September 1, 2015

Working Hard or Hardly Working at Tuscany’s Villa Lena

Long summer days and late nights with the artists in residence at the sprawling Italian estate

  • Written by McKay McFadden
  • Photography by Sasa Stucin

Two cliff top communities face each other near Palaia, Tuscany: the ghost town Toiano, site of unsolved crimes of passion and den to red foxes and fireflies, and Villa Lena, host of late summer nights and a community of curators, musicians, writers and artists.

Founded by former gallerist Lena Evstafieva and her husband, musician Jérôme Hadey, the rosemary-infused hotel hideout was designed to inspire camaraderie and creativity for both artists and guests. Here, the lingua franca is French, and truffle-laden forests, baked carmine earth, and the romantic decay of the nineteenth-century villa encouraged magical thinking; everything that happened around the hotel grounds this summer was not so different from the creative processes within the art studios.

David on blue, pillar in night

Together with the guests, we resident artists sun-gazed in the cactus garden and stargazed on the bocce court. In the heatwave we dragged our beds into the dappled shadows of holm oaks. We honored the solstice with arcs of rope secreting our desires to the sun and rose from bed in our underwear to admire lightning storms and share cinnamon tea when the electricity went out.

From my attic studio, I lay on a silk chaise longue and gazed over the garden, where basil reigned and children disappeared under strawberry bushes. But for the best view I’d walk down the hall to find Villa Lena’s nightclub ambassador Lionel Bensemoun, who annually invites a crew of caners from his legendary Le Baron to stay at the hotel when Paris empties out. I’d find Lionel on his balcony flying a drone over the secret gardens of the 500-hectare estate. The drone beamed its video back to us: dancer Patricia Badin in a Jamaican-flag beanie leading a twerking lesson (first squeeze, then jiggle), Parisian balladeer Martin Rahin on the terraced lawn with his guitar, children performing on neon lily pads while their parents applauded from the pool.

Pale objects and Mark looking into sun

Inside the artists’ studios, Russian luminary Georgy Ostretsov drew dinosaurs on antique lithographs of local piazzas while his three wild-hearted children built forts from olive branches on the stoop. Sarah Burwash painted topless ladies in wood-fired hot tubs. Nic Gardner and Saša Stucin, who captured life at Villa Lena in these photographs, armed a plywood chair with an arsenal of fireworks. Lola Schnabel—daughter of filmmaker Julian—cast designer Barbara Casasola, children’s feet and lace dresses for a sculpture in her lean-to studio, which opened onto an olive grove and was the shadiest place to read in the morning. We all laid on our backs in Mark Borthwick’s studio while he coo-cooed uncanny lullabies and the wind spirited copal incense and hundreds of his sun-kissed photographs across the floor.

Marfa and her olive tree tent, palm and the concrete shade

Sometimes we ventured away from our clifftop. In an hour we could be jumping off the Boulder of Maidens into the wide Cecina river, drinking wine on the steps of Basilica di Santo Spirito in Firenze, or eating spaghetti alle vongole on the Mediterranean. A few of us braved farther afield – to the spitting volcano of black-rock Stromboli, or to take a vacation from our vacation at the Hotel Locarno in Rome, or to explore the marble quarries of Carrara. I loved coming home to my villa family, where I knew I’d find a friend with an open bottle of wine in the garden, where dinner was never less than four courses, where my rose-colored bedroom had twenty-foot ceilings and the only decisions I had to make were between Aperol and Campari, pistachio and hazelnut. Oh. Right. And how to finish my novel.

McKay McFadden is the author of Andromeda & The Milky Way, a novel-in-progress about travel, sex, heartbreak, drugs, and outer space set in Central Asia.

Rooms at Villa Lena start at €260.


Recommended on

More from

Featured on