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Fontana Vecchia, The House of Words


Looking down at rush hour in Taormina, Sicily. Copyright: Norm Harrison, 1999.To put it modestly, Villa Fontana Vecchia has been the greatest find of my life. Built in the mid-1600s, Fontana Vecchia is the oldest house on the east side of Taormina, Sicily. Named by its most famous tenant, D.H. Lawrence, Fontana Vecchia was years later repeatedly sprinkled about in Truman Capote's writings. It's an understatement to say the villa brought good fortune to its two most famous tenants.

 

To this day, Fontana Vecchia remains as bewitching as it was in Lawrence's time. Thousands of tourists each year take the short walk from Taormina just to glimpse the villa from the street below. Built into the side of the mountain, the villa's stone walls are a half-meter thick. Many of those stones were taken from an ancient Roman aqueduct. The villa faces southeast, so there are few days of cold wind, even on the chilliest winter days. Because of its thick walls, the temperature inside is comfortable year-round. Today, the windows are open and the birds are singing. It's a fine day to write about this magical villa.

Entrance to Fontana Vecchia. Copyright: Norm Harrison, 1999.Wonderful, beautiful, tranquil, serene, awe-inspiring and magical are a few adjectives that come to mind when describing the villa. D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda lived here from 1920-22. When Lawrence lived in the house, it was located in a field of orange and lemon groves. A winding dirt road led to town. Thirty years later, Truman Capote moved into the villa (but that's for Part 2 of my story!)

In 1914, Lawrence married Frieda von Richthofen, the daughter of a German baron and a cousin of the famous German ace who shot down 80 Allied planes in World War I. When the couple landed in Italy in 1920 they had scarcely more than pocket change -- together the Lawrences had but £31 to their name.

The Lawrences loved Fontana Vecchia and might have stayed on years longer were it not for David's wandering nature. The villa was a veritable Eden, with a garden filled with orange and lemon trees, and a marvelous view of both the Ionian Sea and the largest active volcano in Europe, Mount Etna. To make it more appealing, the villa was priced right -- only 2,000 lire ($10) a year. During the two years Lawrence was here, he completed some of his most impressive works, and left Sicily an internationally famous writer with financial security.

 The still-smoking Etna…from a distance. Copyright: Norm Harrison, 1999.In a letter written to a friend, Lawrence describes Fontana Vecchia: "I feel at last we are settled down and can breathe....We've got a nice big house, with fine rooms and a handy kitchen, set in a big garden, mostly vegetables, green with almond trees, on a steep slope at some distance above the sea....To the left, the coast of Calabria and the Straits of Messina. It is beautiful, and green, green, and full of flowers....There are a good many English people, but fewer than Capri...and one needn't know them....Etna is a beautiful mountain, far lovelier than Vesuvius..."

All through the winter roses bloomed. The couple's daily lives were governed by a simple rhythm, always with Lawrence helping with the household tasks. They made many excursions away from the villa, but Frieda loved her Fontana Vecchia, "Our own house above the almond trees, and the sea in the cove below, the lovely dawn-sea, where the sun rose with a splendor like trumpets every morning!"

During the period Lawrence lived at Fontana Vecchia, he completed a play entitled Touch and Go (1920) and published three novels: Women in Love (1920), The Lost Girl (1920), and Arron's Rod (1922). The Lost Girl did well and won the James Tait Black Prize in Edinburgh and brought a £100 prize. It was the only of his works to ever win an award.

The snake's garden at Fontana Vecchia. Copyright: Norm Harrison, 1999.The Sicilian summers were stifling. To cope with the heat, Lawrence lounged in the garden in his pajamas. One particularly hot afternoon, when he went to the garden trough for some water to drink, he saw a yellow snake. The snake calmly began to drink, pausing a moment to look at Lawrence. Lawrence recognized the snake was poisonous and became frightened. He picked up a log and waited until the snake had finished drinking and had begun to slither back to its hole. He hurled the log at the snake, but missed it, and the snake safely disappeared into its hole. Lawrence felt so ashamed of his attempt to kill one of God's beautiful creatures that he was inspired to write his remarkable poem "Snake", written on the patio and later published in a collection of poems titled Birds, Beasts and Flowers.

 

In a letter to Lady Cynthia Asquith in May, 1920, Lawrence writes, "Fun if you came to Taormina this summer; but August and September are supposed to be monstrous hot. But perhaps you like heat. We in our Fontana Vecchia are about ten minutes out of town, lovely and cool. We've had some sweltering days already -- but our house with its terraces doesn't get too hot: so many green leaves. It is very dry here -- all the roses out, and drying up, all the grass cut, the earth brown. There is a lot of land, peasant land, to this house. I have just been down in the valley by the cisterns, in a lemon grove that smells very sweet, getting summer nespoli. Nespoli look like apricots, and taste a bit like them -- but they are pear-shaped. They're a sort of medlar. Wish you had some, they are delicious, and we've got tree-fulls. The sea is pale and shimmery today, the prickly pears are in yellow blossom…life at Fontana Vecchia is very easy, indolent, and devil-may-care."

Strolling carefree and devil-may-care through Taormina. Copyright: Norm Harrison, 1999.While preparing to depart for Sardinia, Lawrence wrote of the window on the lower terrace, "Fasten the door-windows of the lower veranda. One won't fasten at all. The summer heat warped it one way, the masses of autumn rain warped it another. Pull a chair against it." (After 78 years, the window still does not fasten -- trust me, I've tried)

As Lawrence was departing for Sardinia, he wrote, "Very dark under the great carob tree as we go down the steps. Dark still the garden, Scent of mimosa, and then of jasmine. The lovely mimosa tree invisible. Dark the stony path. The goat whinnies out of her shed. The broken Roman tomb which lolls right over the garden track does not fall on me as I slip under its massive tilt. Ah, dark garden, dark garden with your olives and your wine, your medlars and mulberries and many almond trees, your steep terraces ledged high above the sea, I am leaving you, slinking out. Out between the rosemary hedges, out of the tall gate, on to the cruel steep stony road. So under dark, big eucalyptus trees, over the stream, and up towards the village. There I have got so far."

The ancient Roman tomb that predates Christ lies but thirty feet from the villa. Many of the trees of Lawrence's time are still living, and the fragrance of jasmine and orange blossoms still lingers in the air. The path is now bricked and leads down to the gate below, but at night it is still dark and treacherous.

Upon his return from Sardinia, Lawrence wrote an ill-tempered and most remarkable travel book, Sea and Sardinia. Frieda found the manuscript in one of the villa's bathrooms, and submitted it for publication in April, 1921, to Curtis Brown, through whom it was published by Martin Secker. What sets this travel book apart from others is Lawrence's narrative description of the villages and people he and Frieda visited.

In this work, Lawrence describes the surroundings, "The lemons hang pale and innumerable in the thick lemon groves. Lemon trees, like Italians, seem to be happiest when they are touching one another all around. Solid forests of not very tall lemon trees lie between the steep mountains and the sea, on the strip of plain…Women, vague in the orchard undershadow, are picking the lemons, lurking as if in the undersea. There are heaps of pale yellow lemons under the trees. They look like pale, primrose-smouldering fires. Curious how like fires the heaps of lemons look, under the shadow of foliage, seeming to give off a pallid burning amid the suave, naked, greenish trunks. When there comes a cluster of orange trees, the oranges are red like coals among the darker leaves. But lemons, lemons, innumerable, speckled like innumerable tiny stars in the green firmament of leaves. So many lemons! Think of all the lemonade crystals they will be reduced to! Think of America drinking them up next summer."

"But, not all of Lawrence's days in the villa were pleasant. As early as 1916, he had begun to batter Frieda during their infamous rows, often in front of friends. Their Sicilian landlord claimed he could hear the couple screaming at each other from his villa 200 meters away.

Lawrence's novel The Rainbow was seized and banned on the grounds of obscenity, and he learned that his novel Women in Love had been described in John Bull as "a shameless study of sex depravity which in direct proportion to the skill of its literary execution becomes unmentionable vile."

If that weren't enough, Lawrence was sued for libel by Philip Heseltine, who charged that Lawrence's effeminate character Halliday was a representation of himself. After the publisher approached Heseltine, he accepted a settlement of £50. Heseltine consoled himself by growing a beard. The payment of hush-money so enraged Lawrence that he let his distaste for Heseltine and his wife be known to a long-time friend, Samual Koteliansky, saying "Well, they are both such abject shits it is a pity they can't be flushed down a sewer."

Café in downtown Taormina. Copyright: Norm Harrison, 1999Frieda had a legion of lovers during the Lawrences' rocky marriage. Her infidelity continued at Fontana Vecchia. Brenda Maddox sheds more light on the subject in her book, D.H. Lawrence. "The full list of Frieda's lovers, it has been said, would fill a small telephone book. Unfortunately, the book has not been found. One lover, who declared himself somewhat belatedly, was an elderly Italian immigrant living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1990. Just before he died, Peppino D'Allura announced that he had been Frieda Lawrence's lover in Taormina in the early 1920s. At the time a mule driver for a wine merchant, D'Allura claimed that one day when he was visiting the Fontana Vecchia, Frieda suddenly appeared in the nude. She offered him the gift of herself, which he accepted."

 

Early in 1921, Lawrence agreed to rent Fontana Vecchia for another year, but in a letter to Eleanor Farjeon that same month he expressed second thoughts, "Well perhaps you'll be glad you haven't come to Sicily. It thunders and lightens for 24 hours, and hailstones continually, till there is hail-ice thick everywhere, and it is deadly cold and horrid. Meanwhile the almond blossom is almost full out -- a sea of blossom, would be, if it weren't shattered. I have said I will take this house for another year. But I really don't believe I shall come back for another winter."

While living in Fontana Vecchia, Lawrence's income and fame in America were exploding. In January, he received a $500 advance for The Lost Girl; in March, $50 for Tortoises. Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, published in 1921, gave notice that America had discovered a great English writer.

On November 5, 1921, Lawrence received a letter from an admirer of his Sea and Sardinia which was to change the Lawrences' life. The letter was written by Mabel Dodge Sterne. Mrs. Sterne invited Lawrence and his wife to come to live in Taos, New Mexico. The move made perfect sense to Lawrence, since he was rapidly becoming more famous in America, and he quickly responded to the invitation: "Truly, the q-b (Queen Bee, as he often referred to Frieda) and I would like to come to Taos -- there are no little bees." Frieda shared Lawrence's enthusiasm for leaving Italy because she felt the expatriate cluster colony of Taormina was ill-suited to Lawrence's writing.

Fontana Vecchia had been kind to Lawrence. When he and Frieda left the villa, he had $1729.54 in an American bank account alone, and more in his Italian and British accounts. Lawrence was earning an annual income in excess of £400 as a full-time writer and world traveler. To put this into perspective, the monumental T.S. Eliot, working as a full-time bank employee, and struggling as a part-time writer, had an annual income of £250.

In memoriam. Copyright: Norm Harrison, 1999.

In February 1922, Lawrence and Frieda bid farewell to Fontana Vecchia to begin a worldwide sojourn, which was to end a few years later in Vence, France with Lawrence's death. He succumbed to tuberculosis on March 2, 1930, at the premature age of 44.

End of Part 1. Click here for Part 2 of Norman's story. He'll tell you about another of Fontana Vecchia's famous residents: Truman Capote.

For those interesting in learning more about Fontana Vecchia, go to Norman Harrison's Webpage:http://www.angelfire.com/nh/writings/index.html, or email him at n.harrison@tao.it

The snake's garden at Fontana Vecchia. Copyright: Norm Harrison, 1999.The Sicilian summers were stifling. To cope with the heat, Lawrence lounged in the garden in his pajamas. One particularly hot afternoon, when he went to the garden trough for some water to drink, he saw a yellow snake. The snake calmly began to drink, pausing a moment to look at Lawrence. Lawrence recognized the snake was poisonous and became frightened. He picked up a log and waited until the snake had finished drinking and had begun to slither back to its hole. He hurled the log at the snake, but missed it, and the snake safely disappeared into its hole. Lawrence felt so ashamed of his attempt to kill one of God's beautiful creatures that he was inspired to write his remarkable poem "Snake", written on the patio and later published in a collection of poems titled Birds, Beasts and Flowers.

In a letter to Lady Cynthia Asquith in May, 1920, Lawrence writes, "Fun if you came to Taormina this summer; but August and September are supposed to be monstrous hot. But perhaps you like heat. We in our Fontana Vecchia are about ten minutes out of town, lovely and cool. We've had some sweltering days already -- but our house with its terraces doesn't get too hot: so many green leaves. It is very dry here -- all the roses out, and drying up, all the grass cut, the earth brown. There is a lot of land, peasant land, to this house. I have just been down in the valley by the cisterns, in a lemon grove that smells very sweet, getting summer nespoli. Nespoli look like apricots, and taste a bit like them -- but they are pear-shaped. They're a sort of medlar. Wish you had some, they are delicious, and we've got tree-fulls. The sea is pale and shimmery today, the prickly pears are in yellow blossom…life at Fontana Vecchia is very easy, indolent, and devil-may-care."

Strolling carefree and devil-may-care through Taormina. Copyright: Norm Harrison, 1999.While preparing to depart for Sardinia, Lawrence wrote of the window on the lower terrace, "Fasten the door-windows of the lower veranda. One won't fasten at all. The summer heat warped it one way, the masses of autumn rain warped it another. Pull a chair against it." (After 78 years, the window still does not fasten -- trust me, I've tried)

As Lawrence was departing for Sardinia, he wrote, "Very dark under the great carob tree as we go down the steps. Dark still the garden, Scent of mimosa, and then of jasmine. The lovely mimosa tree invisible. Dark the stony path. The goat whinnies out of her shed. The broken Roman tomb which lolls right over the garden track does not fall on me as I slip under its massive tilt. Ah, dark garden, dark garden with your olives and your wine, your medlars and mulberries and many almond trees, your steep terraces ledged high above the sea, I am leaving you, slinking out. Out between the rosemary hedges, out of the tall gate, on to the cruel steep stony road. So under dark, big eucalyptus trees, over the stream, and up towards the village. There I have got so far."

The ancient Roman tomb that predates Christ lies but thirty feet from the villa. Many of the trees of Lawrence's time are still living, and the fragrance of jasmine and orange blossoms still lingers in the air. The path is now bricked and leads down to the gate below, but at night it is still dark and treacherous.

Upon his return from Sardinia, Lawrence wrote an ill-tempered and most remarkable travel book, Sea and Sardinia. Frieda found the manuscript in one of the villa's bathrooms, and submitted it for publication in April, 1921, to Curtis Brown, through whom it was published by Martin Secker. What sets this travel book apart from others is Lawrence's narrative description of the villages and people he and Frieda visited.

In this work, Lawrence describes the surroundings, "The lemons hang pale and innumerable in the thick lemon groves. Lemon trees, like Italians, seem to be happiest when they are touching one another all around. Solid forests of not very tall lemon trees lie between the steep mountains and the sea, on the strip of plain…Women, vague in the orchard undershadow, are picking the lemons, lurking as if in the undersea. There are heaps of pale yellow lemons under the trees. They look like pale, primrose-smouldering fires. Curious how like fires the heaps of lemons look, under the shadow of foliage, seeming to give off a pallid burning amid the suave, naked, greenish trunks. When there comes a cluster of orange trees, the oranges are red like coals among the darker leaves. But lemons, lemons, innumerable, speckled like innumerable tiny stars in the green firmament of leaves. So many lemons! Think of all the lemonade crystals they will be reduced to! Think of America drinking them up next summer."

"But, not all of Lawrence's days in the villa were pleasant. As early as 1916, he had begun to batter Frieda during their infamous rows, often in front of friends. Their Sicilian landlord claimed he could hear the couple screaming at each other from his villa 200 meters away.

Lawrence's novel The Rainbow was seized and banned on the grounds of obscenity, and he learned that his novel Women in Love had been described in John Bull as "a shameless study of sex depravity which in direct proportion to the skill of its literary execution becomes unmentionable vile."

If that weren't enough, Lawrence was sued for libel by Philip Heseltine, who charged that Lawrence's effeminate character Halliday was a representation of himself. After the publisher approached Heseltine, he accepted a settlement of £50. Heseltine consoled himself by growing a beard. The payment of hush-money so enraged Lawrence that he let his distaste for Heseltine and his wife be known to a long-time friend, Samual Koteliansky, saying "Well, they are both such abject shits it is a pity they can't be flushed down a sewer."

Café in downtown Taormina. Copyright: Norm Harrison, 1999Frieda had a legion of lovers during the Lawrences' rocky marriage. Her infidelity continued at Fontana Vecchia. Brenda Maddox sheds more light on the subject in her book, D.H. Lawrence. "The full list of Frieda's lovers, it has been said, would fill a small telephone book. Unfortunately, the book has not been found. One lover, who declared himself somewhat belatedly, was an elderly Italian immigrant living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1990. Just before he died, Peppino D'Allura announced that he had been Frieda Lawrence's lover in Taormina in the early 1920s. At the time a mule driver for a wine merchant, D'Allura claimed that one day when he was visiting the Fontana Vecchia, Frieda suddenly appeared in the nude. She offered him the gift of herself, which he accepted."

Early in 1921, Lawrence agreed to rent Fontana Vecchia for another year, but in a letter to Eleanor Farjeon that same month he expressed second thoughts, "Well perhaps you'll be glad you haven't come to Sicily. It thunders and lightens for 24 hours, and hailstones continually, till there is hail-ice thick everywhere, and it is deadly cold and horrid. Meanwhile the almond blossom is almost full out -- a sea of blossom, would be, if it weren't shattered. I have said I will take this house for another year. But I really don't believe I shall come back for another winter."

While living in Fontana Vecchia, Lawrence's income and fame in America were exploding. In January, he received a $500 advance for The Lost Girl; in March, $50 for Tortoises. Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, published in 1921, gave notice that America had discovered a great English writer.

On November 5, 1921, Lawrence received a letter from an admirer of his Sea and Sardinia which was to change the Lawrences' life. The letter was written by Mabel Dodge Sterne. Mrs. Sterne invited Lawrence and his wife to come to live in Taos, New Mexico. The move made perfect sense to Lawrence, since he was rapidly becoming more famous in America, and he quickly responded to the invitation: "Truly, the q-b (Queen Bee, as he often referred to Frieda) and I would like to come to Taos -- there are no little bees." Frieda shared Lawrence's enthusiasm for leaving Italy because she felt the expatriate cluster colony of Taormina was ill-suited to Lawrence's writing.

Fontana Vecchia had been kind to Lawrence. When he and Frieda left the villa, he had $1729.54 in an American bank account alone, and more in his Italian and British accounts. Lawrence was earning an annual income in excess of £400 as a full-time writer and world traveler. To put this into perspective, the monumental T.S. Eliot, working as a full-time bank employee, and struggling as a part-time writer, had an annual income of £250.

In memoriam. Copyright: Norm Harrison, 1999.

In February 1922, Lawrence and Frieda bid farewell to Fontana Vecchia to begin a worldwide sojourn, which was to end a few years later in Vence, France with Lawrence's death. He succumbed to tuberculosis on March 2, 1930, at the premature age of 44.

End of Part 1. Click here for Part 2 of Norman's story. He'll tell you about another of Fontana Vecchia's famous residents: Truman Capote.

For those interesting in learning more about Fontana Vecchia, go to Norman Harrison's Webpage:http://www.angelfire.com/nh/writings/index.html, or email him at n.harrison@tao.it