“We know that love affairs—apart from pleasure, a swiftly beating heart, and occasional moments of pure exaltation—can also give us anxiety, depression, sometimes even rage,” writes Beatrice Monti della Corte in her new book, A Tower in Tuscany. “I have received all that from my house as well.... Ours is a love affair that started in 1967, when my husband, Grisha, and I saw it for the first time.”
Monti and her husband, Gregor “Grisha” von Rezzori, who died in 1998, went on to buy and refurbish Santa Maddalena, a dreamy villa in the hills above Florence, where they would welcome countless friends. That their guests happened to be the world’s finest writers—first Bruce Chatwin, Michael Ondaatje, Bernardo Bertolucci, then Zadie Smith, John Banville, Michael Cunningham (also the editor of this new volume)—was a happy coincidence until 2000, when the Santa Maddalena Foundation and writers’-fellowship program was officially established, in honor of von Rezzori’s death. More than 20 years on, Monti’s new volume pairs François Halard’s photographs of the villa with essays by those who have passed through it, including frequent visitors Ralph Fiennes and Edmund White. —Julia Vitale
You turn off the road, having passed through the village of Donnini. And you’re on the track. Michael Ondaatje, Saul Zaentz, Paul Zaentz, Anthony Minghella, Kristin Scott Thomas, and me. Saul drives all the way from Viareggio with his turn signal on. Deliberately, I realize.
Then Incisa in Val d’Arno. Then Sant’Ellero. Then Donnini. Then turn off to the track.
The track seems to go on forever. Open bits and then shaded bits. The track begins in open ground, feeling high up; then you continue going downhill, and the track gets rougher, bumpier. As the track descends, passing some farm buildings and wooden fences, the density of the foliage increases. Finally you arrive almost abruptly at a leafy wall, and you realize you are outside a house.
We pull up and two elegant figures emerge. Grisha—handsome, smiling, long legs, gray hair—with a kerchief around his neck. Beatrice—strikingly beautiful, elegant, eyes alert with humor—taking us all in. I remember they were holding pugs.
Since that first visit I have driven myself down that track often. It has an atmosphere of mystery every time. If I think I know what part of the track comes next, there’s always another stretch I’ve forgotten.
Michael Ondaatje, Saul Zaentz, Paul Zaentz, Anthony Minghella, Kristin Scott Thomas, and me.
The top of the track feels uncovered by trees, but as you continue they close in, their branches cocooning you as you approach the house. When you’re leaving, the trees embrace you as you depart. If I’m staying with Beatrice, I might run up the track or walk it. I think I’ll get to know it better that way, but it’s elusive somehow. The track is dusty in summer; damp, soft chalk in winter.
The greater context of all this is Florentine Tuscany. High, green, magisterial hills, almost mountains. Usually I drive up from Umbria, skirting Arezzo, then take the A1 highway heading north toward Florence for about forty minutes before the turnoff at Incisa. I always remember the name “Incisa” because it was the main junction that Saul kept looking out for the first time we drove to Donnini. The English Patient team.
The track to Donnini is full of memories, but it is also full of new expectations, nostalgia, and future dreams all rolled into one. I’m tempted to say there are spirits there. I must walk it again—as that is the only way to know it, to feel it.
There can be many chance meetings at Santa Maddelena—at the pool, along the miles of footpaths, between the watch tower and the house, or beside the olive trees threaded with white roses—but there is one sure place to find Beatrice, the other writers, and visitors: around the dining table at dinner time.
For Americans, there’s a touch of formality—no shorts, twelve high-backed chairs in impeccable white linen slipcovers, wine in decanters, candles in old silver candelabras, and the meal served in courses by the cook. For some Americans, a shared, sit-down dinner is already sort of unusual.
But the crackling fire in the giant fireplace, the bright light pouring down from the overhead chandeliers, the ever-circulating, tongue-loosening wine, the attentiveness and wit of the hostess, and the fact that the kitchen is just a red-tiled step down—these are all informal, farmhouse touches.
The cuisine is Tuscan and is based on the produce of the large, bounteous garden across the road and home-grown and home-pressed olive oil, just as it is drawn from the Tuscan cookbooks that fill a shelf of the breakfront.
The writers have that slightly extraterrestrial, electrocuted look of warriors who’ve been battling angels all day—and winning or temporarily losing. After some comforting gnocchi and chicken Marengo, say, and a few glasses of wine, they slowly thaw out and become human again, even voluble. They seldom discuss their work; they’re more likely to talk about the strange bits of information that their Google “research” rendered that day or their strange youth in Alabama or Latvia.
The writers have that slightly extraterrestrial, electrocuted look of warriors who’ve been battling angels all day.
Of course there are famous guests, such as Isabella Rossellini or Ralph Fiennes, but there are also “friends of the family,” such as Tonino the doctor, for whom the French word espiègle (full of mischief) was invented (it’s a French mispronunciation of Till Eulenspiegel, the merry prankster). Tonino doesn’t play jokes, but he always looks as if he’s in on one.
There are always various princes and countesses with their exquisite manners so subtle they look like kindness and their slightly bewildered expressions as they mingle with all these exciting, unfamiliar writers. They’re invariably introduced as a psychiatrist or a cookbook writer or someone who makes sculptures out of glass, but they have rich, blood-soaked Renaissance titles one learns of only later.
But I find Beatrice herself the most fascinating person around. She’s not a born narrator of her own life, but other people’s remarks or the mention of a name will touch off a fleeting memory. “You’re from Ethiopia? How wonderful! My happiest memories are from there. My father was stationed there. We often traveled by horse. I had my own horse. My father restored the famous monolithic churches of Lalibela, one of the treasures of Ethiopia.”
Or Beatrice would tell us about how she was the présidente du comité de l’épée for Dany Laferrière, who became an Immortal of the Académie Française. Like one of the older women Balzac relied on for his plots, Beatrice remembers everything—her mother’s Armenian family, that time she traveled by boat down the Amazon alone, her visits with Curzio Malaparte on Capri, where she spent her childhood and adolescence, or with Cy Twombly in Gaeta or with Patrick Leigh Fermor in Mani, in a remote part of the Peloponnese, where she arrived by helicopter.
Or she’d show me pictures of the family yali, a waterside residence, on the Bosphorus or Giuseppe Garibaldi’s hand-written letter to her great-great-grandfather. She is the golden spider in the midst of a vast, fluttering web of memories.
Something miraculous happens around that table: we all become a family.