Italian garden and classical music

Rome: Next week the hills surrounding La Foce in Italy will resonate with the sounds of the Incontri in Terra di Siena — a classical music festival established 31 years ago by cellist Antonio Lysy with his mother Benedetta.

It was founded in memory of his grandparents, Antonio and Iris Origo, who built this celebrated garden. Aiming to promote music and the arts across the region, intimate open-air performances, talks and dinners will be held in the garden’s picturesque grounds as well as neighbouring Tuscan villages.

Just under an hour’s drive south of Siena, La Foce sits at the junction of the Val d’Orcia and the Val di Chiana. Once a modest inn, today’s villa is surrounded by mature gardens created by English designer Cecil Pinsent. Pinsent had been employed by the Origos in the 1920s to renovate the house and went on to create garden rooms, marked with potted lemon trees and layered hedges. He designed everything from the garden’s layout to the decorative urns that adorn the balustrades. His creative reach extended into the landscape.

When the Origos bought the 7,904-acre estate in 1924 the Val d’Orcia looked very different from today. Marred by war and mismanagement, the land that had once been referred to as il granaio di Siena had fallen into abject condition. Iris described La Foce’s slopes as “bare and colourless as elephant’s backs, as mountains of the moon”. She went on to describe how “neglect, destitution and hopelessness seemed engraved on the men’s faces and on the soil”.

Poor land management had denuded the hills of topsoil and driven its population into poverty. In response, road building and farm repairs were initiated while the Origos suspended the felling of trees and began building dams and banks to slow soil erosion.

These projects were expensive. Iris’s parents helped fund the bringing of water to the villa but the first real financial support the Origos received was from Mussolini’s land subsidies. These paid for the school and it is with irony — her parents later became ardent anti-fascists — that Benedetta says it was “one thing we can thank Mussolini for”. The second boost came with an unexpected inheritance of a substantial fortune from an American cousin.

Iris had little involvement in La Foce’s design, focusing instead on creating a day hospital and Montessori school. She unintentionally drew international attention to the garden through her writings that included her bestselling diary, The War in Val d’Orcia, that tracked the German retreat through Tuscany in the second world war, published in 1947. In this account, Iris describes the struggle of life under occupation. The diary’s most famous entry comes when, following their expulsion from the villa, Iris and Antonio led more than 30 children — many of them refugees from Turin and Genoa — on a day-long march to Montepulciano under shellfire.

Such determination ensured La Foce’s survival in the years after the war, despite being nearly abandoned. The Origos were under pressure from their families to sell La Foce and move to the US but, as Benedetta explains, her parents resolved that “if we survived the Germans we will survive the communists”.

Antonio died at La Foce in 1976 followed by Iris in 1988. They passed La Foce to Benedetta, who still lives in the villa, and her sister Donata. While vastly improved, the soil of the Val d’Orcia is still poor and La Foce today relies on EU subsidies to maintain the farming landscape. Events such as the Incontri in Terra di Siena raise its profile and provide a fitting celebration of the Origos’ remarkable legacy.