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Under a Tuscan spell
By Veronica Gould Stoddart, USA TODAY


CORTONA, Italy — On a warm summer night in the frescoed 19th-century Signorelli Theater here, Frances Mayes takes to the stage. In her soft Southern accent, the slight, unassuming author reads from the opening lines of her best-selling book, Under the Tuscan Sun, which is set in this ancient walled town south of Florence. The audience, here for a cultural extravaganza called the Tuscan Sun Festival, listen enthralled. Mostly devotees of her book, they hang on every familiar poetic word spoken by the writer herself.
But their enthusiasm, bordering on reverence, is just a foretaste of what awaits Cortona when the film version of Mayes' evocative memoir, starring Oscar nominee Diane Lane, opens today. Ever since the 1996 publication of Mayes' recipe-laced book about restoring a rundown farmhouse outside Cortona, the town — and indeed the surrounding Tuscan countryside — has been awash with fans seeking la dolce vita so sensually conveyed in its pages. Now Cortona, where the film was largely shot, is bracing for the next onslaught. "One thing that scares me is that the town will change because of the movie," says Diane Lane, 38, who spent four months shooting here. "It would hurt my soul to think that it might. I just loved Cortona. "Lane felt so embraced by the Cortonans that she had to suppress her affection for the place during shooting. "I had to feel like a stranger in a strange place in the film."

By Veronica Gould Stoddart, USA TODAY

Heart of Cortona: The Piazza della Repubblica is the larger of two in Cortona. Author Frances Mayes calls these squares the "longest running play in the world and the crux and crucible of Italian life."
Mayes, meanwhile, is thrilled that the film was set in the town she immortalized in her book and two sequels, Bella Tuscany and In Tuscany. "It would not have been the same if it had been filmed elsewhere," says Mayes, 63, seated inside Bramasole, the peach-colored 18th-century villa that started it all. (A different house stands in for Bramasole in the movie.) Although she's "still kind of shocked to look out the window and see 30 people standing in the street looking at the house," she's proud of the impact of her books on the town. "Cortona has improved since the first book came out. It's much livelier, has more places to eat, more stores. People have spruced up their houses. "Ancient ladies will pull on my sleeve and say, 'Thank you for what you did for Cortona.' "Each successive language translation of Tuscan Sun — nearly 20 to date — brings a new wave of pilgrims. "This year we've even had tourists from Estonia, Hungary and Brazil," she says.
Still, it's going to take more than a book or even a Disney movie to alter the essential character of a place that dates to the eighth century BC, a place that Lane says "feels hewn out of stone." Once an important Etruscan center, Cortona is a compact, prosperous town of 27,000 residents, one of the crown jewels of Tuscan hill towns. Outside its stone ramparts, terraced slopes, silvery-green with olive groves and vineyards, unfold into the fertile Val di Chiana plain below. Layers of history — Etruscan, Roman, Medieval, Renaissance — are visible everywhere, in its fortifying walls, its 20 churches, its solid palazzos and its red-roofed houses with their hefty wooden doors. Steep cobblestone streets snake crookedly through town and up the hill, all the way to the Medici fortress at the summit.
Information: tuscansunfestival.com

At every turn, achingly beautiful vistas beckon like Leonardo landscapes. Sentinel-straight cedars stand watch over golden fields bursting with sunflowers in summer. Stone farmhouses dot tawny, undulating hillsides. And the waters of Lake Trasimeno shimmer in the distance. But the focal point is the piazza, what Mayes calls the "longest running play in the world and the crux and crucible of Italian life." Cortona is doubly blessed, with two main squares, both vehicle-free. The larger Piazza della Repubblica is anchored by the 13th-century town hall with a crenellated clock tower and broad steps that serve as a makeshift amphitheater. Sooner or later, everyone perches there: Elderly couples, young hipsters, mothers with babies, and tourists in T-shirts and shorts lick ice cream cones and watch the daily drama on center stage. Just an alley away is the smaller Piazza Signorelli and its namesake theater, which had a role in both Tuscan Sun and the 1998 Oscar winner Life Is Beautiful.
Lining the two squares and the town's intricate web of medieval streets are tiny, tony shops that sell fine jewelry, YSL lingerie, French perfumes, art and antiques, and colorful hand-painted ceramics. Not to mention a heady array of local foods: golden bottles of olive oil (extra-virgin, of course), farm-fresh cheeses, noble wines, prosciutto, spicy pestos, and some 50 shapes of dried pasta in one grocery store alone. Those ingredients become delectable creations in the town's cozy trattorias. Everywhere there are sunflowers — real ones, fake ones, in calendars and greeting cards, on posters, paintings and pottery. Cultivated for their oil, these exuberant blossoms form a lyrical leitmotif throughout the town and movie alike. In the late afternoon, church bells peal, signaling the end of siesta and the reawakening of piazza life. Villagers reappear, with ciao and buona sera on their lips as they greet each other with two-cheeked kisses.
"Italians here are extremely hospitable," says Mayes. "The social life will kill the weak and cripple the mighty. We're exhausted at the end of summer." On late summer evenings, ladies with lacy fans and with gents on their arms turn out in all their finery for opera in Piazza Signorelli. On this night, a traveling Bulgarian troupe, with the odd Romanian and Italian soloist, performs Donizetti's L'Elisir d' Amore. Stage lights dance off the centuries-old stones, as the arias envelop the square under a starry, starry sky.

Joy in the morning
Après-performance, the audience lingers in the piazzas — promenading, socializing and sipping drinks in outdoor cafes until the wee hours. Diane Lane, however, liked early mornings best, when she could hear the first shops clank open and smell the fresh bread and espresso perfume the air. She found the rhythm of town life "like a flower that opens and closes. The ebb and flow is organic because people want to be around each other." Plenty of them also wanted to be around the Hollywood filmmakers. Serbian Mirko Djordjijevic, a staffer at the Villa Marsilli hotel where the cast stayed, is still star-struck from their visit. "When Diane left the hotel, she started to cry and told me, 'We'll see you another time. I feel it in the wind.' "Fiorella Sciarri Quitti, who owns Il Cocciaio, Cortona's oldest pottery shop, dating to the 1920s, beams when she describes her small role in the movie. "It was fun," she says. "I've read the book (Tuscan Sun)," she continues. "But we live it, so it's not interesting to us. But outsiders are fascinated by it."
Indeed, the town's only bookstore has trouble keeping Mayes' volumes in stock, says owner Giulio Nocentini. He mostly sells English, Italian and German versions. But not everyone is so taken with Mayes' romanticized portrait or the groupies drawn to it. Carol Coller, an American art historian with the town's Etruscan Museum, says some of her Italian neighbors objected to being portrayed as "too quaint or rustic, too cute for words. But the merchants are in seventh heaven." Then there's the controversy over the fake fountain built in Piazza Signorelli, as if the picture-perfect town needed cosmetic enhancements. "The ladies of town were scandalized by the large penis on the statue in the fountain," says Coller. "They said, 'We don't want our kids to see that.' So the filmmakers made it smaller."

Fake fountain built in Piazza Signorelli

Sylvia Pescatori, the desk clerk in one Hotel, rues her proximity to Bramasole, which is less than a mile from the hotel. "Every day I'm like a recorder, directing people to the house, 20 or 30 times a day. The hotel has even considered changing its name to Bramasole." Still, she hopes the movie (in which she had a walk-on part) will boost tourism, which has been down because of the Iraq war.
Mayor Emanuele Rachini agrees. He says he hopes people will be uplifted by the film. "The townspeople are happy to expose their city to the world. Cortona is like a beautiful woman who is a flirt and likes to be admired."
That flirt found the perfect admirer in Mayes. Indeed, she has turned her love affair into a cottage industry. In addition to the three books (2 million copies sold), the film, and the yearly arts festival she spearheaded, there's an upcoming cooking and decorating guide, entitled A Tuscan Home. It ties into this month's debut of her own furniture and houseware collection by Drexel Heritage, called "Frances Mayes at Home in Tuscany."
Just call her the Martha Stewart of Tuscany.
And consider Evelyn Hitzig, 73, a retiree from Teaneck, N. J., a ready convert to the Mayes villa lifestyle, even after only a few days here. "I love it so much that I've contacted a real estate agent. Cortona is still in the world but far removed."

CORTONA — Rain allowing, Monday and Tuesday of the next week the set of the film "Under the Tuscan Sun" will be moved to the Square of the Republic, where it will be turned into a winter wonderland, with artificial snow that will fall on the historical cortonese square. The Municipal Police will arrange the closing of the square for these days of shooting. In the next week, a scene at night in the etruscan part of Cortona and then the moment of a marriage at the abbey of Farneta will also be filmed. In the last days of October Raoul Bova will film a short scene in town, and then on to a background of the sea and the landscape of Positano, the "cove" of love for the two protagonists of the story, interpreted by the sensual Diane Lane and from the dark and mysterious actor of the Italian cinema, recently in the cloths of S. Francesco in a television drama of Michele Soavi. Meanwhile the permanence to Cortona of Diane Lane continues, between the toils of the set and the festive weekend travelling to visit some neighboring Italian towns, spending some time now in the gym to maintain her perfect physical shape. The attractive protagonist of the film "Unfaithful", with Richard Gere and Olivier Martinez ( at Christmas on our screens), has been visited in recent days by her young daughter from her marriage with former husband Christopher Lambert and the girl might have a small part in the film. Actually Diane Lane for merit of this film directed by Adrian Line, the well-known producer of Nine and 1/2 weeks, Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal, returned in domineering manner to the limelight after having turned out numerous films, between "A small story of love" of 1979, "Rusty the Savage" of 1983, "Roads of fire" from 1984, "Cotton Club" of the same year, with Robert Niro. Now, after the american success of "Unfaithful", the actress hopes it repeats itself with this film by Audrey Wells, produced by Walt Disney, that will be distributed all over the world, after having seen the success obtained from the book by the same name by Mayes. After Claudia Cerini, as well as the known producer Mario Monicelli left the cortonese set, here alone to film a "cameo" to give a shine to the film. Arriving Thursday of the past week and lodging at "Villa Marsili" (a very attractive structure, an ancient palazzo, that Monicelli knows already from the past year in occasion of
his visit to Cortona for the Antique Show) he plays a flower shop owner and he presents a large bouquet of flowers to Diane Lane from a young enchanted lover.

Greg's Preview Thoughts:
9/30/02 - Sounding a bit like an Italian Chocolat replacing sweets with pasta and tomatoes, this project was nurtured through two years of development by Miramax Films, and then picked up by their larger corporate cousin, Touchstone, just as things were almost ready to start filming. The book upon which this film is (loosely) based has been a bookstore staple for a few years, echoing the early 1990s success of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, another memoir-style book about an outsider moving into a colorful and nostalgic community (Savannah, GA). Those involved might want the comparison to end there, however, as that movie was considered to be a relative bomb, considering its high-profile cast and literary fanbase. This is also the second film from screenwriter-turned-director Audrey Wells, whose first film, Guinevere, I found to be a well-written, touching story about the way young women are sometimes attracted to (much) older men. That film was considerably more daring, however, than most of the films Wells has written, which tend to be very mainstream comedies (mostly, like this film, for Disney). This movie is also a big deal for its star, Diane Lane, who is getting a chance to "carry" a studio film that will most likely be getting a wide release. At 37, Lane has already costarred in over 40 films, and has been steadily increasing in profile, with this year's Unfaithful being a hit relative to cost/expectations (and that would have been her first "studio starring vehicle" if it hadn't costarred Richard Gere).
As for the movie itself, having read several reviews of the book, I'm at first a bit wary, as it appears to be weak in "story", as it basically just describes the experience of moving to Italy. The story of this film, however, appears to be much more structured and altered, so the film's strength will depend upon Wells' own storytelling skills both as a writer and a director. My hesitation is mostly over a concern that this material sounds like it could so easily devolve into being an "American tourist abroad" story, with an anglo lead marvelling at how spicy and you know... "European" Italy is. If I wanted to see that... I'd just book a flight to Florence myself, and look in the mirror


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