Abstracting the traditional in Tuscany


Abstracting the traditional in Tuscany

Kate Weir communes with artists – and ghosts – at Villa Lena, Italy’s coolest creative retreat

Kate Weir

BY Kate Weir4 August 2023

Laidback sanctuary Villa Lena, embedded deep as a core memory in the Tuscan countryside, isn’t the first verdant estate or crumbling village in the region to be wholly given to creative pursuits.

En route from Florence is Vinci, birthplace of Leonardo. Near Pistoia to the north is Fattoria Celle, an antique farm littered with site-specific works by the likes of Sol LeWitt and Richard Long. With its gigantic sculptures, Pietrasanta looks like some churlish child-god tossed down their toys from the sky.

Further south in Capalbio are the psychedelic creatures of Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden. But, with artists toiling away alongside guests and interactive workshops aplenty, Lena feels more muse than museum, a gentle call to action.

View of trees through an archway at Villa Lena hotel, Tuscany | by Michaela Watkinson for Mr & Mrs Smith

After all, the project is a resuscitation, its Neverlandish hilltop estate, and Toiano, the village it edges onto, dating back to the dark ages, feel fitting places for restless spirits. The latter was slowly abandoned towards the end of the 19th century, as industrialisation lured its 500 citizens to more lucrative corners of the country.

It’s now gravely quiet, just the rustle of trees and constant chirrup of invisible cicadas. The houses are tumbledown, aside from the few being carefully restored (after a plea to the Italian Environment Fund for preservation).

The remains of the castle it was built around still have a shabby proudness; and a church dedicated to St John the Baptist has a rusty cross hanging crookedly by its doorway; its cemetery surprisingly well-tended. Add some dry ice and you could be in a Renaissance version of Silent Hill.

It’s set amid Palaia’s ‘badlands’, high on volcanic tuff so ancient that ammonites from prehistoric flooding are still embedded in rock. The surroundings are so named because of the inability to cultivate crops in its wind- and water-eroded soil, but it rings ironic – from up here, the views are the picture of luridly green fertility, with the Pisan hills’ wheat fields golden as retriever fur in the distance, and the walled hilltop town of Volterra looking in finer fettle.

Villa Lena hotel, Tuscany, exterior with trees | by Michaela Watkinson for Mr & Mrs Smith

Nature certainly never got the memo: a flicker of movement might be one of myriad butterflies, skittish lizards or even a wild boar. Or, it might be something supernatural…

In 1947, 22-year-old resident Elvira Orlandini was gathering water from a well at Botro della Lupa when she disappeared, and was later found brutally murdered. The motive was an alleged pregnancy by one of the wealthy landowners, although suspicion fell on her farmer boyfriend, who was eventually acquitted, leaving the murder unsolved.

On the narrow, climbing, white-knuckle road up from Florence, you’ll see a flower-bedecked memorial to ‘bella Elvira’, although you could easily suppose it to be for a victim of the drivers who view speedometers as mere superstition or the vertiginous turns so blind our driver honks his horn before risking them.

But it’s not the only place her presence is felt – her ghost is rumoured to wander Toiano’s streets and even reaches as far as the halls of Villa Lena (a very pleasant 15-minute walk away), where artist Gregor Hildebrandt created a portrait dedicated to her during his month-long residency, made using the edges of cassette cases.

Artwork mounted on a brick wall at Villa Lena, Tuscany

‘I feel like a fraud’, says Gregorio Burgio, the administrator of the hotel’s not-for-profit art foundation, apologetically, as he shows us around, ‘there’s supposed to be a recording on each cassette, but they’re glued in.’

There’s something more peaceful than melancholy to this accidental enigma though; Elvira’s beaming, elegant visage welcomes and inspires creative guests without becoming a casual true-crime podcast episode, her memory revered rather than exploited.

Reconciliation and reconnection of this sort are some of the forces that drive Villa Lena, a place hung in the balance between a boutique stay rich in Tuscan delights, a thriving arts commune, and a down-the-rabbit-hole voyage into your subconscious, where the past echoes softly.

Alfresco dining table at Villa Lena hotel, Tuscany

In a space this far-removed, restful and fruitfully rustic, which might have once crumbled into its wrinkle in time, one can’t help but fall in step with its lazy rhythms, live in its scenic skin and start to feel green shoots of ideas, growing with the vigour of the tomatoes in the sizeable orto a short stroll away, or the rainbow wildflowers currently filling boxes and buckets everywhere in anticipation of a wedding the next day.

There’s a sun-dog glimmer of your typical Tuscan stay here: the gutsy organic sangiovese red and pale-pink sparkling pinot grigio produced in-house (labels emblazoned with family totems – unicorn, dragon, owl – which you’ll see on hand-embroidered throw pillows in your room), olive oil that tastes tapped straight from the tree, and meats and cheeses with a satisfying farmish pungency to them, served on a terrace with romantic pastel-tinged vistas as if directed by Sofia Coppola.

There’s a panoramic yoga deck and pool with candy-striped parasols, and pasta primis so simply excellent you could weep – Italian hospitality at large. There’s truffle-hunting (the owners even have a truffle dog), cookery workshops, aperitivi

But there’s no Byzantine gilding or Baroque grammar to the place, no beams propping up ceilings. The main villa though – built in 1890 – has a worn-in, dust-jacketed glamour to it.

This is where artists-in-residence stay for a month at a time as part of a Hotel Chelsea-esque deal, all leaving at least one work behind and some hosting workshops in exchange for room and board; cooking together and feasting communally under the tasselled chandelier of the dining room.

A frescoed ceiling in the villa’s reception room depicts the womenfolk of original owners, the Del Frate family. Another has scuffed and nicked walls with much pre-loved antiques – as an erstwhile garret it’s ideal, although guests (staying in the San Michele building opposite, or in the further afield Renacchi and Stentino blocks) live a little more luxuriously: deep-soaking tubs and emerald-tiled showers, thumbed retro Penguin paperbacks, climate control…

Wine for two in a filled bathtub at Villa Lena hotel, Tuscany

And in the lounges, restaurant, billiards hall, library and meditation room, furnishings in slouchy velvets and granny-chintzes have more in common with Soho House than the Risorgimento. The kind of insouciant cool you can only achieve somewhere established by a modern-art curator, musician and nightclub owner (Lena Evstafieva, Jerome Hadey and Lionel Bensemoun, respectively).

Paintings of frolicking nymphs or multiverses of Virgin Marys are swapped for wonky ceramic slices of cake (leftovers from a workshop), Fluxus-esque compositions of sand, oil and dirt on cardboard (Armando Messias), explosive abstract still lifes (Rosson Crow), and tapestries inspired by foraging trips (Coco Brun).

Filmmakers, fashion photographers, graffiti artists and talents from more niche mediums have all left their mark, too. The shared love of the hotel results in various interesting interpretations here – from Katie Barrie’s Poolside, a postcard-style triptych of zoomed-in sunlounger stripes, to Precious Opara’s disorienting between-sea-and-sky painting If I Can’t Fly, I’ll Swim, to Theo Turpin’s minimalist piece which speaks of falling in love with the hotel in a fantastical sense, imagining two lovers building feelings for each other while frescoing an Italianate decoration on the villa’s portico.

Coffee on a bedside table at Villa Lena hotel, Tuscany

Each piece is sweetly revealing, a coy declaration of the affection one can’t help but feel for the place after spending even a night here. And there’s no sycophancy – pieces crafted by staff and guests onsite hang equally higgledy-piggledy on the walls.

Much like the work on display – seasonally changing when a new crop of artists arrives or guests buy pieces to take home – workshops are ephemeral in nature.

You might weave flower crowns, craft wearables from foraging trips, head into the woodlands to commune with crystals, throw clay, sketch emotionally and intuitively, develop cyanotypes, concoct perfumes…

Some focus on wedding photography, meditative practice, or queer culture – and there are playful paint-splashed sessions for kids. It’s invigorating stuff, and yet, so relaxing, too.

Meal for two served outside on a terrace at Villa Lena hotel, Tuscany

Inspired, I write in the bar as a shell chandelier jangles in the breeze, only a chirp or clink of glasses chiming in. To follow, soaking for a luxurious length of time and crawling under my bed’s organic cotton duvet, contemplating the hand-painted intention on the wall: ‘Remember that moment’.

There are no ghosts, no Elvira softly padding down the hall, but there are kindred spirits aplenty; not restless, just eagerly anticipating tomorrow’s awakenings.

Discover Villa Lena or seek further inspiration from our complete collection of Tuscany hotels

All photography by Michaela Watkinson