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Iris Origo. A Chill in the Air

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Italian Cultural Institute

39 Belgrave Square

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SW1X 8NX

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With Anna Bravo, Katia Lysy, Virginia Nicholson

On the occasion of the publication of A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939-1940, the Italian Cultural Institute remembers the figure of the great English writer, her life in Italy and particularly her role as witness of the years of the Second World War.

Origo was born in 1902 in Gloucestershire. Her parents travelled widely after their marriage, particularly in Italy, where her father contracted tuberculosis and died in 1910. Iris and her mother, Lady Sybil Cuffe, settled in Italy, buying the Villa Medici in Fiesole. There they formed a close friendship with Bernard Berenson, who lived not far away at I Tatti.
In 1924 Iris married Antonio Origo, an illegitimate son of Marchese Clemente Origo. They moved to their purchased estate, La Foce, near Chianciano Terme in the Province of Siena. It was in an advanced state of disrepair, on a windswept hill and with no running water, but the desire to reconstruct a new society (“our shared youthful dream”, as Origo referred to it) drove the couple and they managed to transform it.
After the death of her son Gianni in 1933, Iris Origo embarked on a writing career, with a well-received biography of Giacomo Leopardi, published in 1935, which was followed in 1938 by a biography of Cola di Rienzo. Her 1957 book The Merchant of Prato is an invaluable source for students of Italian city and mercantile life, based on extensive research in the archives of merchant Francesco di Marco Datini (1335–1410).

During the Second World War, the Origos remained at La Foce and looked after refugee children, who were housed there. Following the Armistice of 8th September 1943, Iris Origo also sheltered or assisted many escaped Allied prisoners of war, who were trying to cross the German lines, or simply to survive.

This diary, which has never been published and was recently found in Origo's archives, is the sad and gripping account of the grim absurdities that Italy and the world underwent as war became more and more unavoidable. Iris Origo was ideally placed to record the events: extremely engaged with the world around her, connected to people from all areas of society (from the peasants on her estate to the US ambassador to Italy), she writes of the turmoil, the danger, and the dreadful bleakness of Italy in 1939-1940, as war went from a possibility to a dreadful reality.
A Chill in the Air covers the beginning of a war whose catastrophic effects are documented in the bestselling War in Val D'Orcia.

Anna Bravo has been Associate Professor of Social History at the University of Turin. She particularly deals with history of women, memory and history of deportation and resistance. Among her latest publications: Intervista a Primo Levi, ex deportato (edited by, with F. Cereja, 2011), A colpi di cuore. Storie del sessantotto (2008), Donne e uomini nelle guerre mondiali(2008), In guerra senza armi. Storie di donne 1940-1945 (2000), Storia sociale delle donne nell'Italia contemporanea (2001).

Virginia Nicholson is a social historian. She has worked in the Documentary department of BBC Television and is a Trustee of the Charleston Trust, which administers the uniquely decorated Sussex farmhouse – now an internationally renowned museum – that was once home to her grandmother the artist Vanessa Bell.
Nicholson first met Iris Origo in 1973. She wrote the introduction to Iris Origo’s War in Val d'Orcia (2017) and is the author of, among others, Among the Bohemians - Experiments in Living 1900-1939 (2002), Millions Like Us - Women’s Lives in War and Peace 1939-1949 (2011) and Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes - The Story of Women in the 1950s (2015).

Katia Lysy was born in Rome. She has worked in publishing and as a journalist and translator. She now lives between Rome and southern Tuscany, where she assists her mother Benedetta, daughter of the writer Iris Origo, in the management and development of the family estate of La Foce.

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