A priest, in a snowy white surplice and gold embroidered stole appeared in the kitchen doorway as we lunched on asparagus and pasta at Maro Gorky and Matthew Spender's Tuscan farmhouse. The two leapt up to greet an old friend with enthusiasm and a barrage of chatter. I'd never before had an interview interrupted by a benediction, but at Easter in Tuscany this visit by the local priest is an annual ritual.
Gorky and Spender came to live at San Sano, Tuscany in 1968. Gorky had been partly brought up in Italy where her family moved after the early death of her father, the brilliant Armenian abstract expressionist painter, Arshile Gorky. Spender was escaping the constraints he felt put upon him as the son of the poet Stephen Spender. Both are artists - Gorky a painter, Spender a sculptor - so they were able to choose their place of work.
At that time, the ancient share-farming system ("mezzadria") was coming to an end. The peasants no longer split the profits from their smallholdings with the owner of the land; they became salaried workers, and many of them moved into the villages. This meant that many rural properties were left abandoned and were eventually snapped up by canny people in search of a rural idyll or, later, converted by the landowners for the purposes of tourism ("agriturismo"). Gorky's mother discovered Avane - the house is named after the wild grass that grows in the area - but the couple soon took it over.
The farmhouse has a square central tower characteristic of the area and sits in a garden that incorporates the structure of the original terraces in its framework. "All we did was build steps down through the walls," explains Gorky. These terraces would have been built by the peasants from the 18th century onwards as they shaped the hilly landscape for agricultural purposes. Now they are studded with Spender's sculptures in terracotta and marble.
Figures, mostly female, are everywhere you look, lounging in the grass, seated on benches, standing between the olive trees and viburnum bushes. Sometimes naked, but mainly swathed in Roman-style garments, there is something primeval about them, though Spender says he uses family and friends as his inspiration. They have a strong presence, a spiritual, detached air which makes one feel rather apologetic for invading their idyllic setting.
Great hedges of rosemary line the terraces, flanked by huge clumps of euphorbia. Gorky divides her time between the garden and painting; the balance depending on which is vying for most attention at that moment, sometimes a veritable tug-of-war. However, she finds that the two are not incompatible. "Gardening is very good for painting because it teaches you patience." It also provides her with inspiring imagery for her art. "I love alien-looking plants - the weirder they are, the more I like them."
There are bushes of giant fennel, huge thistles ("the peasants who lived here 40 years ago used the flowers to make rennet") and wild allium - "I adore the abstract shape of the dark purple pompoms. …