Light and Life at the Villa Serbelloni

A.M. Rousseau

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.  Lake Como.

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 running.

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 the idea.

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 inspiring.

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 owners.

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.