"It's the place where they set you back down after you've been taken up in the Rapture," Sarah the English novelist said when I asked her how she was enjoying her stay at Civitella Ranieri. Then she quickly apologized, worried she might have offended me; I said, "Hell no, heavenly imagery is about all you can use to describe this place!"
"Synergy" is one of those poor words rendered nearly useless now by having been hijacked by the business world, but I think that synergy is one of the things that makes this place so magical. (Oh, "magical" is another word that doesn't mean much anymore either, but hey, I'm talking about a castle here.) The experience really is greater than the sum of its elements, and each element, taken on its own, is pretty wonderful.
In case you don't know about Civitella Ranieri, it's a 15th century castle in Umbria that's been turned into a center for writers, visual artists, and musicians/composers. It was owned by the Ranieri family for centuries, and eventually "rented indefinitely" by Ursula Corning, one of whose relatives had married into the Ranieri family. There's a portrait of Ursula in one of the great halls, and you can see in her face that the lady had a big heart: she wanted this amazing place to continue to be a creative haven. And it is.
In the past year, the lovely and incredibly capable Dana Prescott (formerly with the American Academy in Rome) has taken over as Executive Director, and let me tell you, she's a hell of a hostess. She is ably assisted by Diego (who is wonderfully patient with my Italian language skills) and a great team of Americans and Italians both. Damiano and I come in as guests to give our "poetry & translation song & dance routine," which means, yes!, that we get to spend the weekend at the castle. Dana always thanks us profusely for coming to do this, and invariably we laugh because NO, we are the ones who are grateful for the opportunity.
The day-to-day life at Civitella is very much like that at most artists' colonies: the luxury of long stretches of free time, but here, when you need a break, you get to wander around and explore the nooks, crannies, ancestral portraits, and scary medieval weapons of the castle. Or you can take a walk outside on the grounds, or in the surrounding, ridiculously beautiful Umbrian hills. Honestly, it feels like my brain shifts over into alpha-waves as soon as we walk through the gate, the place is so quiet. Well, except for the occasional poetically stormy night with the wind howling and the windows banging. But one needs those nights at a castle!
Of course, they feed you: Romana, Patrizia, and Patrizia are the three lovely ladies in the kitchen, and wow. The food is thoughtfully prepared, local, fresh, and delicious. Lunch (on your own, if you wish) comes in a three-tiered magical metal surprise box; you just can't wait to see what you'll find in the container below. Supper at the long friendly table (outdoors during summer) usually involves a pasta or polenta, a tasty protein in a tasty sauce (veg options too), vegetables. There's always salad, wine, and fruit fruit fruit. (I eat more fruit in a weekend at Civitella than I do during the rest of the year!) We laughed when we ran into Josh, an American fiction writer, in the kitchen, just in from outside and a little breathless: "I walked up and down the hill ten times. All we do here is sit around and write and eat pasta," he joked. (I have to say though, that Josh didn't look any worse for the unaccustomed carbs!)
And the people. Each time we've visited, I've felt a real sense of community and respect among the fellows, and we've had the opportunity to see and hear some remarkable art. Damon read a gut-wrenching story about the continued conflicts in Africa. I laughed my ___ off watching Reanne's video "Mail Order Bride of Frankenstein." And I've already told the composers, Annie and Thomas, that I enjoyed some of the best synaesthesia of my life while listening to their music. In fact, it was in a conversation with Thomas, a Danish composer who'd explained the highly complicated structure of his piece before we listened, that, for the first time ever, I figured out a way to describe the strange subliminal process that happens in me when a poem is being formed. That's another thing that I've noticed about Civitella: as a writer, I mostly hang out with writers. It's fascinating and very productive to have access to the imaginative processes of artists in other fields.
As Norwegian writer Hans Petter said on our last day there, "It's surprisingly easy to get used to living in a castle, isn't it!" It is--and please know how grateful I am that, every couple of months, I get to utter this sentence: "Hey, we're going to the castle this weekend!"