tables, what we pour in our glasses, the way we entertain-how we live our daily lives. Ed and I, working with our friend, photographer Steven Rothfeld, decided to explore this cultural symbiosis. Like our experience, his time in Tuscany has indelibly marked his California life.
Bringing Tuscany Home is an invitation. We document the portable aspects of Tuscany-practical advice and discoveries. But our intention is, as well, more sublime. This book is an invitation to a way of being, a guide to the good life, and a toast to the Tuscans, who inspire the world with their knowledge of how to live like the gods. We celebrate the spirit of friendship, the ease of living, and the sense of exuberance that we have found in this small hill town. Etruscan tombs from 800 b.c.e. show men and women reclining around the banquet table. We recognize the expression of contentment on their faces. The tradition is long. We have been fortunate to pick our strawberries, hang our sheets in the sun, sharpen our knives, pop open the local vino, light the candles, and slip into our places at the Tuscan feast.
La Casa Aperta
The Open House
La casa aperta, the open house-rain blows in the open windows, a visiting cat peers in the living room door, petals of bougainvillea land in the entrance hall, and the narcotizing scent of jasmine seeps from the upstairs terrace into the bedrooms. People come and go as naturally as the butterflies that drift by the mirrors. Those prime movers, our Cardinali neighbors, bring pickled eggplant, dried mushrooms, fruit cordials, and grappa. Chiara comes home from a week in Sardegna and surprises us with a pensiero, a thoughtful little gift of a shell necklace and a straw shopping bag. Beppe brings eggs, still with tiny feathers stuck to them. Lucio leaves yellow squash on the steps; Giusi arrives with cenci, fried "rags" of pastry; Giorgio brings wild boar. Among the Americans, a constant book exchange flows. How delicious to come home and find a nice stack of Marilyn's paperbacks on the wall. My neighbor, Melva, a fellow Californian, drops off apricot jam and home-baked bread. She hates the local salt-free bread we've grown accustomed to, and when I make toast from her bread I do too. I take a sack of green beans down to Donatella and from the look in her eye, I understand that they, too, have more green beans than a human family can eat. The lovely musical-chair rhythm of giving and giving leaves no one standing alone.
When I started living at Bramasole, I had the intuition that the house was at home in the landscape and that by living here I would be at home too. My instinct proved true. The house-layered under an Etruscan wall, then a Medici fortress, and looking over the valley where Hannibal once pounced on the Romans-here my life changed, from the slightest detail of the quotidian to the large arcs of love and commitment. I daydream about each signora who lived in these rooms-where she shelled peas, rocked the grandchild, placed a vase of the pink roses that survived the thirty years of abandonment. I would like to share a pot of lemon balm tea with her on a winter afternoon while we cook a pot of black cabbage soup.
Now I would like to invite one of these women back to my house in California to show her how Bramasole travelled to America and took root, how the house opens to the breeze from the northern loop of the San Francisco Bay and to the sacred view of Mount Tamalpais, how the garden burgeons and the table magically expands. A pot of ragù is simmering. Ed is forming little pillows of gnocchi. My daughter has invited ten friends. The signora and I take a basket to the herb garden outside the kitchen. What music shall I play for her?
A wasp zooms through my study window and I see her land on the keyhole of my chest of drawers. She slips into the opening as simply as someone entering a pied-à-terre. From inside the drawer, I hear a muffled buzz. Minutes later, she pokes out her head, as if checking for traffic or rain, then takes off like an Alphajet. I already have spotted the mud huts she's building from daubs of dirt she carries. She lays her eggs inside each, then seals over the opening. The earthen domes in the back corner look like miniature Middle Eastern ruins on the edge of some desert. As of yet, I have not had the heart to scrape them out. But I do not want to put on a T-shirt and get stung under my arm by a mad baby wasp. All morning she keeps me company. I'm writing an article for a magazine; she's furthering her species. I am aware of her being a wasp but focused also on describing local trattorias.
Late in the afternoon, I'm still fact-checking. A bird flies in one window of my study and out the other. Even with a bird phobia that makes me gasp as it sweeps over my head, I'm actually charmed with this flyby. Part of my mind participates in the swallow's dip and angle. Smaller birds nest in cracks in the house's facade, along with bats. They never dive-bomb us as we eat at the table below, but I always fear they will. The ugly, just-hatched ones look out from a tiny triangular crack beside the guest room window. How cramped they must be, especially when Mama homes in with worms. Unconsciously, I flex my shoulders.
Ed calls me from the bathroom, where he is soaking his stone-bruised foot in the bidet. He has been distracted from an article he's reading in the Times Literary Supplement by two yellow jackets in mortal combat on the windowsill. They maneuver like TV wrestlers. One has torn the wings off the other, and I arrive in time to see the loser's head bitten off and carried aloft.
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