Basking In Middle Age In Tuscany

Prince Frederic von Anhalt and Anna Nicole Smith
AP/Doug Sheridan
This is the first stop in CBS News Sunday Morning's month-long look at the Middle Ages - our middle ages, that is. It's a time of life for exploring and maybe taking some new paths. We begin our series with a visit to Tuscany. CBS News Correspondent Allen Pizzey reports on Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun, and her husband, Edward Kleinschmidt Mayes. Renovating a house in Tuscany certainly changed their lives.
Tuscany. A land of cycles, of layers, where medieval and modern worlds merge so seamlessly as to be one and the same.

The finest wines are still made, using tools and methods from centuries ago.

Houses that were homes before America was discovered slumber and stir into life again, especially if they beckon dreamers.

The best-selling book about how Francis and Ed Mayes came to feel at home there has connected millions of readers to them and to Tuscany.

"The house seemed at home," says Frances Mayes. "I was a stranger, but I thought maybe, since the house is already so at home, if I move in it, I can be at home here, too."

And indeed that has happened.

She explains, "I feel very, very much at home here - much more than I had anticipated. I thought that it would be just a vacation, a wonderful place to cook and garden, but it has become home, and it is no longer that kind of escape place, but it's the place where we feel the most connected."

But idyllic as it sounds and looks, ploughing your life savings into a derelict 200-year-old house in the middle of the Tuscan hills can daunt even the most romantic.

"I woke up for months in the middle of the night, remember, thinking this is the craziest thing I've ever done," says Frances Mayes.

Adds Ed Mayes, "It was a new culture, a new language, a new way of living."

Under the Tuscan Sun is both the story of the restoration the house and a celebration of Italy's Tuscany region. The name of the house is Bramasole, which means "yearns for the sun."

Did Frances Mayes make the move with a view to writing about it, or did the writing just grow out of what she was doing?

"It just grew," she replies. "I was keeping a notebook the way I had always kept a notebook as a poet, and just felt there was so much going on that I started reading and writing more about Italy. It just began to grow."

Considering what it was like when the couple decided to buy it, Bramasole today is a thing of simple beauty. The fireplace had to be stripped of what Frances Mayes described as "hideous shiny baby blue tile." But seemingly endless labor found unexpected rewards: A fresco appeared from under layers of paint, plaster and dust that caked a wall of the dining room.

Frances Mayes observes, "Two hundred years is very old in America. But, around here, it's not a very old house."

The two still live and work mainly in California. But Bramasole is turning from peoccupation to raison d'être.

"You know, you would like to be through with old houses," explains Frances Mayes. "But they're not going to be through with you. They always want something more. So we're continuing to develop other parts of the garden."

Once a jumble of weeds, rocks and brambles, the garden, too, yielded insights into ancient history. Mayes points out a cistern "constructed with arches, and everyone has told us that it connects with the system up in the Medici fortress."

But bits of it turn out to be not so ancient, as Mayes shows a piece of glass: "It looks like Roman glass to me. I always fantasize that it's ancient, but then I saw that this one was some kind of shampoo."

For Ed Mayes, the garden means as much as the house, not least because it provides some of the other essentials that the book deals with: food, the essence of Italy.

"Cooking takes very little time here," says Frances Mayes , "because with primo ingredients, very fresh ingredients, you don't need to do very much to them. You just need to let them have their moment....This kitchen is really fun to cook in because it opens to the outdoors. Any time you burn a pot, you can just take it right out the door."

But Frances and Ed Mayes say it's not just the food that makes Tuscany different.

"I felt I was always working up against time, was pushing time," explains Frances Mayes. "I was looking at my watch. I was checking my agenda, and here it feels like people are much more folded into time."

Adds Ed Mayes, "Here, there's such a long tradition of good wine, good food, and working the land that I think I naturally fell into it."

What Frances Mayes calls "the voluptuousness of Italian life" is embodied in the history of Tuscany. Its famous sons include the poet Dante, ultimate political operative Machiavelli, sculptor and painter Michelangelo, and a monk who wandered through the region became St Francis of Assisi.

The town of Cortona, which dates from the pre-Roman days of the Etruscans, has made Frances an honorary citizen, not least because of what her books have meant for the local tourist industry. But town council official Andrea Laurenzini says there is also a feeling there that she got it right.

Says Laurenzini, "The book is really, really a true reportage of our way of life - not only Cortona, this Tuscany area."

A simple gate with a number is the only clue that this is arguably the most famous house in Tuscany. But lovers of its story have no trouble finding it.

"A lot of people make literary pilgrimages," says Frances Mayes. "Most people just come and look and then pass on. They don't bother us or anything."

One man did walk into the front door with a video camera rolling. But most are like Melody Mociulski from Seattle, who looked at Bramasole from a respectful distance and proclaimed it "more increible even than I...envisioned it in the book."

There are some locals who resent the influx of tourists and the fact that fame has pushed up house prices. But Frances says she has felt no personal animosity.

"I did change the names in the book," she says, "and after the book was translated into Italian, a lot of people came up to me on the street and said, 'Why did you change my name?' They didn't want the names to be changed."

Both Ed and Frances Mayes say this place has changed them and their poetry.

Says Frances Mayes, "Because I grew up in the South, and everybody in the South has that sense is never neutral, it starts to make you who you are."

And when you breakfast on the lawn while the mists rise slowly from the valley as the morning sun moves to caress the house called Bramasole, any other life is hard to imagine.

"There's always kind of rumor that we've sold it. I don't know why," says Frances Mayes. "But we wouldn't sell it. We love it."