Iris Origo and La Foce

The Villa at La Foce

The Villa at La Foce

by cheri sabraw

One of the imaginative exercises in which I sometimes engage is to place myself into the historical time and worn out shoes of real people who did not bring on their difficult circumstances through their own poor decision-making, but rather, who experienced their harsh slices of life at the hands of others or because of circumstances beyond their control. People like the Viennese psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, and my heroic mother, Joan Block, are several people who come to my mind.

How such individuals handle stressful life experiences not of their own making with the effrontery of lions, I find liberating. Just thinking about their personal courage can be as emotionally sustaining as the awe I feel in the presence of a magnificent waterfall, a vast desert, or violent ocean waves pounding a rugged Northern California coastline. That type of experience reminds me that no matter what happens to me, I will push on and live the most meaningful life I can.

Iris Cutting Origo was one such person. Her peaceful life in Tuscany during the war years of 1943-44 was suspended by Mussolini’s Italian fascist supporters who betrayed their neighbors by turning them in, and by the German soldiers who executed boys in Montepulciano, farmers in Buonconvento, and Jews in Florence.

Iris Origo, her husband, Antonio, and daughter Donata, 1943

Iris Origo, her husband, Antonio, and daughter Donata, 1943

As Origo wrote on November 28, 1943,

“ We are being governed by the dregs of the nation [Italy]—and their [Republican government] brutality is so capricious that no one can be certain he will be safe tomorrow.”

Several weeks ago, we visited her home and the stunning gardens that surround  her Villa which still stands in the shadow of Mt. Amiata, perched on a rounded hilltop overlooking the vast Tuscan landscape of cypress and olive trees, Sangiovese vineyards and wheat fields– a place she and her husband called La Foce.

Mt. Amiata

Mt. Amiata

The visit became an opportunity to dwell on their lives, she in particular. They  purchased the untamed land in 1924 and spent the next 40 years beautifying it to its present splendor, but more importantly, they both risked Axis reprisals in the forms of Italian fascists and German soldiers during the German occupation of Italy by sheltering orphaned children, P.O.W.’s, and anyone who came to La Foce tangled in the throes of war. They did not turn anyone away.

Part of the garden

Part of the garden

Origo, an Anglo-American who married Italian Anthony Origo in 1922, chronicled these two war years in her diary which I read while in Italy: The War in Val d’ Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-1944.

 The most starting aspect of the diary is the almost detached approach that Origo takes as she keeps her daily notes that chronicle bloodshed, death, heartbreak, and human cruelty, notes that had to be buried in the garden each morning, lest the Germans find them.


The story (you will excuse the paradox) is subtlely riveting, especially when she is forced to march 60 of her charges, mainly children, six miles in the heat of the day from La Foce up the road to Montepulciano in the middle of gunfire, Allied bombing, and a road strewn with corpses.

The view of part of La Foce from the main Villa

The view of part of La Foce from the main Villa

This story is not one to miss. It changed me!




About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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13 Responses to Iris Origo and La Foce

  1. Richard says:

    Such examples of courage in the face of seemingly insuperable odds fill me with shame at my own inadequacies and at my bitterness over the deals that fate sometimes serves to disrupt my comfortable life.

    The coolness and detachment you describe have all the appearance of cold reason but they are the reverse. Instead, they represent the daily miracle of human will and purposeful action at odds with the relentless machinery of the world and “… brutality … so capricious that no one can be certain he will be safe tomorrow.” Yes, almost a metaphor for the abuse of the privileges of choice we enjoy but misuse as human beings, a privilege that offers us the chance to escape from the relentless logic that we inhabit.

    You speak of awe and do so with your usual insight and depth of expression.
    As it happens, Alister McGrath’s book, the one I mentioned in connection with your previous post, has a section devoted to awe. He describes how a new interest has arisen in the concept, that the idea has featured prominently in theology, sociology and philosophy. Psychologists have noted that a range of stimuli triggers an experience of awe, including religious encounters, charismatic political leaders, natural objects and even patterns of light …..

    I don’t know about you, but such analysis seems to me to drain away and desiccate everything that has meaning in the experience. It leads to the conclusions, so McGrath says, that awe can be both positive and terrifyingly negative. Personally, I find the latter conclusion the very denial of what awe is – namely, the feeling of hope and awareness of a benevolent presence and entity beyond thought and our puny capacity that ultimately controls our destiny – the sort of feelings you write of and are evoked in your pictures. McGrath finds common ground with Dawkins that representations of reality, such as theories which evoke a larger vision of things, are in themselves beautiful. To my mind, no effort of human reason compares to that which creates and sustains the universe. For such comparisons one has to seek not in the cold reflections or imaginings of the human intellect, but in the model of those such as Iris Origo and their quiet influence.

    • Cheri says:

      Thank you, Richard, as always, for your careful reading of my posts and for your insightful and well-written responses. Although my comments back to you are often abbreviated, please how much I appreciate the time you take to express your thoughts.

      I am now thinking about McGrath’s observation that one can feel both positive and “terrfyingly negative” when experiencing awe. Hmmmm….

  2. Brighid says:

    As ever you have said it well. It doesn’t seem enough to thank you for posting, and I’m sure you have no idea how much I enjoy them.

  3. Christopher says:

    Iris Origo is a name I had never before heard, and I suspect most others today have never before heard of her name either. But she was obviously a giant – as great a giant as any of the more well-known giants.

    Thank you for making her name known to me.

    While reading your piece, I found my repressed schoolteacherly (grammarian) instincts being aroused when I read this sentence: “……The visit became an opportunity to dwell on their lives, she in particular……..”.

    “She” in particular? Did you not mean “her’s” in particular?

    Now, I wish to repress again my schoolteacherly (grammarian) instincts. I have few enough friends as it is.

    • Cheri says:

      You are absolutely correct Professor Christopher. I saw that error after I posted it but did not take the time to correct it.
      Shame on me. I give myself a B-.

      Never apologize for making a grammatical correction. I appreciate them!

    • Richard says:

      I’d love it if you re-cast my above comment, Christopher, so as to avoid some of the awkwardnesses and near-ambiguities and to give it some “class”. It probably means rewriting the whole thing.

  4. wkkortas says:

    To make several grammatical errors of my own, we can fool ourselves by saying “Well, had we been there, we would have done the same thing”, but the fact is that, even if we might have done it, Iris Origo and her like did done it, and they deserve whatever plaudits we unlikely souls can send their way.

  5. shoreacres says:

    I’d not heard of Iris Origo, or of the circumstances of her life. The single detail that I found most arresting was her practice of burying her notes in the garden every day. In a way, she was planting seeds of truth. There’s no set schedule for the germination, growth, or harvest of truth, as far as I know, but it seems that her crop was abundant.

    We should do so well. Too often, we care so little for truth we simply toss it onto a growing heap of incoherent postings, tweets, and status updates, and swear we’ve done our job.

    I really appreciated this post. Thanks for taking the time to provide such a tender look at a terrible time in history.

    • Cheri says:

      I’m now reading Iris Origo’s autobiography, written when she was 70.

      I couldn’t agree with you more in your observation about “harvest of truth.” Beautiful. Encouraging. I find myself irritated with the vacuousness of so much of modern culture. I just flew home from Portland Oregon last night. The airport is filled with people who really don’t care about much other than gorging themselves, tattooing themselves, and reading People Magazine.

      • Christopher says:

        “…….The airport is filled with people who really don’t care about much other than gorging themselves, tattooing themselves, and reading People Magazine……”

        Are they representative of the insouciant masses that make up today’s English-speaking North America (both north and south of the 49th Parallel)?

        Is insouciance a byproduct of affluence?


        • Cheri says:

          The people that I observe in today’s airports- in Florence, Frankfurt, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Oakland-do not appear to be affluent.
          Insouciance? While an excellent vocabulary word, Christopher, I’m not sure that the characteristics I listed in the comment–gluttonous, self-mutilating, and culturally bankrupt–are insouciant.

          I would agree that affluence can lead to insouciance–those with money,too much time, and preoccupation with materialism. I also find young members of the art community, some genres of the music scene, and sports figures and their followers insouciant. I find it all rather depressing.

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