I pulled my square black suitcase up the villa steps, one wide step at a time, and then Ilaria showed me to my bedroom, which had been her grandmother’s. And of course, many, many grandmothers before her. The family has been living here for 400 years now, splitting their time and various individual schedules between this spot and their grand villa in Florence proper. I could tell Ilaria and I were really going to like each other. She had warm, piercing eyes and gestured broadly and calmly through every sentence, always calling me by my name and showing me details that meant something to her. The other guests were busy taking photos of their villa rooms to post and disseminate to their followers back home, but I just wanted to close the door and flop on granny’s bed. That’s how I ended up spending a great deal of my time at Villa Pepi.
The hallway outside of my bedroom used to be a day room. There were crooked old photographs and lithos hanging on the white-painted walls, each image a tan-and-white capsule of the family and friends who took their tea in that bright room. There was a picture of cousins fencing out on the terrace, and the epees, foils, and sabres still hung in the hallway, ready for someone to grab and try their hand at ad-hoc swashbuckling under the wisteria arbor. Another image showed women in long, turn-of-the century dresses, roller skating on that same terrace. Clearly a new sensation at the time, and you could see it in their blurry, moving faces, all smiles and hurrying to grasp their petticoats before they rolled over them and down the hill into the fig trees! I opened up the painted cupboard door, now bare inside, but I took a strong whiff, and sure enough, smelled ancient must and coffee in there. That must have been where she kept it so many decades ago. I shut the beautiful door, all filigreed and swirly in a baroque pattern that could brighten your countenance before the coffee had the chance.
On the other end of the hallway was a large room with old wooden built-in book cases, and a white and red checkered floor. There was an old stone fountain, no longer running, but in the beautiful form of a green man or some such bearded, masculine visage, now merely blowing air into the vessel. The lacquered wooden table, the centerpiece of the room, held one of Ilaria’s foraged flower creations. The day’s flowers, now starting to sag but proud in this grand room: long olive branches with curling leaves, figs, twigs, pale grasses, cosmos, and roses. A little of this and a little of that, lurching left and right toward tabletop, where a few spent petals and leaves rested in the still late afternoon air. Looking up it was hard to avoid the glorious stag skull mounts, which must have been a hundred years old. I’d seen their luckier descendants as I drove up the hill, munching in the dying sunflower patch. The bookcases were revealing. Many old, withered Fiat manuals, some from the very beginning, crammed until there wasn’t room for one more. Children’s books, all old tales, some I recognized, naturally all of them in Italian. Some old map books and botany guides. As I walked back to the staircase, a small, simple dollhouse. A miniature Tuscan farmhouse, painted ochre with a brown roof. Every bit as primitive and rustic as the old farmhouses down the road. This room, I thought, is where they kept their treasures. When they escaped Florence and all of its rituals, and could spend hours piddling with no judgment. I wondered if one of the old roller skates was in here somewhere.
The great room was surrounded by a warren of bedrooms, some with poster beds, others small beds where children clearly slept or kept themselves occupied at little desks. I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of decor in all the bedrooms. Here Ilaria did not need to create a narrative about the English-style fantasies of Tuscany or the family’s storied history. These rooms were for retreat. These walls were for rest from all that. The place tells its own tales through your eyes and senses, when you throw open the chipped, wooden shutters and look down at the parched olive grove or the tiled roof of the family chapel just below the window. Watch the chickens scratch in the yard. Hear a kestrel calling from one of the older cedars. I wondered how many births, deaths, marriages, and wars were witnessed and processed in these bare but elegant rooms. From the look in Ilaria’s eyes, I knew she was going to tell me more, in time.