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Book reviews

An Italian Education - Tim Parks

Extra Virgin - Annie Hawes

Memoirs of Hadrian - Marguerite Yourcenar

War in Val d'Orcia - Iris Origo



War in Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944 - Iris Origo

War in Val d'Orcia is a remarkable wartime memoir and makes a great read for visitors to Tuscany, those with an interest in Italy's twentieth-century history, and anyone looking for an insight into human courage and behaviour in extreme circumstances.

"We live on a large farm in southern Tuscany..."

Iris Cutting was a wealthy Anglo-American who married an Italian aristocrat, Antonio Origo in 1924. Together they bought a vast estate in Tuscany and set to work to improve large tracts of farmland and the lives of the farmers and peasants who were largely dependent upon them.

This book is the diary Iris kept during the Second World War. It begins as Italy's support for Mussolini was wavering, the country's future was in the balance, and Iris was expecting a baby. The domestic life of La Foce, their estate, had to be maintained for the sake of family and large numbers of dependents, including child evacuees and British prisoners-of-war. As Italy changed sides and the country found itself effectively at war on every front - bombed by the Allies, pillaged by the now-enemy Germans and riven by warring Italian factions - Iris and Antonio's helpless concern at the wider picture had to be set aside as they dealt with the immediate problems at hand. Iris's memoir recounts the everyday concerns of her life, and wider events as reported on the radio, or learned from friends, contacts and passing soldiers.

The book captures a world which is now vanished, of a kind of benevolent paternalism shown here at its best. These aristocratic landowners took responsibility for their farmworkers, peasants and pretty much anyone who asked for help. Although they had their own personal safety to worry about - particularly given Iris's nationality - along with the safety of their two small daughters, their home and their possessions, this did not stand in the way of helping all of those in need, from local farmers to wandering refugees, escaped prisoners and runaways from both sides of the conflict. Food and clothing were scarce and the couple saw it as their duty to provide for everyone in need; from hiding provisions from the occupying Germans to offering their own boots to escaped prisoners. Iris would meet English POWs in the woods and assist them with their plans, while her husband, who spoke German, was negotiating with occupying German forces in attempts to spare the local population.

"...No-one can feel certain that he will be safe tomorrow"

Although War in Val d'Orcia was published primarily as a first-hand account of a confusing, turbulent and terrible time in Tuscany, it is also a chronicle of humanity, of kindness and of survival. The book is simply and elegantly written, without much additional commentary to embellish the powerful narrative. Iris's matter-of-fact accounts and her understatement give great poignancy to the memoir. She and her husband were never ignorant of the risks they were running and the possible worst-case-scenario consequences of their actions. Iris kept this memoir hidden as she was writing it, for fear it should be discovered by German troops. I am sure many readers will, like myself, have been left asking themselves what they would do when faced with the choices of the Origo family.

The book contains some terrible incidental details - the vindictiveness of local fascists, two-way reprisals between the opposing Italian factions, rapes of women and children by German and Moroccan soldiers, the shooting of partisans and of the innocent. It is a disturbing expose of memories which have largely been tidied away in Italy of this time of betrayal, revenge and hardship. Around Italy you will find memorials to dead soldiers, to partisans and to victims of reprisals. But the war, getting further away each year, is not a subject on which Italians tend to dwell. Iris's diary vividly evokes this confusing time in a way that only a blow-by-blow account could. Despite the dark times, though, the overriding impression is of stoicism, of quiet, practical courage, of lives saved as well as lives lost, and of people helping each other to survive.

If you are interested in the war, in Italy's history, or getting a sense for what has formed the Tuscany you see today, this is an important book to read. Moving, fascinating and inspiring, it is a book for understanding Italy and for bearing witness to the better aspects of humanity.

> War in Val D'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944 - from Amazon.co.uk.

> Also available as a Kindle edition to take on holiday with you:
War in Val D'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944 - Kindle


War in Val d'Orcia is published by Allison & Busby.

Places to visit

La Foce, the estate of the Origo family, is in southern Tuscany, near Chianciano Terme, south-east of Siena. There are holiday villas to let on the estate. The garden is open to the public on Wednesday afternoons and on the first weekend of the month between April and November.
> La Foce
> More accommodation in the Val d'Orcia

Further reading and viewing

> Francesco's Italy: Top To Toe [DVD] - In the BBC series 'Francesco's Italy' Francesco da Mosto pays a brief visit to La Foce and meets Benedetta, the daughter of Iris and Antonio.

> Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val D'Orcia by Caroline Moorehead - A biography of Iris Origo.



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