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 a strongly local perspective. In spite of her privileged background, she showed a deep sympathy with ordinary Italians and, in particular, with peasants.
Origo’s two published diaries are quite different in character. The first, A Chill in the Air, of the years 1939–1940, is more political and analytical, although the diary form imposes a narrative structure. It had remained unpublished until 2017, and comes with an illuminating introduction by Lucy Hughes-Hallett and a moving afterword by Origo’s granddaughter Katia Lysy. The second, War in Val d’Orcia, of 1943–1944, first published in 1947, has little to say about Italian politics after the opening section, and analytical passages are few and sparing, though much can be inferred if one reads between the lines. This does not mean that moral and political judgments are lacking, only that they are almost all confined to specific events or sequences of events.
There is nevertheless one link between the two diaries, which is of great significance: a passage in War in Val d’Orcia that is directly quoted from A Chill in the Air, concerning the extent and nature of the Italians’ support for Fascism, and what it reveals of their national character. On June 9, 1940, the eve of Italy’s entry into the war as an ally of Nazi Germany, Origo wrote:
Is it possible to move a country to war, against its historical traditions, against the natural instincts and character of the majority of its inhabitants, and very possibly against its own interests? Apparently it is possible…. In a people as profoundly individualistic and sceptical as the Italian, eighteen years of Fascism have not destroyed the critical spirit, and this is allied to an inborn fluidity and adaptability which causes them…to interpret all general statements and theories in the light of the particular occasion and thus to attach no undue importance…to abstract formulas or absolute doctrines.
Even pious Catholics, she noted, who were shocked by the Fascist doctrine that “the rights of the State should prevail over those of the Church,” did not protest against it, in part because Mussolini’s 1929 concordat with the Vatican had made it “easier…to bring up their children in a Catholic atmosphere at home” after “the fifty years of intense anti-clericalism” following Italian unification. Origo wrote of the Italians, “They are prepared to yield in principle, where they can gain in practice. And it is this same fluid adaptability (which, to those temperamentally opposed to it, seems a cynical opportunism) that has rendered possible the German alliance.” She believed that the acceptance of it, however, belied their “instinctive antipathy for Germany, and for the barbaric and brutal aspects of the German Weltanschauung.” Though Origo’s discussion of the Italians’ national character makes some generalizations, usually with reference to their shared Catholic heritage, it is also finely differentiated in its judgments of particular segments of Italian society.
Origo revisited her severe, if not damning, judgment of the Italians during the uncertain and ominous weeks after the overthrow of Mussolini on July 25, 1943. Marshal Pietro Badoglio’s new government declared that “the war continues,” even as crowds throughout the country were tearing down portraits of the Duce and most of the Fascists had hastily gotten rid of their party badges. Any intelligent observer could see that the Allies, who had already occupied Sicily, would soon invade the mainland, and that the menace of German occupation grew stronger as fresh divisions rolled southward to counter the coming invasion. By then, Origo realized “how widespread is the conviction among Italians that the war was a calamity imposed upon them by German force—in no sense the will of the Italian people, and therefore something for which they cannot be held responsible.” It was this effort to understand “the Italian attitude” that sent her back to her diary entry from 1940, in which she had “tried to explain to myself the reasons which, psychologically, had rendered possible the fundamentally false position of the Italian people.”
After Badoglio’s announcement of Italy’s surrender to the Allies on September 8, and their bitterly contested landing at Salerno, south of Naples, on September 9, the deeply demoralized Italian army, left without orders (some units didn’t even know on which side they should be fighting), simply disintegrated, and the roads were filled with fleeing soldiers anxious only to get home. The king and Badoglio fled by night from Rome, which was occupied by the Germans, to Bari, where they came under British protection. This didn’t do much to preserve national self-respect. The spectacle of chaos and the abdication of responsibility by the heads of the Italian state helped to diffuse among both the Germans and the Allies, even after the war, an attitude of contempt and condescension toward the Italians, which reinforced long-standing national stereotypes.
But the great majority of British and American soldiers fighting on the Italian front did not share this attitude. On the contrary, they were often astonished by the Italians’ hospitality and generosity. Many of the fugitives seeking to escape the German occupation—Jews, escaped prisoners of war, young Italians avoiding deportation to Germany for labor service or conscription into the new Fascist armed forces, partisans on the run, and even a few German deserters—found refuge with Italian families, who often housed them at great personal risk. Nearly half of the 70,000 Allied POWs in Italy escaped, either abroad or across the front line to rejoin their own troops. Many were recaptured by the Germans but escaped more than once thanks to a network of civilians. The distinguished British general Richard O’Connor wrote to Origo:
The Italian peasants and others behind the line were magnificent. They could not have done more for us. They hid us, escorted us, gave us money, clothes and food—all the time taking tremendous risks…. We English owe a great debt of gratitude to those Italians whose help alone made it possible for us to live, and finally to escape.
Origo said that her aim in publishing War in Val d’Orcia in 1947, when it was an immediate success, was to spread the knowledge of the courage and resourcefulness of the Italian peasants and others in assisting the Allies and frustrating the German occupiers and their Fascist supporters. She wished to show how often the struggle for sheer survival demanded these qualities, but they also rested on a bedrock of the stoicism and fatalism that were traditionally associated with the peasants. The same characteristics of skepticism and resignation to the inevitable that Origo had judged harshly in a different setting turned out to have their positive side. For most Italians, the claims of human sympathy came before ideology, and the evasion of rules and orders imposed by authority was an ingrained habit.
Origo recounts her own part in these events plainly and without emphasis, although it was truly courageous. Whereas in the earlier diary she figures as a detached observer, in War in Val d’Orcia she is an active participant. She kept her diaries in tin boxes that she buried in the garden; she had every reason to fear that at any moment she could be arrested by the Germans and deported to a concentration camp, and the diary might remain the only testimony of events.
Origo and her husband, Antonio, had bought the villa of La Foce in the Val d’Orcia with its huge surrounding estate of seven thousand acres soon after their marriage in 1924. She engaged Pinsent to design the gardens in 1927. Although she keeps Antonio in the background of the diary, he emerges as a strong presence. He had once been the head of the local Fascist landowners’ consortium, but unlike many Tuscan nobles Antonio was a truly benevolent landlord. He had organized and led the consortium in a remarkable scheme inspired by the agronomist Arrigo Serpieri and his idea of the bonifica integrale (total land improvement), which included not only irrigation and other agricultural improvements but also better roads and schools. Elsewhere, Mussolini’s ambitious projects for land reclamation had often been thwarted by the lack of cooperation from local landowners. In the Val d’Orcia, the Origos succeeded in transforming what had become an arid, impoverished, and desolate region into one of the most beautiful landscapes in Tuscany.
Even before Mussolini’s fall, the Origos had shown their strong humanitarian commitment by housing a large number of evacuees (sfollati) from the cities that were being heavily bombed by the Allies. She housed and cared for as many as twenty-three children over a period of eighteen months while looking after her own two daughters. During the nine months of German occupation that War in Val d’Orcia covers, from September 1943 until April 1944, La Foce served as a center for nonviolent resistance. The estate gave long-term shelter to a large group of British POWs; helped those who were just passing through and whose first need, even before food, was often a new pair of boots and socks; and hid partisans who were wounded or on the run. Origo’s relations with the British POWs were particularly friendly, and she clearly enjoyed their humor and plucky sangfroid. When the Germans came looking for them, a British group was saved by the courage and presence of mind of the farmer’s wife who was sheltering them: “She did not even realise that her lie had been dangerous…. ‘They might have put me in prison? Nonsense—what would they do with an old woman like me? Anyway, they asked for Americani, and we’ve only got Inglesi here!’”
In the first months after the arrival of the Germans and the installation of the new Fascist puppet government, the Republic of Salò, the local community was largely successful in preserving its unity and the lives of its members. Origo had nothing but scorn for the revived, hastily organized Fascist party and its satellite organizations, which included an Italian SS. They were hated for the capricious brutality with which they carried out arrests. In contrast, Origo took a favorable view of the small bands of partisans who were beginning to emerge in the autumn and winter of 1943.
The diaries alternate between notes of tragedy and comedy, against a basso profondo of the tribulations of ordinary life in wartime: the difficulties of storing, even burying, enough food to meet emergencies, and protecting it from looting by famished German soldiers; the disruption of communications; and the hunt to pick out reliable information from the trickle of rumors. After D-Day, Origo was briefly terrorized by false German reports of the mass destruction of London by their rockets.
From the beginning of 1944, when hopes of early liberation were dashed by the Allies’ failure to break out from the beachhead at Anzio, south of Rome, where they had landed in late January, the tone of the Diaries becomes darker. The partisan bands grew larger and more formidable, especially in the wild uplands around Monte Amiata, which overlooks the Val d’Orcia, although Origo comments with amusement more than once on the shortcomings of the smaller local bands, “in picturesque garments and very much over-armed,” or engaged in the “childish performance” of shooting up a portrait of the Duce in the local schoolroom. Still, she admired the courage of the partisans when, “in the best medieval tradition,” they fought off a Fascist assault on the small walled town of Monticchiello, having secured the support of the population by distributing the wheat that they had seized from a government truck.
By the spring, sporadic conflict between the Fascist militia and the partisans had escalated into civil war, and the partisans also began to carry out executions as the fear of spies became almost universal. This was not just paranoia; spies could bring down entire bands. Inevitably, dubious characters began to appear on the fringes of the civil war, playing a double game, and threatening to denounce their victims to the Germans or even the partisans. Origo reports the case of a Yugoslav deserter who was finally executed by the partisans for extorting money and sexual favors from the peasants under false pretenses.
Usually, she and Antonio tried to mitigate the violence of all participants. When the partisans captured a Fascist militiaman, intending to kill him, Antonio pointed out “the idiocy of the whole performance,” and they ended up letting him go with the symbolic and humiliating punishment of stripping off his insignia. Antonio handled the Germans with skill, complying with their orders and demands without giving away information. When a German captain asked him straight out where he could find the partisans, he replied that “they are to be found everywhere on the chain of hills running from Cetona to Monticchiello—about fifty miles—and are seldom more than twenty-four hours in any one place!” It was a tribute to Antonio’s resourcefulness and his attempts to alleviate the worst of the civil war that in 1944 the local anti-Fascist National Liberation Committee invited him to become the mayor of Chianciano.
The inhabitants of the Val d’Orcia were relatively fortunate in avoiding the worst of the German massacres, unlike the neighboring Val di Chiana, where in the large village of Civitella the Germans slaughtered nearly 250 men, women, and children in reprisal for the killing of three German soldiers by the partisans. Notwithstanding her desire to see Tuscany liberated from the Germans as soon as possible, Origo is evenhanded in her account of the tragedies of the war. She makes clear how much damage was done by the Allied bombing campaign, with its indifference to civilian casualties.
In spite of the greater and lesser tragedies that War in Val d’Orcia recounts, the reader comes away inspired by its many tales of everyday heroism and resistance—after all, the story has a happy ending. No such uplifting feelings are likely to be stirred by A Chill in the Air. The earlier diary is more apt to evoke our present anxiety about the rule of lies and the open disparagement of truth in public discourse. Origo’s comment that “one of the most alarming—as well as ugliest—symptoms of the moment is the growing tendency (on both sides) to deny any sincerity or good faith to their opponents” seems particularly apposite.
In these dark times, it may be heartening to remember that Europe lived through still darker ones in Auden’s “low dishonest decade,” when dictators could saturate their captive audiences with propaganda in a way made possible by the then new medium of radio. Before the war, there were already signs that the effects of the incessant bombardment of propaganda by the Fascist regime were wearing thin. “The ultimate result of unceasing propaganda has now been to cancel out the effect of all news alike,” Origo wrote in April 1939. “One man said to me, ‘The radio has made fools of us all.’”
In Italy during the war, the evident absurdities of Fascist attempts to conceal defeats and invent victories fostered a climate of almost total skepticism toward official news, which the BBC’s Radio Londra was quick to exploit by giving Italians a more reliable version of events. The monopoly on communication is one of the necessary attributes of any totalitarian regime, and its loss was an essential feature of the Italian regime’s decline. In its final months, Origo writes, “the general discontent finds open expression in every class, from the senator to the taxi-driver,” but “the keynote is apathy. And everywhere talk, talk, talk, and no action. Resentment without a sense of responsibility. The fruits of twenty years of Fascism.”
The first section of War in Val d’Orcia reveals how openly the need to get rid of the Duce was being discussed among monarchist and military circles in Rome, to which Origo continued to enjoy access through her social connections. But she remained pessimistic: even when she received accurate information in July 1943 about plans for a military coup, she did not believe it. It took the terrible experience of the German occupation to restore her faith in the Italians.