Cover courtesy of Penguin Random House
Photo by Will Garin
The author Frances Mayes
The doyenne of central Italy speaks—and what she has to say might surprise you.
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It started with the New York Review of Books, this whole Tuscany thing. This was decades ago. There was an ad in the back of an issue for a house rental, and there was an open summer. Then, there was a vacation. And though Frances Mayes had been to Italy before, it was in Tuscany where she fell in love.
Years later, in 1990, Mayes purchased her own home in Cortona, Tuscany, a 200-year-old farmhouse on five acres called Bramasole: “from bramare, to yearn for, and sole, sun: something that yearns for the sun,” she later wrote. The purchase and renovation of that home became the subject of a 1996 book, and that book was translated into 54 languages and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for two and a half years. In 2003, that same book became a movie of the same name, starring Diane Lane and Sandra Oh and eventually grossing $58 million worldwide.
“You never know, of course, when you write a book what its fate will be,” Mayes wrote of Under the Tuscan Sun on her blog. “Sink out of sight, soar to the sun–who knows. This book just happened to find readers and to my surprise, I’ve been flying on its coattails ever since.”
In the 24 years following her blockbuster, Mayes has written more books, a number of them about Tuscany: Bella Tuscany (1999), In Tuscany (2000), Bringing Tuscany Home (2004), Every Day in Tuscany (2011), The Tuscan Sun Cookbook (2012). People kept reading and kept coming to Tuscany. Yes, because of her. Yes, she knows she bears some responsibility for this crush of travelers, of course she does. But how much control does an artist have, once the art has left her hands?
Mayes was first introduced to Italy as a child, transported there through the screen—movies like Roman Holiday and Three Coins in the Fountain, which featured wide shots of cobblestoned streets and glowing stars like Audrey Hepburn and Jean Peters. This was the 1950s in Georgia, and few people in Mayes’s circle were traveling to Italy. “I didn’t really know anybody who had been to Europe,” Mayes tells me.
Mayes was first what she calls “propelled” to travel to Italy after taking art history courses at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and the University of Florida. When she was 24, she finally got there, on a trip to Bologna with her first husband. And though art spurred that initial trip, Mayes owes her return to something else.
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“I saw these people in the café having such a good time. I distinctly remember saying, ‘These people are having a lot more fun than we are.’ The sensation I got was that there’s also a vivacity to life there. It was new to me, and I really responded to it. And since then, I’ve gone back to Italy,” she says. “Every chance I could get.”
Despite the fact that she kept returning to Italy, renting houses in different parts of the countryside, Mayes didn’t think of it as much more than a vacation destination. By 1990, she was teaching poetry at San Francisco State University, where she’d earned her MA degree in 1975 and kept ascending: first as professor of creative writing, director of the Poetry Center, and chair of the Department of Creative Writing. “I thought that was my life,” she says.
But after her purchase of Bramasole, while in Italy, poetry switched to prose. It was unintentional, the pivot: Writing in her notebook, Mayes found that she was working without line breaks or mental turns; that she was moving on to page after page, and the lines kept running. It was the newness of it all—the cooking, the culture, the language, the immersion in Italian life—that pushed her in a different direction. It was this writing that became Under the Tuscan Sun.
“It was not a conscious thing that I was going to write about, where I thought, ‘I’m going to write a memoir about living,’” Mayes says. “But the first year of living here just happened. And then I realized that’s what I was doing and I began to enjoy it.”
Though Under the Tuscan Sun was widely praised by everyone from the New York Times (“like the kind of thing you’d tuck into a picnic basket on an August day”) to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (“a sensuous book for a sensuous countryside”), others found fault with its pace and privilege. Even Mayes’s sister will sometimes flick at this idea, asking her jokingly: What is it that people see in that little book, anyway?
Decades on, Mayes thinks there’s no one thing. In some ways, she says, it’s about readers responding to life taking a different direction—plans waylaid, a dream put on hold—and then making a course correction. For others, it’s about traveling a certain way: not just ticking boxes of sights to see, but feeling.
What is clear: That little book has changed the landscape of Tuscany. Broadly speaking, and in Cortona in general, where 200 people a day show up, on average, outside the gates of Bramasole, hoping for a glimpse of Mayes and her husband, the poet Edward Kleinschmidt Mayes. References to being inspired to travel by the book are on TripAdvisor, in Amazon reviews, and in letters to Mayes. These confessions you can’t see, but trust her—there are many.
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“I know from the thousands of reactions that people travel to Italy after they read my books,” Mayes says. “They tell me all the time. So I do bear responsibility.”
It is a tension of travel writing: featuring a place while knowing that destruction and development are two sides of the same coin. What is the balance between promoting and protecting? Is it better not to write about places we love? Mayes, who splits her time between Italy and North Carolina, doesn’t think that’s the solution.
Instead, she suggests what other vocal advocates in the overtourism movement have championed: that it is important not only for travelers to recognize their role in responsible tourism but also for the respective governments to institute some sort of controls. It can’t fall solely on the shoulders of someone who likes to write, she thinks. After all, done responsibly, she says, writing about a destination can help in some ways to preserve it.
“Writing about a place does bring attention to it—to its beauty, its history,” she says. “In a way, you’re protecting it because you’re making it more known, and you’re helping make it more appreciated. And by [tourists] going to places that aren’t so overloaded, I think it’s a way to spread the joy, and spread the burden of too many travelers in one place. So go on.”
For her latest book, Always Italy, published in March, Mayes and her cowriter, Ondine Cohane, traveled for nearly a year to all 20 regions of the country: the Dolomiti, Piemonte, Puglia, Lazio, and Friuli in the summer; Sicilia, Sardinia, Calabria, Le Marche, and the Veneto in the fall. Research for the book confirmed what Mayes had always known to be true—that Italy is endless, and that she will never tire of it.
And though Mayes is unsure when she will get back to Italy because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she knows that when she does, she’ll do what she’s always done since she bought Bramasole all those years ago: work in her rose garden, walk into Cortona for a midday coffee in the piazza, buy a package of porchetta on market days, and catch up with neighbors she hasn’t seen in months. Eventually, she’ll sit down, and write about it all again.
“For me, writing has always been a great intensification of experience. You get to live the experience and then to recreate it,” Mayes says. “To write is to be able to double your life.”
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