In the early 1960s, Shirley Guiton was attending an international conference in Paris. Her mind was not entirely on the discussions in full spate around her. She had just received a telegram, which stated briskly: ‘Found possible property Torcello come at once.’
‘I do not know how I got away from Paris,’ she later wrote. ‘I was certainly not popular with my delegates. But I caught the train to Venice that night.’ And so began a ridiculous, romantic adventure.
The following morning, Shirley met her agent in teeming rain and together they made the half-hour crossing to Torcello. After a squelching, often dangerous struggle through marshland, they
reached a tumble-down cottage, whose western wall bulged over the lagoon. ‘The bricks were gnawed hollow by the winds, the roof was half-stripped of tiles and the remaining floor boards sagged under piles of evil-smelling debris. A great fig-tree sprouted where the kitchen had been. This was all that remained of a great Cistercian monastery with its chapter house, dormitories and refectories. Among them had stood the church of St Thomas of the Burgundians. By gradual degrees it had all come down to this.’
In 1972, Shirley Guiton’s account of what she did next, how she coped with the dreaded Soprintendenza of Venice, and with the builders and gardeners and interested Torcellans on her island, was published, with lovely illustrations by John Lawrence, price £2.50 in hardback. John Julius Norwich, who knows a thing or two about Venice, enthused; and Michael Foot stated firmly: ‘She has achieved what Mary McCarthy assured all and sundry was impossible – to say something about Venice which previous visitors had not said before. These pages are touched with Venetian serenity and illuminated by the eccentric lights of the lagoon.’
They were right to be enthusiastic. This was years before A Year in Provence or Driving over Lemons reminded readers that they, too,
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