article by Ella Carey
The Setting that inspired “An Italian Secret”, a novel by Ella Carey
I wonder if it was an unusual adoration for an Australian teenager in the 1980s — Tuscany. But from the first time I watched Room with a View based on the classic novel set in Florence and the Tuscan countryside by English writer E.M. Forster, I was in love. I must have seen the movie at least fifteen times by the time I was twenty-one. To a girl from South Australia, the Tuscany in the Merchant and Ivory film was an enchanted setting filled with valleys sprinkled with violets where George Emerson swept Lucy Honeychurch into his arms. Looking back, I don’t think it was the wonderful late Julian Sands with whom I fell in love, amazing as he was. It was Tuscany. And I have never stopped.
It was incredibly moving to finally visit Florence in my mid-twenties. We had a perfect little pensione in the part of the city where traffic is not allowed, and through the window of our bedroom, there was a glimpse of Il Duomo. But what I remember quite profoundly is standing in the Boboli gardens, looking out over the hills of Tuscany. I have no doubt that it is the soft colours of the countryside that make Tuscany feel so special, fields of poppies bathed in the glow of the setting sun, gentle strokes of grass waving in the breeze around them, and along the tops of the hillsides, cypresses standing like proud caretakers of the valleys below.
And then, came Frances Mayes. I inhaled her memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun, and was lucky enough to hear Frances speak when she came on a tour of Australia during the 1990s. It was her ability to fashion beauty out of glorious ruins that was inspiring, and this seemed to me like the secret to leading a fulfilling life. I remember someone in the audience telling her that one evening, they had found themselves with only three ingredients and that she had inspired them not to go to the store, but to use those three ingredients to create something wonderful.
The fictional Villa Rosa in my novel is inspired by Frances Mayes’ Bramasole. The Villa Rosa sits atop a series of terraces, that my characters enter through a set of elaborate wrought iron gates, and Annie, the San Franciscan caterer who inherits the villa, arrives armed only with a large brass key. The lowest terrace in the garden is filled with silvery olive trees, then there is an orchard with apricots and plums and apples, and on the top terrace, there is a pergola covered with tiny pale pink climbing roses. The villa looks out over a valley that does not seem to have changed in seven centuries.
I set an imaginary village in the valley below the Villa Rosa, but both my contemporary character Annie, and my wartime character Cara, bicycle to Cortona, winding their way past another tiny village, and then around the hill that overlooks a valley that seemed a little wilder and more haunting to me than the deep green landscape that spreads beneath the Villa Rosa.
My wartime character, Cara visits an old church in Cortona on the via Santa Margharita, where the priest is helping the partisans. As a staffetta, Cara takes on one of the most dangerous roles that young Italian women carried out during the Second World War. They rode bicycles and delivered messages for the partisans, and sometimes transported ammunition for the partisans right under the noses of the Nazis. Cara is tasked with couriering a basket of explosives to blow up a Nazi stronghold near Cortona. In the wartime, the mediaeval gates of Cortona are guarded by a pair of Nazis, and horrific events happen in the valley which were inspired by tragic true stories from that time.
I was inspired and humbled by the stories of the Tuscan people’s efforts to survive the Nazi occupation of the area around Cortona, and while my novel is entirely fictional, some of the events in the book were true.
The Piazza della Repubblica in Cortona inspired the village square where several of the café scenes are set in my novel. The contrast between the bustling, lively marketplace that I wrote about in the contemporary storyline with the depleted markets during the war, when Nazis strolled around and helped themselves to the local farmers’ produce, while many of the locals starved, was incredibly moving, and difficult to write. In the contemporary story, Annie appreciates the round tables set out in the marketplace with tablecloths, the happy clatter of cutlery and the sounds of congenial chatter, that permeate the square.
My love affair with Tuscany, inspired by a wonderful film and a gorgeous book decades ago, was only strengthened and deepened by my research into the bravery of the Tuscan people during the war. My enchantment with the landscape has transformed into something deeper because of researching and writing An Italian Secret — and that is a humbling respect for the Tuscan people, and for their ability to create such a beautiful way of life.
“An Italian Secret” – Tuscany, 1944. Did she fight for the resistance or betray her people?
An utterly gripping, sweeping page-turner that will transport you to the olive groves of Tuscany. With a truly heartbreaking family secret from World War Two at its heart, fans of Kathryn Hughes, Fiona Valpy and Victoria Hislop will be enchanted.
When the Nazis storm into northern Italy, Contessa Evelina Messina, the owner of the beautiful Villa Rosa, welcomes the Germans to her valley. In a dazzling rose silk dress, she entertains soldiers with priceless wine from her ancient cellars. Privately, she tells the townspeople this will keep the enemy at bay, but her disguise is so good, it is impossible to tell on which side her heart truly belongs…
Years later, American Annie Reynolds gazes up at the peach-coloured walls of the magnificent, empty house. Grieving deeply for her beloved father, Annie remembers his last words before he slipped away—he told her she was adopted and that the Villa Rosa was her birthright. Desperate for answers, Annie’s heart breaks when the locals tell her the Contessa had a child with a Nazi. She is devastated and ready to turn away from her dark past.
But everything changes when Annie uncovers a musty old diary from 1944 amongst the Contessa’s belongings. Pages have been meticulously cut out and Annie is sure these missing entries hold the clue to her past. As she frantically searches old papers, Annie sees how hard the Contessa worked to keep her people safe and wonders if the locals’ stories are wrong. Can Annie find the Contessa’s missing child, born at the end of the war? And will discovering the truth about what happened alter the course of her own life for good?
Ella Carey is the international bestselling author of The Things We Don’t Say, Secret Shores, From a Paris Balcony, The House by the Lake, and Paris Time Capsule. Her books have been published in over fourteen languages, in twelve countries, and have been shortlisted for ARRA awards. A Francophile who has long been fascinated by secret histories set in Europe’s entrancing past, Ella has degrees in music, nineteenth-century women’s fiction, and modern European history. She lives in Melbourne with her two children and two Italian greyhounds who are constantly mistaken for whippets.