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.
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.
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.
- Clean fruit well
- Add equal parts of sugar and water to a saucepan, and heat and stir until the sugar dissolves.
- Add Arbutus Unedo fruit and simmer until the fruit’s juice blends well into the syrup.
- Add the thymos mint or any other herb you wish- this will infuse fairly quickly and the perfume aroma is wonderfully intense
- Let the mixture cool. Strain out the solids using a cheesecloth.
- Add vinegar to the syrup and let it cool.
- 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!
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.
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 in plain sight
Dancing with my eyes closed
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
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.
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!
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 www.museeum.com Interested in a tailored guide just for you? Email : firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
‘The most enigmatic aspect of the time of ruination is the manner in which it points towards the future rather that the past, or rather uses the ruined resources of the past to imagine, or reimagine, the future.’
Brian Dillon, A short history of Decay, 2011.
Just 10 minutes walk from Villa Lena there is Toiano Nuovo ,‘New Toiano’, an apparent abandoned village on the top of a sand hill, accessed by a medieval bridge. Toiano started its decay back in the 1960s when the majority of its inhabitants moved to nearby towns in search of work and a better life. Since then, its population has gradually decreased up to today with just two people currently living in Toiano, Rosita and her husband.
17 August 2017
Villa Lena, Tuscany
Stimulated by a common passion for food and cooking, Butternutten’s Luki + Oli hosted a four-course cheese dinner at Villa Lena.
Every course featured ceramics made in Butternutten workshop by hotel guests, staff people and artists in residence at Villa Lena; the ceramics are inspired by human body parts.
The individual and unusual tableware invited the guests to interact as well as to enter in dialogue with each other. The “cheese dreams” dinner is a way of questioning what eating can be more than food intake and how our being can be shaped.
At a time when food in general is becoming a minor matter due to busy days, Butternutten is concerned with the necessity and requirements of dishes, glasses and cutlery, equally with edible content, and further with the subject of hospitality.
The cheese menu included baked ricotta and blue cheese with fresh herbs, sun-dried tomatoes, rucola and nuts as starter, fresh hand-cut pappardelle, burnt radicchio e gorgonzola as primo and torta di formaggio with cacio e pepe crisp for dessert. The last course was a piece of Roquefort served in an envelope together with a sheet of paper. According to a new study by the British Cheese Board, different cheeses can give you different types of dreams. That’s why the guests were invited to write down their cheese dreams to their sheets, which were collected by Luki + Oli the next day.
The dinner was prepared in close collaboration with Villa Lena’s kitchen chefs; a publication including some of the dreams will be released soon.