The Journal



Dated 17 July 2018

Dear Julia,

At this point I am almost certain that I will not be able to give you what you want with my journal entry. The more words I assign to my experience, the less effectively I can communicate it. In fact, it is maddening; to spend so many hours reflecting, writing in search of some grand metaphor, to repeatedly think I’ve finished only then to erase the hundreds of words I have cobbled together and begin another new attempt. Each time I think I’ve finished, I’ll feel a small relief, eagerly reread the piece, realize I’ve failed, and then delete everything in a haste to begin once more and waste another thousand inadequate words.

Perhaps it will take more time for me to fully understand my time at the villa and be able to reflect on it with more precision. I collect fragments of my experience there, I stumble upon them day to day, but when I piece them together, they seem an incomplete or incoherent reflection. They don’t suffice our purposes—the fragments—is what I mean to say.

What should I write about? The poetic surroundings I fell in love with, for example? The bright red poppies that seemed to wave hello as they bent in the April breeze—the bees that hovered by the rosemary bushes, the peaceful olive grove that I would sit beside, the lapping of the fountain just beyond my window—the sun… I’ve also been tempted to describe, in detail, each one of my fellow residents. Their quirks, their work, what they were good at cooking, what I learned from them. The incredible fact that for the first week, over twenty of us managed to share one sharp knife in the resident kitchen. I’ve wanted to simply transcribe our conversations from my memory—but it was anything but simple, it was an impossible task. It was laborious—I couldn’t capture what was said, or at least, I couldn’t economically communicate their significance. The conversations seemed quotidian in retrospect, like you could have them anywhere, with anyone. And yet I know they weren’t—so I’ve stopped trying to wring meaning out of them. They work better inside my head. I’ve been tempted to address how it was at Villa Lena that I finally accepted that I was an artist at all. That I had not truly believed this until I arrived there and spent that month with the others. This might be profound, but only to me, no? Who really cares how I feel about myself?

If the purpose of my journal entry is to create a testament to my experience—to either entice other artists or attract the guests that interact with them to come to the villa—I’d like to fulfill my purpose. I want desperately for other artists to arrive in Palaia as I did, for guests to come and meet them, participate in their work when possible, reflect among the beauty. It is important to me that others do this, that the villa is attended whenever possible. And so what I mean to tell you is, I fear my personal discoveries might mean little to someone else in a journal entry, or, at least, it would take me an entire novel to grow tethers between the reader and the characters of my journey, the lessons I learned, the things that I saw. I can’t explain Villa Lena. As I said, I fail when I try—what I’ve settled to do is communicate the bewilderment I feel in reflecting on my month there. To express the absurdity of attempting to collect my experience in a jar, or a journal—fitting everything I felt inside such a limited space.

I said this in my last letter to you: “I think I know, in essence, what I’d like to say, though admittedly it is difficult to articulate. It is more of a feeling I had while I was there, a feeling I have found myself chasing ever since I left.” Let me expand on that. Yes, it’s true Julia, I have been chasing this very feeling since I left Villa Lena. There have been moments where I’ve found it, and moments where I haven’t. It is a feeling hard to place, I cannot assign it a location in my body, nor can I assign it a duration or intensity. I simply recognize it when it arises, a kind of energy that touches me, that syncs with me, when I am not disturbed by even the fly that buzzes by my head.

A door bursts open, or a window—or is it that light is flooding out of me? Am I the center, the origin, or am I the destination? I can’t tell. But I chase the feeling. I open myself up to it whenever I can. Words like productivity and flow have come to mind, but the first feels like a word that belongs to corporations and not to the artist, so the other feels perhaps closer and yet still too elusive, elusive to the point of being impossible to discuss intelligently. When you’re in the zone, when you’re unencumbered… When the work just comes out of you. It is an easefulness I felt, a kind of relinquishing of my ordinary anxieties; an acceptance of the now, of my place in the world, of the obstacles that might usually disturb me.

I’ll tell you a story, briefly, something small that happened to me at Villa Lena that I attribute to great significance, for whatever reason. It was one of my last mornings in my studio down in the artist village; well, Zoe Ghertner’s studio—I had taken it over after she left. It remains a mystery to me whether or not she herself had tacked up the arrangement of red leaves on the wall, or if they had been there all along. I remember I was always happy to be there, the leaves were scattered so tastefully.

I was waiting for either Nadine or Beth to visit me… Our conversations always stimulated my writing, more specifically, large swaths of newly generated text, and so in the meantime I was editing a longer piece of prose as I waited. I had the doors and windows wide open, welcoming them—perhaps even begging them to come join me. If they saw my doors wide open, they’d receive their invitation. I could hear the birds chirping. It was a sound I listened for these days, whether I was in my room at the residence, in the studio, in the attic, outside having lunch… It was a comforting sound as I waited. My eyes darted between my screen and the doorway. I was easily distracted, fiddling with a bag of rice crackers and a mealy green apple that had been sitting on “my” desk since I inherited the space.

Two small swallows flew inside, instead of Nadine or Beth. I smiled at first. They hovered near the buttresses of the ceiling. They’d perch, then fly again, then perch, then swoop down and bump into each other clumsily. After only about a minute, though, their flapping aggravated me—I had admired their chirping when they were outside my studio, but now, they were flying anxiously around the ceiling, beating their wings loudly and frightfully, their melodic chirps sounding more like short and dissonant screams. They had no idea how to escape the room and I became almost furious with them for it. Can’t you see the outdoors? Don’t you understand light? The music that had been trickling out of my laptop, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, vexed me—as if disturbed by the unrest of the birds—as if the notes themselves were bending and sharpening by the sound of shrill swallow squeaks and rustling feathers. They’re going to shit on me, I thought. They’re going to shit on me and my books, my writing, the apple I have not eaten.

Then I began to laugh, it was a swift transition, ah, I was so unhinged, so buoyant those days, so unencumbered, skipping from one emotion to the next like a flat rock leaping across a pond. How was I upset with the trapped little swallows? Why bother wasting my energy this way? I was my own inhibitor, and not the frightened birds. Observe the birds. See what they do.

They’ll find their way out, I finally thought, isn’t bird shit supposed to bring you luck, anyway?

I’m not sure why I am telling you this story other than to say I believe this interaction between the swallows and I could only have happened there, at the villa. I wonder if it had happened here in New York, would I have left the room? Would I have attempted to shoo the birds out with a broom? Would I have shouted at them? What would I have done, had I not spent the month before in that place, with those people, doing the things we did?

I’m sorry I cannot give you something more defined in my reflection, Julia… I hope you can at least attribute my ramblings to an intense desire of mine to leave behind something meaningful—something that accounts for my formative experience at the villa. If I could name what it awoke in me, I would. If I could list how often I think of my time there, I would. If I could only show you my heart, how fast it beats when the images of that unforgettable month flood my mind.

For now, please accept my apologies—that I cannot complete this task in a more deliberate and legible way. I can certainly supply some pictures from my time there.






Julie Iromuanya travelled from Tucson, Arizona in the USA- where she is an assistant professor at the Creative Writing MFA course at the University of Arizona, to come to stay with us at Villa Lena as an artist in residence for the month of June.

She is the author of Mr. and Mrs. Doctor (Coffee House Press), a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, the Etisalat Prize for Literature, and the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize for Debut Fiction.

During her time at the villa, Julie worked on her second novel A Season of Light. We asked her to write down her musings on her time at the villa and how its environment nourished her work.

A Season of Light synopsis:

In April of 2014, a group of girls are kidnapped from their northern Nigeria school. News reaches Fidelis Ewerike in America. A former POW of the Nigerian Civil War, orphaned and exiled from his homeland, he begins to go mad. A Season of Light follows the four members of the Ewerike family over the course of a summer as they grapple with their turbulent history and an uncertain future.

When I first arrived in Tuscany, the days were cold and rainy. I drowned in tissues and meds as I fought off a cold and insufferable allergies. But then the sun came out. Vegetation, hills, cliffs (and allergy meds!) put me into a state of renewal. Living in the southern Arizona desert the last few years, I had forgotten about what it is to look out at such a verdant landscape; I had forgotten what it means to be suffused by its spirit. My novel takes place over the course of one summer in a central Florida setting bordered by a nature preserve where the annual prescribed fires fill the air with an incendiary energy. During my walks into Toiano, and along the nearby trails and roads, I would talk into my phone’s recorder, stream-of-conscious, using the landscape to help me enter my characters’ world of trees and forests. I thought a lot about the relationship between the landscape, its people, its history, and wisdom.

Since the 2015 publication of my first novel, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, I’ve been traveling all over giving readings and answering questions about my work and process, but I haven’t had many opportunities to actually talk through my process. During my evening event at Villa Lena, I wanted to share that side of my work as an artist. Imagining myself charting my journey through the different ideas of the narrative in a visual map, I walked the audience through each site. For me, it was a beneficial exercise, mainly because I was still trying to figure out the relationship between all the parts—the wars of Nigeria and the Soviet Union, the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, the Igbo folkloric tradition and its heroes and villains; what it means to love and heal, to imprison and seek out freedom, and also to create and destroy life. Many of the questions prompted me to better articulate my vision.

I arrived at Villa Lena roughly three-quarters of the way through a revision of my novel manuscript, A Season of Light. Because this was a revision, rather than a first draft, I already had many ideas about character and direction, but everything to do with resolution was still half-formed. How to draw together all the incoherent threads? How to make sense of the ways my characters succeeded and failed at reaching the goal posts the opening had promised. By the end of my residency, I finished a rough, but promising conclusion, and I am grateful for the time and focus.

Photo credit: Lottie Hampson

Margherita Cake with Vernaccia Sabayon

Amaze your friends with this sweet recipe from former chef-in-residence Aaron Tomczak. This cake is the ultimate dessert for al-fresco dinners with your loved ones.
Villa Lena to me is simplicity, made extraordinary through natural beauty augmented by creativity. To draw a parallel to food for me would be ripe strawberries and Margherita cake, topped with a sabayon made from local wine and garnished with herbs from the garden. Very simple ingredients, made memorable by the airy texture of the sabayon and floral aroma of nasturtium and lavender.
The sabayon itself is simple, made only of three ingredients; egg yolks, sugar, and wine.
Only through proper technique and care does it become distinctive.
Margherita Cake
3 large free range eggs
Pinch of sea salt
75 g sugar
1 lemon zest
75 g melted  butter
300 g flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
Preheat oven to 180°C.
Beat the eggs whites until stiff with a pinch of sea salt and set aside. Beat the egg yolks with sugar until creamy and light. Add the lemon zest and melted butter. Add the flour sifted with baking powder and mix quickly. Stir in the egg whites, stirring from the bottom up. Pour the batter into a baking pan covered with parchment paper. Bake for 30 minutes.
Egg Sabayon
2 Egg yolks
66 grams sugar
118 ml white wine such as Vernaccia
To make sabayon you will need a pot 1/3 filled with barely simmering water. Above that you will need a metal bowl big enough to sit on top without touching the water.
Place egg yolks, sugar and white wine into the cold bowl, and begin whisking above the pot of water as the mixture begins to heat up.
As the eggs start to cook and thicken, the wine will begin to steam the mixture causing aeration.
Whisk for 4-5 minutes until the mixture has tripled in volume and resembles the texture of whipped cream.
Serve atop fruit and cake warm or cold and top with fresh herbs such as lavender and nasturtium.

A geologist at Villa Lena

Emily Ross is a young geologist and artist exploring the intersection of geology and art around the world as a 2017 Watson Fellow. After spending a month at Villa Lena, Emily gives us an hint about the geological analysis of the property and geological tips for the area.

The complex geology of Italy is largely responsible for Italy’s rich art history, from the renaissance marble of Carrara to the iron-rich clay of majolica pottery. The active tectonics of the region cause earthquakes, volcanic activity, uplift, and erosion, as the African and Eurasian plates collide.

In Tuscany, this constant change has created the dramatic hills and cliffs that surround Villa Lena.

The landscape is sculpted by the erosive power of water acting on young (geologically speaking), soft sediment left behind by an ancient sea. Evidence of this ocean environment can be found all around Villa Lena. Sculptural grey limestone concretions, fossilised shells, preserved casts of animal burrows, and sandy cross-bedding all indicate a calcium-rich ocean environment, in which rivers draining from nearby continents provided vast supplies of sediment.


Just as renaissance artists and scientists studied human bodies in order to better represent them, they studied the rocks of Tuscany in order to more accurately depict them and understand the way the Earth works. The drawings of da Vinci, in particular, demonstrate an interest in the sedimentary layers of the landscape and their interaction with water.

The Galileo Science Museum, in Florence, is filled with scientific instruments that dance with sculptural beauty and craftsmanship. The Museo di Storia Naturale di Firenze hints at the wonders hidden in Tuscany’s loose sediments, reconstructing entire seafloor environments using fossils. Outside of institutions of science, pay attention to the building materials of local buildings in the small towns, which can give clues to the layers of harder bedrocks hidden under the soft erosive materials. Patient rock hunting along the beaches of Cinque Terre lead to more delightful surprises as natural and manmade objects alike are smoothed and rounded by the relentless tumbling of the waves.

In Siena’s Duomo, stunning marble slabs are framed and presented as works of art in their own right alongside marble works by Donatello and Michelangelo.









The rocks of Italy blend the divide between the natural and manmade universes that the Renaissance sought to reconcile, bringing scientists and artist to celebrate and fear Vesuvius, hunch over to inspect a pebble, or dig clay to reshape with their own application of geology’s ever-present ingredients: pressure and heat.

The Stinkhorn of Pisa by David Fenster and Laura Copelin

Former residents Laura Copelin and David Fenster, from Marfa, Texas,  spent their residency studying local mushrooms species. They explored the botanical gardens of Pisa and Florence and spoke to scientists there. This fuelled some interesting collaborative work, and helped them realising The Latticed Stinkhorn of Pisa documentary.

Strawberry Tree Syrup by Natalie Zervou

Discovering the Arbutus Unedo plant (or strawberry tree as it is affectionately known) growing abundantly at Villa Lena was a revelation!

This small tree belongs  to the Ericaceae family, native to the Mediterranean region. The species name, ‘unedo’, is said to mean “I only eat one” in Latin as they are said to leave a slightly bitter aftertaste. I did not find this to be the case, though the texture for me was somewhat challenging (think flouring apple!) however,  when transformed into shrubs, syrups and jams this fruit really is utterly delightful. The flavour is layered, complex and sweet and when married with thymus mint, also bountiful at the villa, the heavenly aroma and sticky sweet taste kept us going back for more. In folk medicine, the plant has been used for antiseptic, astringent, intoxicant, rheumatism, and tonic purposes.                                          I enjoyed the shub best, the acidity of the vinegar gave a tangy twist and had that addictive quality that contrasting flavours often possess (think salty and sweet).

For the children at the Villa, the Arbutus unedo plants were magic (imagine a whole strawberry tree!!!!).                                                                                                              

For one of the workshops we made edible ‘magic potions’ using the plant and other herbs as our base; they certainly enjoyed the holistic, sensory experience of experimenting with edible delights.

The below syrup recipe adds complexity to cocktails and salads.
Or if you are like me, devour it on a teaspoon as it is, or add it to porridge.
Quantity wise you will need a 1:1:1 ratio of fruit, sugar, and vinegar.

  1. Clean fruit well
  2. Add equal parts of sugar and water to a saucepan, and heat and stir until the sugar dissolves.
  3. Add Arbutus Unedo fruit and simmer until the fruit’s juice blends well into the syrup.
  4. Add the thymos mint or any other herb you wish- this will infuse fairly quickly and the perfume aroma is wonderfully intense
  5. Let the mixture cool. Strain out the solids using a cheesecloth.
  6. Add vinegar to the syrup and let it cool.
  7. Bottle it all up in sterilized bottles or jars, and store in the fridge for 2-4 days before using.            


                                                                                                 The sugar and vinegar work to preserve the shrub and just like jam, they keep for ages!


Reflecting on her Residency | Flora Wellesley Wesley

In my first few days at Villa Lena I was surprised to find myself feeling waves of emotion  come over me, which I put down to both the beauty of the place and the exceptional circumstances in which I was there.

My responses were romantic and tragic, silly and dark.
I developed a multifarious practice over the course of the month that was both playful and meditative. It involved tree climbing, mucking around in the pool, drawing without looking, taking photographs, walking, running and dancing.

Photo by Holland Drury

I relaxed into the luxury of having my own studio. I cleaned it first. Clean a room thoroughly and you get to know it rather well. I took up space, I spread out.

I calmed down enough to read.

I enjoyed carrying my camera with me and shooting at whim.

I planned some images, references to Gillian Wearing and Francesca Woodman and A Room With A View in mind.

I was whimsical. “I am my own continuity”, I assured myself. Do first, ask questions later. I brought far too many art materials. I drew. I made paper sculptures. I wrapped myself like a chrysalis

Sometimes I asked questions first. (Who’s heard of Deborah Hay ?)

I was well fed, we all were! So good, going about my thing on an incredible diet.

The most remarkable weather was the stormy weather. There were several electric storms with fork and sheet lightning that rumbled all through the night. I found myself describing the villa and the grounds as feeling like a film set. Different times of day and weather seemed to issue different invitations. Suggestible as I am, the whole place was working on me as much as I was working on it. It was bountifully evocative physically, narratively and atmospherically.


I paid attention to the natural light and noticed and admired the sun going down. It’s an event when you have a big horizon.

I’ve been exploring the subject of light and mood and seasonal volatility: how environment affects us, literal ways of integrating oneself into a place and, conversely, acting out spectacular contrast. A lot of my enquires have been about presence (and volume) – experiments in making noise visually, aurally, physically, or ‘holding my breath’ and blending in.

Shooting – hiding – hanging out – basking – waiting – daydreaming – dozing – writing– scribbling – assembling – uncovering – framing – warbling – chatting – napping – reading – swimming – stretching.

Dancing privately
Dancing in plain sight
Dancing with my eyes closed
Dancing effortlessly
Dancing effort-fully
Dancing into the night
Dancing with the others
Dancing in the rain
Dancing in the pool
Dancing as land art
Dancing as a sculptural practice
Dancing as a spiritual practice
Dancing as a moody practice

Photo by Evy Jokhova

TEXAS MEETS TUSCANY | Cocktail hour at San Michele

Curator Laura Copelin and filmmaker David Fenster presented their individual and collaborative land based art practices followed by a cocktail hour featuring West Texas and Tuscan flavours.

We looked at some of David’s film work, and also learnt about Laura’s current and recent projects at Ballroom gallery in Marfa, Texas. Laura and David are working on a collaborative film project, in which they focus on members of their community and elements of their lives in Marfa, Texas. We were also fortunate to get to see some of this on Friday.

Located in the heart of the Trans-Pecos desert of West Texas, roughly 200 miles southeast of El Paso, getting to Marfa is not easy. You have to fly to El Paso and from there it’s roughly a three-hour drive. But if you do happen to make it, David and Laura have convinced us that the city is definitely worth the effort, for culture, art, geology and the small community of intriguing people that dwell there.

Following the screening and discussion, we moved to San Michele bar, where Laura and David served us a delicious twist of Texan and Tuscan flavours. A platter of Pecorino cheese with fresh herbs and edible flowers from our garden was served with a mesquite-honey reduction made from local honey mixed with mesquite powder that Laura brought from Marfa.

Mesquite powder is made from the seedpods of the mesquite tree. It tastes like an aromatic blend of cinnamon, chocolate, and coffee. For thousands of years, mesquite flour was a staple food of Native Americans from Texas to California, because mesquite trees thrive in arid climates where other crops wither. Mesquite pods were one of the most significant foods of the desert Apache, Pima, Cahuilla, Maricopa, Yuma, Mohave, and Hopi tribes. Like many other desert plants, the mesquite tree super concentrates nutrients in its seeds to compensate for the harsh environment.

To drink, two delicious cocktails were on offer.

Tequila-Damiana dream elixir

1 part damiana infusion with acacia honey and orange

1 part white vermouth

1 part tequila blanco

Shake infusion and liquor with ice and serve.

Dressed with tangerine wedge, dandelion petals and garden peppers.

Damiana is a small shrub with aromatic leaves found on dry, sunny, rocky hillsides in south Texas. The leaves have been used as an aphrodisiac and to boost sexual potency by the native peoples of Mexico, including the Mayan Indians and is used for both male and female sexual stimulation, increased energy, asthma, depression, impotence and menstrual problems.

Leaving the wonderful benefits aside, this was a deliciously smooth cocktail, the perfect cocktail for unwinding at the end of the week.

Hibiscus prosecco

Simple syrup of jamaica powder (dried hibiscus), honey, tangerine rind, water

Pour into the bottom of a flute

Top with prosecco

Finish with pomegranate seeds.

Hibiscus, which has a tart cranberry-like flavour, served with fresh pomegranate seeds from our garden which worked wonderfully with our prosecco for a fruity aperitif.

Thank you Laura and David, for a wonderful evening!

MUSEEUM LOVES VILLA LENA | Pick up their new travel guide for Tuscany

Bored of flipping through Tuscany tourist guides? Overwhelmed by the endless options? Pick up the brand new Museeum guide of Tuscany! In this short guide based on the senses you can find information for anyone.

In this guide you will find the top suggestions for an exploration of the main cities around Villa Lena: Florence, San Gimignano, Lucca, Siena!

From a connoisseur to food lovers, there are amazing tips for restaurants. Dine with a beautiful view at the café in Museo degli Innocenti, or try Italian comfort food with a twist at Michelin star gourmet restaurant ”L’imbuto” (The Funnel) in Lucca Centre of Contemporary Art. This is a great place for a change from traditional Italian cuisine and for a break from medieval art.

Breathe in fresh, calming Tuscan air in Florence while exploring the beautiful Gardens of Boboli, or get lost in a painting at the Uffizi Gallery.

Discover the top museums such as Palazzo Pitti, or get scared at the the Lucca Torture Museum, which is definitely not for the fainthearted.

In San Gimignano, this high tech Renaissance fairy-tale city will have you under its spell. Pinacoteca and its 3D audio-video guide will help you listen to the voices of the proto-renaissance geniuses in an incredible immersive experience for those looking to further their knowledge.

Take part in the ancient sewing workshop at Palazzo Mansi in Lucca, and create rustic Luccan textiles using only ancient tools and fine materials such as cashmere and Silk. Spend the afternoon walking on top of the medieval walls that still surround the city on a beautiful pedestrian promenade (Passeggiata Delle Mura) and see the entire city.

And what if you have children? See how our bodies work with wax human figures at the Museum of Natural History of Florence or play with the working models of Da Vinci’s inventions and show your child one of the great minds of the world at the Vinci Museum in Vinci!

The terms that will help you navigate and make the most of one of the most beautiful regions of Italy are SEE beautiful architecture, LISTEN to fun and educational events, BREATHE in breathtaking parks, TASTE delicious food, TOUCH local finds and shops, and family friendly activities with KIDS.

We invite you to immerse yourself in Museeum’s full cycle experience of Tuscany. Awaken your senses and start your journey with us at Villa Lena.

See the full version of the guide at Interested in a tailored guide just for you? Email :

Photos: Louise Palmberg


Now that the evenings are getting colder, we have the perfect excuse for comfort food…Warm up with this rich truffle pasta from Rebecca Eichenbaum, our Villa Lena. resident chef this Autumn.




fresh pappardelle
55g olive oil
2g white truffles, shaved
70ml heavy cream
parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated
black pepper, freshly cracked

In a large stock pot, bring water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons of salt. Add the pasta to the boiling water just when you’ve finished the sauce. It will only take 1-2 minutes to cook.

For the sauce, heat olive oil and cream in a large sauté pan over medium-low heat for about 3-5 minutes, stirring constantly, until it begins to reduce and thicken. Add in the truffles and cook for 2 minutes more. If it gets too thick, add some water from the pasta water pot to thin it out.

Add the cooked pasta to the sauce and toss to coat. Crack black pepper and grate the parmesan cheese over the pasta. Serve hot with a drizzle of very good olive oil.



Introducing…  Rebecca Eichenbaum

Rebecca’s passion for food was found rather accidently while pursuing a fashion design degree. While studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Eichenbaum studied here in Italy in Milan for a year, an influential time when she fully realized her love for cooking. After finishing her degree she followed her hunger to learn more about food, teaching herself from cookbooks and working in different kitchens around the world. Her diverse background and creative expression makes us very excited to have her here at Villa Lena.