Valley in Italyby Lisa St. Aubin de Teran, Lisa St Aubin De Teran
Of all the romantic obsessions in novelist Lisa St Aubin de Teran's life, the search for a castle occupied her the longest--until she saw the magnificent Villa Orsola deep in the Umbrian hills. Only after eagerly signing the ownership papers did she and her husband, painter Robbie Duff-Scott, discover they were the owners of a vast ruin lacking windowpanes, parts
Of all the romantic obsessions in novelist Lisa St Aubin de Teran's life, the search for a castle occupied her the longest--until she saw the magnificent Villa Orsola deep in the Umbrian hills. Only after eagerly signing the ownership papers did she and her husband, painter Robbie Duff-Scott, discover they were the owners of a vast ruin lacking windowpanes, parts of the roof, and other essentials. A Valley in Italy recounts its restoration in the grand style of impossible house and the charms of bohemian family life. It also offers a rare portrait of the life of a. Italian village, where "all things are made to be as enjoyable as possible." " Lisa St Aubin de Teran's intuitive sense of place, her affection for the people around her, and her appreciation for native Italian grace make this a memorable book that can stand beside the best accounts of Italian life.
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For years before I came to settle here in Umbria, the name conjured up for me a strange, wild, contradictory place. Despite travelling the length and breadth of mainland Italy numerous times, tunnelling through as many veins and arteries as its railway system dictated, I never reached the lungs: the self-seeded Umbrian forests. I had heard that there were bears and wolves in Umbria, and hideaways in the woods where kidnap victims were held by their Sardinian captors. It was said to be a poor, infertile place where life was hard for the contadini who slaved for their feudal overlords, who were, in turn, the bastard sons of cardinals and popes.
My family and I were in Italy house-hunting. We had been looking for a suitably dilapidated villa for three years. With such a serious task before us, we had no time for sightseeing, so the old Papal States remained a mystery on the periphery of our half-hearted search. Half-hearted in the sense that we rarely visited a house, villa, tower or farm. Most of our efforts centred on bars, where we would sit and discuss what we were looking for. Each winter, this dream house would be taken back to whichever ill-heated rented place we were then living in, and used to fan the meagre flames of the fire we huddled around.
I had a mental picture of my ideal house which I had been carrying around with me like a piece of luggage since my schooldays. It had been to Venezuela and back through the Caribbean. It had travelled with me to North America and Canada and as far south as Patagonia. I took it from frontier to frontier across Europe. I wanted a house so huge that I could move from room to empty room without disturbing anyone. The designof the house was as fickle as most young loves, and changed in shape and layout all the time. The only constant features in my dream image were a pillared loggia, a stone arch, a terracotta balustrade and a line of sentinel cypresses.
Another detail of this lovely villa was that it had to roughly match my budget and clock in at under the price of a simple, three-bedroomed apartment in the provinces. To this end, I kept a piggy-bank, which I continually raided and refilled. But the years of pursuit of the grand palazzo finally ate into my funds to such a degree that its dilapidation had to increase in direct proportion to the vanishing savings. None of the villas, houses or cottages hitherto produced by eager estate agents had been even remotely viable, short of joining in the popular Italian sport of holding up banks.
One of the large blue trunks that travelled around with me from station to station gathering knocks and labels as it accompanied my family circus was reserved exclusively for unanswered letters and miscellaneous papers. Among these was a sheaf of brochures on properties for sale in Umbria. Although none of the houses advertised had ever sounded suitable (or cheap) enough to visit, I had kept the leaflets with all the other junk I saved and carried with me in lieu of the familiarity of a home. Of these properties, the most interesting was a twelfth-century castle where a Holy Roman Emperor had lived. I gradually accumulated a dossier on this castle. I had everything but a photograph. Three years went by, and there was still no better picture than a blurred photocopy of a long row of what looked like stone pigsties with an arch in the middle. This, I was told, was the back; the front towered up through many floors and was a fantastic spectacle. There was (supposedly) a Roman amphitheatre, a great hall, an inner courtyard, a vaulted stable and an underground tunnel, all going for a song. The castle had everything, in fact, to stir the imagination except a photo; and what with one thing and another, we never went to look.
Meanwhile, unable to find a house, my husband, Robbie Duff-Scott, and I moved to Venice with my adolescent daughter, the child Iseult, and my small son, Allie. The need for a vast villa waned, and the search was temporarily suspended. The nearest I had to an Italian garden were the eight windowsills of our apartment, which I disputed with a number of ailing and incontinent pigeons. For the first time in four years we had our own base. We were cramped but happy. Robbie is a painter of large canvases and needs a lot of studio space. And, I have the makings of a bag lady in me, with my habit of hoarding everything. The children, like good Venetians, appropriated the rest of the city for their own uses, but our apartment was so crammed with furniture and ornaments that we could hardly move. Things that had been packed and carted a dozen times were finally unpacked and sorted, and the Holy Roman building in Umbria re-emerged.
Venice was proving the perfect place to squander our shrinking family fortunes. We would requisition a comer table at Florian's caffe and sit through whole afternoons looking out over St Mark's Square, watching the flotsam and jetsam and the haute couture of Europe wander by.
Seeing so many disparate groups struggling to complete their itineraries reminded me of my own belongings scattered like thistledown across Britain and Italy. The small castle in England from my previous marriage had been sold, and my share of its contents was gathering guano in a Norfolk barn. The hunting lodge in the extreme north of Scotland (bought for next to nothing and then abandoned) was still wailing dirges down its cracked and disused chimneys. I loved this Scottish folly, but my family disliked its isolation; so damaged dinner services, manuscripts and crates of books were stored in its lonely rooms, as well as under the beds and in the broom cupboards of my friends and relations.
Meet the Author
Lisa St Aubin de Terán is the award-winning author of several novels and has also published a volume of poetry, a collection of short stories, and a memoir, The Hacienda, which was a New York Times Notable Book. She is the founder and managing director of the Teran Foundation, a charitable organization that works to establish schools and farm projects in the north of Mozambique. She lives in Amsterdam.
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