Oct 7, 2013
08:48 AMArts & Entertainment
Italy Inspires Historical Novel by Charles Van Doren of Cornwall
Sometimes the future comes up to greet us in threadbare disguise.
In the case of Charles Van Doren of Cornwall, it was a little house in Tuscany that opened its doors not only to him and his wife, Gerry, but to the town of Cortona as well, and then its history, which proved to be fertile ground for his imagination.
His newly published “The Lion of Cortona,” a novel in three parts, depicts the perilous personal journeys of several individuals during the politically tumultuous 13th century.
But first the little house.
“It was 700 years old and hadn’t been lived in for 100 years,” recounted Mrs. Van Doren, recalling that they met someone in Italy who was buying and renovating old apartments.
“We always had a fantasy of having a pied a terre in Europe,” she said, adding that when opportunity arose, it was “a little stone house in a stone city with high ancient walls” that captured them.
It took four years to make habitable the three-room, three-story structure, built into the side of a hill, which fronted onto a roadway and offered sweeping views of the Val di Chiana at the rear.
“The first day the house was ours I stayed up all night and looked out over the valley—the hill towns looked like little ships floating,” Mrs. Van Doren recalled.
The very mention of the word “Tuscany” calls up romantic images of landscapes of iconic beauty.
Cortona is a hillside city in the province of Arezzo halfway between Rome and Florence, its deep roots evident in its Etruscan and Roman walls, medieval character and Renaissance buildings.
“The importance of it is how ancient it is,” said Mrs. Van Doren. “We found looking at old maps at the Vatican that it was once called ‘Corita’ and was a strategic place, at a principal north-south and east-west crossroads, as well as virtually impregnable.”
“Its history is rich and wonderful, but also frightening,” said Mr. Van Doren, noting that “from 1260 to [its acquisition by] the Medicis in 1360 was its heyday—that was when it was free, independent.”
“My book begins with the rape of Cortona, by forces under the bishop of Arezzo,” he said. “It was not something I imagined. It was true, something that took place in 1258. It was not safe there or anywhere else in what is now Italy during that period.”
The Van Dorens owned the house that was to be their second home for 25 years—“not a summer house but a second home, for when he retired,” said Mrs. Van Doren of her husband, who took an early retirement from Encyclopedia Britannica, where he was editorial vice president. Then, she said, they “started our routine” of going there just after the winter holidays and staying through April, or even during the summer, with an ever- deepening commitment to learning more about its history and understanding its culture.
“My father had not retired as early as he wanted,” said Mr. Van Doren, referring to Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and well-known writer and critic Mark Van Doren, who “only said to me, ‘Go to Europe and write.’”