If Tuscany is one of Italy’s most beloved regions, then the Val d’Orcia is its crowning glory. The region, which is located south of Siena and encompasses gems like Pienza, Montalcino and Bagno Vignoni, is known for picturesque landscapes that have inspired artists over the centuries. Its gently rolling hills dotted with neat rows of cypress trees and farmhouses, reflect a harmonious relationship between man and nature which garnered the Val d’Orcia UNESCO World Heritage status in 2004.
But just a century ago, this idyllic valley looked very different than it does today. The Val d’Orcia suffered from a lack of water and its impoverished residents struggled to cultivate anything in its barren clay hills (“crete senesi”). It took an entrepreneurial spirit, agricultural investments and a sense of civic duty to spur an economic, social and cultural revival in the region. Much of its success can be traced back to the vision of Antonio and Iris Origo and their love for the Tuscan land.
Iris Origo, an Irish-American heiress and writer, and her husband Antonio Origo, a Marchese, purchased Villa La Foce in 1924 and over the course of the next 15 years, transformed the dilapidated historic estate into one of Italy’s most sumptuous countryside villas. The property became the cornerstone of their contributions to the Val d’Orcia.
Together with English architect Cecil Pinsent, they refurbished the house and designed an elegant terraced garden with box hedges, a rose garden, fountains and a wisteria-covered pergola. They also began to develop the surrounding landscape which they saw as an extension of their property. “The idea was that the surrounding hills and valleys should be as immaculate and carefully groomed as the garden,” explains Katia Lysy, the granddaughter of Antonio and Iris Origo.
One of the best examples is the “Zig Zag” road that lies opposite the estate, a curved road lined with cypresses. “The land there was leveled, new farm houses were built and they needed a road. The idea was to create a path inspired by 13th and 14th century Sienese and Florentine painters.” The road merged functionality with aesthetics: it had to be a zig zag because it climbed up a steep hill. “There was a practical reason for creating the road, and since it had to be made, it should be beautiful,” says Ms. Lysy.
Another challenge was how to bring water to the arid region. Antonio Origo, who presided over an organization of landowners, began working on water management projects that would help fertilize the soil and uplift the poor farmers. Thanks to Iris’s connections in the United States (and public money from Mussolini’s agricultural policy), he was able to bring over the latest machinery from America to create lakes and irrigation ditches that would channel water into the fields. The new water sources would feed the large garden at La Foce and serve the community.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Origo family also rebuilt dozens of farmhouses to lodge their tenant farmers and they made critical investments in the areas of health and education. “My grandparents had a strong desire to give back: they dedicated their lives to improving the conditions of the farmers and their families,” explains Ms. Lysy. They built a clinic that provided an innovative solution for curing rickets with ultraviolet light, and they created a number of schools for the children.
They also built a “Dopolavoro” (literally, “After Work”) a community space for the workers on the estate. “It was a recreational area where they could play bocce, have a glass of wine or a bite to eat. My grandmother also organized Christmas plays for the children of the farmers,” says Ms. Lysy. Today, Dopolavoro La Foce is an integral part of the estate and pays homage to its historic roots.
“We wanted to keep the spirit of the place as it was originally, a cooperativa, so the bar and restaurant are open all day,” says Ms. Lysy. Chef Asia Chirdo serves a tantalizing array of reinterpreted Tuscan dishes, including ravioli filled with pappa al pomodoro (a hearty bread and tomato soup) and homemade pici noodles with beef ragù.
The legacy of La Foce remains deeply intertwined with its rich history and enables visitors to be immersed in Tuscany’s past. The gardens are open from March to November on Wednesdays and weekends, and the estate has a number of properties that can be rented. The splendid Villa Origo, which overlooks the landscaped garden, sleeps 24 guests and is a perfect setting for family reunions, weddings and celebrations.
The family still reunites at La Foce for the Christmas holidays and for the Incontri in Terra di Siena Chamber Music Festival held throughout the Val d’Orcia each July. “My siblings and I live all over the world but when we come together at La Foce, it feels like coming home,” says Ms. Lysy.