Under a Tuscan spell
By Veronica Gould Stoddart,
USA TODAY - September 26, 2003
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.
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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."