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Perfect harmony

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review: landscape books La Foce: A Garden and Landscape By Benedetta Origa et al. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. 320pp. £35. (Distributed by Plymbridge 01752 202301)

When Iris Cuttle met Antonio Origo in the 1920s the project that they embarked upon, along with marriage, was an ambitious attempt to break the cycle of impoverishment and agricultural dereliction of one corner of south-eastern Tuscany, the Val d'Orcia.Here, under the shadow of a massive extinct volcano, Monte Amiato, and the curious 'creti' - parched mounds of white earth, their surfaces appearing to dissolve into fissures from rain and wind - was little for the eye or the spirit. A landscape given form by aridity and exposure, this was a desert that should not have been, long ago stripped of its cover, both vegetation and habitation.

Far away from the fashionable villas which encircled Florence in the hills at Fiesole and Settignano, the world of wealth and impeccable taste inhabited by families such as the Actons, Berensons and Strongs, and from which Miss Cuttle came, the young couple began the arduous task which Iris Origo described in her book Images and Shadows. From 1924 onwards they tried to tame the landscape, to stop the erosion, irrigate, rebuild the farms, change the crops and introduce rotation.

With their primitive beliefs and dire poverty, the people reflected the scenery.

Grants from Mussolini's ambitious programme of agricultural improvement, transforming Italy from the Maremma to the marshes of Lazio, were invaluable financial help, and the Origos extended their scheme to provide social amenities (schools, an orphanage, a workman's clubhouse among them).

Yet later in the war, La Foce was also to be a centre for resistance, as Iris Origo told in her extraordinary War in the Val d'Orcia - a moving tribute to the humanity of those dour people of southern Tuscany and a glimpse of the steel in her own remarkable personality.

Despite the political upheavals which brought the end of the mezzedria system of share-cropping in the 1950s and '60s, despite the near-sale of La Foce in the 1970s after their father's death (foiled by the state of the market), the Origo daughters Benedetta and Donata have kept La Foce, and with agriturismo (largely built upon the fame of their mother's books) succeeded in turning the corner. This book celebrates almost 80 years of growth and change, through Benedetta Origo's telling of the story, Morna Livingston's photographs, Laurie Olin's drawings and John Dixon Hunt's essay on Cecil Pinsent.

Some years ago, exploring the area, I happened upon the little cemetery and honey-gold travertine chapel which Cecil Pinsent built in the late 1930s in memory of the Origo's son Gianni, who died of tubercular meningitis at the age of seven.

Surrounded now by family and the graves of the contadini, it is set on a sloping site hollowed out of the scrawny oak woods, a place of memorable and poignant beauty. Then I knew something of the Origos but nothing of Pinsent.

Cecil Pinsent remains a shadowy figure:

Uruguayan born, AA student, friend and architectural partner of Geoffrey Scott, he appears to have become a kind of in-house architect to the Berensons and their circle, through whom Iris Origo met him. Pinsent had a sense of theatre in landscape design, a taste for unlikely scale and form, and an eye for subtlety.

To his Classicism he added a very discreet modernity, of a kind which wears well. He worked continuously at La Foce from 1924 until 1939, on the house, garden and on buildings all over the estate. One detail demonstrates his skill. The paved stone path which leads under a long curving arbour from the garden to the cemetery is crisply edged on one side (the outer edge), while the stonework on the other side elides gently with the grass. As the pergola ends, the path becomes a grassy track through the woods.

Pinsent uses the lie of the land, the texture and handling of different surfaces and the setting itself to make a real journey, however limited its distance is in reality.

Gillian Darley writes on landscape and architecture

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