October 17, 2012

Books at Bramasole

Ciao to my blog friends!  Back at Bramasole, I am working on my memoir about growing up in the South, and the long return to it from California. I wrote my novel, SWAN, from my third floor study here as well. Odd to write about a place at great remove in time and place from my perch in Tuscany, but Bramasole always has been a peaceful and inspiring place to work. Works of memory need no locale and may even feel freer in detachment.

My study windows face south and east. Since both are usually open, butterflies can flit in one and out the other. Once, a bird zoomed through.

Thrilled with the idea of settling in here for a month of good work, I decided, before putting pen to paper, to record my waiting work space, and our books, which we roam through constantly.  My desk:

When the writer, Ann Cornelisen, to whom I dedicated Under the Tuscan Sun, left Italy for good. She gave me many pieces of furniture from her house in Cortona. I was especially honored with the gift of her bookcase. It still hold several of Ann’s books.  If you’ve never read her Torregreca or Women of the Shadows, please do. She was a rigorous, austere person, and a fine prose stylist. This bookcase holds mainly my books about places. The meandering vine around the room was painted by a local artist and includes Bramasole wild flowers, birds, and butterflies. I’m enamored with the old jewel-green demijohns that used to store home-made wine. Many have I found at dumpsters when we take out the trash. Sometimes they still have the straw covering but usually it’s so ratty that I cut it off. The bottles stand around in the garden and house. My friend Donatella has dozens around her garden.  The painting of Bramasole was given to me by a Hungarian reader of my books. The other drawing is of our stone sink by a friend who stayed here. The basket is full of other drawings and watercolors that strangers have left for me–sweet gifts. 

When looking at houses with real estate agents through the years, I’ve always noticed how many houses have no bookshelves. “Where are their books?” we’ve wondered. To me, books are the spirit’s furniture and without them a house is sad. When we moved in NC, I had a few second thoughts. Unpacking 150 boxes of them, taking the history to the sunporch, the poetry to the living room, the art here, the fiction there, I began to think I should weed out those I’ll never read again. But I did that the last time I moved and regretted it later. So, place of pride for the books!

Below, nonfiction in our bedroom. The shapes above are ex-votoes I’ve collected. I’ve tried to find every part of the body someone has prayed for, or has received grace from. Overall, I’d say most prayed for foot and leg problems. The photo is of Ed’s mother.

Next, poetry and reference bookcase. The medallion honors the millions of lizards who have crawled over the walls of our house, who have darted into the shady interior and out again:

Twin to the bookcase above, this one holds books by Italian authors and books about Italy. Both were made in a workshop in Sansepolcro, where Piero della Francesca lived and painted. It’s so important how the artisan traditions endure. We drew a design and three weeks later picked up these bookcases that have been such a joy for our home. I love bees; the medallion in the middle is a big bee, with a background landscape.

Above, some foreign editions of my books. The painting by Amy Lumpkin Bertocci shows a book of Ed’s poems lying open with wine spilled on it.

The art books, mostly, in the living room; this bookcase, too, was made to my design:

Here below, fiction, which keeps overflowing. Three friends here constantly swap books. We talk about a book club but never seem to be in the same place at the same time long enough to plan a meeting. The photographs are old Italian ones. I made an ancestors wall, an imagined family that might have lived at Bramasole. The photo on the lower right, however, is my daughter.


Cookbooks are stored in the cantina, once a rabbit hutch. When we restored the house, a horse stall (once a chapel) became the kitchen and the adjoining hutch became our life-saving storage room. The sideboard is the Arezzo Sideboard from my furniture collection, At Home in Tuscany with Drexel Heritage. It was the first antique we found to adapt to our collection. Too big for Bramasole’s small rooms, it’s wedged into the cantina and holds a pantry’s worth of supplies. The cookbooks mainly gather dust. Like the Tuscans, I’ve absorbed the traditional canon by now and usually improvise around it. Baking is different–you have to be somewhat exact to bake. Maybe that’s why  many Italians don’t do it. Like their ancestors, they rely on the town’s bakers for sweets. There are many delicious exceptions, of course, and we captured them in The Tuscan Sun Cookbook. Our house mascot, the boar in sunglasses, presides over the wine storage. The bit of flat woven basket on the right was made for drying figs and other fruit.


As you see, books strongly influence the way I put rooms together. I’m especially fond of making still life arrangements. Yes, books as objects, which can be objectionable to some –but I don’t adhere to that. I read them all!  And sometimes honor their presence by making them more visible.The painting on the left is one of the finest I’ve found at the antique markets, and I found the frame separately. Who is the artist? Does he deserve to be in a museum? I think so. The other gentleman simply looks upstanding and good, and I’m happy to greet him every day.



 Above, kid gloves, like ones I wore as a teen-ager in Georgia. Primitive religious paintings found in Spain and Italy, kitschy angel for Christmas, plus prayer cards picked up in churches. A rock I found on the beach in Turkey–a perfect full moon. And some favorite writers–among them Barry Hannah.

Speaking of books—I’ve read a few since I arrived. I especially enjoyed  A House Unlocked by Penelope Lively. She ties aspects of her family home and its possessions to the social changes in England in the past century. Very smart and original book. This is the only one I read on the iPad. I just know some night I’ll drift off and it will crash to the floor. Not a problems with paperbacks.

I was enchanted by The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, a novel inspired by a Russian folk tale. Her evocation of the Alaskan wilderness is wondrous. I couldn’t put The Postmistress down. Sarah Blake writes of three women in the World War II era who experience colliding destinies. I liked the book very much, but I do wish, in all the darkness and death, that she’d at least allowed the postmistress’s lover to live. Some of my reading is directed by what books our guests leave behind when their suitcases are stuffed with Italian pottery and great new shoes. The Midwives by Chris Bohjalian was one of those. I was caught up in the birth descriptions and somewhat by the characters, but came down on the side of those who think a hospital is an all-around good choice, especially if your midwife doesn’t consult the weather report for extreme storms so you can’t get to the hospital. That was a snag for me and I lost sympathy.

Harrowing and unforgettable: A Train in Winter. A man visiting Cortona left it for me in the wine store, with a note saying I had to read it. I’d read and enjoyed Caroline Moorhead’s biographies before. This epic saga recounts the lives of French women resistance fighters, who for their minor crimes against the German occupation were shipped off to Auschwitz, then Ravensbrück. The grim, gruesome, inhuman details of their lives, the great friendships that sustained them, and the aftermath for the ones who survived make for tense and despairing reading, yes, but quite a profound experience.

Now I am reading Barry Unsworth’s Land of Marvels. He was a fine writer who lived a few valleys away in Umbria until his death last year. And my friend Melva just handed me The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund De Waal, so that’s next. I’d love to hear some recommendations from you!

Here’s my muse. She’s from an anonymous painting I bought at the Arezzo antique market, which takes place the first weekend of every month. I fantasize that she wants to read the book I am about to write.