I hadn’t been to Europe in forty years. Summer 1968, I worked at a community center in London’s East End, doing art projects. Late afternoons I would help the cook, her main ingredients seemed to be canned mackerel and powered pudding mix. I slept on an old WWII army cot, the showers were undependable. So after work I would subway to boyfriend Dave’s apartment in Hampstead Heath and fix dinner in trade for a bath. His flat-mate Strobe Talbott would become roommates at Oxford with Bill Clinton. Strobe and Dave would leave their laundry in the tub which meant I had to wash their socks before I took a soak.
Travel for husband Dave and me has been business trips or catching up with our kids on some campus. With our youngest at university and our office accessible via the internet we are freer to peruse say… “budget travel” possibly signing up to cruise the Caribbean or ride a camel on some desert—all ok, but seemingly without purpose. Instead, I enrolled in an on-line PhD program for studio artists (Institute for Doctoral Studies in Visual Arts, or IDSVA) which enticingly comes with travel. This spring I found myself heading for Spannocchia Castle, a few hours North of Rome (IDSVA let Dave tag along).
Outside Rome’s da Vinci Airport, we boarded a bus with a dozen artists who had signed on for what would become boot camp for the creative. Having missed two nights of sleep, I blurred the passing view. It looked like Albuquerque with its beige terrain and sparse vegetation. Occasionally waking, and noticing the narrow highway was minus a breakdown lane, a clue I wasn’t in the US. The driver pulled into a gas station/quickie mart for a mandatory rest. I was learning that Italy is bureaucratic. We shuffled to the bathroom through a bevy of Carabinieri—no one told me Italy lacked toilet seats! Back on the bus and soon we were at the wrought iron gates of Castle Spannocchia, our hotel/home for the next three weeks.
Spannocchia Castle was once a twelfth century feudal community. To quote Mel Brooks’ History of the World: “It’s good to be the King.” Feudalism was great if you owned the castle and the weather cooperated so you got ample crops from your tenants. The life of a farmer was hard as you had to feed your family while donating half your produce to your lord and master. You probably had to defend his castle from marauders, too. In the nineteen twenties the Cinellis bought the property and continued the tenant farm arrangement until the Italian government outlawed the practice.
Today another generation of Chinellis operates Spannocchia as a hotel and organic farm. College students who have replaced indentured servants intern as gardeners and hotel staff, and even assist with the Cinta Senese pigs. Spannocchia bottles its own olive oil, I learned the only difference between a green and black olive is maturity. Heating fuel comes from trees carefully forested as the grounds are a wildlife refuge. Waste matter is treated and recycled on the premises that periodically have been an archeological dig. The surrounding area was once home to the Etruscans.
Part of my IDSVA experience was to attempt time travel. In the middle ages, the feudal system was the economic engine of each region, producing crops, and governing the locals. The lords used their power and excess wealth to commission art for personal pleasure or as donations to the church. Getting in good with God assured you an eternal parking space. Back then paintings and sculpture were representational narrations with moral lessons. Fast forward and the making of art has evolved from works created by geniuses to our present scenario, anyone can call himself talented and have fifteen minutes of fame.
Dave and I settled into a sienna-yellow bungalow with red roofing. Inside, flooring tiles had acquired a maroon patina while massive ceiling timbers had blackened with age. In earlier times, livestock would have been penned beneath our bedroom. Not wanting to cook we joined the others for farm style dining.
The hotel hosts a cocktail hour on its stone terrace overlooking Tuscan hills with more tile roofs peeking through greenery. Geraniums in oxide pots sit on ubiquitous walls softening the castle’s massive stucco facade. Guests make day trips and return regaling their adventures while tasting wines from grapes grown on the 1200 acres. For me and the other IDSVA students who were listening to art historians or reading aloud our essays, the cocktail hour provided a respite from the competitive atmosphere.
Dinner was served outside, weather permitting, and often began with risotto followed by a main dish of meat and vegetables. A lettuce course sprinkled with oil, vinegar and parmesan cleansed the palette before lingering into the late evening over a cookie or pudding.
Dave spent his vacation reading under Tuscan sun or attempting to go online with clients. Electricity and internet access in the castle was a challenge. He read The Complete Sherlock Holmes while snuggling up to the castle’s sheep dogs or observing one of the hotel’s cats who would sit under his feet.
My art theory classes were held in the castle library where family crests adorned the ceiling and ancestral photos hung on walls. Massive book casing holding tomes on Italian history surrounded a long table. I imagined knights might have laid down their swords to sit and plot as servants stoked the gigantic fireplace that still overpowers the room. Rumors of closets unexpectedly opening lightened the sometimes stressful academic atmosphere.
After class, I joined Dave for a walk through the fields or a hike in the forests to view newborn piglets. We found a man-made pond shaped like a keyhole and envisioned nineteenth century aristocrats on the grand tour—frock coats and parasols pausing to bask by this odd-shaped pond, for a Wordsworth read.
Our faux-feudal adventure ended. Dave and I along with the IDSVA artists boarded a train in Florence for The Venice Biennale—to be continued.