Under the Tuscan Gun

Italian civilians crossing the Arno River over the ruins of a bridge destroyed by German forces, Florence, August 1944
Imperial War Museum
Italian civilians crossing the Arno River over the ruins of a bridge destroyed by German forces, Florence, August 1944

Iris Origo was born in 1902 into a wealthy and cultured family. Her parents’ marriage was one of those matches between American fortunes and British aristocrats so typical around the turn of the century. The old money on her father’s side had spectacularly increased under her grandfather, William Bayard Cutting, who made a fortune in railroads and property development. Her father, William Bayard Cutting Jr., was a diplomat who “belonged to a small group of men and taste” (including Pierpont Morgan) whose philanthropy was of crucial importance in transforming the cultural life of New York City. Her mother, Lady Sybil Cutting, was descended from the Anglo-Irish landowning aristocracy and from the English Earls of Harewood.

The death of her father when she was seven years old profoundly affected Origo’s relationship with her mother, her subsequent life, and her vocation as a writer. In a letter of instruction to his wife, written in Egypt, where he was dying of tuberculosis, he suggested that Iris should be brought up in Italy, the country where it would be easiest for her to become “cosmopolitan, deep down,” and be “free to love and marry anyone she likes.” Lady Sybil complied with her husband’s dying wish by buying the Villa Medici in Fiesole, on a hill overlooking Florence, and moving the family there.

The expatriate community in Florence in the 1910s was at the height of its affluence and prestige: its most eminent members, all visitors to Lady Sybil’s salon, included Bernard Berenson, Henry James, Edith Wharton, the architectural historian Geoffrey Scott (whom Sybil married), and the garden designer Cecil Pinsent. Both Origo’s relationship with her mother and her closely knit social environment can be usefully described as Jamesian: the world of The Portrait of a Lady and The Awkward Age was not far away.

Origo continued to miss her father greatly, not only emotionally but intellectually, and wrote that the only positive effect of her loss was that he “became the personification of a myth,” which helped her to relate the childhood world of fantasy and fable to the real world. She fulfilled the second part of her father’s vision for her by marrying an Italian noble and war hero, the Marchese Antonio Origo; they moved to rural Tuscany. She later became a remarkably prolific and versatile author who wrote with equal flair about Romantic poets and medieval merchants.

Her talent as a diarist of her own times, however, was perhaps even more remarkable. She was an exceptionally acute observer and attentive listener, and she had the advantage, as an Anglo-American heiress married to a Tuscan landowner, of possessing both a cosmopolitan and…

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