Francesca

20180311_085413

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!

The red barn and the mad sheep – a short story

The red barn was glad when the sheep arrived as they represented a new lease of life for her old timbers. When they appeared to go mad, as she knew that they would, she enjoyed the notoriety which accompanied their antics.

The barn had all the standard features of a barn of her era and area; in her happiness she stretched her hipped roof upward in an attempt to conceal a sagging section to the north which leaked onto the rotting wood on that façade. She was pleased that her good south side faced the dirt road in front of the abandoned farmyard; and hoped that the distance was great enough to disguise her peeling red paint. She regarded her west gable end as her face and the upper eaves projection to be her nose although it had been built to accommodate a pulley for lifting bales into the upper loft. Now, where she had once looked across fields to a shelter belt of trees she faced a new retirement house which her new owners, Katrina and Mark, had constructed. The presence of the sheep and the new vista helped her to ignore the town to her east which she knew crept toward her, annually decreasing the distance until, she knew that one day, it would swallow her up.

The barn had been lovingly constructed by the surrounding neighbors for the original homesteader and his family. They painted her red using whitewash pigmented with red oxides from the earth. She was content to be red so that she stood out in all weathers including great snowstorms. Her first function was to house a milk cow, a few chickens and Ben and Jeb, the work horse team. Ben the lead horse was spirited and had a mean streak which he displayed when he kicked his stall walls. Perhaps, the barn mused, this accounted for the structural problems to the north. Jeb, on the other hand was calm and gentle. Oh how the red barn loved Jeb. She enjoyed the seam which arose from his shanks when he came in from a day’s work. She moaned in pleasure in union to his whinnies as he ate, and felt thrills of ecstasy when he rubbed his huge flanks against her structure. On cold winter nights she attempted to make him the most comfortable and to direct draughts from entering his stall.

When the horses were replaced by a John Deere tractor the barn had little time to grieve for she was converted into a busy milking facility. Twice a day her interior hummed with activity as cows took up their stalls patiently eating while they waited their turns to be relieved on their heavy udders of milk. Cats nested in the hay loft and two small boys made dens among the hay bales.

But times change and men age; the boys grew up and one was killed in Vietnam while the other left the farm to take up a career in teaching physics at a remote University; so that when the farmer and his wife decided to retire they sold their farm. The new owners were ‘gentleman’ farmers who leased out their land and sold off the farmyard equipment and ancillary buildings. Only the barn, a well and the original homestead remained. Everything fell into disrepair while the town, relentlessly, crept closer and closer. One November evening the empty homestead burned down. No-one knew how the fire started although the town’s police suspected the carelessness of local youth who had been using it as a hideaway, a place to hang out, smoke and drink. The red barn now stood alone. She projected a sad image of abandonment and neglect.

When Katrina and Mark retired from farming they bought the vacant homestead together with 40 acres of surrounding farmland. Katrina had a new house built on the west side of the property as far away from the barn and charred house ruin as possible. Here she set up home and planted her spacious kitchen garden and flower beds. Mark fenced Katrina’s compound and subdivided the remaining property with fencing into what he considered useable units. These included the old farmyard with land up to the road, two back sections, one with an apple orchard, and a field which he planned to lease to a local farmer for raising crops.

Now Mark didn’t like mowing and so he decided to house a friend’s sheep on his land. The set-up was perfect, the sheep could corral in the barn at night, drink the well water, and during the day they could graze on one of the three fenced sections. The barn accepted her new function with pleasure, tinged with a sense of foreboding. Every morning Mark went there and escorted his charges to the section of land in which he wished them to graze. In the evening he corralled them back to the barn. Over the course of the summer the sheep did an excellent job of keeping down the weeds and giving the property an air of upkeep while Mark only had to mow the gardens in the immediate vicinity of their home. Everyone was happy, the red barn, the sheep, Mark and Katrina, and perhaps even the town still gently creeping toward them.

One October day Katrina wandered over to the red barn looking for a good angle to take a photograph. She noticed that, although most of the property looked well kept the area behind the barn was full of weeds and needed “attention”. She mentioned her concern to Mark and asked him to scythe and mow the area. Mark went to investigate and saw that a fallen tree had blocked the area off so that his sheep couldn’t gain access. The barn creaked a warning,

“Leave this area protected, it is danger and not merely from my north façade instability.”

Mark wasn’t in tune with barn language and so he removed some of the rotting wood and the following morning made sure that the sheep entered the area. By mid-day the sheep were frolicking like lambs. When Mark noticed he told Katrina. A passing famer also observed the strange antics and when he got to town he told his buddies in the coffee shop. Mark and Katrina sat on their front porch watching. Soon they were joined by a parade of people who had heard of the spectacle from friends through the coffee shop.

At first the sheep forgot their age and played like lambs, jumping and chasing each other with abandon, while  making more noise than usual. The gathered crowd cheered them on and a journalist from the local paper took pictures. As the afternoon wore on the sheep became increasingly lethargic and eventually they lay down and slept. The voyeurs dispersed each with their own theory. Mark anxiously checked the prostrate animals, they were breathing peacefully in their sleep. The event was too curious not to get a second opinion and so Mark called the vet who, was regretfully unable to come that evening but, promised a morning visit. With difficulty Mark managed to wake up the sheep sufficiently to enable him to guide them into the red barn. He even spoke to the barn,

“Now you take care of my sheep.” The barn rustled a reply, but Mark didn’t hear her voice.

The vet came the following morning, looked at each sheep individually and shook his head,

“Strangest thing, I’ve never seen anything like it. They seem healthy enough. I recommend a light diet and I think that they should be fine in a day or so.”

Mark took the vet’s advice and herded the sheep into one of the pastures which they had already grazed fairly low. After several days when they were completely back to normal. By now the townspeople had lost interest and no one passed casually by to have a look. Everything was so calm that Mark again let the sheep graze the land around the red barn. Again the barn warned,

“It’ll be trouble. Make sure the fence is secure, and don’t let them onto my north side.”

Mark didn’t hear the barn, and went about his business. Sure enough by noon the sheep were madly frolicking in the giddy abandon of lambs.  Mark asked Katrina,

“What do you think has got into their wooly heads?”

They called the vet. This time he arrived accompanied by his recently graduated son and a horde of inquisitive townspeople who stood in the road watching. The vet examined the sheep.

“If I didn’t know better I’d say they are high,” he said. “We need to search the property; they must have found an abandoned still or something.”

At this his son became agitated and jumped up and ran toward the north side of the barn. “I know, I know,” he shouted. “It’s behind the barn. I guess that it must have seeded when we were teens!” The barn nodded her “I told you so” although no one heard or understood.

Mark and the vet followed. When they arrived they saw that most of the weeds in the area had been eaten. Now they could smell a potent aroma. The vet’s son looked forlorn,

“Such a beautiful marijuana crop, and they’ve eaten off all the buds.”

 

Jane Stansfeld, November 8, 2015