Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home In Italy

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Overview

A CLASSIC FROM THE BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF UNDER MAGNOLIA

Frances Mayes—widely published poet, gourmet cook, and travel writer—opens the door to a wondrous new world when she buys and restores an abandoned villa in the spectacular Tuscan countryside. In evocative language, she brings the reader along as she discovers the beauty and simplicity of life in Italy. Mayes also creates dozens of delicious seasonal recipes from her traditional kitchen and simple garden, all of which she ...

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Overview

A CLASSIC FROM THE BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF UNDER MAGNOLIA

Frances Mayes—widely published poet, gourmet cook, and travel writer—opens the door to a wondrous new world when she buys and restores an abandoned villa in the spectacular Tuscan countryside. In evocative language, she brings the reader along as she discovers the beauty and simplicity of life in Italy. Mayes also creates dozens of delicious seasonal recipes from her traditional kitchen and simple garden, all of which she includes in the book. Doing for Tuscany what M.F.K. Fisher and Peter Mayle did for Provence, Mayes writes about the tastes and pleasures of a foreign country with gusto and passion.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In the spirit of Peter Mayle's bestselling memoir A Year in Provence, gourmet and poet Frances Mayes chronicles her experience of buying, restoring, and residing in an abandoned villa in the Tuscan countryside. In rich, golden prose, Mayes details the long summer days spent working in the garden, excursions to the nearby towns and markets, and joyful interactions with the local people. Mayes lets armchair travelers share the joy of living in Italy through her wonderful memoir.
From the Publisher
A New York Times Notable Book of 1997

"This beautifully written memoir about taking chances, living in Italy. loving a house and, always, the pleasures of food, would make a perfect gift for a loved one.  But it's so delicious, read it first yourself."
—USA Today

"Irresistible...a sensous book for a sensous countryside."
—Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“An intense celebration of what [Mayes] calls ‘the voluptuousness of Italian life’ . . . appealing and very vivid . . . [The] book seems like the kind of thing you’d tuck into a picnic basket on an August day . . . or better yet, keep handy on the bedside table in the depths of January.”
New York Times Book Review

"Armchair travel at its most enticing."
—Booklist

“Mayes [has] perfect vision. . . . I do not doubt that centuries form now, whoever lives in Bramasole will one day uncover bits of pottery used at Mayes’ table. She has, by the sweat of her brow and the strength of her vision, become a layer in the history of this place.”
Los Angeles Times

Library Journal
Frances Mayes made a name for herself writing about her love affair with Tuscany, where she bought and refurbished an abandoned villa. She tells the full story in Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy (Broadway. 1997. ISBN 0-7679-0038-3. pap. $15); Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy (Broadway. 2000. ISBN 0-7679-0284-X. pap. $15); and In Tuscany (Broadway. 2000. ISBN 0-7679-0535-0. $35). Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767900386
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/1/1997
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 98,061
  • Product dimensions: 7.96 (w) x 10.86 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

Frances Mayes

In addition to her Tuscany memoirs, Every Day in Tuscany and Bella Tuscany, FRANCES MAYES is the author of the travel memoir A Year in the World; the illustrated books In Tuscany and Bringing Tuscany HomeSwan, a novel; The Discovery of Poetry, a text for readers; five books of poetry; and most recently a southern memoir, Under Magnolia.  She divides her time between homes in Italy and North Carolina.  Visit France Mayes’s blog at www.francesmayesbooks.com.

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Read an Excerpt

In 1990, our first summer here, I bought an oversized blank book with Florentine paper on the cover and blue leather binding.  On the first page I wrote ITALY.  The book looked as though it should have immortal poetry in it but I began with lists of wildflowers, lists of projects, new words, sketches of tile in Pompeii.  I described rooms,  trees, bird calls.  I added planting advice, "Plant sunflowers when the moon crosses Libra," although I had no clue myself as to when that might be.  I wrote about the people we met and the food we cooked.  The book became a chronicle of our first four years here.  Today it is stuffed with menus, postcards of paintings, a drawing of a floor plan of an abbey, Italian poems, and diagrams of the garden.  Because it is thick, I still have room in it for a few more summers.  Now the blue book has become Under the Tuscan Sun, a natural outgrowth of my first pleasures here.  Restoring then improving the house, transforming an overgrown jungle into its proper function as a farm for olives and grapes, exploring the layers and layers of Tuscany and Umbria, cooking in a foreign kitchen and discovering the many links between food and the culture—these intense joys frame the deeper pleasure of learning to live another kind of life.  To bury the grape tendril in such a way that it shoots out new growth I recognize easily as a metaphor for the way life must change from time to time if we are to go forward in our thinking.

    

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Table of Contents

Preface 1
Bramare: (Archaic) To Yearn For 5
A House And The Land It Takes Two 24
Sister Water, Brother Fire 41
The Wild Orchard 63
Whir Of The Sun 75
Festina Tarde (Make Haste Slowly) 90
A Long Table Under The Trees 107
Summer Kitchen Notes 124
Cortona, Noble City 138
Riva, Maremma: Into Wildest Tuscany 159
Turning Italian 180
Green Oil 194
Floating World: A Winter Season 205
Winter Kitchen Notes 220
Rose Walk 234
Sempre Pietra (Always Stone) 242
Relics Of Summer 258
Solleone 271
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First Chapter

BRAMARE: (ARCHAIC) TO YEARN FOR

I am about to buy a house in a foreign country. A house with the beautiful name of Bramasole. It is tall, square, and apricot-colored with faded green shutters, ancient tile roof, and an iron balcony on the second level, where ladies might have sat with their fans to watch some spectacle below. But below, overgrown briars, tangles of roses, and knee-high weeds run rampant. The balcony faces southeast, looking into a deep valley, then into the Tuscan Apennines. When it rains or when the light changes, the facade of the house turns gold, sienna, ocher; a previous scarlet paint job seeps through in rosy spots like a box of crayons left to melt in the sun. In places where the stucco has fallen away, rugged stone shows what the exterior once was. The house rises above a strada bianca, a road white with pebbles, on a terraced slab of hillside covered with fruit and olive trees. Bramasole: from bramare, to yearn for, and sole, sun: something that yearns for the sun, and yes, I do.

The family wisdom runs strongly against this decision. My mother has said "Ridiculous," with her certain and forceful stress on the second syllable,"RiDICulous," and my sisters, although excited, fear I am eighteen, about to run off with a sailor in the family car. I quietly have my own doubts. The upright seats in the notaio's outer office don't help. Through my thin white linen dress, spiky horsehairs pierce me every time I shift, which is often in the hundred-degree waiting room. I look over to see what Ed is writing on the back of a receipt: Parmesan, salami, coffee, bread. How can he? Finally, the signora opens her door and her torrential Italian flows over us.

The notaio is nothing like a notary; she's the legal person who conducts real-estate transactions in Italy. Ours, Signora Mantucci, is a small, fierce Sicilian woman with thick tinted glasses that enlarge her green eyes. She talks faster than any human I have ever heard. She reads long laws aloud. I thought all Italian was mellifluous; she makes it sound like rocks crashing down a chute. Ed looks at her raptly; I know he's in thrall to the sound of her voice. The owner, Dr. Carta, suddenly thinks he has asked too little; he must have, since we have agreed to buy it. We think his price is exorbitant. We know his price is exorbitant. The Sicilian doesn't pause; she will not be interrupted by anyone except by Giuseppe from the bar downstairs, who suddenly swings open the dark doors, tray aloft, and seems surprised to see his Americani customers sitting there almost cross-eyed in confusion. He brings the signora her midmorning thimble of espresso, which she downs in a gulp, hardly pausing. The owner expects to claim that the house cost one amount while it really cost much more. "That is just the way it's done," he insists. "No one is fool enough to declare the real value." He proposes we bring one check to the notaio's office, then pass him ten smaller checks literally under the table.

Anselmo Martini, our agent, shrugs.

Ian, the English estate agent we hired to help with translation, shrugs also.

Dr. Carta concludes, "You Americans! You take things so seriously. And, per favore, date the checks at one-week intervals so the bank isn't alerted to large sums."

Was that the same bank I know, whose sloe-eyed teller languidly conducts a transaction every fifteen minutes, between smokes and telephone calls? The signora comes to an abrupt halt, scrambles the papers into a folder and stands up. We are to come back when the money and papers are ready.

*

A window in our hotel room opens onto an expansive view over the ancient roofs of Cortona, down to the dark expanse of the Val di Chiana. A hot and wild wind--the scirocco--is driving normal people a little crazy. For me, it seems to reflect my state of mind. I can't sleep. In the United States, I've bought and sold a few houses before--loaded up the car with my mother's Spode, the cat, and the ficus for the five- or five-thousand-mile drive to the next doorway where a new key would fit. You have to churn somewhat when the roof covering your head is at stake, since to sell is to walk away from a cluster of memories and to buy is to choose where the future will take place. And the place, never neutral of course, will cast its influence. Beyond that, legal complications and contingencies must be worked out. But here, absolutely everything conspires to keep me staring into the dark.

Italy always has had a magnetic north pull on my psyche. Houses have been on my mind for four summers of renting farmhouses all over Tuscany. In the first place Ed and I rented with friends, we started calculating on the first night, trying to figure out if our four pooled savings would buy the tumbled stone farm we could see from the terrace. Ed immediately fell for farm life and roamed over our neighbors' land looking at the work in progress. The Antolinis grew tobacco, a beautiful if hated crop. We could hear workers shout "Vipera!" to warn the others of a poisonous snake. At evening, a violet blue haze rose from the dark leaves. The well-ordered farm looked peaceful from the vantage point of our terrace. Our friends never came back, but for the next three vacations, the circuitous search for a summer home became a quest for us--whether we ever found a place or not, we were happening on places that made pure green olive oil, discovering sweet country Romanesque churches in villages, meandering the back roads of vineyards, and stopping to taste the softest Brunello and the blackest Vino Nobile. Looking for a house gives an intense focus. We visited weekly markets not just with the purchase of picnic peaches in mind; we looked carefully at all the produce's quality and variety, mentally forecasting birthday dinners, new holidays, and breakfasts for weekend guests. We spent hours sitting in piazzas or sipping lemonade in local bars, secretly getting a sense of the place's ambiance. I soaked many a heel blister in a hotel bidet, rubbed bottles of lotion on my feet, which had covered miles of stony streets. We hauled histories and guides and wildflower books and novels in and out of rented houses and hotels. Always we asked local people where they liked to eat and headed to restaurants our many guidebooks never mentioned. We both have an insatiable curiosity about each jagged castle ruin on the hillsides. My idea of heaven still is to drive the gravel farm roads of Umbria and Tuscany, very pleasantly lost.

Cortona was the first town we ever stayed in and we always came back to it during the summers we rented near Volterra, Florence, Montisi, Rignano, Vicchio, Quercegrossa, all those fascinating, quirky houses. One had a kitchen two people could not pass in, but there was a slice of a view of the Arno. Another kitchen had no hot water and no knives, but the house was built into medieval ramparts overlooking vineyards. One had several sets of china for forty, countless glasses and silverware, but the refrigerator iced over every day and by four the door swung open, revealing a new igloo. When the weather was damp, I got a tingling shock if I touched anything in the kitchen. On the property, Cimabue, legend says, discovered the young Giotto drawing a sheep in the dirt. One house had beds with back-crunching dips in the middles. Bats flew down the chimney and buzzed us, while worms in the beams sent down a steady sifting of sawdust onto the pillows. The fireplace was so big we could sit in it while grilling our veal chops and peppers.

We drove hundreds of dusty miles looking at houses that turned out to be in the flood plain of the Tiber or overlooking strip mines. The Siena agent blithely promised that the view would be wonderful again in twenty years; replanting stripped areas was a law. A glorious medieval village house was wildly expensive. The saw-toothed peasant we met in a bar tried to sell us his childhood home, a windowless stone chicken house joined to another house, with snarling dogs lunging at us from their ropes. We fell hard for a farm outside Montisi; the contessa who owned it led us on for days, then decided she needed a sign from God before she could sell it. We had to leave before the sign arrived.

As I think back over those places, they suddenly seem preposterously alien and Cortona does, too. Ed doesn't think so. He's in the piazza every afternoon, gazing at the young couple trying to wheel their new baby down the street. They're halted every few steps. Everyone circles the carriage. They're leaning into the baby's face, making noises, praising the baby. "In my next life," Ed tells me, "I want to come back as an Italian baby." He steeps in the piazza life: the sultry and buffed man pushing up his sleeve so his muscles show when he languidly props his chin in his hand; the pure flute notes of Vivaldi drifting from an upstairs window; the flower seller's fan of bright flowers against the stone shop; a man with no neck at all unloading lambs from his truck. He slings them like flour sacks over his shoulder and the lambs' eyeballs bulge out. Every few minutes, Ed looks up at the big clock that has kept time for so long over this piazza. Finally, he takes a stroll, memorizing the stones in the street.

Across the hotel courtyard a visiting Arab chants his prayers toward dawn, just when I finally can fall asleep. He sounds as though he is gargling with salt water. For hours, he rings the voice's changes over a small register, over and over. I want to lean out and shout, "Shut up!" Now and then I have to laugh. I look out, see him nodding in the window, a sweet smile on his face. He reminds me so much of tobacco auctioneers I heard in hot warehouses in the South as a child. I am seven thousand miles from home, plunking down my life savings on a whim. Is it a whim? It feels very close to falling in love and that's never really whimsical but comes from some deep source. Or does it?

*

Each time we step out of the cool, high rooms of the hotel and into the sharp-edged sun, we walk around town and like it more and more. The outdoor tables at Bar Sport face the Piazza Signorelli. A few farmers sell produce on the steps of the nineteenth-century teatro every morning. As we drink espresso, we watch them holding up rusty hand scales to weigh the tomatoes. The rest of the piazza is lined with perfectly intact medieval or Renaissance palazzi. Easily, someone might step out any second and break into La Traviata. Every day we visit each keystoned medieval gate in the Etruscan walls, explore the Fiatwide stone streets lined with Renaissance and older houses and the even narrower vicoli, mysterious pedestrian passageways, often steeply stepped. The bricked-up fourteenth-century "doors of the dead" are still visible. These ghosts of doors beside the main entrance were designed, some say, to take out the plague victims--bad luck for them to exit by the main entrance. I notice in the regular doors, people often leave their keys in the lock.

Guidebooks describe Cortona as "somber" and "austere." They misjudge. The hilltop position, the walls and upright, massive stone buildings give a distinctly vertical feel to the architecture. Walking across the piazza, I feel the abrupt, angular shadows fall with Euclidean purity. I want to stand up straight--the upright posture of the buildings seems to carry over to the inhabitants. They walk slowly, with very fine, I want to say, carriage. I keep saying, "Isn't she beautiful?" "Isn't he gorgeous?" "Look at that face--pure Raphael." By late afternoon, we're sitting again with our espressi, this time facing the other piazza. A woman of about sixty with her daughter and the teenage granddaughter pass by us, strolling, their arms linked, sun on their vibrant faces. We don't know why light has such a luminous quality. Perhaps the sunflower crops radiate gold from the surrounding fields. The three women look peaceful, proud, impressively pleased. There should be a gold coin with their faces on it.

Meanwhile, as we sip, the dollar is falling fast. We rouse ourselves from the piazza every morning to run around to all the banks, checking their posted exchange rates. When you're cashing traveler's checks for a last-minute spree at the leather market, the rate doesn't matter that much, but this is a house with five acres and every lira counts. A slight drop at those multiples makes the stomach drop also. Every hundred lire it falls, we calculate how much more expensive the house becomes. Irrationally, I also calculate how many pairs of shoes that could buy. Shoes, before, have been my major purchase in Italy, a secret sin. Sometimes I'd go home with nine new pairs: red snake-skin flats, sandals, navy suede boots, and several pairs of black pumps of varying heels.

Typically, the banks vary in how much commission they bite when they receive a large transfer from overseas. We want a break. It looks like a significant chunk of interest they'll collect, since clearing a check in Italy can take weeks.

Finally, we have a lesson in the way things work. Dr. Carta, anxious to close, calls his bank--the bank his father and his father-in-law use--in Arezzo, a half hour away. Then he calls us. "Go there," he says. "They won't take a commission for receiving the money at all, and they'll give you whatever the posted rate is when it arrives."

His savvy doesn't surprise me, though he has seemed spectacularly uninterested in money the entire time we have negotiated--just named his high price and stuck to it. He bought the property from the five old sisters of an landowning family in Perugia the year before, thinking, he said, to make it a summer place for his family. However, he and his wife inherited property on the coast and decided to use that instead. Was that the case, or had he scooped up a bargain from ladies in their nineties and now is making a bundle, possibly buying coast property with our money? Not that I begrudge him. He's smart.

Dr. Carta, perhaps fearing we might back out, calls and asks to meet us at the house. He roars up in his Alfa 164, Armani from stem to stern. "There is something more," he says, as though continuing a conversation. "If you follow me, I will show you something." A few hundred feet down the road, he leads us up a stone path through fragrant yellow broom. Odd, the stone path continues up the hill, curving along a ridge. Soon we come to a two-hundred-degree view of the valley, with the cypress-lined road below us and a mellow landscape dotted with tended vineyards and olive groves. In the distance lies a blue daub, which is Lake Trasimeno; off to the right, we see the red-roofed silhouette of Cortona cleanly outlined against the sky. Dr. Carta turns to us triumphantly. The flat paving stones widen here. "The Romans--this road was built by the Romans--it goes straight into Cortona." The sun is broiling. He goes on and on about the large church at the top of the hill. He points out where the rest of the road might have run, right through Bramasole's property.

Back at the house he turns on an outside faucet and splashes his face. "You'll enjoy the finest water, truly your own abundant acqua minerale, excellent for the liver. Eccellente!" He manages to be at once enthusiastic and a little bored, friendly and slightly condescending. I am afraid we have spoken too bluntly about money. Or maybe he has interpreted our law-abiding American expectations about the transaction as incredibly naive. He lets the faucet run, cupping his hand under the water, somehow leaning over for a drink without dislodging the well-cut linen coat tossed over his shoulders. "Enough water for a swimming pool," he insists, "which would be perfect out on the point where you can see the lake, overlooking right where Hannibal defeated the Romans."

We're dazzled by the remains of a Roman road over the hill covered with wildflowers. We will follow the stone road into town for a coffee late in the afternoons. He shows us the old cistern. Water is precious in Tuscany and was collected drop by drop. By shining a flashlight into the opening, we've already noticed that the underground cistern has a stone archway, obviously some kind of passageway. Up the hill in the Medici fortress, we saw the same arch in the cistern there and the caretaker told us that a secret underground escape route goes downhill to the valley, then to Lake Trasimeno. Italians take such remains casually. That one is allowed to own such ancient things seems impossible to me.

*

When I first saw Bramasole, I immediately wanted to hang my summer clothes in an armadio and arrange my books under one of those windows looking out over the valley. We'd spent four days with Signor Martini, who had a dark little office on Via Sacco e Vanzetti down in the lower town. Above his desk hung a photo of him as a soldier, I assumed for Mussolini. He listened to us as though we spoke perfect Italian. When we finished describing what we thought we wanted, he rose, put on his Borsolino, and said one word, "Andiamo," let's go. Although he'd recently had a foot operation, he drove us over nonexistent roads and pushed through jungles of thorns to show us places only he knew about. Some were farmhouses with roofs collapsed onto the floor, miles from town and costing the earth. One had a tower built by the Crusaders, but the contessa who owned it cried and doubled the price on the spot when she saw that we really were interested. Another was attached to other farmhouses where chickens were truly free range--they ran in and out of the houses. The yard was full of rusted farm equipment and hogs. Several felt airless or sat hard by the road. One would have required putting in a road--it was hidden in blackberry brambles and we could only peer in one window because a coiled black snake refused to budge from the threshold.

We took Signor Martini flowers, thanked him and said goodbye. He seemed genuinely sorry to see us go.

The next morning we ran into him in the piazza after coffee. He said, "I just saw a doctor from Arezzo. He might be interested in selling a house. Una bella villa," he added emphatically. The house was within walking distance of Cortona.

"How much?" we asked, although we knew by then he cringes at being asked that direct question.

"Let's just go take a look," was all he said. Out of Cortona, he took the road that climbs and winds to the other side of the hill. He turned onto the strada bianca and, after a couple of kilometers, pulled into a long, sloping driveway. I caught a glimpse of a shrine, then looked up at the three-story house with a curly iron fanlight above the front door and two tall, exotic palm trees on either side. On that fresh morning, the facade seemed radiant, glazed with layers of lemon, rouge, and terra-cotta. We both became silent as we got out of the car. After all the turns into unknown roads, the house seemed just to have been waiting all along.

"Perfect, we'll take it," I joked as we stepped through the weeds. Just as he had at other houses, Signor Martini made no sales pitch; he simply looked with us. We walked up to the house under a rusted pergola leaning under the weight of climbing roses. The double front door squawked like something alive when we pushed it open. The house's walls, thick as my arm is long, radiated coolness. The glass in the windows wavered. I scuffed through silty dust and saw below it smooth brick floors in perfect condition. In each room, Ed opened the inside window and pushed open the shutters to one glorious view after another of cypresses, rippling green hills, distant villas, a valley. There were even two bathrooms that functioned. They were not beautiful, but bathrooms, after all the houses we'd seen with no floors, much less plumbing. No one had lived there in thirty years and the grounds seemed like an enchanted garden, overgrown and tumbling with blackberries and vines. I could see Signor Martini regarding the grounds with a countryman's practiced eye. Ivy twisted into the trees and ran over fallen terrace walls. "Molto lavoro," much work, was all he said.

During several years of looking, sometimes casually, sometimes to the point of exhaustion, I never heard a house say yes so completely. However, we were leaving the next day, and when we learned the price, we sadly said no and went home.

During the next months, I mentioned Bramasole now and then. I stuck a photo on my mirror and often wandered the grounds or rooms in my mind. The house is a metaphor for the self, of course, but it also is totally real. And a foreign house exaggerates all the associations houses carry. Because I had ended a long marriage that was not supposed to end and was establishing a new relationship, this house quest felt tied to whatever new identity I would manage to forge. When the flying fur from the divorce settled, I had found myself with a grown daughter, a full-time university job (after years of part-time teaching), a modest securities portfolio, and an entire future to invent. Although divorce was harder than a death, still I felt oddly returned to myself after many years in a close family. I had the urge to examine my life in another culture and move beyond what I knew. I wanted something of a physical dimension that would occupy the mental volume the years of my former life had. Ed shares my passion for Italy completely and also shares the boon of three-month summer breaks from university teaching. There we would have long days for exploring and for our writing and research projects. When he is at the wheel, he'll always take the turn down the intriguing little road. The language, history, art, places in Italy are endless--two lifetimes wouldn't be enough. And, ah, the foreign self. The new life might shape itself to the contours of the house, which already is at home in the landscape, and to the rhythms around it.

In the spring, I called a California woman who was starting a real-estate development business in Tuscany. I asked her to check on Bramasole; perhaps if it had not sold, the price had come down. A week later, she called from a bar after meeting with the owner. "Yes, it's still for sale, but with that particular brand of Italian logic, the price has been raised. The dollar," she reminded me, "has fallen. And that house needs a lot of work."

Now we've returned. By this time, with equally peculiar logic, I've become fixed on buying Bramasole. After all, the only thing wrong is the expense. We both love the setting, the town, the house and land. If only one little thing is wrong, I tell myself, go ahead.

Still, this costs a sacco di soldi. It will be an enormous hassle to recover the house and land from neglect. Leaks, mold, tumbling stone terraces, crumbling plaster, one funky bathroom, another with an adorable metal hip bathtub and a cracked toilet.

Why does the prospect seem fun, when I found remodeling my kitchen in San Francisco a deep shock to my equilibrium? At home, we can't even hang a picture without knocking out a fistful of plaster. When we plunge the stopped-up sink, forgetting once again that the disposal doesn't like artichoke petals, sludge seems to rise from San Francisco Bay.

On the other hand, a dignified house near a Roman road, an Etruscan (Etruscan!) wall looming at the top of the hillside, a Medici fortress in sight, a view toward Monte Amiata, a passageway underground, one hundred and seventeen olive trees, twenty plums, and still uncounted apricot, almond, apple, and pear trees. Several figs seem to thrive near the well. Beside the front steps there's a large hazelnut. Then, proximity to one of the most superb towns I've ever seen. Wouldn't we be crazy not to buy this lovely house called Bramasole?

What if one of us is hit by a potato chip truck and can't work? I run through a litany of diseases we could get. An aunt died of a heart attack at forty-two, my grandmother went blind, all the ugly illnesses . . . What if an earthquake shakes down the universities where we teach? The Humanities Building is on a list of state structures most likely to fall in a moderately severe quake. What if the stock market spirals down?

I leap out of bed at three A.M. and step in the shower, letting my whole face take the cold water. Coming back to bed in the dark, feeling my way, I jam my toe on the iron bed frame. Pain jags all the way up my backbone. "Ed, wake up. I think I've broken my toe. How can you sleep?"

He sits up. "I was just dreaming of cutting herbs in the garden. Sage and lemon balm. Sage is salvia in Italian." He has never wavered from his belief that this is a brilliant idea, that this is heaven on earth. He clicks on the bedside lamp. He's smiling.

My half-on toenail is hanging half off, ugly purple spreading underneath. I can't bear to leave it or to pull it off. "I want to go home," I say.

He puts a Band-Aid around my toe. "You mean Bramasole, don't you?" he asks.

*

This sack of money in question has been wired from California but has not arrived. How can that be, I ask at the bank, money is wired, it arrives instantaneously. More shrugs. Perhaps the main bank in Florence is holding it. Days pass. I call Steve, my broker in California, from a bar. I'm shouting over the noise of a soccer match on the TV. "You'll have to check from that end;" he shouts back, "it's long gone from here and did you know the government there has changed forty-seven times since World War II? This money was well invested in tax-free bonds and the best growth funds. Those Australian bonds of yours earned seventeen percent. Oh well, la dolce vita."

The mosquitoes (zanzare they're called, just like they sound) invade the hotel with the desert wind. I spin in the sheets until my skin burns. I get up in the middle of the night and lean out the shuttered window, imagining all the sleeping guests, blisters on their feet from the stony streets, their guidebooks still in their hands. We could still back out. Just throw our bags in the rented Fiat and say arrivederci. Go hang out on the Amalfi coast for a month and head home, tanned and relaxed. Buy lots of sandals. I can hear my grandfather when I was twenty: "Be realistic. Come down out of the clouds." He was furious that I was studying poetry and Latin etymology, something utterly useless. Now, what am I thinking of? Buying an abandoned house in a place where I hardly can speak the language. He probably has worn out his shroud turning over in his grave. We don't have a mountain of reserves to bale us out in case that mysterious something goes wrong.

*

What is this thrall for houses? I come from a long line of women who open their handbags and take out swatches of upholstery material, colored squares of bathroom tile, seven shades of yellow paint samples, and strips of flowered wallpaper. We love the concept of four walls. "What is her house like?" my sister asks, and we both know she means what is she like. I pick up the free real-estate guide outside the grocery store when I go somewhere for the weekend, even if it's close to home. One June, two friends and I rented a house on Majorca; another summer I stayed in a little casa in San Miguel de Allende in which I developed a serious love for fountained courtyards and bedrooms with bougainvillea cascading down the balcony, the austere Sierra Madre. One summer in Santa Fe, I started looking at adobes there, imagining I would become a Southwesterner, cook with chilies, wear squash blossom turquoise jewelry--a different life, the chance to be extant in another version. At the end of a month I left and never have wanted to return.

I love the islands off the Georgia coast, where I spent summers when I was growing up. Why not a weathered gray house there, made of wood that looks as though it washed up on the beach? Cotton rugs, peach iced tea, a watermelon cooling in the creek, sleeping with waves churning and rolling outside the window. A place where my sisters, friends, and their families could visit easily But I keep remembering that anytime I've stepped in my own footprints again, I haven't felt renewed. Though I'm susceptible to the pull to the known, I'm just slightly more susceptible to surprise. Italy seems endlessly alluring to me--why not, at this point, consider the opening of The Divine Comedy: What must one do in order to grow? Better to remember my father, the son of my very literal-minded, penny-pinching grandfather. "The family motto," he'd say, "is `Packing and Unpacking.'" And also, "If you can't go first class, don't go at all."

Lying awake, I feel the familiar sense of The Answer arriving. Like answers on the bottom of the black fortune-telling eight ball that I loved when I was ten, often I can feel an idea or the solution to a dilemma floating up through murky liquid, then it is as if I see the suddenly clear white writing. I like the charged zone of waiting, a mental and physical sensation of the bends as something mysterious zigzags to the surface of consciousness.

What if you did not feel uncertainty, the white writing says. Are you exempt from doubt? Why not rename it excitement? I lean over the wide sill just as the first gilded mauve light of sunrise begins. The Arab is still sleeping. The undulant landscape looks serene in every direction. Honey-colored farmhouses, gently placed in hollows, rise like thick loaves of bread set out to cool. I know some Jurassic upheaval violently tossed up the hills, but they appear rounded as though by a big hand. As the sun brightens, the land spreads out a soft spectrum: the green of a dollar bill gone through the wash, old cream, blue sky like a blind person's eye. The Renaissance painters had it just right. I never thought of Perugino, Giotto, Signorelli, et al., as realists, but their background views are still here, as most tourists discover, with dark cypress trees brushed in to emphasize each composition the eye falls on. Now I see why the red boot on a gold and blond angel in the Cortona museum has such a glow, why the Madonna's cobalt dress looks intense and deep. Against this landscape and light, everything takes on a primary outline. Even a red towel drying on a line below becomes totally saturated with its own redness.

Read More Show Less

Foreword

1. "What are you growing here?" is the first line of Under the Tuscan Sun. In what ways does that question symbolize how the book came about? What does it say about Frances Mayes's life in Italy, and about her life in general?

2. Mayes writes of the traumatic experience of selling one house and purchasing another on various occasions in the United States. Why is the purchase of her house in Italy so qualitatively different from her other experiences with home ownership?

3. "The house is a metaphor for the self," Frances Mayes writes. Discuss some examples of this, both in her life and in your own.

4. What makes Mayes's writing style effective? How does her particular voice make her descriptions come alive? What images did you find to be particularly striking?

5. What are some of the qualities of Italian life that contrast most sharply with American culture? Which aspects of Italian life did Frances and Ed find it important to incorporate into their own lives? Which aspects would you have been drawn to?

6. How does the experience of purchasing and renovating Bramasole impact Frances and Ed's relationship, and how does their interaction affect their shared experience of buying, owning, and living in Bramasole?

7. How does the author change as the book progresses? How are her changes reflected in her tone and in her writing?

8. Mayes's house is called "Bramasole," which literally means "yearning for the sun." However, soon after she purchases the house, Mayes dreams that its real name is "Centi Angeli," or "one hundred angels." Discuss the ways in which this proves to be a premonitorydream. What are some of the other discoveries made throughout Bramasole and its grounds that lend a magical feeling to the house?

9. What role does food play, both metaphorically and literally, in the sense of delight that deepens Mayes's relationship to Tuscany and the house itself?

10. Mayes often portrays life in Cortona as timeless. How does she also convey that the timelessness is in many ways just an illusion? How does the "sense of endless time" affect her household?

11. What is Mayes's philosophy about the friend who speaks disparagingly of contemporary Italy and says it's "getting to be just like everywhere else--homogenized and Americanized" (p. 110)? How does Mayes's response address globalization in general?

12. Mayes's loving descriptions of food, her recipes, and her gardening tips add sensuality to the book, but what are some of their other functions in Under the Tuscan Sun?

13. What is Mayes's advice to readers who have "the desire to surprise your own life" (p. 191)? How would you respond to this impulse? What are some of the benefits and drawbacks to the time of life Mayes chose for embarking on a major change? Discuss some of your own turning points and "forks in the road."

14. Although Under the Tuscan Sun isn't a novel, would you say that in many ways it reads like one? If so, what is the spring, the inner tension, that propels the book forward and shapes its form?

15. Besides presenting us with wonderful descriptions of food, scenery, and people, what is the other major impetus of Under the Tuscan Sun?

16. As the book draws to a close, Mayes asks rhetorically, "Doesn't everything reduce in the end to a poetic image--one that encapsulates an entire experience in one stroke?" (p. 256). In your opinion, which image or scene best "encapsulates the entire experience" of Mayes's time in Italy?

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1. "What are you growing here?" is the first line of Under the Tuscan Sun. In what ways does that question symbolize how the book came about? What does it say about Frances Mayes's life in Italy, and about her life in general?

2. Mayes writes of the traumatic experience of selling one house and purchasing another on various occasions in the United States. Why is the purchase of her house in Italy so qualitatively different from her other experiences with home ownership?

3. "The house is a metaphor for the self," Frances Mayes writes. Discuss some examples of this, both in her life and in your own.

4. What makes Mayes's writing style effective? How does her particular voice make her descriptions come alive? What images did you find to be particularly striking?

5. What are some of the qualities of Italian life that contrast most sharply with American culture? Which aspects of Italian life did Frances and Ed find it important to incorporate into their own lives? Which aspects would you have been drawn to?

6. How does the experience of purchasing and renovating Bramasole impact Frances and Ed's relationship, and how does their interaction affect their shared experience of buying, owning, and living in Bramasole?

7. How does the author change as the book progresses? How are her changes reflected in her tone and in her writing?

8. Mayes's house is called "Bramasole," which literally means "yearning for the sun." However, soon after she purchases the house, Mayes dreams that its real name is "Centi Angeli," or "one hundred angels." Discuss the ways in which this proves to be a premonitory dream. What are some of the other discoveries made throughout Bramasole and its grounds that lend a magical feeling to the house?

9. What role does food play, both metaphorically and literally, in the sense of delight that deepens Mayes's relationship to Tuscany and the house itself?

10. Mayes often portrays life in Cortona as timeless. How does she also convey that the timelessness is in many ways just an illusion? How does the "sense of endless time" affect her household?

11. What is Mayes's philosophy about the friend who speaks disparagingly of contemporary Italy and says it's "getting to be just like everywhere else—homogenized and Americanized" (p. 110)? How does Mayes's response address globalization in general?

12. Mayes's loving descriptions of food, her recipes, and her gardening tips add sensuality to the book, but what are some of their other functions in Under the Tuscan Sun?

13. What is Mayes's advice to readers who have "the desire to surprise your own life" (p. 191)? How would you respond to this impulse? What are some of the benefits and drawbacks to the time of life Mayes chose for embarking on a major change? Discuss some of your own turning points and "forks in the road."

14. Although Under the Tuscan Sun isn't a novel, would you say that in many ways it reads like one? If so, what is the spring, the inner tension, that propels the book forward and shapes its form?

15. Besides presenting us with wonderful descriptions of food, scenery, and people, what is the other major impetus of Under the Tuscan Sun?

16. As the book draws to a close, Mayes asks rhetorically, "Doesn't everything reduce in the end to a poetic image—one that encapsulates an entire experience in one stroke?" (p. 256). In your opinion, which image or scene best "encapsulates the entire experience" of Mayes's time in Italy?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 98 )
Rating Distribution

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(32)

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(25)

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(18)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 98 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 6, 2009

    It Really Just Depends

    I started reading this book knowing that it was going to be nothing like the movie. And let me tell you, I was right. I knew it wouldn't have the fluff and romance the movie did, and I was okay with that- or so I thought.<BR/>This book is beautifully written, and if you're one of those armchair travelers, you'll absolutely LOVE IT- go buy it right now! Although, if you're not...then think a bit more before.<BR/>I think that this book would be something fantastic to read if you wanted to relax and escape from your world, if only for a little bit. Maybe the reason I didn't like it so much was because I was on my school's winter break, and therefore- already too relaxed. This book had no action, no romance, and nothing really to get me INTO it. Then again, if I ever have a really rough day where everything seems to be going wrong- I will <BR/>definitely pick up this book and read a couple of pages. Because it's relaxing, it's interesting, it's descriptions are flawless. <BR/>If you want to read this book and ENJOY it, you have to love learning, because that's what it is, really. It's teaching you about her experience in Italy and the country's culture as well. <BR/>To sum it up, this book is for those who love biographies, beautiful and descriptive writing, culture, and something that you can sit down and relax to.

    14 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2002

    A superb feast

    I am an avid reader. I don't waste time on books if they don't catch my interest right in the beginning. Hey, there are sooo many books out there to read and so little time. Anway, this book is beyond words. I tasted the food described and felt the sun on my back and sensed the colors of the terrain. It was such a treat to read. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a book that transports them to another place! She has a new one coming out too....titled "Swan".

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2000

    smell the pasta

    I think the best part of the book was to remind me how pathetic most Americans have become in reference to taking the time to enjoy the 'given'. 'Given' meaning such things as the simple joy of food, wildlife, what makes an individual unique, taking a walk, etc. In the U.S. we are so concerned with making a buck, doing things as fast as we can so that we have more time to do what? This book reminded me at least of what is most important and how the most enjoyable things in life are either in your home or right outside the door....

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2008

    i thought it was going to be just like the movie

    i was dissapointed. The book is wonderful in it s own way. Very discriptive and inviting with a few great cooking lessons in toe. however, i was really hoping it would be just like the movie , which this book is clearly nothing at all like the movie. It s almost as if it is 2 completly different stories that just happen to have the same name .

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 28, 2010

    Excellent Choice

    This is a very detailed book. Like a previous review stated, it is not a "before bed" book. It's more of a rainy Sunday afternoon curl up on the couch with a book, blanket, and a glass of wine. I bought this book because I wanted to see how close the movie was to it. There are bits and pieces from the book in it, but doesn't come close. If you enjoy the movie, you will love this book. I can't wait to read Bella next.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 29, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    The movie is better

    I was so disappointed after starting this book. It is a very hard read! In every way possible. It does not pull you in like it should, hard to follow and because of this hard to keep patient enough to keep reading and give it a chance. I'm not fond of Frances Mayes style of writing. The movie pulled me in and from there I loved the story. It hurts me to say I don't like the book. I normally like the book much better than the movie, that's just not the case now. Someday I may pick it up again and give it another try.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    A delicious read!

    Under the Tuscan Sun follows creative writing professor Frances Mayes and her husband as they move to Italy and restore a villa, all while sampling the local food and learning how to be Italian.<BR/><BR/>This book is mostly about home restoration and food, two topics Mayes manages to make both humorous and interesting. I loved the book, but there were a few things that bothered me.<BR/><BR/>First, Mayes' descriptions of her childhood throughout the book scream of wealth and privilege... not nice at all. Secondly, her attitude towards the Catholic church really bothered me. She seemed to almost make fun of it, going to far as to mention that she wants a font of holy water for her home! I find this extremely offensive, being Catholic myself.<BR/><BR/>But those things are few and far between in the book, and besides them, the book is great, very relaxing to read and slow-paced, so it's easy to follow. It's good to read over and over, and the recipes included sound so delicious, you just want to try them yourself. Unless you're someone looking for a romance or action book, you'll love Under the Tuscan Sun.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2008

    A wonderfull biography, unlike the movie

    This is a wonderfull book on the exsperiences of Frances Mayers and her friend Ed who buy bramasole villa in Tuscany. The author goes into every detail about the house, gardens and problems with remodling. As well as the countryside of Tuscany. If you are looking for something like the movie, this book is not for you. The movie is pure fiction. This book is more like a biography, and need to be read as such.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2006

    I liked this.

    If you're after 'chills & thrills,' this isn't for you. This is an adventure of the spirit, for those who enjoy learning as they read. Ms. Mayes & her companion Ed Kleinschmidt take the risk of buying a run-down house in Tuscany &, over the succeeding summers, renovate it, making discoveries about the house, the surrounding country, their neighbors, & themselves.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2004

    A Recent Italian Traveler

    I am 18 years old, and I recently returned from a trip to Italy, on which I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Frances Mayes, right outside her home, Bramasole. For all of the readers who do not understand how she could love those simple things so much, it would be hard to imagine....unless you have been there, which I have. Italy, particularly the region of Tuscany, is a breathtaking place that cannot possibly be done justice in a book. I love this book simply because when I read it, I remembered how much I loved being there.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2000

    Lovely

    A lovely book about a woman who took a chance and changed her life. The descriptions of the flowers, views and daily life are marvelous. Although I've never been to Tuscany, her book has taken me there and I will never forget it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 20, 2012

    Quite different from the movie

    But a lovely book to read. Gives a wonderful insight to living in Italy. Wish I could trade places with her!

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  • Posted May 20, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    I could feel the warmth of the Tuscan sun

    I enjoyed and could feel the author's love for this region of Italy and found it a bit contagious. I loved her descriptions of their house on the hill overlooking a river valley and their discoveries of Etruscan roads and artifacts on their property and close by. She takes us with her on a tour of Tuscany and Umbria searching out Etruscan sites and tombs and savoring all the food and wine the region has to offer. It was very inspiring to read about their restoration projects and how they progressed. About how they terraced the hillside all around their home and took great care in planning and planting all of their gardens and outdoor dining and sitting areas. Her love for food and cooking is hard to ignore and there are some wonderful recipes included in this book which I can't wait to try.

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  • Posted April 15, 2010

    Interesting Book

    This book is a very detailed book with a lot of interesting facts
    that give you a true insight to the life in Italy. It is not an easy
    read though to relax before bed as the type is very small and it is
    lengthy in detail...not really a novel which I had thought it was when
    I bought it but all in all, a great read and worth reading!

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  • Posted April 8, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Great Book for Armchair Travelers

    You should start with this book before reading Frances Mayes other two books on her life in Tuscany Italy. It is good book for a rainy day at home or at the beach on a sunny day. Also, if you saw the movie Under the Tuscan Sun you should read this book because it is much better and much different than the movie. The only problem I have with the book is the lack of illustrations and photos. However she is good at describing her life over there that it makes up for the lack of photos.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2006

    so-so

    I like to read books before the movie comes out and to my dismay, I liked the movie much better than the book. The book wasn't anything like the movie and I liked the character in the movie better as well. While the author pleasantly writes about her decorating and cooking ideas, I would have rather escaped into details that were presented in the movie.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2005

    Horrible Book

    I read this book hoping for an enchanting story about Italy. All I recieved was a boring, dull, detailed story about inanamate objects. I wasted three months, without reading anything else and i barely got to page 50. (and i'm not a slow reader) It dragged on and on and it didn't have a plot or a climax. Overall this book stunk.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2005

    One of the most successful travel books of the past 20 years!

    Frances Mayes' breakthrough book is an elegant, poetic stroll through her personnel odyssey and her adopted Italian home. She struck a nerve with her courage and initiative, and she became a heroine to women (and a good many men, also!), triumphing over personal crisis. Her writing flows beautifully. An artist with a pen!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2005

    one of the most boring books I've ever read

    I chose this book because I myself lived in Italy a few years ago, but aside from sparking some memories, this book had nothing to offer. Mayes often spent multiple paragraphs describing a trivial object, and seemed to focus obsessively on food. The story offered no character development (she said virtually nothing about her husband, Ed, or daughter,) no real plot, no climax, and no resolution. The content was better suited for a personal diary that did not have hopes of entertaining others.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2005

    The best book

    I just finished the book and I feel as if I just returned from a wonderful trip to Tuscany. Frances Mayes is such a wonderful writer. She really made me feel and see everything she was. Reading about some of the food made me miss by Aunt who was from Italy. I used to love hearing her talk of the culture, food and people. Frances brought that all back. After reading this book I am on my way to Italy.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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