For The Sunday Times

When you step through the main entrance of Santa Maddalena — from smoky Tuscan woodland into chiaroscuro Tuscan cool — you are confronted by what must surely be the most impressive visitors’ book in world literature. Approximately 18in tall and 2ft wide, it stands, always open, at the foot of the stairs that lead up to the library, as if it were a Biblical tablet brought down from the mountains by some local colossus of letters past — Dante, perhaps, or Boccaccio.

On my first visit here in 2008, I made the terrible mistake of reading it there and then. I had come to work on my third novel. I wanted an empty sky, bed, soul. Instead, whom did I find crawling across these great pages, in their many crazy hands, but the finest writers available to humanity.