The Garden in the Sky
`There it is!' said my mother pointing out of the carriage
window. The curve of the track as it followed the contours
of the hills along the river Magra gave us a glimpse up the
valley. The castle stood revealed on a distant spur that
overlooked the confluence of two rivers. In between, wooded
hills sloped in on either side like scenery in a toy theatre. This
landscape of steep hills covered in chestnut trees, with
mountains in the background, was typical of the Lunigiana,
the north-western frontier of Tuscany. Beyond the Apennines
lay Parma, and to the west of the Magra lay Genoese Liguria.
Those who saw the Fortezza della Brunella for the first
time had mixed feelings. As the word fortress implied it was
a massive military structure, with square towers at each
corner and huge walls like the base of a ziggurat, yet I could
see why my mother still tended to refer to it as `the castle'. It
had a certain majesty up on its rock above the river. For my
father, who had fallen in love with it at first sight in 1896,
this extraordinary choice for a dwelling place promised an
enchanted world far from English formality.
Yet this was my first sight of the castle. It was the late
summer of 1916. I was five and my brother John was seven.
My father was away at the war and my mother had decided
to bring John and me over from Florence where we were
living with our great-aunt, Janet Ross. Following Italy's
declaration of war on the Allied side, a small detachment of
soldiers had been sent to the castle to watch for Austrian
aircraft, and my mother wanted to check that all was well.
At Aulla station, she greeted several people and found the
driver of a pony-trap who was willing to drive us up to the
castle. On the narrow carriage-drive, his barroccino rattled and
creaked and lurched and jarred alarmingly, for this serpentine
route up the steep hillside had been hewn from volcanic rock.
At each of the hairpin bends the thin little horse had to circle
sideways, pivoting the cart on its own axis.
John and I kept glancing back and forth, from the redbrown
rock with its strange igneous streaks on one side to the
drop down the very steep slope on the other. We wondered
how many carriages and carts had toppled over. In those days
there were only a few ilex trees to halt a very stony descent.
Later, the outcrops of volcanic rock were softened or
concealed by a whole wood of ilexes planted by my father, as
well as cypresses and umbrella pines grown from seeds that
he brought back from the island of Elba where they were
famous for the straigtness of their trunks. There were no
olive trees to be seen in either of the flanking valleys because
of the river mists.
It was a relief to reach the top of the ridge on which the castle
stood hidden by more ilex trees and some stone pines. But this
first sight of our parents' home at close quarters came as a shock.
From the train coming up the Magra valley there had been that
distant glimpse of a toy fortress, but now we found ourselves
facing massive ivy-covered walls and towers across a deep dry
moat. The effect was overwhelmingly powerful.
John and I climbed down from the trap feeling very
subdued. We gazed up at the ramparts high above us. The
place looked as if it had been abandoned under an enchanter's
spell. I became conscious of the noise of the cicadas throbbing
in the heat and the smell of baked earth and pine needles. We
walked cautiously to the edge of the moat while my mother
paid the driver.
The entrance door was reached by a brick bridge that
spanned the moat like a miniature viaduct. Although fixed, it
was always known as the drawbridge. When my mother led
us across John and I clung to her, hardly daring to look down
into the moat's scrub-concealed depths over twenty feet
below. Looking up produced a similar sensation, for the
square corner tower was nearly sixty feet high.
We found ourselves in a dark, cell-like room with small
square windows set deep in the thick walls. It was cool,
almost cold after the heat outside. There was a damp smell of
whitewash. As our eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, we
saw that we were entering a tunnel with smooth walls but a
rough, cave-like ceiling which showed that it had been cut
through solid rock. Up one side a staircase ascended to the
top of the tower; when we passed, our movement disturbed
some of the bats who emitted virtually inaudible squeaks of
We saw daylight at the end of the corridor and came out
into a courtyard not much wider than an alley and cobbled
with round stones brought up from the river-bed. Even in
the height of summer it had a cool, mossy smell. We
discovered that the L-shaped courtyard divided the living
quarters from the cisterns and old dungeons. They lay behind
the uneven stone wall on the left that seemed to reach to the
As soon as we crossed and entered the door to the hall, the
frightening impression of the castle's exterior vanished. The
hall, with the double doors of the portone open on to the
terrace, was flooded with sunlight. John and I ran from room
to room, our voices and footsteps echoing under the high,
vaulted ceilings. Even the fireplaces carved from grey pietra
serena reached far above our heads. I felt as if I had shrunk,
like Alice. My mother pointed out a shield carved into the
stone. It depicted a lion rampant looking understandably
anguished in a thicket of thorns. This, apparently, was the
coat of arms of the Malaspinas, the family that had ruled
these valleys since the eleventh century.
The embrasures leading to the french windows showed the
sixteen-foot width of the walls. We went out on to the
balcony to look down at the town. A train was emerging
from the tunnel on the far side of the valley. We began to
count the carriages as it crossed the bridge over the river. It
`We're going upstairs to see the garden now,' said my
mother. We followed her. The idea of a garden high above
our heads diverted our attention from the number of carriages.
She led the way up a dark, perilous staircase at the end
of the courtyard. We kept close to the wall. As we emerged
again into the daylight we saw vines above us on a pergola.
John and I immediately ran off to explore, ignoring her cries
to be careful. We peered through some trellis down into the
narrow courtyard from which we had just come -- it was indeed
a long way down -- then we rushed from tower to tower, where
we gazed at the valleys far below with astonishment and delight.
We also raced round the sentry's walk. This followed the
outside edge of the terracotta-tiled roof over the living quarters.
But our greatest delight was my father's garden in the sky.
At the centre stood a fantastic rose-covered tempietto of
white trellis-work with a dome in the middle and a pinnacle
on either side. My father's design must have been inspired by
the Brighton Pavilion. As a backdrop, it had the most extraordinary
aspect of all: an avenue of mature ilex trees extending
between the two towers.
Underneath the dome was a sunken marble vasca, six foot
square and five feet deep, which formed a pool with waterlilies
and goldfish. And from this focal point a broad grass
walk advanced with flower-beds on each side, edged by
miniature box hedges, straight towards the greatest view of
all -- the four main peaks of the Carrara mountains, or Apuan
Alps, as they are officially known.
We were still too young then to appreciate the full beauty
of this roof-garden. That came later. It was the sheer improbability
of the place that appealed to us so much.
Next we explored the towers. Despite all the warnings
about dangerous staircases, we slipped from one to another.
We wondered whether a secret chamber lay hidden behind
one of the walls. At Fyvie Castle in Scotland, my grandfather
and his cousin, Cosmo Duff Gordon, had hung towels over
every accessible window-sill in the Meldrum tower; then
they had gone outside and pinpointed a secret chamber from
the one casement left unmarked. But all we found at Aulla
were bare, crudely fashioned rooms lit only by daylight from
an embrasure. In one of them we came across the bedding
rolls of the soldiers posted there to watch for aircraft. This
was the first sign of occupation: the soldiers had treated
everything with the greatest care. We found my mother
talking to them and their corporal. As true Italians, they
made a great fuss of John and me and allowed us to try on
My mother took us back down to the Albergo d'Italia
where we stayed for the next few nights, spending each day
up at the castle. John and I continued our explorations. There
was only one place that retained its power to inspire fear: a
subterranean magazine where men of the garrison, massacred
by the Spaniards, were said to have been buried.
Before our return to Florence, my mother organized a
good lunch for the soldiers to thank them for taking such
good care of the castle and the roof-garden. With their
emotions warmed by red wine, they acclaimed her as la madre
dei soldati italiani. They seemed to believe that she somehow
had the power to keep them there, far away from the
fighting on the Austrian front. On our departure, John and I
said goodbye to our new friends and to the castle itself. We
were not to see it again until the war was over.
John and I longed to know more about the history of the
place and how my father had found it. Luckily, the following
year, he was transferred from the Somme to the Italian front
where, as an Italian speaker, he served on Lord Cavan's staff.
As soon as he was allowed some leave, which was spent on
the coast at Forte dei Marmi, we were able to ask him
`Well, the thing to understand,' he told us, `is that Aulla
stands at a very important and strategic place. The main
valleys of the Lunigiana join there and it covers the route
over the mountains to Parma and Milan -- that's the Cisa Pass
that Hannibal was supposed to have used -- and also the road
from Genoa coming over the Bracco Pass.
`There used to be a castle down below the hill close to the
river, guarding the ancient abbey of San Caprasio, built by
Adalberto of Tuscany in the ninth century -- over a thousand
years ago. But that castle was pulled down before the Fortezza
della Brunella was built. From the Middle Ages the Lunigiana
was ruled by the Malaspina family, who eventually became
Dukes of Massa Carrara.'
`Isn't that their coat of arms on the fireplace in the salone?'
John asked. `The lion with a crown on its head, standing up
in the thorn bush?'
`That's right. There were two branches of the family. One
had a lion rampant with flowers, so it was known as the
Malaspina fiorita, and the other had a lion in a thicket of
thorns, so it was called the Malaspina spinosa. Anyway, a
great Genoese admiral and soldier called Adamo Ccnturione
took over, having ousted a condottiere, or warlord, known as
Giovanni delle Bande Nere -- John of the Black Bands. As
you might imagine, with mercenary bands and warlords,
those were very violent times.'
`Did they have cannons?' John asked. `We found a cannon-ball
in the moat, which we showed to Ramponi.'
`They might well have done, but the cannon-ball you
found was probably later. In the eighteenth century Spanish
troops besieged the castle, which up to then had been
impregnable, so when they finally captured it there was great
rejoicing in Madrid and a Te Deum was sung in celebration.
In fact they managed to penetrate the defences only when a
traitor led them up a secret path under cover of a river mist
early one morning. The whole garrison was massacred.'
`Yes,' said John, `and they are all buried in the magazine.'
Like most small boys, he took a macabre satisfaction in such
`The Spaniards,' my father went on, `had struck such
fear into the Italians that even to this day mothers tell their
children that if they are naughty the Spaniards will take them
away. Funnily enough there's even a Tuscan saying that goes
"E meglio stare al bosco e mangiar pinoli, che stare in castello con
gli spagnoli." It means: "Better to live in the woods and eat
pine nuts than in a castle with the Spaniards."
`But the most important thing about the Spaniards in this
case,' he went on, `is that after capturing the castle, they
hauled their guns up to the roof over the dungeons and
cisterns to cover the two valleys. And to absorb the recoil
when the cannons fired, they put earth down, and this
showed me that it was possible to make a garden up there.'
John then asked about the holes in the towers, and heard
that they were for pouring boiling oil on any attackers who
crossed the moat. `But please, Babbo,' I broke in impatiently,
`I want to hear how you discovered the castle.'
And so my father told us the strange story of how he had come
to this place. In 1896, when an undergraduate at Oxford, he had
been staying at the castle of Portofino, which belonged to the
English consul, Monty Brown. Brown collected Savona vases,
yet his fame as a lover of ancient objects spread before him to
such an extent that he was offered castles as well. Popular legend
credited him with buying sixteen of them, mostly in inaccessible
places. The Fortezza della Brunella was said to be so wild that
one member of the house party even claimed that it had
moufflons, a rare species of wild sheep, grazing upon its roof.
The mildly eccentric Brown had bought the castle at Aulla
for little more than the price of one of his maiolica jars, and
despite carrying out a good deal of necessary work he had
never spent a night there. A fellow guest suggested to my
father that they should pass that way, for he had argued at
dinner, in one of his sudden passions, that no seaside place
like Portofino could ever be typical of a country.
When my father and his companion reached Aulla, they
found that Monty Brown had made the castle habitable with
a roof over the living quarters. He had also allowed the
railway company, then building the new line to Parma, to
quarry stone in return for building a carriage-drive up to the
castle, which we had ascended that first day. Brown, who
had refused any payment for the quarrying, ended up with
the best of the bargain. The railway company had not
imagined quite how unyielding the volcanic hillside would
The carriage-drive was the only visible improvement.
Brown did not want to make any alterations or repairs to the
exterior of the castle itself. Even the ivy growing thick upon
its sloping walls was left untouched.
My father instantly fell in love with its wild beauty and
wonderful views. They never left his thoughts. Seven years
later, he took my mother to see his dream castle for the first
time at the end of their honeymoon. He wanted to show it to
her at its best, which meant waiting for the evening light. So,
after lunch at the vine-covered Albergo d'Italia, he took her
up the valley of the Aulella in a hired pony-trap and they
swam in one of its deep green pools. (Years later I discovered
that they had bathed naked. It was hard to imagine one's
parents doing such things, especially in those days.)
Once the bright sunlight had turned to the apricot glow of
early evening, he led the way to the track that zigzags up the
side of the fortress hill between ilex trees and patches of
violets and cyclamen. They reached the terrace between the
two south-eastern towers and, with an ancient iron key more
than a foot long, let themselves in through the huge double
doors of the portone.
The locals were frightened of the castle: they claimed to
see unexplained lights up there and ghost stories had been
lovingly elaborated around the massacred garrison. Nobody
dared go near the place after dark. Even by day, rumours of
huge serpents in the overgrown moat kept people away. In
the minds of those superstitious townsfolk who had watched
my parents set off up the hill, the stage must have seemed set
for one of those Gothic tales in which an innocent English
couple with romantic tastes move into a haunted building,
having pooh-poohed all warnings.
The sound of the giant door creaking open reverberated in
the empty hall. My father took my mother through the
ground floor rooms, then up a perilous stairway in one of the
towers, and on to the roof. From there they looked down
three hundred feet to the Aulella river with its stony shallows
and deep green pools, like the one in which they had bathed
a few hours earlier.
The peaks of the Carraras beyond remained lit by the
setting sun while dusk fell rapidly in the valleys. The cry of
falcons gave way to the squeak of bats wheeling and swooping
overhead. Then, in the distance, the Angelus rang from the
Benedictine bell tower of San Caprasio down by the river
Magra. It was a gentle, clear chime.
My mother remained silent, entranced by the beauty, but
her silence distressed my father. Eventually he could stand it
no longer. `But Lina, don't you like my castle?'
`Oh yes, Aubrey,' she answered, roused from her reverie. `I
was just wondering how long it would take for two campbeds
to arrive from the Army & Navy Scores.'
Although my parents immediately applied to Monty
Brown by telegraph for a lease on the castle, they did not
begin to live there until two years later when they returned
to Italy. They came via Bergamo, then famous for its old
furniture market, where they purchased eighteenth-century
pieces of substantial proportions so that they would not look
dwarfed in the large rooms. A quantity of huge cupboards,
tables, sideboards, chests of drawers and chairs cost them very
little because in those days antique furniture was sold in poor
repair and generally despised as second-hand.
My parents began life in the castle with their two campbeds
and a packing-case as a table until the furniture arrived.
It was an eerie sensation to lie awake in this empty fortress,
watching fantastic shadows from the huge fireplace weaving
on the high, semi-vaulted ceiling and listening to owls hooting
outside. My mother silently prayed that the ghosts of the
massacred garrison would guard, not threaten them. But
no phantom, either benevolent or malevolent, made an
My mother later admitted that she was very frightened
during their first nights of occupation, but at the time she
made light of it to the Aullese townsfolk who were so eager
to hear about their nocturnal impressions and proffer advice
on almost every subject. When the furniture from Bergamo
finally arrived, those who helped the carters negotiate the
hairpin corners on the drive and carry it into the castle
looked at it dubiously.
`We have heard that English people like old things,' they
told my parents. `But Often down in the town has such
beautiful furniture, all quite new and polished. You can see
your face in it. And there are iron bedsteads, too, with a
coloured picture of the Madonna at the head. But, of course,
signori, you could choose any other saint you please.'
It was often said of my parents that they had all the luxuries
of life but none of the necessities. They lived in a castle and
later inherited the fourteenth-century villa of Poggio
Gherardo outside Florence, yet they seldom had money for
those things that their relations considered the basis of civilized
Poggio Gherardo belonged to my great-aunt, Janet Ross, a
character invariably described as formidable. As my mother's
guardian, she had vigorously opposed her `imprudent' marriage
to Aubrey Waterfield. She believed that a young girl
like Lina Duff Gordon, brought up in considerable style in
London and at Fyvie (until my spendthrift grandfather was
forced to sell it), was far too delicate to survive as the wife of
an impecunious painter in an abandoned mountain fortress.
Aunt Janet promptly sent Davide, her steward, to inspect the
Fortezza della Brunella. On his return to Florence, he
confirmed her worst prejudices by pronouncing it `a place
not fit for Christians'.
Aubrey, my father, was almost as dedicated to gardens as
he was to his painting, so he looked forward to landscaping
their surroundings once the necessary work inside and out
had been accomplished. His vision was grandiose, but his luck
was even greater. He did not have to assemble a workforce:
individuals turned up offering their services, and seldom
has such a haphazard process of selection turned out so
Montan, the first contadino or peasant farmer at the castle,
could remember from his own childhood -- it must have been
in the 1840s -- the carriage of the last Duke of Modena
passing through the little town on the way to his summer
palace. Montan was typical of the Lunigianese; staunch, yet
Even before my father had time to spread the word that he
needed a stonemason, Ulisse and his son, Archimede, turned
either sat under the trellis pavilion or stretched out on the
grass in the avenue of ilex trees, whose leaves rustled in the
wind. The mingled scent from flowers and box and rosemary
bushes was enough to make one's head swim. Staring up
between the trees at the sky, I felt my body floating on a
I never grew bored of that magical garden in the sky. It
was so peaceful that its bellicose past of massacred garrisons
and Spanish cannon seemed too improbable to turn into a
serious image. The rampart walls had small irises growing
out of the top. Lizards basked immobile on stone spotted
with saffron-coloured lichen. When they finally moved, they
would advance in a sudden rush of activity, then freeze again
as if in a game of Grandmother's Footsteps. If John and I
came too close, they would flick over the edge of the parapet
or into some crevice which looked too narrow to admit even
a beetle. From the parapet we watched the hovering and
diving of a pair of kestrels, which nested high on the outside
of one of the walls. We also kept a lookout for mormore, a
sort of squirrel, which ran along the vine pergolas in search
of grapes. Mormore were not natives of Italy, but were
supposed to have come down from Germany in the Middle
Ages on wagon-trains.
There were scorpions on the roof, but their sting, although
painful, was not as serious as that of their African cousins. My
mother's pet jay, however, died from eating one. My mother
and father were given many animals beside the gazelle and
the jay. They used to arrive in embarrassing quantities, as if
everyone believed that the castle had to be filled with captured
wildlife. They refused a pair of eaglets taken from a nest high
in the Carraras, but felt obliged to accept some of the other
presents. A peasant boy proudly brought a leveret, which
grew into a fine semi-house-trained hare with magnificent
ears. It lolloped everywhere, for few doors were ever closed,
and sometimes at night it jumped on to my parents' bed,
startling them. Finally it killed itself in a characteristically
mad rush of activity by leaping from the parapet on the roof.
John and I also used to watch the forest fires in the chestnut
woods through a huge pair of naval binoculars missing one
eye-piece. We feared for the people who lived on the hillside,
but Ramponi, the contadino who came to help Montan,
assured us that everyone would be organizing themselves to
fight the fires. He probably did not know this and was just
trying to calm us, but we never doubted his word about
anything. It was a relief the next morning to see that the
black scars on the hillside were not so great as we had feared
under all the smoke.
At dusk, we would come up again to watch the sunset
on the Carraras, particularly on the main peak, the Pizzo
d'Uccello, or bird's beak, which rises to nearly six thousand
feet. From an apricot gold in the low-angled sunlight, the
mountain tops changed to purple, the colour of a Florentine
iris, then they became a blue-black silhouette against the
evening sky. As darkness fell earlier in the valley, lights
appeared in the town below. Lastly, the extended halo along
the western hilltops beyond the Magra disappeared and we
began to see the stars.
We would have dinner up in the roof-garden under a
persimmon tree next to the trellis pavilion. My father had
erected a pulley with a long rope so that food, plates and
fiaschi of both wine and drinking-water could be hauled up in
a large basket from the courtyard outside the kitchen. My
father summoned guests to table and warned the kitchen of
the basket's descent by blowing on a conch shell, like the
local mountain shepherds. This marine horn -- its tip filed off
to provide a mouthpiece -- gave out a long, deep, eerie sound,
more like a whale calling under the ocean than a musical
We dined by the light of candles on zuppa di verdura and
ripieni (stuffed vegetables), followed by freshly picked figs
and peaches. John and I, by then ten and eight, were
considered old enough for `baptized' wine; wine mixed with
water. As a special treat, we were allowed to cut up a peach,
put the pieces in our glasses and top them up with red wine
and sugar. Afterwards we sat without talking, weightless in
the soft night air, listening to the cicadas and tree frogs,
breathing in the scent of the tobacco-plants and watching the
fireflies. Only the sound of a train in the valley below
reminded us of the real world.
On hot nights, the whole family slept on the roof in old
naval hammocks of thick, hard canvas, which we padded
with cotton quilts. John and I slung ours away from our
parents, either between the trees of the avenue or under the
trellis pavilion. To our great surprise, our father -- fearing the
link between moonlight and madness -- forbade us to sleep
out when the moon was full. We had to pitch a tent instead.
But the moon fascinated us. It rose over the Carraras and
relit the mountains, hills, valleys and rivers in such a different
guise that it seemed to turn this familiar scene into a magical
landscape -- the sort of transformation you see only in dreams.
Moonlight made the surface of the two rivers shine with an
unnatural brightness, and the water became black again only
beyond their confluence, on its way down between the hills
to the sea.
As I lay in my hammock in the avenue, I could gaze out at
the silvered peaks of the Carraras between the dark masses of
ilex and listen to the nightingales. But however much I
wanted to stay awake and look at the mountains or up at the
stars, sleep came over me before I was aware of it.
Early in the mornings, John and I would awake to yet
another strange world, this time lightly shrouded in mist. After
rolling out of the hammocks, we stripped naked and jumped
into the cool, deep water of the marble vazca -- a plunge that
must have terrified the goldfish. After clambering out, we ran
round the roof, still naked, to dry off. Our parents, we usually
found, had got up before us and disappeared, my mother to her
typewriter and my father to paint in the early morning light.
Almost always late, John and I would race down for
breakfast on the vine-shaded terrace just outside the portone.
From the roof, we had caught the smell of coffee and the
toasted maize bread, which we would spread with white
unsalted butter and Mariannina's apricot jam. We would then
return to the top of one of the towers to gaze at the strange
images caused by the river mists. A single umbrella pine
would be visible, standing alone as if on a tiny island in a sea
of cloud. Gradually, more trees appeared, then, as the sun
strengthened, the hillsides across the Aulella began to emerge
above the nebulous flood that filled the valley below.
By eight o'clock, only odd patches of mist lingered. The
sun had pierced and broken the spell, ending the blanket of
eerie silence that had concealed the awakening valley. Sounds
drifted up again from the railway: the hand-cranked chime of
the level-crossing bell, then the stationmaster's toot on a
miniature trumpet and, finally, the slow, earnest chuffing of
the steam engine, straining against the weight of the carriages
behind. From the corner tower over the town, unseen and
with an invincible, god-like sensation, we watched the train,
small as a toy, in the valley below.