Francesca

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They expected to be met by a single business like, efficient custodian to usher them around, take their deposit, and give a receipt. They expected their holiday Tuscan villa to be a rental residence swept clean of unnecessary clutter. They expected an elegant place, sporting bare essentials, decorated with a few nondescript pictures of the sort which adorn the walls of most hotel rooms. Instead, the family of eight were met by a mottled triumvirate of three made, up of a middle-aged gentleman in nondescript clothing, a sleek young man who retired behind his companions and a stocky black man who spoke broken English. The three seemed to fit well into the miscellanea of objects festooned around the villa. As far as the visitors could determine the middle-aged gentleman owned the place while the black man was custodian. They were unable to determine the status, or role, of the young man. He seemed as out-of place as many of the ornaments and objects strewn around the villa.

Our group of eight settled in quickly although familiarity only served to further their curiosity. Why was the villa so cluttered? What did this collection of objects have in common? Why were there so many pots, pans, and cooking utensils? Why were there so many sets of glasses and China? Who was the beautiful lady whose portrait dominated the two main living rooms? Was the boy whose picture lurked in a side corner the middle-aged gentleman who appeared to be the owner? Why was the door which they were required to use as a front door quite obviously not the front door? Why were certain areas closed off by curtains? At dinner, they discussed these conundrums.

The mystery of the doors was quickly solved. The ancient villa had an associated support building which must, at one time, have been the carriage house and servant’s quarters. The original ‘grand’ entrance was under a portico which connected the two structures and provided an upper-level bridge between the two. The support building was now inhabited by the custodian. The curtains and screened off areas of the villa were an attempt to disguise and shut off the custodian’s activities. Since the clutter in the main, villa did not include anything, such as toys or other furnishings associated with children, the visitors assumed that children, if any, must have been raised, Victorian style, in the associated building. They speculated that placement of the tiny painting of a small boy confirmed the notion that children were not welcomed in the main villa.

Among the magazines festooning the coffee and side tables the visitors found an April 1992 issue of “Villa Giardini” (numero 269) in which they found an article headed “Casa Nelson Verde.” It described the 1962 renovation of the 1770 villa under the guidance of architect Alberto Bartalini. The photographs showed sparingly furnished elegant spaces. They recognized the furnishings which still occupied the rooms together with the accumulated clutter of objects and pictures, which now covered every wall and surface. They deduced that the additional objects must have been gathered during the 56 years after the 1962 renovation. They wondered why it had taken thirty years for a 1962 renovation to make it into the magazine.

The visitors spent their evenings under the gaze of a portrait of a blond-haired lady in blue evening dress and long black gloves. She stared down with a lurking mischievous smile. Surely, they thought, this dominating lady with impish personality, was responsible for the clutter of objects in the villa. They were tempted to name her Anna Maria Luisa after the last Medici heiress who donated her family’s art collection to the city of Florence to become the much-visited Uffizi museum. However, Anna Maria Luisa is too much of a mouthful and didn’t fit the lady of the portrait so her name became Francesca. They noticed that the villa’s collections appeared to have several biases. One such bias covered horses even including a riding trophy. These, the visitors decided, must have been Francesca’s. Another bias covered ships and sailing which they assumed must have belonged to Francesca’s husband. They named him Tito. Then there was the collection of over 100 hand-painted botanical images –perhaps the work of Francesca herself? Intermingled and suffocating these pictures and items was an accumulation of eclectic paintings squeezed onto every wall space; with an equal accumulation of art books crammed into the book shelves. Where these Francesca’s or her and her husband’s or a later man’s, perhaps the artist to whom she gave her whimsical smile as, he painted?

Since the villa offered its clues in Italian and our visitors only spoke English, they finally created their own story, which follows:

In the early 1962s when they got married Francesca gave up riding and Tito gave up ships and sailing, for they wished to forge a life together unsullied by outside interests to which only one of them espoused. Everyone who knew them declared that the marriage was bound to fail. Those who felt kindly toward Francesca suggested that she had fallen for his intellect, and that it was to be a union of soul mates. Those who were less empathetic gossiped behind the couple’s backs and postulated that Francesca, a beautiful young woman of thirty, only married Tito, thirty years her senior, for his money, in the expectation that he would pre-decease her leaving her a rich widow. Everyone agreed that Tito, had fallen for Francesca for her beauty and a chance for he, himself, to have children and to cheat the onset of old age. In actuality, Tito’s wealth was an illusion reduced, at the time of their wedding to one Tuscan villa surrounded by producing vineyards. He didn’t regret his itinerant past but was now happy to give up ships and the seas, along with their associated costs, in favor of a quiet family life. Francesca, on her side, knew that her damaged right knee meant that she had to give up riding. She hoped to parlay her new status into one of gracious hostess. Most weekends she invited house parties to the villa. They ate lavishly with elegant settings of china and glassware. Francesca felt it only proper that they should have a variety of table settings. Whenever her cook produced a dish which displeased Francesca, she blamed her tools, and Francesca responded by buying new ones for her – hence the large accumulation.

Francesca and Tito’s age difference did not affect their fertility, so, by the time that they returned from their prolonged honeymoon, Francesca was pregnant. She found the prospect of motherhood in a remote Tuscan villa repugnant. To cheer her up, and to lure her into a full commitment to their proposed home, Tito agreed to an extensive renovation. Francesca took up the task of renovation with gusto. She added expansive exterior terraces overlooking the associated vineyard and a large swimming pool. She added a surreptitious back elevator for her to use when her knee acted up. Tito enjoyed watching Francesca working with her architect, but his main focus was on her pregnancy. He categorically refused permission for the renovation to be published, and urged Francesca to focus on her advancing motherhood for he couldn’t understand why she appeared so ambivalent. After the baby was born, they retained a Swiss nanny who took care of raising their son.

Tito arranged for Francesca to sit for a portrait for him to hang in his library along with his nautical memorabilia. The artist turned out to be an attractive young man of Francesca’s age, what he lacked in talent he made up for in wits and amusing banter. Francesca enjoyed her sitting sessions and was tempted to engage in more intimate relations with him. She decided to restrain herself as Tito’s age was already beginning to slow him down. She pretended to disregard the Tito’s signals of aging, and kept up an active social life intertwined with extensive travel. Tito worried as he watched the final remnants of his estate dwindle away. Before it was all gone, as so many had predicted, his body collapsed. One afternoon, on the road between Pisa and the villa, Tito had a massive fatal heart attack. The nay-do-tellers nodded their heads. Francesca had what she wanted; wealth and position, or did she, for she soon discovered that she had little wealth, only a villa which was rapidly disintegrating under her.

At this point, Francesca made two decisions; she immediately contacted the magazine to publish the story of the villa renovation and she called the artist who had painted her first portrait and to invite him to return for another sitting. One result was the picture which dominates the main living room and watched over the renting family. The other result was that the artist moved in with Francesca. He brought his household possessions to mingle with hers; his kitchen paraphernalia, collection of nick-necks, eclectic paintings and books about art. They quickly sold off most of the villa’s estate to create capital to live on. They never got married, but, co-existed in their clutter of possessions compulsively adding as they felt moved. They died within a year of each other leaving the middle-aged gentleman whom the family met on their first day as their sole inheritor for he confirmed, through his custodian interpreter, that,

“Yes, the lady in the portraits is my mother.”

Oh, to speak Italian and learn the true story!