Under a Tuscan spell


By Veronica Gould Stoddart, USA TODAY - September 26, 2003

CORTONA, Italy — On a warm summer night in the frescoed 19th-century Signorelli Theater here, Frances Mayes takes to the stage. In her soft Southern accent, the slight, unassuming author reads from the opening lines of her best-selling book, Under the Tuscan Sun, which is set in this ancient walled town south of Florence. The audience, here for a cultural extravaganza called the Tuscan Sun Festival, listen enthralled. Mostly devotees of her book, they hang on every familiar poetic word spoken by the writer herself.

But their enthusiasm, bordering on reverence, is just a foretaste of what awaits Cortona when the film version of Mayes' evocative memoir, starring Oscar nominee Diane Lane, opens today.

Ever since the 1996 publication of Mayes' recipe-laced book about restoring a rundown farmhouse outside Cortona, the town — and indeed the surrounding Tuscan countryside — has been awash with fans seeking la dolce vita so sensually conveyed in its pages. Now Cortona, where the film was largely shot, is bracing for the next onslaught.

"One thing that scares me is that the town will change because of the movie," says Diane Lane, 38, who spent four months shooting here. "It would hurt my soul to think that it might. I just loved Cortona."

Lane felt so embraced by the Cortonans that she had to suppress her affection for the place during shooting. "I had to feel like a stranger in a strange place in the film."

Mayes, meanwhile, is thrilled that the film was set in the town she immortalized in her book and two sequels, Bella Tuscany and In Tuscany. "It would not have been the same if it had been filmed elsewhere," says Mayes, 63, seated inside Bramasole, the peach-colored 18th-century villa that started it all. (A different house stands in for Bramasole in the movie.)

Although she's "still kind of shocked to look out the window and see 30 people standing in the street looking at the house," she's proud of the impact of her books on the town. "Cortona has improved since the first book came out. It's much livelier, has more places to eat, more stores. People have spruced up their houses.

"Ancient ladies will pull on my sleeve and say, 'Thank you for what you did for Cortona.' "

Each successive language translation of Tuscan Sun — nearly 20 to date — brings a new wave of pilgrims. "This year we've even had tourists from Estonia, Hungary and Brazil," she says.

Still, it's going to take more than a book or even a Disney movie to alter the essential character of a place that dates to the eighth century BC, a place that Lane says "feels hewn out of stone."

Once an important Etruscan center, Cortona is a compact, prosperous town of 27,000 residents, one of the crown jewels of Tuscan hill towns. Outside its stone ramparts, terraced slopes, silvery-green with olive groves and vineyards, unfold into the fertile Val di Chiana plain below. Layers of history — Etruscan, Roman, Medieval, Renaissance — are visible everywhere, in its fortifying walls, its 20 churches, its solid palazzos and its red-roofed houses with their hefty wooden doors. Steep cobblestone streets snake crookedly through town and up the hill, all the way to the Medici fortress at the summit.

Sunflowers bloom everywhere

At every turn, achingly beautiful vistas beckon like Leonardo landscapes. Sentinel-straight cedars stand watch over golden fields bursting with sunflowers in summer. Stone farmhouses dot tawny, undulating hillsides. And the waters of Lake Trasimeno shimmer in the distance.

But the focal point is the piazza, what Mayes calls the "longest running play in the world and the crux and crucible of Italian life." Cortona is doubly blessed, with two main squares, both vehicle-free.

The larger Piazza della Repubblica is anchored by the 13th-century town hall with a crenellated clock tower and broad steps that serve as a makeshift amphitheater. Sooner or later, everyone perches there: Elderly couples, young hipsters, mothers with babies, and tourists in T-shirts and shorts lick ice cream cones and watch the daily drama on center stage.

Just an alley away is the smaller Piazza Signorelli and its namesake theater, which had a role in both Tuscan Sun and the 1998 Oscar winner Life Is Beautiful.

Lining the two squares and the town's intricate web of medieval streets are tiny, tony shops that sell fine jewelry, YSL lingerie, French perfumes, art and antiques, and colorful hand-painted ceramics. Not to mention a heady array of local foods: golden bottles of olive oil (extra-virgin, of course), farm-fresh cheeses, noble wines, prosciutto, spicy pestos, and some 50 shapes of dried pasta in one grocery store alone. Those ingredients become delectable creations in the town's cozy trattorias.

Everywhere there are sunflowers — real ones, fake ones, in calendars and greeting cards, on posters, paintings and pottery. Cultivated for their oil, these exuberant blossoms form a lyrical leitmotif throughout the town and movie alike.

In the late afternoon, church bells peal, signaling the end of siesta and the reawakening of piazza life. Villagers reappear, with ciao and buona sera on their lips as they greet each other with two-cheeked kisses.

"Italians here are extremely hospitable," says Mayes. "The social life will kill the weak and cripple the mighty. We're exhausted at the end of summer."

On late summer evenings, ladies with lacy fans and with gents on their arms turn out in all their finery for opera in Piazza Signorelli. On this night, a traveling Bulgarian troupe, with the odd Romanian and Italian soloist, performs Donizetti's L'Elisir d' Amore. Stage lights dance off the centuries-old stones, as the arias envelop the square under a starry, starry sky.

Joy in the morning

Après-performance, the audience lingers in the piazzas — promenading, socializing and sipping drinks in outdoor cafes until the wee hours.

Diane Lane, however, liked early mornings best, when she could hear the first shops clank open and smell the fresh bread and espresso perfume the air. She found the rhythm of town life "like a flower that opens and closes. The ebb and flow is organic because people want to be around each other."

Plenty of them also wanted to be around the Hollywood filmmakers.

Serbian Mirko Djordjijevic, a staffer at the Villa Marsilli hotel where the cast stayed, is still star-struck from their visit. "When Diane left the hotel, she started to cry and told me, 'We'll see you another time. I feel it in the wind.' "

Fiorella Sciarri Quitti, who owns Il Cocciaio, Cortona's oldest pottery shop, dating to the 1920s, beams when she describes her small role in the movie. "It was fun," she says.

"I've read the book (Tuscan Sun)," she continues. "But we live it, so it's not interesting to us. But outsiders are fascinated by it."

Indeed, the town's only bookstore has trouble keeping Mayes' volumes in stock, says owner Giulio Nocentini. He mostly sells English, Italian and German versions.

But not everyone is so taken with Mayes' romanticized portrait or the groupies drawn to it.

Carol Coller, an American art historian with the town's Etruscan Museum, says some of her Italian neighbors objected to being portrayed as "too quaint or rustic, too cute for words. But the merchants are in seventh heaven."

Then there's the controversy over the fake fountain built in Piazza Signorelli, as if the picture-perfect town needed cosmetic enhancements.

"The ladies of town were scandalized by the large penis on the statue in the fountain," says Coller. "They said, 'We don't want our kids to see that.' So the filmmakers made it smaller."

Sylvia Pescatori, the desk clerk at the Hotel Corys, rues her proximity to Bramasole, which is less than a mile from the hotel. "Every day I'm like a recorder, directing people to the house, 20 or 30 times a day. The hotel has even considered changing its name to Bramasole." Still, she hopes the movie (in which she had a walk-on part) will boost tourism, which has been down because of the Iraq war.

Mayor Emanuele Rachini agrees. He says he hopes people will be uplifted by the film. "The townspeople are happy to expose their city to the world. Cortona is like a beautiful woman who is a flirt and likes to be admired."

That flirt found the perfect admirer in Mayes. Indeed, she has turned her love affair into a cottage industry. In addition to the three books (2 million copies sold), the film, and the yearly arts festival she spearheaded, there's an upcoming cooking and decorating guide, entitled A Tuscan Home. It ties into this month's debut of her own furniture and houseware collection by Drexel Heritage, called "Frances Mayes at Home in Tuscany."

Just call her the Martha Stewart of Tuscany.

And consider Evelyn Hitzig, 73, a retiree from Teaneck, N. J., a ready convert to the Mayes villa lifestyle, even after only a few days here. "I love it so much that I've contacted a real estate agent. Cortona is still in the world but far removed."

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 Last updated 7/10/2003