From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
Old Italian villas, about which so much has been written, and to the idea of which so much romance clings, are, as a matter of fact, gaunt, barren, hideous structures outside, and conspicuous for every kind of inconvenience within. You never see a creeper of any kind planted against their walls to soften their staring outline, and they have a desolate, forlorn look, in strong contrast to our own lovely English houses. For the most part, they are let in separate floors to different tenants; those who occupy the ground floor have the right of access to the garden, but no further interest in it, as it invariably remains the property of the proprietor. Some years ago, when the late king of Würtemburg rented the beautiful old villa of Quarto, near Florence, he was greatly surprised at finding he had to pay the gardener for every bunch of violets gathered.
This arrangement of letting in flats has, for its practical result, that, if the various residents manage to avoid quarrelling with each other on vexed questions of entrance-stairs and water-rights, their domestics will infallibly do it for them. We were, therefore, extremely anxious to find what is rarely to be met with, except in the wilds of the country, viz., a small house with a piece of garden attached to it, of which we should have entire and sole control.
We had seen such a place in a quite ideal situation in the neighbourhood of Carrara. It lay in a sheltered corner on grass terraces, just beneath an old convent, shut in behind by snow peaks and with the sea in full view about two miles distant. The climate in this part of Italy is delightful, never very hot in summer, and mild enough in winter for lemon-trees to stand out without protection.
This place had been occupied for some years by an English family from motives of health, and their object having been obtained, they were about to move on to a more active “sphere of influence”. The house was in a most tumble-down condition, and its tenants told us candidly they were often obliged to sit under umbrellas, as the owner was so deeply in debt to the local tradespeople that they would not execute any repairs for her.
We stayed for a week at the little country inn at the town near where this house was situated; the food provided was, as an Italian friend described it, “a shock to the stomach”, but we wanted to look about in a way that could not be accomplished in day trips. I knew that if I rented the place for some years, and put it into habitable repair, we should be charged a fancy price for all our improvements. Accordingly I drew up a most elaborate document, providing for a lease of a certain number of years, with a purchase price at the end, should I wish to become the owner. The Italian lawyer, into whose hands I committed the matter, was filled with admiration at the intricate nature of our proposals, which the lady would probably have been forced by her creditors to accept – but, just as this juncture, she was about to contract a second alliance with a Bentivoglio di Bologna (there is a fine medieval ring about that) and could afford to snap her fingers both at creditors and legal adviser.