Read Every Day in Tuscany Online

Authors: Frances Mayes

Every Day in Tuscany

BOOK: Every Day in Tuscany


Under the Tuscan Sun
Bella Tuscany
In Tuscany
Bringing Tuscany Home
A Year in the World
Ex Voto
The Discovery of Poetry



along the way, my love and thanks to Ed, Ashley, and Willie. Ed’s adventures and fun in the kitchen stand behind many of the recipes, and our passion for Italy is so entwined that these pages are as much his as mine. Ashley’s acute and perceptive reading and Willie’s
gusto di vivere
contributed to the joy of writing these pages.

Due baci
to: Alberto, Tony, Carlos and the whole Alfonso family, Melva and Jim Pante, Sheryl and Rob Turping, Catherine and Jim McLaughlin, all Cortona natives by now. My Italian friends are portrayed in these pages, but no words can capture their grace and warmth. Special love to the Di Rosas, the Cardinali, the Baracchi, and the Calicchia families. Gilda Di Vizio, Albano Fabrizi, Giorgio Zappini, Domenica Castelli, and Ivan Italiani—many thanks. Architect Walter Petrucci and master-builder Rosanno Checcarelli showed me just how easy a building project can be and enhanced my knowledge of Tuscan vernacular architecture.

Throughout the writing of seven books, I’ve had the luck to work with Peter Ginsberg of Curtis Brown Ltd. He’s a paradigm of his profession and a good friend. And with us all the way has been Charlie Conrad of Broadway Books, extraordinary editor and Italophile. Thank you, Rachel Rokicki, my publicist at Broadway, and the whole team, especially Jenna Ciongoli and Julie Sills. My gratitude to Dave Barbor, my foreign rights agent, to Nathan Bransford and Grace Wherry of Curtis Brown, to Fiona Inglis of Curtis Brown Australia, and to Nikki Christer of Transworld, also in Australia.
Mille grazie
, Albert (Secondo) Hurley. I happened to be around when he climbed the bell tower and took the cover photograph that so nicely fit the end of my book. My thanks to Becky Cabaza and to the book designer, Lauren Dong. Photographer Steven Rothfeld and I have worked on many projects together with wonderful synergy.
, Stefano. Also a big thank-you to Linda Pastonchi and Elizabeth Shestak for manuscript assistance.

I was honored to receive the Premio Internazionale Casato Prime Donne. My great appreciation to the jury and to Donatella Cinelli Colombini for this award and for placing lines from this book on a vineyard path.

Our kitchen has benefited from knowing many chefs. I especially thank Silvia Regi, Marco Bistarelli, Nicola Borbui, Eva Seferi, and Andrea Quagliarella for sharing their talents and recipes. Also I would like to pour a glass of Brunello for Marco Molesini, Junas Moncada Cancogni, Silvio Ariani, Giuseppe Frangieh, Mario Ponticelli, and Lapo Salvadori.

My special thanks to the editors of publications and producers of lecture venues where I first tried out much of the material in this book:

El Pais
Town and Country Travel, Waterstone
Signature, Inside Borders, Real Simple, Taiwan Vogue, Powell’s Q & A, Casa Claudia
(São Paulo),
Elle Brazil, O Estado de São Paulo, Financial Times, Metro, Toronto Star, Gainesville Magazine, Inspire
The Sun Times
The Straits Times
Silver Kris
The Durham News and Observer, Journal News
, and
Points North Magazine

The Smithsonian Program, Detroit Institute of Art, Nashville Antiques and Garden Show, Dallas Museum of Art, New York University at La Pietra in Florence, Cortona Wine Consortium, Tuscan Sun Festival, Florida Southern College, Hillsborough Literary Society, the Junior League of San Diego, Chapel Hill Historical Society, Impact Programs for Excellence–El Paso, University of Nebraska–Omaha, Salt Lake City Public Library, Campbell Foods, Lane Public Library, Fayetteville Public Library, Denver Post Pen and Podium, Northeastern University, Society for the Performing Arts–Houston, Suffolk University, Vero Beach Museum of Art, Palace Theatre–Waterbury, Atlanta Girls School, St. John’s University, Indiana University, Los Angeles Times Book Festival, Sacramento Bee Book Club, Denver Press Club, and Seeds (South Eastern Efforts Developing Sustainable Spaces). For arranging many of these events, where I met so many great people, I thank everyone at the Steven Barclay Agency—Catherine, Eliza, Sara, and my friend for many years, Steven Barclay.

I deeply appreciate my new literary friendships at home in North Carolina and am sending special
to Lee Smith, Michael Malone, Maureen Quilligan, Oscar Hijuelos, Lori Carlson, Alan Gurganus, and, farther south in Alabama, the painter Rena Williams, a lifelong friend.


The White Road

country,” I wrote as I began my memoir,
Under the Tuscan Sun
. A simple declarative sentence—but for me, crux and crucible. From such easy words, fate branches and transforms. Bramasole, an abandoned country house beneath the Etruscan city wall of Cortona, became home. And more than home—bull’s eye, heart’s needle, center of my private universe.

At the moment I turned the heavy iron key in the door and stepped into my Italian life, I could not have pictured myself here two decades later, could not have foreseen the pleasure, complexity, hassle, frustration, joy, or my intense love for Bramasole, a place-in-time that took over my life.

In Juan Rulfo’s novel,
Pedro Páramo
, his character on a hot bus ride carries a photograph of his mother in his breast pocket. “I could feel her beginning to sweat,” Pedro thinks. Bramasole seems like that for me. I can sense its life within my life, separate and integral.

The house became my icon. The luminous apricot-rose facade, shuttered windows open to the southern sun, profuse geraniums, clematis, lemons, and lavender burgeoning in the garden—all this exuberant beauty symbolizes not the life I was
but the life I made with my own two hands. Opening my study window and leaning out into the bright air, I can see the garden below, even greet each rose by name. I watch for the jasmine to overwhelm the iron arch with blooms. I listen to the four musical notes of water cascading in the ancient cistern. I see all the overlays of the years, from when the walls were tumbled and the blackberries choked the land, until now, when the garden rhymes roses, lilacs, dahlias, and lilies with secret reading spots among the olives. The only traces of the house’s original formal garden still reign: five wise topiary trees rising from a boxwood hedge.

Across the top terrace hundreds of giant sunflowers hold court in July, my little marching band of glorious faces. By August, they bow, like too many rusty showerheads. At that moment, pheasants arrive. How do they know? The seeds are a feast and their cranky cries of gluttony sound more like noise at a car repair shop than the orgy of regally feathered fowl.

, I have my books, my collections of religious folk art, ceramic platters, old linens, and, by now, boxes of manuscripts in innumerable, crossed-out, underlined, scrawled drafts. My rooms are fingerprints. My husband’s wild study, where a painting of Dante looks down on the poetry-strewn, chaotic desk; our bedroom with the romantic iron bed draped in white linen; the kitchen where all my pottery hangs on white walls; the house’s original bathroom with the hip tub; the dining room where wineglasses are always half full and chairs have scraped the brick floors at so many feasts under the faded blue and apricot fresco we discovered long ago—the house lives powerfully on its own and I feel powerfully alive within its thick stone walls.

I was given an ultimatum. I had a choice. Sell Bramasole or lose an arm. The power broker of this dilemma had the face of the academic dean, who told me sophomore year that I could buckle down and take the required courses—economics, she insisted, physiology—or leave the college. No more Roman drama, no Greek etymology.

Now she stood in front of my best-beloved, golden, peach, claret house, waving a hacksaw. House or arm.
Make a choice
. I woke clutching my right wrist (writing hand!).

I’d fully experienced the fact that for me the choice was impossible. So deep in love am I with that symmetrical set of simple rooms overlooking a tender valley, where stars smear the night sky and dawn duplicates what Renaissance artists painted as they passionately re-created such scenes beyond their Annunciation angels or martyrs riddled with arrows. I’m attached to the broad-faced purple clematis clambering around the rusty iron railing of the upstairs patio, bolting through the potted surfinias and the summer-scented climbing honeysuckle that I planted to remind me of country roads in Georgia. I’m devoted to tumbling geraniums and a long bank of white hydrangeas. I admire the iron fence our blacksmith friend, Egisto, made last year. Now every time my grandson runs out the door I don’t have to follow, fearing he’ll tumble over the low stone wall and fall downhill.

Ed spent half a year overseeing the reconstruction of three long stone terrace walls brought down by landslides during a winter of record rain. We walk sometimes before dinner in my reinstated herb garden and admire the stonework, while still cursing the mud and money. Those walls cost Ed at least two books of poems. They’re tied with steel rods into bedrock but appear just as they used to when built by farmers centuries ago. I lost my herb garden to the landslide that engendered the project, but the new garden looks prettier than the original. The santolina, rosemary, nepeta, borage, and rue along the edge blur with bloom and bees and hot scent. My rose kingdom expanded and now the gorgeous Gloire de Dijon, Reine des Violettes, Rita Levi-Montalcini, and Pierre de Ronsard blooms yield to my scissors every day in summer. I love the rousing chorus of birdsong in the spring dawn, the inland sea of whipped-cream fog that fills the valley on winter mornings, and the people who call up a greeting from the road below when I’m watering my strawberry pots.

, while picking the sweet blackberries on Monte Sant’Egidio, I spotted a ruin on a rugged slope. Ed, our friend Chiara, and I clambered through the brush and found ourselves at a partially collapsed stone-roofed cottage surrounded by chestnut and oak trees. We were fatally attracted. What a lonesome beauty.

Originally, we told ourselves, the purchase was an investment. Should we have been more prescient? Over the course of restoration, both Ed and I began to love the remote house. It seemed to have storybook qualities:
The Three Bears, Little Red Riding Hood
. No site planner needed; the builders instinctively placed the house to face the rising sun and to back up to the slope for protection from winter’s
wind. In the afternoon the stones are warmed by angled western rays that grow longer and longer, finally raking the yard with golden tines. Looking out of the window at dawn, I’m presented with the gift of nacreous light and a thousand shades of green layering down the hillsides. So much for investment. The restoration has occupied me—saturated me, haunted me, and dogged me—completely. Ed perhaps even more. The place is without price. I could no more sell it than I could place my firstborn in a basket in the bulrushes.

Houses are so mysterious to me, especially architectural beauties that seem so fully themselves. How could anything ever go wrong inside? I’m intrigued by classic vernacular types—bungalows, dog-trot cottages, Federal farmhouses—even fifties brick with carport, seventies raised ranch, and the generic megadevelopment houses of the boom time. Small ranches remind me of visiting childhood friends. Two bedrooms, one bath, living room, dining nook and kitchen—all tidy and new. How I admired the close families and the shiny blond floors, the picture window looking out at identical houses, also for close families, so unlike my own riot-prone parents around the home fire in what my mother called the “honeymoon cottage.” Even empty houses exude a force field, the potential charge of all that may happen within the walls.

When I saw the mountain house, I felt a molten energy. I hoped it came from the humble Franciscan brothers who roamed this mountain in the 1200s, joyously reveling in silence. Some stayed and lived in caves or built huts of reed and stone. Feng shui doesn’t have a name in Tuscany, but the principles must be universal. Our little stone cottage takes power from the raucous discussions among five kinds of owls in the dark, the torrent’s wet music in winter, charging herds of wild boar, the old-growth chestnut forest, the squawks of pheasants, spontaneous springs, and Roman roads cresting the mountain.

I have the joy and the hell of having restored to itself something so ancient, and the luck to become friends with deep-country Tuscans. Now we spend part of the year on Monte Sant’Egidio, one of St. Francis’s holy spots. A few of his hermit followers, who lived in caves along the spur of the mountain, turned domestic and built stone houses so solid that they endure eight centuries later. My Fonte delle Foglie (Font of Leaves) is one. Because St. Francis spent a winter at Le Celle, a monastery below us, the hills rising behind Cortona remain a sacred place. Or, at least, a cool place of respite, especially for those sweltering summer weekends when the stone streets of Cortona cook. Local people picnic in the woods, often spending the day.

A pagan ritual of the year is San Lorenzo’s night of the shooting stars (August 10). Like many Cortonesi, we take blankets and a watermelon outside and lie on the ground, marveling at the meteor showers.

If I were alone, I might be overcome by the primitive experience of my back against the earth and all the ferocious lights hurtling through the sky. A night so grand, dew dampening my shirt, the Milky Way’s pavé diamond path, all the constellations so brilliant that a voice from the sky might begin speaking the Greek myths of bears and seven sisters and intrepid hunters. I might imagine the dark celestial tarp as poked with millions of holes, revealing a powerful heavenly light behind our atmosphere’s darkness. I might let my mind spin out to follow the orbit of the smallest asteroid. I might think my spine could send down roots, seeking earth like a sprawling grape tendril.

However, friends pass binoculars back and forth and shout out wishes at each streak across the sky.
No more war!
Let them find water here before they drill down to hell
, and
May Ed go inside for another bottle of wine
. As all Tuscans know, on this night wishes are granted. And so I remain firmly in the moment. So close are the stars that I could reach up and touch the burning center of Venus with my forefinger.

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