Working in Grand Days one day, putting some new old books on the shelves, I came across Iris Origo’s Images and Shadows and was delighted. I’d read a review of it and four other books of hers in London Review of Books (The Italianness of it All by Tessa Hadley, 24 May 2018) and had put her into that long list of ‘must read’s in the back of my mind. I had assumed from her name that she must be Italian and that drew me in from the start. I have long loved Italy and things Italian and have been battling to learn its’ language for many years. But no, Origo was Iris’s Italian husband’s name, she having been born in Britain in 1902 to a mother from Anglo-Irish aristocracy and a father from American extreme wealth made from railroads, shipping and sugar-beet. She lived nearly all her life in Italy, however, and it was the focus of, and background to, her writing.
I avidly read Images and Shadows, a sort of autobiography (Part of a Life is its co-title) and then tracked down Origo’s biography of the Italian poet Leopardi, A Study in Solitude. Further, intrigued by Iris Origo herself and the bits of her life she had obviously been reticent about in Images and Shadows, I read Caroline Moorhead’s biography of her, Iris Origo, Marchesa of Val d’Orcia. Later I read Origo’s War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War diary 1943-1944 and A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939-40.
Origo is a wonderful writer – perceptive and sophisticated and in Images and Shadows her fierce intellect and extensive knowledge are greatly in evidence, but never in a show-offy way. She’s a good story teller, drawing the reader in with tales about her fascinating and unusual childhood, loving (and hugely rich) families in Ireland and America. Her adored father, Bayard Cutting, died of tuberculosis just short of his thirtieth birthday but throughout Iris’s early years the family of three had traversed the globe in search of treatment for his disease or at least for a conducive climate which might delay its progress. After his death, Iris’s eccentric, headstrong mother, Sybil, took off with her ten-year-old daughter to live in Italy. Young Iris was immersed in the ex-pat life there, mixing with artists and writers, home schooled by a series of governesses and later serious scholars and taken by her mother on exotic travel adventures. Sybil bought and then spent squillions making exquisite a magnificent house in the hills above Florence called Villa Medici, built for Cosimo de’ Medici. Over the years she (well, her army of advisors and helpers) restored the Villa’s formal gardens and filled the house with Florentine antiques and treasures. All that, during the years 1914 – 1917! War was, as Origo later wrote, “only a distant rumble, an inconvenient and unpleasant noise offstage” to these foreigners in their magnificent renaissance villas and sequestered lives.