Deep in Tuscany’s lustrous rurality, the pale, clay, hilly area south of Siena is La Foce, a remarkable estate with spectacular gardens. The 4,000-acre property at the confluence of the Orcia and Chiana valleys, not far from Montepulciano, is owned by sisters Benedetta Isidori and Donata Origo. Each year, hundreds of fortunate travelers luxuriate in the estate’s apartments, rental houses, and charming bed-and-breakfast, and thousands more admire its horticultural high notes.
Identified by an inauspicious sign advertising its handpressed olive oil (also available at Harrods), La Foce appears suddenly beyond a meadowy scrim of wild broom and brilliant poppies, below the old spa town of Chianciano Terme. Past the estate’s stone pillars, clipped geometric box hedges and battalions of towering black-green cypresses flank the 16th-century villa where the sisters grew up and Benedetta now lives.
“La Foce was created by English architect Cecil Pinsent and my Anglo-American mother, Iris, and the combination led to inspiration from the humanistic tradition to love flowers and colors,” Benedetta explains. In a sense this philosophy contrasts with other famous, but decidedly less floral, Italian Renaissance gardens.
Here, within the backdrop of vivid seasonal color that includes scented lavender hedges, clingy clematis vines, purple alliums, geraniums, luscious peonies, multicolored roses, and delicate campanulas that thrive in travertine cracks, La Foce’s formal gardens reflect an underlying Medicean sense of order, laced with unexpected charm and exuberance. Even the magnificent gnarled pergola dripping with lavender-colored wisteria evokes awe. It’s one of Benedetta’s favorite reading spots, as it casts cool shade in summer and becomes the cord that ties the house to the woods.
Determined to have a garden in which “to read and think,” Iris and Pinsent created this verdant four-hectare oasis of green within the otherwise monochromatic hills called crete senesi, or Sienese clay. The orderly, Renaissance-inspired formal gardens, which include the travertine grotto, lemon garden, and lush rose garden, are divided into geometrical “rooms” by box hedges and lemon trees in terracotta pots.
Beyond, terraces clamber up the hillside where flowering trees coexist happily with wild broom and aromatic thyme and rosemary, and a long cypress avenue leads to a 17th-century stone statue. Throughout are moss-covered urns, plinths, and sculptures. Shapely reflecting pools and splashing fountains complete the ephemeral milieu of harmony, symmetry, and allegory. Balustrades and walls define spaces; hedge “windows” reveal surprises such as the view of zigzaggy cypresses Benedetta’s father planted to mark the Etruscan route across the clay hills. “This is one of the most famous views in Tuscany,” says Benedetta. Today it is iconically reproduced on everything from postcards to wine labels.
From the villa’s courtyard, curvy unpaved roads unravel gracefully like spools of ribbon, skirting the medieval castle of Castelluccio (where summer concerts have been held since 1988) and Chiarentana, a former 14th-century fortress of refitted rental apartments, where Donata Origo resides. Dopolavoro La Foce, the former meeting hall for agricultural workers, is now a popular trattoria.
The villa of arched loggias and inlaid brick was originally a roadside inn for pilgrims built by the Sienese hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, where Donata and Benedetta’s parents, Marchese Antonio and Marchesa Iris Origo, settled after their marriage in 1924. He was Italian and she was the daughter of dashing New Yorker Bayard Cutting and British Lady Sybil Cuffe (who was the daughter of the Earl of Desart and owned the splendid Villa Medici in Fiesole, outside Florence). Opting for a different experience, the couple chose life in the barren countryside dominated by the Amiata mountains. Almost immediately, they engaged multi-talented Pinsent who had previously designed gardens for art historian and Renaissance aficionado Bernard Berenson’s Villa I Tatti in Florence.
During a tour, Benedetta points out the plethora of Pinsent’s accomplishments. “When he came here, there was no garden,” she says. “First he made the dilapidated buildings habitable, rerouted the road for a driveway, and designed the limonaia [lemon tree greenhouse].” Although he was English, Pinsent had a deep reverence for the principles of Renaissance architecture. Nimbly rotating from interior to exterior, he oversaw work on the frescoes in the dining room and then moved outside to plan the lemon garden. In 1933 he designed a chapel for the cemetery in the dappled woodlands.
Eventually, the estate expanded to 7,000 acres and included a school, a hospital, and over 57 working farms that became safe houses for Italian refugee children and fleeing Allied troops during World War II. Benedetta said her brave mother risked death, but “was too busy to be afraid.” (Iris Origo’s subsequent book, War in Val d’Orcia [David R. Godine, 1984] chronicles the details.) After the Germans ordered them out, the Origos led four-year-old Benedetta and 60 other children on an eight-mile “walk” to the safety of Montepulciano as the Wehrmacht ravaged the property.
“I remember being afraid of the bombs (that I called ‘bangs’) and remember the march,” she says, “but I recall only a little of what was here when we returned, except that at the top were trenches and down toward the cypresses was a machine-gun emplacement.”
La Foce Today
Today the impeccable estate bustles with activity that happily includes Benedetta’s children: Katia Lysy, who manages the trattoria; Simonetta Lysy, who does interiors; and Gianna Lysy, who creates sculpture in the old olive press. Benedetta’s son, internationally-acclaimed cellist Antonio Lysy, runs the concert series Incontri in Terra di Siena that draws thousands every July.
In the 1980s, Benedetta and Donata sold a third of the land and divided the rest. Among other things, Benedetta installed perennials in place of some of the labor-intensive annuals that populated the borders and beds. “Then, in an effort to create a place for dining, I enlarged the pergola along the house,” she says. “I love having lunch or dinner there, and it is a place where we all gather for drinks before dinner when the family is complete.”
Eighty years after its inception, La Foce’s symphonic beauty feels enchanted year-round. “My favorite season is usually autumn,” says Benedetta. “I love the browns and grays of the fields that have just been plowed and sown, the colors of the leaves, and the smell of the parched earth that has finally been rained upon. But this year the spring was wonderfully green and the flowers as luscious as in England—thanks to so much rain.”
“As a child, I used to go and lie in the grass on the slopes above the garden, where there is a splendid view over the valley and you could hear all the country noises—dogs barking, farmers shouting to the oxen, and birds in the woods,” says Benedetta. Today visitors who experience this lyrical dialogue between gardens and tawny countryside can almost feel the presence of Pinsent and the Origos on the slanted hillside.
By Marion Laffey Fox | Originally published in Flower magazine’s Fall 2013 issue