and Life at the Villa Serbelloni
Naturally we were met at the
Milan airport by a chauffeured limo. It was a two hour drive to the villa
through the mountains. Once installed in our rooms, we were notified of the
dinner hour, and then left to our own devices. I walked around touching
everything. The pleasingly huge size of the room amazed me. Everything seemed
exquisitely designed: the phone, the desk, the massive hand-painted amoire,
the tiles and fixtures in a bathroom big enough to be a whole apartment in New
York City. French doors next to my king-sized bed opened on to a balcony
overlooking a dazzling azure lake sheltered by the kind of clouds only John
Singer Sargent could paint - so beautiful it looked unreal.
In October of 1994 I received
a fellowship for a month-long artist residency at the Bellagio Study and
Conference Center on lake Como, Italy. The
fellowship is a Rockefeller Foundation sponsored program for scholars,
scientists, writers and artists from around the world.
The center, also known as the Villa Serbelloni, is located on fifty
acres of park and gardens at the foothills of the Italian Alps.
Jet-lagged and exhausted from
the previous week’s rush to finish work and pack for this trip, I collapsed
on the bed to marvel at the light fixtures and gaze out the window.
Hours later I was awakened by a call from a waiter in the dining room
letting me know that I was late for dinner and that, “residents are expected
to be on time.” Men were required to wear a jacket and a tie for dinner and
women must be “appropriately attired.” I scrambled through my suitcase for
the least wrinkled dress I owned.
In the dinning room about
fifty people were seated at two long tables.
Twenty-five of the guests were month long residents like myself, and
twenty-five were participants in one of the weekly three-day conferences held
at the villa. This weeks’ conference was on “Preventing Nuclear War in
South Asia.” Retired generals and high officials from Pakistan and India as
well as a number of European and American academics from places like “Arms
Control” in Washington and the Lawrence Livermore Lab in California met to
discuss ways to prevent nuclear war. Three days hardly seemed enough.
After dinner, we adjourned to
one of the drawing rooms for aperitifs, and around midnight people began to
drift up to their rooms in the villa, but having slept half the day, I was now
wide awake. One of the other
guests and I decided to take a stroll around the grounds.
We climbed up a series of paths and stone steps curving around a hill
leading to an ancient ruin. In the dark we could see the glimmering lights of
a ferry boat as it crossed the lake below. The moon above was like no other
moon I have ever seen. It could
have been cut out of a comic book somewhere, so big and silvery, and shining
in a black sky as to be almost laughable. It was my first night at the Villa
Serbelloni. The next day Mrs.
Celli, (Assistant Director, and wife of the former, recently demised Director,
Mr. Celli) came to show me to my studio.
She led me down one of the several thousand-stepped paths to the bottom
of the hill to a charming rust colored house directly by the lake
The house was named “Casa
Rossa,” and I called it My Beautiful Studio.
Along with a large well-lit room facing the lake, Casa Rossa had a
small kitchen stocked with a lifetime supply of mineral water, a living room
with a dusty couch, and an eccentric collection of magazines, books, and
catalogs all left behind by former artist inhabitants.
I fell in love with Casa Rossa. (Actually
half a house, as at the top and the back, separated by a wall so it wasn’t
visible, were quarters for two of the Sri Lankian waiters and their families
who worked in the villa.)
October has to be the very
best time to be on Lake Como as almost every day is sunny, warm and pleasant.
Wonderful sounds floated in through my studio windows: a chorus of
tinkling bells attached to the many boats tied in the water near the shore, a
cacophony of seagulls screeching to each other in seagull Italian, curious Sri
Lankian Rock and Roll music that the young wife of the waiter upstairs loved
to play in the afternoons. Little lizard-like creatures crawled along the
stone wall by the lake and sunned themselves on the path leading to my door.
In the evenings a big black and orange bird looking half like a vulture
flew in to sit on the low wall by the lake and watch the sunset.
I quickly fell into a routine
of work in my studio interrupted at noon and six by twenty minute treks up the
hill for meals. My project, (which I’d begun the previous summer) involved
photographing the interiors of abandoned mills in western Massachusetts. I
brought black and white prints with me from that project which I then hand
painted in my Italian studio. I
also could not resist spending a good part of my time walking around the
grounds of the Villa photographing the landscape.
The evenings were taken up by
dinner and after-dinner drinks, musicales or other presentations by people in
the conferences or by the guest artists and writers. We had several memorable
concerts performed by an Argentinean poet who sang professional level opera. On another evening Ula, wife of Klaus, Professor of Medical
Biometry at Eberhard-Karis University, played the guitar and led us all in
German folk songs. Only half of
us knew German so the rest of us faked it.
Then Klaus attempted to teach us a kind of folk dancing which was very
similar to square dancing. We all
paired up and bumped into each other to music.
For that number of Ph.d’s in the room it was amazing to see how few
could follow the simplest instruction.
Someone pointed out the
number of hours that could be devoted to socializing at Bellagio if one were
so inclined. The schedule of daily food service began with breakfast, followed
by mid-morning tea and cakes, before-lunch drinks, lunch, after-lunch coffee,
high tea at four, before-dinner drinks, dinner, coffee, after-dinner drinks,
and in the evenings various presentations and social events. Of course one
must be properly attired for each occasion and meal and time must be devoted
to that. However, participation was never required, even for meals, and
depending on how much work you wanted to do or avoid, it was possible to pick
and chose your own schedule.
I remained continuously in
awe of everything around me: the changing view of the lake transformed hourly
by the radiant Italian light, the distinct greens of the many different kinds
of olive trees, the invigorating thousand-step climb up the hill from my
studio, the endless variety of home-made pasta for lunch. My favorite was an
unusual kind of gnocchi served with a salad and green beans.
Wine and fruit follow, all expertly served by epauletted and
white-jacketed waiters using only the finest linens and napkins; monogrammed,
ironed, and starched to perfection. Anyone who wanted could have a computer or
laptop brought to their room. Not only spouses, but “spousal equivalents”
were welcomed. And those
equivalents were also given a studio if an extra one were available. I learned
that in addition to the barely visible directors, assistants, secretaries,
waiters, maids, and ghost-like apparitions that floated about dusting a corner
here, placing a napkin there, another 34 unseen workers kept the place
We dined in a large
tapestry-filled room. At the end of the hall each evening, mysteriously, a
noiseless door opened and the food appeared in all its perfection in the
skilled hands of our Sri Lankian and Italian waiters.
The kitchen seemed to be somewhere below, as even when we tried to peer
around the magic door there was nothing to see. We marveled at the amount of
linen in our rooms: five different kinds of towels changed each day, (each
seemed to have a special purpose) exquisite pillowcases on four pillows, ( two
down and two cotton batting) a gleaming white duvet, and sparkling cotton
sheets on the kind-sized bed changed every other day. One wondered at the
laundry bill alone.
Only one visual artist is
invited per one-month residency, so I felt responsible for representing my
“field” as everyone else was a scholar or a writer, all of whom were
incredibly brilliant and accomplished. There
was a former president of the biggest university in Chile, a supreme court
judge from Australia, a former American diplomat, several academics with long
resumes of important publications and awards, and a psychiatrist from
Australia working on a self-help book for people with anxiety disorders, for
which I was able to suggest a title he liked, “Get a Grip.”
All of the fellows were
invited, but again, not required, to give a talk on their various projects,
and almost everyone did. Some of the talks could be daunting. For example,
“Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering,” “Modeling Disease
Transmission: Milestones in the History of Epidemic Theory,” “Tree Trunks
and Crocodiles: From Cultural Identity to Interdiscursivity,” “ The
Organization of Academic Institutions: A Guide for the Misgoverned.” You get
I was a little intimidated to
give my dog and pony show when it came my turn, but I found my audience to be
extremely appreciative and receptive. I
showed slides from my book, “Shopping Bag Ladies: Homeless Women Speak About
Their Lives,” and then my recent work of painted photographs.
I talked about the experience and meaning of doing both bodies of work
and what had let me from one to the other.
Afterwards the discussion ranged widely around social issues and ideas
about the process of producing art that reflected those issues. It was
Once in awhile some of the
fellows and I took side trips to the many small towns and villages that border
Lake Como, and I often walked into Bellagio, an exceptional little
tourist town with an excellent spa and many outdoor cafes serving
cappuccino by the lake. On one weekend, Bellagio hosted an international dog
show, and people came from all over Europe to see it.
Distant sounds of barking drifted up to my window on the hill, and for
days the town was packed with unusual canine species and their look-alike
From the balcony outside my
bedroom I could see dime-sized ferry
boats shuttling back and forth across the wide blue lake.
On one afternoon a crew member fell off the ferry and disappeared in
the water. Emergency boats were
dispatched to conduct a search operation, and I watched these tiny
fire-engine-red boats crisscross the lake for more than a week day and night.
We were told that there was a big scandal because no one dived in to save the
crewman when he fell in the water, but no one could say why not. We never
heard if the body was found.
At the end of the month it
was the usual practice for the visual artist to have an open studio and a
champagne reception. It was the
perfect end of a perfect month. I had loved every day of my stay at Bellagio
and longed to extend my visit: nevertheless I was pleased to see how much work
I had accomplished in my lovely light filled studio.
It had been a productive time. I
made new friends and found inspirations for new work.
While fellows are not allowed to apply again before ten years, my hope
is one day to return.