VIRGINIA Woolf said famously that in order to write a woman needs an annual income of £500 (done) and ‘a room of one’s own.’ So there’s no excuse. I’ve got two rooms of my own, stacked on top of each other; half a house, in fact, overhanging the gorge of the Licenza river and the cascading terracotta tiles of the centro storico. Like its neighbours this medieval doll’s house is glued to the rock of the Orsini castle, where laundered bedlinen dries on washing lines beneath the piano nobile.
Today Licenza’s historic centre compromises its antiquity, its six centuries of evolution from defensive borgo to peaceful paese. Skeins of power cables link the roofs; gravity-defying extensions, kitchens, bathrooms, balconies, stud the walls like limpets; TV satellite dishes offer target practice for the ghosts of crossbow archers and siege engineers. Yet the essence of the little hill town endures. Its ashen limestone, its basalt cobbles, its cracks and crevices crammed with wild herbs and flowers and its timeless mountain views co-exist with the digital age. Up to a point. Broadband hasn’t reached its highest houses, which means I stroll downhill with my laptop to go online beneath a yellow parasol at the Bar della Piazza. Sunshine in cyberspace.
Licenza’s hub is the piazza, five minutes’ walk down Via Orazio Flacco, a street named for its local celebrity, who was once a neighbour. Orazio Flacco – Quintus Horatius Flaccus to Latin scholars or plain Horace to his English translators – is a big cheese in these parts. This obscure valley 40 kilometres from Rome has literary history. Over 2000 years ago the pre-eminent poet of the Augustan Age was gifted a small country estate by his patron, Maecenas, the emperor’s civic lieutenant. Horace, in his writings, called it ‘my little Sabine farm’. Its centre piece was a handsome villa whose foundations have been recovered by diligent archaeology.
Orazio’s villa has one of the prettiest sites in the province of Lazio. I can see its cypresses and pines from my windows. Even with two rooms of my own the urge to postpone the neurotic business of writing is ever-present, making it utter joy to wash the windows. The walk to Villa d’Orazio beckons, one of my favourites among the waymarked paths of the Lucretili Mountains. It begins at the only door of my lofty half-house, navigates the stepped conduit of Via delle Piagge (‘street of the slopes’, like every other street in town ) and descends to the valley bottom. Here the humble waters of the Licenza river pursue their journey from the Apennines to the Aniene, a Tiber tributary, and eventually to Rome.
Soon I’m climbing again through groves of massive chestnut trees, past the diamond-shaped bricks of Villa d’Orazio, past Fonte Bandusia and onto the track to Roccagiovane, whose castle and campanile I can also see from my windows. Waiting under more chestnut trees – and I usually share this walk with friends or family – is lunch at La Castagneta: homemade pasta with truffle sauce, lamb, pork or rabbit. They are hefty meat eaters in these hills, which the livestock share with boar and wolves.
There are other distractions. So how much writing actually gets done in Licenza, where the half-house has become a creative retreat by default? We took possession of it eight years ago but my husband, a city man, soon exhausted his appetite for hilltop life in rural Italy, put the property in my name, handed over the paperwork and the responsibility and said he’d meet me in Rome. Since then I’ve become dangerously fond of spending time there on my own, wrapping up the hours of each simplified day into lightweight parcels labelled Work, Recreation and Social Activity.
In the upper room the day begins on reveille from the lazy buglers of the Licenza valley, where even the cocks don’t wake up until the sun has cleared the hills. Its first beams are my signal to negotiate the open staircase to the lower room, bearing in mind it could be a while before someone raised the alarm if I tripped and cracked my skull on the tiled floor. I switch on my laptop, open the parcel called Work, read the last paragraph I wrote, fetch the novel I’m reading and make a pot of tea; but not before leaning out of the window to taste the morning and consume a view which changes only with the seasons. By early April the swifts and swallows have arrived, by late September the house martins are last to leave, and I am so high on the castle rock that all these migrants fly beneath me.
At the frosted glass door which opens onto my improvised terrace I can see the shadow of a diminutive lion couchant. I open the parcel labelled Social Activity. Spook wants his breakfast. Spook is a big, handsome, ghost-grey tomcat who is, for the time being, last of the feline dynasty whose social dynamics I’ve been studying for eight years. I could write a book about the Piagge pride and some day might do so. I’ve been taking notes (filed in the parcel Work) since the day that plain, plaintive Gypsy first came to my door soliciting affection as much as food.
Italian cats eat pasta. The signora next door made an extra portion every night and left it out for the Piagge pride, who survived longer than most feral cats on scavenging, hunting and spaghetti carbonara. They were a matriarchal clan headed up by Seraphina, an elegant, grey and white queen with a chewed ear who fearlessly defended her extended family and even brought them meals. I once saw her carry a large sausage up the street and present it to Gypsy and her latest litter – three tortoiseshell kits as heartmeltingly pretty as their mother was plain.
One by one, without veterinary care and enough protein, the Piagge pride has succumbed to malnutrition, bad weather and disease. Three winters ago there were persistent blizzards in the Lucretili hills – unusual but not unknown – and when I returned in the spring there was no sign of Seraphina, and no Gypsy sprinting to my door as soon as I opened the shutters. The family was reduced to two skinny granddaughters, neither in good shape, and now they are gone, too; although the dynastic genes probably survive in the tortoiseshell toms I see around town, as the young males – just like their relatives in a lion pride – were expelled when they reached adolescence.
But Spook represents the future. One of the grey litter from four years back, he has returned to claim his maternal legacy – the hand-outs of Via delle Piagge. He is strong, healthy and well-socialised; perhaps he even has an infant memory of me and the paper plates on my doorstep, and I don’t doubt he is spreading the seed of a restored dynasty.
Decision time: do I make my own breakfast or go down to the piazza café for cappuccino and cornetti, entertaining the old men and women who know my face, who greet me courteously but for whom I remain a novelty and enigma? In Rome a woman sitting alone at a café would pass unnoticed. In Licenza no-one does anything alone because everyone knows everyone. An action as simple as crossing the street is a collective performance, as neighbours and shopkeepers exchange amplified greetings with passers-by. From the deep peace of via delle Piagge, where at night the only sounds are the liquid chords of the River Licenza and the woodland nightingales, I descend into the piazza as a tide of voices, like pebbles rolled by waves, rises to meet me.
Sometimes I open the parcel called Work in the Café della Piazza. Perhaps I shall write a book about the daily minutiae of its theatre, like the French writer Georges Perec, who over three days in 1974 sat at a café in Place Saint-Sulpice recording everything that passed before his line of vision. He described the exercise as a quest for the ‘infra-ordinary’, the humdrum, ‘what happens when nothing happens.’ He got 55 paperback pages out of his An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Hmmm. I could call my own attempt something like The Everyday Philosophers of Piazza della Liberta. But for now it’s time to open the parcel labelled Recreation, which means I shall take an hour’s walk to the hide near Civitella and try to spot the pair of eagles who nest on Monte Pellecchia.
So here’s the thing. The creative retreat is underused. It lies empty for months, unloved within its venerable walls but not neglected. My good friend Geraldine keeps an eye on it, and the sweet mountain air ventilates the rooms through an open window too small to admit even baby burglars, with a screen to block the bugs. But for much of the year, frosty or sunlit or sluiced with rain, the half-house feels the absence of human warmth – and human creativity; even the presence of this scribbler of notes and tapper of keyboards with the short attention span, who puts piazza life, dreamy birdwatching, lunch at La Castagneta and the feeding of cats before art.
Perhaps it wishes its owner was a painter who would at least leave the smell of oils behind; or an academic with a thesis to complete and a deadline to meet; anyone more committed than this half-hearted hack who managed to complete a book in Licenza only because it was January and the days were short and cold.
Two rooms of my own? If you meet the criteria and present the references they are yours for a trial run and a peppercorn rent on one condition: the cats get fed. Proper cat food, not pasta.
Julie Davidson, who completed her book Looking for Mrs Livingstone in her two rooms in Licenza, welcomes enquiries about the property and may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.