Forehead smacking moments of revelation are a common, if painful, occurrence. For Marvin Zonis and Lucy Salenger, it happened one deep-winter day in Chicago as they worked together in their North Michigan Avenue office. Outside, fat, soggy snowflakes plummeted to the street from the steely gray sky, adding to the already grimy slush piled knee-high along the gutters.
Marvin, a business professor and adviser on international politics, was chatting to a friend who had recently transferred his business, and life, to Florida. "I can live anywhere. Why would I stay where the weather is so terrible?" was the friend's answer to Marvin's query about his midlife switcheroo.
The ancient hills and ridges of the Apennine mountains form the backbone of Italy and, as they pass through Umbria, provide the setting fro San Pietro Colle di Sole, the home of Lucy Salenger and Marvin Zonis.
"That's when we both looked at each other and thought, why indeed?"says Lucy, recalling the moment that altered the direction of their lives. She's originally from balmy Los Angeles, while native-Chicagoan Marvin had been enduring the extremes of the northern climate for too many years. They decided then and there to expand their domestic horizons and establish a second home where the winter climate is warm and welcoming.
"First we looked at Florida, but what we found wasn't to our taste. Then L.A., because it's where I'm from. We even looked at London—we have a daughter living there—but the climate is not what you'd call warm," says Lucy, running through the list of possibilities. "Then we remembered how much we had always enjoyed our visits to Italy, so we thought why not give it a try, and decided to focus on Tuscany and Umbria."
They gathered guide books and regional maps, and pinpointed interesting locations-and airports, since easy access was a criterion. But for all the logistical forethought and research, in the end it came down to a dinner-party introduction to someone who owned a farmhouse in Umbria. He, in turn, was the key to the realization of the couple's dream: the geometra, or building surveyor. For Lucy and Marvin, this was Antonio Marriotti, whose main professional interest is the renovation and restoration of vintage buildings. In 1991, Marriotti took the couple to a rundown property, San Pietro Colle di Sole (loosely translated as St. Peter's Sunny Hilltop), an amalgam of traditional Umbrian structures, including a rustic 11th-century chapel and a 15th-century farm dwelling that had been enlarged in the 18th century to incorporate animal stalls on the ground level below the main living areas. It was near the city of Città di Castello in the foothills of the Umbrian Apennines.
Centranthus ruber, or wall valerian, is shown in close-up
"The sale of the house was complete on December 21st," says Lucy. "We celebrated with Tonio in the local café and started thinking about what needed to be done—not only to the buildings but also to the garden. That's when we realized we had no sense of what to do!"
"But then," continues Marvin, "we were introduced to Don Leevers." The couple spent a week at Venzano, Leevers' home and nursery near Volterra in Tuscany, and the three started working out what they wanted.
Thanks to Leevers' guidance and design, today a visit to San Pietro is like stepping back in time. Italian garden history virtually begins with the garden of Pliny the Younger, a 1st-century Roman orator and statesman who built a country villa near Città di Castello and treated the garden as a natural extension of the house-with outdoor rooms walled by tall hedges and connected by gravel and marble-paved pathways.
Climbing rose 'Bluse Noisette.'
Similarly, San Pietro's 21st-century garden unfolds from the house in a series of flower-filled rooms laid within a framework of gravel paths-shaded, as they would have been in Pliny's garden-by vine-covered pergolas.
From the beginning, the couple knew they wanted a garden that would last through the summer, which meant it would have to have an irrigation system. Second, they wanted a pergola-covered terrace for outdoor living, and third, the garden plan had to make the most of San Pietro's hilltop site, with its panoramic views across the nearby valley of the Soara River and down the Tiber valley-a view that Pliny probably enjoyed.
San Pietro nestled into its flower- and herb-filled hilltop garden
The backbone of the San Pietro garden is a long pergola that stretches roughly east to west, providing a shady stroll from the house to a swimming pool. Sunny, open flower beds and gravel walks range down either side of the pergola. Leevers' design is basically formal in plan, with the garden space arranged in an unfolding series of outdoor rooms unified by the diverse but distinctly informal plantings. Each flower bed is stocked to overflowing with plants selected for scent and drought tolerance.
San Pietro had been uninhabited for several generations before Lucy and Marvin arrived, and their earliest memories include a lack of attractive trees and the coarse, desiccated remnant of a failed lawn. After the installation of a computer-timed drip irrigation system, the couple planted many ornamental trees-particularly cypresses and olives, without which no Italian garden is worthy of the name. And then, under Leevers' plan, the lawn was replaced with flower beds filled with dianthus, lavender, salvias, myriad herbs, and shrub and climbing roses.
Now, more than a decade later, the garden provides Lucy and Marvin with exactly the home they set out to create.
Compared to Tuscany, Umbria is much less crowded. And with its hilltop site, San Pietro is extremely peaceful—"the only sound you can hear is the distant ring of cowbells," offers Lucy.
"We spend up to a third of our year here," she adds, contemplating what San Pietro has meant to their lives. "My daughter was married here, we've had several major family gatherings, and friends come and go. It is another nest for Marvin and me, and we count ourselves blessed to have found it."
Lucy and Marvin enjoying the view of Italy's Soara River valley
Photography: Tim Clinch