In summer and at Christmas and Easter, Carol Marano leaves
her rented four-room duplex in Huntington and flies to Italy, to her very own
villa in Tuscany, a two- story house of stone where the living room is painted
burnished gold and the floors are terra-cotta. She throws open the doors and
starts pouring the wine for an endless stream of visitors.
It could, with a few adjustments, be a scene from the book "Under the
Tuscan Sun" by Frances Mayes or the film of the same name. But for Marano, a
47-year-old high school art teacher, it is her own reality - a personal
adventure she thinks of as her destiny.
"I read the book twice," says Marano, an elegant woman with long, auburn
hair and a European taste for basic black and chunky, bold jewelry. "I read it
immediately when it came out. I thought, this woman is living my dream. But as
I read, I thought, I can't buy a house like that, with walls that have to be
ripped down, a place that needs to be totally restructured. I read the book
again after I found my house. It wasn't a disaster like Frances Mayes' house.
It was dusty and outdated and needed cosmetic work. But it was mine. Frances
Mayes never expected to live in Tuscany. I always did."
Marano - who grew up in Baldwin and speaks fluent Italian and studied art
at the University of Siena - first saw the villa in the summer of 2001. She was
divorced and running art and culture tours of Tuscany that featured painting
and sculpture workshops, cooking and language courses, and art history
excursions. She already had arranged to take a year-long sabbatical from her
teaching job at Oceanside High School and was looking for a place to stay in
Tuscany, perhaps a small apartment. A friend told her about a villa for sale in
Casciano di Murlo, a small medieval town south of Siena.
"It was just like 'Tuscan Sun.' I said, 'I'm not going to buy a house, but
I'll look at it.' But when we were driving into the little town I was feeling
that deja vu thing where you've already lived the moment. We walked into the
local cafe. The keyholder just happened to be in the cafe at that moment and
the owner just happened to be in town that day. So we went over."
No one had lived in the villa for six years. "There's a word in Italian -
trascurato," Marano says. "It means neglected and ignored, but not abandoned.
That described the house perfectly." But Marano walked through the door and
felt at home. She was thrilled by the very essence of the 3,800-square-foot,
10-room house made of terra-cotta and stone. "There's no Sheetrock, nothing
fake. The total earthiness of it was captivating."
She put down a deposit, then flew home to Long Island to pack a few things
she couldn't do without - her oriental rugs and computer, some winter clothes
and down comforters, a box spring and mattress. "There's a scene in the movie
where Diane Lane is going through her place, saying, 'No, I won't take that;
no, I don't need this. All I want is my books.' And a year later her books
arrive in Italy. Well, that's what happened to me, too. It took eight months
for my things to show up."
She returned to her new place in the sun with her three cats - Justy,
Minnie and Maxine, who all fell in love with Italian cat food. The first thing
Marano did was buy a sewing machine and lots of linen and lace. The onetime
fashion designer and seamstress went to work making curtains for the living
room. She kept sewing, making curtains for every room in the house and
fashioning bedspreads from the best silks. The plumbing was replaced and a new
boiler installed. The kitchen already had teak cabinets and terra- cotta floors
most American home buyers would die for, but the appliances were barely
functioning. Among other modern conveniences, Marano needed a dishwasher.
But for the most part, she decorated with the past in mind - trying to
restore the villa with arched doorways and 12-foot ceilings to some of its past
magic. She painted the big, bright master bedroom - now a guest room - gold,
using a technique called antica velatura. "You paint with a chamois roller and
it makes a crackly effect that gives the walls an aged quality like it's from
the 1800s. That's my goal - to bring the house back to its roots in the 1800s.
Over the bed, I placed a mezzaluna - a half-moon - terra- cotta relief of
cherubs that I bought in Florence. It seemed just right."
Room by room, project by project, Marano has transformed the shuttered
villa into a home that reflects the warmth of the region. The ground floor
rustico, similiar to a suburban rec room, features a wine cellar, two bedrooms
and a dining room. The living quarters in the upper story include five bedrooms
and three bathrooms. Two fireplaces provide extra coziness in winter. "The
house just needed a little attention. Actually it's a villa - a casa di
prestigio, or prestigious house. There's really not a comparable concept in the
U.S. I know I'll be there a very long time."
Last summer, Marano embarked on yet another challenge - one intrinsically
tied to her special love and her special talent. She painted a 38-inch- square
fresco of a 15th century female fruit vendor on a wall in her living room. It
took three days and three assistants to accomplish the task.
"We had to chisel away a one-centimeter-deep layer of what's called
intonaco in Italian, mortar or rough plaster. Then a mason replaced it with
fresh plaster. That's when the real fun began. The plaster dries in 24 hours
and you have to paint the entire fresco before it does. I painted for 10 hours.
My frutti vendola, which means a person who sells fruits and vegetables, is
gorgeous. I used pure pulverized pigment diluted with water so the colors are
brilliant - cadmium red and lapis blue and lemon yellow and both burnt and raw
siena. I worked from studies I created of a 15th century painting."
Marano, whose Huntington rental on a steep, narrow dead-end street has a
deck that looks out on a wooded acre, has outdoor projects in mind for her
Tuscan surroundings. A new patio, a swimming pool, a garden. Her half-acre in
Italy is shaded by holm oaks, dotted with cherry trees, rosebushes and
oleander, and scented with fragrant lavender and rosemary. Hot pink petunias
spill from 19th century clay urns, and lush orange and yellow trumpet vines
tangle on the rails of the balcony staircase.
And as important to Marano as her Tuscan villa is the community she has
joined. She is part of the region's art circle and has staged shows of her
work. She continues to run art workshops and culture tours that include stays
in old-world villas on working farms near Siena and Florence, where, according
to the Web site for the program - www.tuscanworkshop.com - olive oil, wine,
Pecorino cheese and fresh vegetables and herbs are grown and harvested.
Neighbors pop by unexpectedly, dinner parties spring up out of nowhere, town
festivals seem to be a weekly occurrence. Casciano di Murlo is surrounded by
vineyards and olive groves. "There is one grocery store, a bakery, a post
office, a hardware store which has everything, two outstanding restaurants, two
cafe-bars and a pharmacy that I haven't figured out when it's open. The market
is on Thursday. There's a truck selling herb-roasted chicken, the prosciutto
is amazing and there's a woman who sells lace and drapery remnants that you can
make things out of."
When she's at home in Huntington, her villa is still part of her life.
"Prior to living in Casciano I felt isolated here living the single life on
Long Island. But I brought back from Tuscany the idea of community dinners.
Once a month in my neighborhood, we host rotating dinners. There are about 10
of us and each month one person cooks for everyone and the rest bring the wine
But Carol Marano dreams of a villa of terra-cotta and stone in a place
where the sun seems to have a special light. "It's a magical place; it casts a
spell over you. There really is no other place I'd rather be. In my heart I'm
in Tuscany all the time."