Coronavirus

“You need a permit to leave the village… but at least I now have time to learn the piano”: Artist Elizabeth Cochrane on life under lockdown in an Italian hilltown

By David Prior at

Growing up in Hale and going to Loreto Grammar School, Elizabeth Cochrane has been living in the Tuscan hilltown of Montisi for over 20 years, where she works as an artist. Coronavirus has hit Italy hard and the country has been in lockdown – these are her experiences of how it is affecting her everyday life.

We are into the second week of quarantine for everyone in Italy and it’s due to last until April 3rd, but it could be extended further. It’s an extreme national effort to control the speed of this pandemic and to help the health service here, that will otherwise not be able to cope.

I am an artist by trade, but every early spring I teach English in local schools. Before the lockdown I was teaching English in the local nursery schools, one hour a week in three different schools.

When coronavirus gripped the north of the country, I was getting increasingly nervous at the idea of possibly spreading the virus to the three schools, having maybe picked it up from one of the children, or while shopping at the market or having a cappuccino at the bar. I always pick up a bug from the nursery schools at this time of the year as I mainly worked on my own for the rest of the year and my system wasn’t used to the cocktail of germs on offer at a typical nursery school.

Montisi in Tuscany, where Elizabeth lives, which is around 50km from Siena

So I was relieved when the government closed the schools and we all went into quarantine as the decision was made for me. Then the bars and restaurants were closed, and then the shops, and then all my social activities like the walking group, Zumba, keep fit and choir.

Dinners were cancelled for the Festa della Donna (National Ladies Day) on March 8th. The quarantine had initially been restricted to the north, where there was a real problem, but some people tried to escape from the north on holiday, stay with family or go to a second home in another part of Italy, so the quarantine was extended to the rest of the country to stop people travelling.

I feel lucky that I live in a small Tuscan hilltown and can work from home as an artist, although I am obviously not plein air painting at the moment.

Everything public is shut in Italy apart from food shops and chemists, and you have to have a special permit to leave the village and go to the nearest town to supermarkets – and then only one person per family.

The Carabinieri will stop you and ask to see your pre-printed form with identity and reason for travelling. You have to have your form ready or you can be fined. Most people are working from home or just sent home from closed bars, restaurants, hotels and anything related to tourism, and worrying about whether the tourists will ever come back and how we will get through the next months of no income.

I did my big shop the day before the quarantine and it wasn’t so bad but we were already keeping a respectful distance from each other – some were wearing masks already.

Elizabeth is currently quarantined in her second-floor apartment

My kitchen window looks down from two floors up to the main street from where I can chat with the couple of villagers standing at least a metre apart to let the two shoppers inside the village grocery have enough space to shop. The owners, two hard-working sisters, are wearing masks and their hands are red raw from washing them.

I’ve worked out that I can lower a basket with money in it from my window when Patrizia is having a cigarette and she can put the groceries in, and I can then bring them up with a rope. I am already planning for that in case I get the coronavirus myself.

In a small village like Montisi, the older people are a valuable part of the community. They’re often volunteering to cook and organising the contrada dinners and many of the festivals. They know the secrets of how to grow the best vegetables and have other farming knowledge and great recipes, or wonderful stories about Montisi during the war, and of course they have important roles in caring for their grandchildren so that both parents can work.

Italy has taken the quarantine seriously and families are staying indoors. Even though it is sunny, there is a noticeable lack of children around.

For my personal quarantine I have made sure I had enough art materials and cleaning products. I have many projects that I have been putting off, such as dealing with the disorder which has stealthily crept up on me over the years and slightly overwhelmed me.

Elizabeth can work from home as she is an artist – although plein air painting like this is not possible at the moment

Many people say that it’s because I am an artist and so perfectly understandable, which doesn’t encourage my willpower. Along with the cleaning and tidying I will be preparing for my post-corona exhibition and updating the website, throwing away unnecessary papers, sorting out cupboards and wardrobes, portioning and freezing small amounts of ragu and spicy tomato sauce for the freezer as I live on my own now.

My list is growing everyday and I have even started to learn an aria from a favourite opera and begun to play the piano that I inherited with the apartment and never used.

Among my wonderful neighbours, one has chickens and shares out the fresh eggs to his immediate neighbours, including me. Another neighbour picked up a few things for me on her expedition to the nearest town today. We are taking it in turns to get the permissions to go to the local supermarket in the next town. It is a good exercise for me in how little I really need to shop if I am organised and to deal with my personal space and appreciate the little things and the sense of camaraderie in the village.

Elizabeth has a basket system set up to enable her to get groceries up to her apartment window if the situation requires it

We are still allowed to have a solitary walk in the countryside but not in groups so I sneak out at a quiet time of day and have a good march through the fields, which is still lovely at this time of year as all the flowers are coming out now.

On Monday evening, just like those romantic Italians, we even had our own music from the balconies. Eighty-year-old Valdo played his trumpet from his window and Massimo got his guitar out and played from his doorway. Maybe I will learn my aria before the end of quarantine and blast it out from my window, like Evita!

You can see some of Elizabeth’s work here.