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A Tuscan Childhood

A Tuscan Childhood

5.0 1
by Kinta Beevor

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The sparkling memoir of an idyllic, bohemian childhood in an enchanted Tuscan castle between the World War I and World War II.

When Kinta Beeevor was five, her father, the painter Aubrey Waterfield, bought the sixteenth-century Fortezza della Brunella in the Tuscan village of Aulla. There her parents were part of a vibrant artistic community that included


The sparkling memoir of an idyllic, bohemian childhood in an enchanted Tuscan castle between the World War I and World War II.

When Kinta Beeevor was five, her father, the painter Aubrey Waterfield, bought the sixteenth-century Fortezza della Brunella in the Tuscan village of Aulla. There her parents were part of a vibrant artistic community that included Aldous Huxley, Bernard Berenson, and D. H. Lawrence. Meanwhile, Kinta and her brother explored the glorious countryside, participated in the region's many seasonal rites and rituals, and came to know and love the charming, resilient Italian people. With the coming of World War II the family had to leave Aulla; years later, though, Kinta would return to witness the courage and skill of the Tuscan people as they rebuilt their lives. Lyrical and witty, A Tuscan Childhood is alive with the timeless splendour of Italy.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Wonderful...I fell immediately into her world, and was sorry when I reached the end." --Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun

"Packed with sumptuous descriptions of seasons and their rites--. A portrait of a vanished Tuscany and a tantalizing glimpse of exceptional people who loved Italy very well."--Elle

"A loving and intimate portrait of Tuscany's many faces--. One can hear the buzzing of the cicadas, smell the wild thyme, and feel the crunching of pine needles underfoot--. A beautifully written book."--The Sunday Times (London)

"Captivating--sharp-eyed, intelligent and abundant in its riches. "--Los Angeles Times

bn.com Review
Kinta Beevor's memoir A Tuscan Childhood is like a leisurely, enchanted stroll through the sensory landscape of her early years in Italy. Though this world has long since disappeared, Beevor clearly recalls the simple pleasures of her Italian childhood with a mature memory and exquisite prose. She has the eloquent voice of a grown-up and the awestruck eye of a child.

Born in Britain in 1911 to painter Aubrey Waterfield and journalist Lina Duff Gordon, Beevor spends her childhood moving between two Tuscan homes that are unique in character but occupy the same intriguing world. Her first home, at Aulla, is a 15th-century castle purchased by her parents in a run-down state and transformed into a dreamer's wonderland. The garden on the roof is home to an avenue of trees, a marble fish pond, and a colorful melange of flowers: "the mingled scent...was enough to make one's head swim." The severity of the castle walls are softened by her father's murals of the surrounding landscape and villages. Each of the castle's magical elements creates a world more akin to the wonders of a fairytale than the certainties of home.

Beevor's second retreat is Poggio Gherardo, her austere Aunt Janet's homestead. In contrast to the rustic life at Aulla, the apricot walls of Poggio house a more formal lifestyle. But this sense of protocol borrows more from the way of life of the contadini, the Tuscan peasants, than that of the English aristocracy. The Italian agricultural calendar dictates the schedule here, and laborious harvest days close with the ultimate reward: a sumptuous feast to partake of the crop. Maize and basil, chestnuts and olives -- they wield the power to sway the population by their seasonal rhythms.

Those laboring days are essential to the "ancient trinity of bread, olive oil, and wine." They are the cornerstones of Tuscan cuisine as well as the daily gastronomic delights of Aulla and Poggio. With local chefs in residence at both homes, there is no shortage of complicated gourmet dishes like spun-sugar baskets filled with raspberries or antipasti of delicately fried delectables such as zucchini flowers and fennel slices. Equally tantalizing, however, are Beevor's descriptions of the simplicity of fresh-picked figs from the castle gardens or porcini mushrooms from the darkness of nearby woods.

However, the lively portraits of the people inhabiting Aulla and Poggio are what give these homes the vibrant identity of Beevor's memories. Her hours are filled with people from two distinct worlds: the British intellectuals and the Italian peasants. English visitors -- writers, artists, and even royalty -- flow through the story like props that give the set color and character. They occupy themselves with intellectual discourse and provide Beevor with a cache of amusing anecdotes.

Yet Beevor's leading men and women are the practical contadini who form the core of her Tuscan life. These are the characters who lend her story the most depth. The chef's genius is so mesmerizing that the gardener takes "any excuse to linger in the kitchen to watch the maestro." Such surprises abound in Beevor's memory. The stonemason offers lessons on the intricacies of mushroom-gathering. A slender fourteen-year-old messenger arrives in Aulla and departs over a half-century later as the reliable backbone of the household. Such are the Italian figures who occupy Beevor's life: arriving in the most unremarkable fashion, they leave the most remarkable contributions of sensible custom and compassionate soul.

The lone dark moments of Beevor's writing, appropriately, come during the narration of World War II. The war's destruction of the Tuscan equilibrium relegates the peaceful land of her childhood to the archives of memory. Perhaps it is this devastation that leads to her treatment of the war as more of a history lesson than a personal atrocity.

Italophiles and fans of authors Frances Mayes and Tim Parks will find the same fascination with the idiosyncrasies that make Italy a pleasure of warmth and difference. However, Beevor's is a Tuscany long gone, one that most readers will never have the pleasure of experiencing firsthand.

Though Beevor's A Tuscan Childhood is indeed a memoir, it does not belong to the '90s variety of psychoanalysis or confessional. While certain childhood events (neglectful parents, death, and the destruction of war, for example) could have easily prompted a psychological examination, Beevor reveals a past that is curiously untainted by personal revelation or emotion. Instead, she engages the reader in a glorious sensory journey through the idyllic Tuscany that was the playground of her childhood.

—Kristen Zecchi

Harper's Bazaar
A magical account of Italy's rustic charms.
Los Angeles Times
Lovely. Sharp eyed, intelligent and abundant in its riches....Beevor's book stands apart.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Beevor, who died in 1995, recalls her childhood spent in Tuscany with bohemian British parents in this precious yet strangely distant memoir. Beevor has many interesting tales to tell: her parents, an artist and a writer, moved into a castle in the remote countryside of Aulla in 1905; then, in 1927, they inherited from her mother's aunt a villa just outside of Florence in Fiesole, a locale they had visited often. There is considerable charm in her stories of eating in the castle's rooftop garden and roaming through a rustic market where vendors sold wooden clogs and terra cotta pots. Her recollections of the local folk are sweet even if they reflect the sentiments of the foreign elite. "Finding servants was not easy," Beevor writes, although their castle was situated in an impoverished area. As well, her British family often found the informal attitudes of their Italian employees laughable. She delights in relating local traditions, however, such as the use of fennel to cure colic and the consumption of garlic to repel mosquitoes. When the family moved to its inherited villa in Fiesole, they began to associate with a larger circle of expatriates living there, including Bernard Berenson. Naturally, the war caused big problems for both the British residents and the peasants (who Beevor claims saw the danger of Mussolini when others were blind to it). Over all, Beevor's skewed perceptions cause a few problems: for starters, she places the painting-over of an 18th-century fresco of a poodle on the same level as the war-time destruction of the town of Aulla. Agent, Robin Straus.
Library Journal
Beevor grew up in Tuscany between the world wars. The family home, a fortress-like structure they called "the castle," was located near the Tuscan village of Aulla. Beevor moved there at age five with her mother, a writer, and her father, the painter Aubrey Waterfield. Neglected by her busy parents, she explored the castle and the countryside with her brother, becoming acquainted with the local peasants and participating in grape and olive harvests, mushroom gathering, and other Tuscan rituals. Like other recent Tuscan offerings--Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun (LJ 9/1/96) and Ferenc Mate's The Hills of Tuscany (LJ 12/98)--this one also expounds on the area's beauty, food, and people. But Beevor's approach is different; writing with wit and style, she tells of a bohemian life in a tumultuous time and follows the fate of her family and the castle over nearly 70 years. Recommended for all public libraries.--Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo
Los Angeles Times
Lovely. Sharp eyed, intelligent and abundant in its riches....Beevor's book stands apart.
Kirkus Reviews
A thoroughly charming memoir of a childhood in Italy between the world wars. The English have always loved Italy, especially Tuscany. Nourished by romantic visions and illusions, they've flocked there to buy up large tracts of land and working farms. Aubrey Waterfield, the artist, was one of many such. He purchased La Fortezza della Brunella, an imposing 16th-century castle set on a hill, in 1916. With him he brought his wife, son John, and five-year-old daughter Carinthia (who became Kinta Beevor). Their Anglo-American coterie included only the very best of families and such luminaries as Bernard Berenson and D.H. Lawrence. The children were more fascinated, though, by their father's fanciful "garden in the sky," a splendid Eden perched on the castle's roof. The castle—from its immense kitchen and sumptuous odors to the legend of a massacred garrison still haunting the place—became the focal point of life. By her own admission, Beevor's childhood was formed more by her contact with the locals and an imperious aunt than with her mother. Humorous, witty, and insightful comments abound here on the cultural differences separating the English and the Italians: e.g., regarding personal relationships, the rearing of children, and the preparation and consumption of food. Speaking of her parents, the late Beevor (who died in 1995) writes, "They had all of the luxuries of life but none of the necessities they seldom had money for those things that their relations considered the basis of civilized life." Reflecting on the Italians, she observes (as have many others): "Fundamentally, the Italian wants to give pleasure." And: "The Italians, unlike the Germans, were saved fromthe worst effects of ideology by their own cynicism about politics and the press," though the author does detail the cruel barbarism of the Fascists and Nazis during WWII. The nostalgic, enchanting book closes on a note of infinite sadness in remembering a way of life now lost .

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Departures Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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 alarm.

    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 sky.

    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 seemed endless.

    `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 their hats.

    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 directly.

    `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 details.

    `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 be.

    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 appearance.

    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 life.

    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 happily.

    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 open-minded.

    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 different plane.

    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 instrument.

    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.

What People are Saying About This

Frances Mayes
Wonderful...I fell immediately into her world, and was sorry when I reached the end (Frances Mayes is Author, Under the Tuscan Sun).

Meet the Author

Kinta Beevor was born in 1911 in Northbourne, England, and died in 1995.

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