Under Another Sun

Affixed to the stone wall of the Piazzetta Pescheria is a tourist sign that details the loggia’s architecture and history. The front stone parapet, the sign notes, was built between the end of the 17th century and the start of the 18th century. It now overlooks Piazza della Repubblica, Cortona’s main square and the nucleus of this remote Tuscan town.

Beneath the passage is a quote from Under the Tuscan Sun, the 1996 novel by American author Frances Mayes:

“From here, you can see a loggia on the level above across the piazzo, where the fish market used to be. Now it’s terrace seating for a restaurant and another perch for viewing.”

Since the publication of her first memoir, Mayes has cast a rosy light on what she calls the most “civilized” town on the globe. The creative writing professor famously stumbled on Bramasole, a neglected, 200-year-old Tuscan farmhouse nuzzled in five unkempt acres. Her five-year renovation of the house produced a New York Times-bestselling memoir and inspired droves of young women to pursue similar quests of self-discovery.

I've yet to venture to the farmhouse that Mayes still inhabits. The maps doled out to the daily busloads of tourists plot a two-kilometre trek from the centre of Cortona. Admirers have confessed to nearly missing the edifice on their walk, although Mayes maintains that most end up finding her home and gaping at it.  

“I’m at my window right now and I can see three of them,” she told The Telegraph newspaper in a 2010 phone interview.

 Bramasole, Frances Mayes's refurbished farmhouse, is about two kilometres away from the centre of Cortona. 

Bramasole, Frances Mayes's refurbished farmhouse, is about two kilometres away from the centre of Cortona. 

Mayes’s airy portraits of a mythical, sun-bathed haven triggered a wave of narratives about crumbling houses in the Mediterranean. Critics cheekily dubbed the genre “brick lit.” Women, Mayes affirmed in her interview, were most swayed by her dreamy notions of renewal and freedom. Of my Canadian classmates in Cortona, forty-five are female and six are male. Several of the young women in the group have confessed to watching the film before their departure. The town, I’ve learned, is stubbornly romanticized.

I study the flowery lettering on the sign post: “An Enchanting Walk Under the Tuscan Sun.” Mayes’s passage is accompanied by a still from the 2003 movie adaptation. It shows Diane Lane, who plays Mayes, and a smitten Italian man sitting on the stone parapet. They are flanked by pots of blooming flowers. The buildings behind them are awash in brilliant sun-bathed contrasts.

More than a decade later, on a May afternoon, the sky is blotted with charcoal clouds, as if the stone square has shrugged off its residue. A gang of pigeons above circles in a screeching vortex. The growl of construction work slices through the piazza.  To the left of the spot on which the actors once sat is the weathered wall of the two-arched terrace. It is an easel for deviant minds. “Out House” is inscribed twice in shaky toddler scrawl, punctuated with twisted pigeon feathers. Two Italians in bug-eyed sunglasses stroll by and tap their cigarette butts on the commemorated spot.    

Mayes’s twenty-five-year relationship with Cortona has frayed. Several years ago, she and her husband protested the installation of a pool near their farmhouse. The editor of the local newspaper slammed her interference and a smattering of residents turned against her. She awoke one day to a grenade in her garden. Like the growing crack in her farmhouse, which tourists have observed with sadness, Mayes has come to acknowledge the disjuncture between myth and reality.

“The reverberations of that time are still going on,” she told a reporter. But, as if reminded of her amorous persona, she praised the hospitality of her Cortonese neighbours. 

Unlike Mayes’s Hollywood counterpart and romantic interest, the couples that stroll in the piazza this afternoon are fixated on its winding streets and impossible design. One man in mint-green pants drowns in his map. His baggy-eyed wife sprawls over the first stone step of the fourteenth-century City Hall and lifelessly scoops her gelato. For minutes, neither shares a word.

Another couple, hunch-backed with their swollen camera bags, stops to read the sign post. Realizing their discovery, the woman asks the man to photograph her. She seats herself on the stone parapet, the same spot on which an actress was once wooed over innumerable takes. The camera’s shutter clicks and the man turns his lens to the piazza. The woman, unaware of her partner’s new pursuit, sits still, her fragile smile frozen.