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War in Val D'Orcia by Iris Origo

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War in Val d’Orcia – An Italian War Diary 1943-44 by Iris Origo

There is a famous, much photographed, Tuscan view of a long and winding road lined with cypress trees – the quintessential picture of Tuscany. It was designed and planted by a British landscape architect, Cecil Pinsent, on the property of Antonio and Iris Origo, in the hills south of Florence.

Iris Origo, the Marchesa of Val d’Orcia was born Iris Cutting in 1902, her mother was American and her father British. Her father died when Iris was only seven years old, she and her mother then lived most of the year in Italy. Iris was educated at home and lived among the British ex-pats near Florence. As the only child of two wealthy families, she lived a well travelled life of privilege.

In the book War in Val D’Orciaan Italian War Diary, we meet Iris in the midst of the Second World War, on her property in the hills south of Florence. Iris married Antonio Origo, an Italian aristocrat some years her senior, when she was only 22 years old, and made her home at La Foce – a rambling property, made up of 57 farms – with some 600 residents scattered over 7,000 acres. The surrounding farms were closely in touch with the landowner, and expenses and profits were shared between them. Iris established a school, a hospital, a church, and a graveyard for the community. During the years before the war the property was improved with new roads, wells, dykes and orchards. The Origo’s were in a good position to be able to feed themselves and those they took in during the war years.

During this time, early in their marriage, while Antonio and Iris worked as a team to improve their land, Iris gave birth to a son, Gianni – life was good. Things changed when Gianni died at the age of eight years old. In their grief Iris and Antonio grew apart – both becoming involved in other relationships – but still tied to each other by something that always kept their marriage essential to them both. By the time the war came they were ready to re-build their marriage – and during the war years Iris gave birth to two daughters.

The Origo’s watched closely as the Fascists came into power. Their situation was somewhat better than that of many in Italy at the time. They continued to quietly farm their land, taking in 23 children from Genoa and Turin. Parents working in factories for the war effort sent their children away from the danger of bombing, to the countryside where they were provided with food and shelter. The Origo’s were, later, responsible for 50 British prisoners of war, who worked the land with the few farmers who remained; most had been conscripted into the army. Antonio was very careful to never seem to be an Anti-Fascist, as many of their friends were. Both Iris and Antonio worked quietly and at some risk to help others while appearing to be neutral – or even supportive of the ruling Fascist government.

During this time there were many escaped British and American soldiers hiding in their woods along with partisans – being fed and clothed by the Origos. When the German army moved into Italy the farm at Val d’Orcia was occupied as well, and things became even more difficult and dangerous for Iris and Antonio.

War in Val d’Orcia is Iris Origo’s wartime diary. She kept this diary on a daily basis – recording the events that affected her life – with virtually no expression of opinion, just the facts. It is a fascinating picture of the time.

I went on to read a rather dry but very thorough biography of Iris Origo by Caroline Moorehead, and discovered that Iris lived a fascinating life as a member of the ex-Pat community in Florence, where many writers and artists made their homes – some in rather pathetic circumstances and others protected by their wealth.

The gardens created by Cecil Pinsent for Iris are spectacular – and still well kept under the stewardship of Donata Origo, the younger of Iris’s daughters, who now cares for the estate. La Foce is open to the public, and in fact it is possible to stay in one of the many farm houses on the property. At this time of year the gardens are coming out of their winter rest and the landscape is awakening The Val d’Orcia is now a UNESCO World Heritage site – a somehow fitting tribute to the woman who was responsible for the creation of the gardens and the protection of this land.

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