Under the Tuscan Sun. The Doppelganger

Villa Laura

Under a Tus­can sun­set, as four-square as a child’s drawing

Girlie films – you either love ‘em or hate ‘em. For the tear-streaked ranks of the for­mer, ‘Under the Tus­can Sun’ has all the essen­tials – plucky Frances Mayes (played by Diane Lane) strug­gling out of post-marital despair, clam­ber­ing up the slip­pery and pitfall-strewn path to hap­pi­ness and ful­fill­ment, bat­tling to turn a dream into real­ity – her progress mir­rored in the tri­umphant restora­tion of a neglected but beau­ti­ful Tus­can house. Find­ing the per­fect loca­tion was one of the tough­est things the direc­tor had to do: ‘Most houses of that era have small rooms and low ceil­ings. We needed a believ­able house of mod­est scale but with high ceil­ings to accom­mo­date light­ing and give us room for maneu­ver.’
The 300-year-old villa padronale sat­is­fied all require­ments: a con­ve­niently domes­tic size, half that of most houses of its type, with large rooms, high ceil­ings, fine details. In addi­tion it is a handy three-minute slalom from Cor­tona: a model of the Ital­ian genius for archi­tec­tural restora­tion that does not reduce a liv­ing city to a museum. Among the awestruck tourists check­ing their pix­els and the native camari­eri snatch­ing a smoke out­side their café doors, the city bus­tles with ter­ri­ble art, the most expen­sive antique shop known to man, fre­quent bouts of fancy dress, an excep­tional hat shop and great restau­rants. The trek up to town from Villa Laura earns you four courses, but the gen­tle mean­der back after lunch through the olive trees, with a glit­ter of Lake Trasi­meno and the misty expanse of the Val de Chi­ano in the dis­tance, is the per­fect pre­am­ble to a sybaritic after­noon of som­no­lent nod­ding over ‘Bella Tus­cany’ in the patchy shade beneath the stone pines.

A reg­u­lar, hand­some villa padronale

The present 300-year-old house is full of mys­ter­ies and mar­vels. It stands on the site of a traveler’s inn, built a mil­len­nium ago well out of the city so as to bal­ance hos­pi­tal­ity with a desire to pro­tect the inhab­i­tants of Cor­tona from plagues and dis­eases. A carved stone coat of arms hangs above the road entrance, and the bones of one, Heironymo Vagnucci, rest beneath a mar­ble slab in the tiny chapel.

A wartime sol­diers’ billet

To reach the house you turn off the nar­row road after the dahlia farm and before the cavolo nero, wres­tle with the pad­lock to open the impos­ing gates and saunter along a dap­pled avenue of tall pines and oaks, find­ing your­self finally in a sun­lit open­ing with the almost per­fectly sym­met­ri­cal dou­ble fronted facade of the green-shuttered villa to your right, and the farmer manager’s hand­some house to the left ahead. Below in a shel­tered arc of tall trees are the tea­room with its neo clas­si­cal ped­i­ment, and the ele­gant limon­aia – at present the crum­bling depos­i­tory of a reg­i­ment of empty wine bot­tles.
Walk through the dou­ble front doors of the house beneath the sun­burst fan­light and you would be wise to turn right into the dis­creetly dec­o­rated recep­tion room where God gave Diane Lane his bless­ing in the form of a splot of bird shit to the fore­head – yoghurt and poppy seeds flicked by a sharp-shooting mem­ber of the crew.
This early scene was filmed in muted half-light: the protagonist’s emo­tional progress dur­ing the film was marked by ever increas­ing illu­mi­na­tion. In fact, all the upstairs rooms are bril­liant with light, most hav­ing sun­shine hurl­ing itself through win­dows on two sides.

Sun does fur­nish a room

Down­stairs is another mat­ter, a cat­a­comb of cav­erns where the super­sti­tious vis­i­tor can all too eas­ily envis­age ghostly ser­vants pol­ish­ing pans with salt and sand in the mar­ble sink, heat­ing His Master’s bath­wa­ter in a tow­er­ing cop­per, warm­ing chapped hands at the vast Athena cen­tral heat­ing boiler, and hav­ing bus­ied with lamp black to give a proper sheen to the cast iron, brais­ing wild boar in the mag­nif­i­cent blue and white tiled Fumisti range engi­neered by Busca­gioni & Co.

A grand Ital­ian cooker

This is where vats of toma­toes were once pre­served annu­ally – the giant pan is still there — and the old wood oven is a reminder of the weekly batch of loaves. In those days fields were ploughed using the big white Chi­an­ina cows, which ulti­mately pro­vided Fiorentina steak of leg­endary flavour, and the wine had the addi­tional nuances of assorted feet in the press­ing.
A gen­er­a­tion later, there are uniden­ti­fi­able loom­ing things down here that might make the unwary shriek a lit­tle and pro­vide any small child with a lifetime’s night­mares – a puz­zle of rooms with blocked off entrances and cob­web cur­tained win­dows guar­an­teed to appeal to the latent archi­tect and to get every handyman’s juices flow­ing. Blun­der­ing about in the Sty­gian war­ren below stairs, you are aware that it has poten­tial, and not just as a Ham­mer films loca­tion. It con­nects to the south fac­ing gar­den and the teahouse.

Nowa­days the work­ing kitchen is to the left as you enter the house, in curi­ous prox­im­ity with a min­i­mal bath­room. They strike a some­what banal note, though the unusual absence of cob­webs may com­fort the faint hearted. The three spa­cious main ground floor rooms – once sep­a­rated by doors and walls – now lead through open arches from one to another. Recall the trio of Pol­ish builders burst­ing out through the front door fol­lowed by an explo­sion of plas­ter dust – that was the wall between the din­ing room and the third recep­tion room. By way of a soli­tary con­ces­sion to the paint effects mob, a skil­fully antiqued fake fresco now adorns the remain­ing wall. The direc­tor states firmly that ‘it was impor­tant to me that we not make a home dec­o­rat­ing movie, there was too much story to tell.’

This is the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of this part of Tus­cany – every peb­ble has a his­tory, exca­va­tions reveal layer after layer of Roman and Etr­uscan lives, there is always too much story to tell. The noble own­ers of Villa Laura are descended from crea­tures of leg­end, both polit­i­cal and cul­tural – Andrea Doria, scourge of French, Span­ish and Bar­bary pirates, Admi­ral of the Genoese fleet and known as ‘father of his coun­try’ was a mater­nal ances­tor, and the 19th cen­tury Teatro del Verme, Milan, com­mem­o­rates another from the father’s side.
The present owner spent child­hood hol­i­days explor­ing the mag­i­cal gar­den – climb­ing the giant stone pines that stand sen­tinel to the front door, wan­der­ing the tun­neled gloom of myr­tle and bay lead­ing from the civil­ity of the tea­room to the roman­tic wilder­ness of the tree-shrouded lake whose sur­round­ing rocks are emer­ald with moss, dip­ping a cau­tious toe in the unique cir­cu­lar water tank whose per­gola walk once dripped wis­taria blos­som, stum­bling upon indig­nant scor­pi­ons among the valer­ian grow­ing in the ruins of some past pig man­sion, dis­cov­er­ing a hel­met and a tobacco tin in a sunny patch of grass – poignant sou­venirs of the British sol­diers who were bil­leted in the chapel dur­ing WW2.
Villa Laura is an enchant­ing place, with spec­tac­u­lar views in all directions.

Ital­ians tend their land with love

The adja­cent farm manager’s house would respond bril­liantly to a bit of cre­ative thought, and the pic­turesquely over­grown gar­den has the price­less attribute of fine mature trees. After fairly exten­sive ren­o­va­tion, the com­plex of build­ings would make a small but gor­geous hotel or a fab­u­lous fam­ily home. In the words of the direc­tor, Audrey Wells, ‘What are four walls any­way? They are what they con­tain. The house pro­tects the dreamer. Unthink­ably good things can hap­pen.’ Villa Laura awaits.

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  1. #1 by nursing schools on January 4, 2011 - 12:54 pm

    Do you peo­ple have a face­book fan page? I looked for one on twit­ter but could not dis­cover one, I would really like to become a fan!

  2. #2 by mirandainnes on January 9, 2011 - 6:58 pm

    How cheer­ing. Yes, I do and I’d be thrilled if you could track it down. I’m still flum­moxed by blog­ging — but hope to see you here again. M

  3. #3 by Sophie de Vries on August 30, 2011 - 7:46 am

    Hi, I would love if you could get in con­tact with me via e-mail regard­ing your lovely post of Villa Laura :) I hope to hear from you soon. S

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