"From de Blasi (The Lady in the Palazzo, 2007, etc.), a fragrant tale of life and love in the mountains of Sicily.Shortly after the Venetian interlude she luxuriously captured in A Thousand Days in Venice (2002), the author accepted an assignment to write a magazine article on the interior regions of Sicily. Like many other journalists, she was met by silence from the wary Sicilians. She was about to retire to the mainland when she stumbled upon Villa Donnafugata, whose romantic turrets, towers, balconies and chromatically tiled roof were surrounded by gardens, fields, piazzas and hills. The black-draped, oldish women in residence tended to their various labors, chanted, laughed and prayed. The sun was hot, the smell of herbs suffused the air. Was this a fever dream? de Blasi wondered. No, but it was surely a place from another time, and how it emerged out of feudalism through an act of moral modernity was a story unfurled to the author by the villa’s mistress, Tosca. The tale, which comprises most of the book, is a marvel. As a child of nine or ten, Tosca was sent by her horse-breeder father to live with a Sicilian prince, Leo, who “had a stallion that Tosca’s father wanted more than his daughter.” Early rebellion gave way to affection, then love. Together, in the years following World War II, the prince and his ward brought education, health care and a shared sense of purpose to the village around their manor. Rapture and grief came in measured doses, but ultimately Leo was run out of town for his affront to the “centuries’-old system of hierarchy that kept the wealthy in comfort and the poor in misery.” Even in 1995, when de Blasi first visited Donnafugata, the old ways abided, like the shawl Tosca wore at night, still permeated with the scent of her beloved. Swift, sinuous, deep and brimming with cultural artifacts."
"Strangers seldom wander into the mountainous wild at Sicily’s heart. The locals, having resisted repeated waves of invaders, maintain their own traditions in defiance of the outside world. So when de Blasi and her Venetian husband trek into Sicily’s core in search of background for a travel guide, they discover a world much removed from modern life. Persevering in what seems a fruitless search, they finally stumble upon the Villa Donnafugata, an old wreck of a castle presided over by an imperious woman called Tosca. The villa has become a refuge for widows from the region. It also houses a birthing clinic, vital to the mountains’ isolated women. The residents eat well and heartily, the leftovers distributed to the local town’s poor. De Blasi uncovers Tosca’s past, an extraordinary tale of passion and love stretching over decades of the twentieth century. Admirers of this author will relish her latest volume."
“At villa Donnafugata, long ago is never very far away,” writes bestselling author Marlena de Blasi of the magnificent if somewhat ruined castle in the mountains of Sicily that she finds, accidentally, one summer while traveling with her husband, Fernando. There de Blasi is befriended by Tosca, the patroness of the villa, an elegant and beautiful woman-of-a-certain-age who recounts her lifelong love story with the last prince of Sicily descended from the French nobles of Anjou.
Sicily is a land of contrasts: grandeur and poverty, beauty and sufferance, illusion and candor. In a luminous and tantalizing voice, That Summer in Sicily re-creates Tosca’s life, from her impoverished childhood to her fairy-tale adoption and initiation into the glittering life of the prince’s palace, to the dawning and recognition of mutual love. But when Prince Leo attempts to better the lives of his peasants, his defiance of the local Mafia’s grim will to maintain the historical imbalance between the haves and the have-nots costs him dearly.
The present-day narrative finds Tosca sharing her considerable inherited wealth with a harmonious society composed of many of the women–now widowed–who once worked the prince’s land alongside their husbands. How the Sicilian widows go about their tasks, care for one another, and celebrate the rituals of a humble, well-lived life is the heart of this book.
Showcasing the same writerly gifts that made bestsellers of A Thousand Days in Venice and A Thousand Days in Tuscany, That Summer in Sicily, and de Blasi’s marvelous storytelling, remind us that in order to live a rich life, one must embrace both life’s sorrow and its beauty. Here is an epic drama that takes readers from Sicily’s remote mountains to chaotic post-war Palermo, from the intricacies of forbidden love to the havoc wreaked by Sicily’s eternally bewildering culture.
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Marlena de Blasi lives in Italy. She is the author of three memoirs, A Thousand Days in Venice, A Thousand Days in Tuscany, and The Lady in the Palazzo, as well as three books on the foods of Italy.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Hollyhocks don’t grow in the desert. Yet hundreds and hundreds of their red satin blossoms line a wide stone path to a flung iron gate. I know this is a dream. Through the gate lie astonishing, sweeping gardens. There are roses. Ivory and white and the color of burnt cream, they climb trellises and sprawl in beds, spill and ramble and entwine. Boxwood parterres, hedges of yew, clumps of lavender, fat and tall, and white foxgloves nod among white dahlias, among white peonies. I know that the castle and the roses and the hollyhocks are sun-stroke illusions. The hallucination will pass. We’ll climb back in the car and drive away from this madness of silence and mockery. But while the hallucination endures I want to look over there, where gnarled trunks of wisteria and jasmine and grapevines tent a pergola, make a dark, shady room from whose depths laughter comes. How many days has it been since I’ve heard laughter? Even my own? I walk toward the pergola, and stand at the opening to see a clutch of women in long black dresses who sit ’round an oilclothed table. Tremulous light insists among the leaves, spangles the women’s fingers flurrying over a heap of yellow beans.
“Buongiorno,” they say before we can.
We wish them a good day in return, and somehow the greeting is sufficient. I need nothing more than to look upon these fantastical figures, and they seem to need nothing more than to be at their work. Dreams can be so simple. Though she knows nothing of who we are or what we might want, one of the women–perhaps the eldest– rises and points the way toward the castle. A welcome. It is a long walk past groves of lemons and oranges, an orchard of almond trees, smaller stands of plum and cherry. I hear Fernando saying over and over again, “Where are we? Where in hell are we?”
Imposing, rhapsodical, the castle with the red and yellow roof soars up from a quivering crystalline mist and another garden, stonewalled, draped in more wisteria and more roses and haphazardly grown in flowers and vegetables and herbs, lies before it. In the center of the enclosure, a second covey of black-clad women are at work. Tentatively, we walk through the open gate and they look up from scrubbing chairs and tables, one from the quiet task of slitting the throat of a very small goat, catching its blood in a chipped white basin. Another peers from behind a great pot set over a gas burner resting on a tree stump. She stirs onions in hot fat. There’s the scent of something else that’s good, too. Pig charring over wood. A group sits in a circle to loop the dried stalks of purple garlic into braids. In the low cleft of a gigantic magnolia tree, one woman sits and writes in a black leather book. As did the women at the fountain down in the hamlet, these women softly chant. Seeming neither surprised nor disturbed by our presence, beatifically they greet us, then continue with their work. Their singing. Uncertain but not uncomfortable, we stand there quietly. Every few moments, one whispers to another and they all giggle, their eyes on us. Just as I have dreamed the hollyhocks and the roses and the laughing women shelling beans, surely I dream them. I listen carefully to their chanting and, sotto voce, I am trying to echo the hollow, vacant sounds they make when a woman appears from the far end of the garden.
Neither young nor old, she, too, is in costume, if of a different sort: Wellingtons and jodphurs and a suede riding coat. For a moment she pauses under an oak tree, and the shadows of the leaves make a black lace shawl about her head and shoulders. Magisterially, then, she goes among the women, observing what they do, nodding or shaking her crown of gray braids according to her pleasure, her displeasure. Surely she is Tosca.
“They’re singing of the inevitably unequal proportions of grief and rapture in a life. Did you know that?” asks the woman.
I wonder if the disdain in her bearing, in her voice, is a cover for timidity. As she approaches us, I nearly gasp at her beauty. “Did I know that they were singing about that or do I know that it’s true?” I ask.
“Perhaps I meant both. I’m Tosca Brozzi.”
“Buongiorno, Signora. Noi siamo de Blasi da Venezia.”
“I know. I know. There’ll be time to talk about your journalistic failures at table. I suspect we’ll get ’round to ‘grief and rapture,’ as well. We’ll be sitting down at one. I’ll let you know later if there’s room for you to stay. You can wash and rest in there,” she says, gesturing toward the great black doors of the house or the villa or the mansion. The castle. Whatever it is.
We hesitate, and she says, “Agata is there to show you the way.” Fernando and I look at each other, the look asking, Do you want to stay? Do you want to see this through? He takes my hand and pulls me toward the open doors.
Yet another woman in black is this Agata. She shakes our hands and speaks less assuredly in Italian than did Tosca, mixing it with dialect, but not so thickly that we cannot understand her. Be understood by her. She smiles and chatters, leading the way down a dark corridor lit by the flame of a single candle set in a wall sconce, then opens a door upon a large square room that smells faintly of fresh paint. Yellow walls, a paler yellow sofa, and a pair of blue damask love seats. A mottled gold-framed mirror leans out over a small white marble fireplace. Lavender is massed in great rope-bound bunches and sits in corners on the marble floors, beside the chairs, on a peeling gilt table, in the lap of the hearth.
“ Si accomodi. Be comfortable.”
She opens a door to a small bathroom and takes fresh towels from a cabinet.
“ Vi porto un aperitivo tra poco. I’ll bring you an aperitivo in a while.”
When she closes the door, I expect it will be the end of the dream.
“Is this real?” we ask each other at the same moment.
Now we hear our own laughter.
“I don’t know where we are or with whom, but I know we’re safe. We’re in the right place,” Fernando says.
“Journalistic failures. How does she know about . . .”
“Because no one spoke to us doesn’t mean that they don’t speak to one another.”
“Are they all widows out there?”
“I think so.”
“Is this a rest home with a duty roster? Or a commune? I mean, they can’t all be her relatives?”
“No, it’s not a rest home. The women are all much too vibrant.
Some of them are relatively young. I don’t think it’s a commune, either. I don’t know what it is.”
With lemon soap and squares of rough white linen, we scrub our faces and upper bodies, anointing and splashing ourselves with the contents of a jumble of apothecary bottles with hand-wrought labels. Neroli oil, neroli water, lavender water, rose oil. We rub the dust of Sicily from our feet, from our sandals, smooth our hair, button our shirts back in place, and, fearing a deep sleep should we sit, we stand in the freshly painted yellow room and shake our heads in wonder.
“I want to look about the place. I want to see more of it, don’t you?” I say.
“This is a private home. We’ll be shown what they would like us to see, when they would like us to see it. Patience.”
“Let’s go back out to the garden, then. And to the car. Clean shirts and . . .”
“I think we’ll be going back to the car soon enough. After lunch, I mean. I doubt we’ll be staying long afterward.”
“I don’t know what to think of this Tosca. She seemed like an extra from the set of Quo Vadis as she came striding through the garden, bursting in upon the enchantment.”
“Actually, she is more Felliniana. Yes, Fellini would have cast her in La Dolce Vita. But she speaks. I’m indebted to her for that.”
We gather our things and walk back down the candlelit corridor, headed for the garden, when Agata opens a pair of wide carved doors and sweeps her hands in a welcoming gesture. We enter not into a room but into the declining sumptuousness of a regimental hall. Fragments of frescoed gods and goddesses–plump flanked and rolling eyed–hurtle across the high crumbling walls, giving erotic chase up onto the great vault of the ceiling. And under the frenzy of this cupola, three massive tables are set. The underwater silence of the gardens, gently penetrated by the women’s chants and their laughter, has given way to domestic pandemonium. This is Tosca’s dining hall.
Five or six or more of the widows float in and out of the space, porting platters and trays and covered tureens, placing them on the side tables and buffets that line the walls. They all shriek at once, most often addressing someone in the farthest reaches of the hall or in far-flung rooms. Unseen doors are repeatedly slammed; unskilled, unshy hands pound scales on a piano located somewhere on an upper floor. In cussing pursuit of a newborn orphan lamb escaped from the kitchen where it had been brought to be bottle fed, two older men search the premises, discover the tiny creature in peaceful sleep, nearly invisible among the worn cushions on a velvet chair. One of the men places the now-protesting lamb ’round his neck like a scarf, says he’ll carry him back to the kitchen. I want to go to the kitchen.
Keeping a few paces behind the man with the lamb collar, I follow him out of the house, through the walled garden, and past two small beehive-shaped stone outbuildings, one of which houses a wood-burning oven. On a long marble-topped table in front of it, neat...
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