Vignamaggio: Fourteenth century Renaissance villa with breathtaking gardens set amidst the vines and olive groves that serve its own award-winning wine and its olive oil production. Also, reputedly, the birthplace of the possessor of that world-famous enigmatic smile, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” in the person of Anton Maria Gheradini. If we are to take on the theory about Mona Lisa then we are asked to assume that the idyllic landscape against which she is set is the view from one of Vignamaggio’s windows and, having been there, I can well believe it. The villa and those gardens were also the visually stunning backdrop for Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film of “Much Ado About Nothing” which left a profound impression upon me – largely one of how much I longed to visit an idyllic Renaissance villa in Tuscany!
Almost twenty years later, I finally got there and for my wedding anniversary to boot; having tried (and failed – they were out-of bounds for a wedding) for the same occasion two years earlier, I took every precaution this time around by arranging our tour as early as January and spent a large portion of the intervening time revisiting the website and looking forward to it with a great amount of zeal. Then it came – a glorious day of touring the wine cellars (just the four of us accompanied by our host for the day who talked so very eloquently about the Sangiovese grape variety and with all the warmth and lilting musicality that Italians never fail to impart to our language) followed by a long, leisurely multi-course lunch of “typical Tuscan fare” washed down by a selection of different wines from the estate. For this part of the proceedings we were joined by a young professional couple from Washington DC who you could easily imagine being dismayed to find themselves tagged-onto a family of two plus two (though if they were, they showed no sign of it) yet with whom we managed to strike up one of those animatedly rip-roaring conversations on a broad variety of topics – and with a great deal of laughter and cross cultural comparisons that had the kids joining in – that none of you seem to want to end and that will stay with you for years to come. In truth, we could have settled down with them for the remainder of the afternoon and another bottle of wine – in fact, should you ever read this, thank you both for your excellent company and a very-memorable lunch.
As it was, the American couple were shepherded off for the cellar tour that they had missed in the morning and we were left with “as long as we liked” to amble around the gardens at leisure, to stroll along avenues demarcated by box edging, yew trees and juniper hedging, to perch on seats to the sound of playing fountains and to take in those sudden vistas of surrounding hills that would come upon us through a gate here and from a balustrade there as the furthest limits of the garden were reached in each direction. And yet the sense of having reached the perimeter, the edge, at these places, as the ground would often literally fall away from the garden’s great height to become the olive and vine-covered slopes below, was always counter-balanced by the sensation that the ordered version of heaven that is the garden of Vignamaggio had been unable to contain itself and had somehow managed to spill forth into the landscape all around because, on days like this and from a height, the whole of Tuscany can often resemble one gigantian garden. It was a tug on the heartstrings to have to leave but we had had a fantastic day.
That was in August and its now been four months since our visit but the delay in sharing the experience is no measure of how much we enjoyed it – in fact, there was an element of wanting the memories to settle, unanalysed, before attempting to make sense of them in a post. As I sit here in my winter armchair preparing the photographs, it is as though the honeyed patina of the place has only taken on even more of a magical and dreamlike quality as a result of the time that has lapsed and the seasonal contrast. Here are the photos that I am able to share: the memories are mine and will be with me forever.
Footnote: I’ve just re-watched “Much Ado About Nothing” and it was a thrill to recognise the gardens and the peachy walls of Vignamaggio from the first-hand perspective of our visit there – we spent less time following the plot than we did pointing at the screen shouting out “That’s the bit where we walked up the hill…” or “There’s the wall with the dog statue where I took all the photos…” What an idyllic place. Somehow, I don’t think it will be too long before we go back there!