Where words are grown,

The Santa Maddalena Foundation, a Tuscan sanctuary, nurture unlikely combinations of writing talents

Christine Bakaraat
July 13, 2006

Beatrice Monti della Corte, or the ‘Baronessa’ as she is still known here in Tuscany, transformed her private residence into a writers’ re-treat in memory of her late husband, Gregor Von Rezzori, just after his death in 1998. Rezzori, Grisha to his friends, was a distinguished novelist whose works include The Death of My Brother Abel and Orient Express.Beatrice had been enjoying international acclaim as the owner of a Milan art gallery when she met Grisha over three decades ago. They mar-ried and, after searching for a home that suited them both, bought the 15th century farmhouse in Donnini. ‘Grisha came from Romania but then he was a stateless person,’ says Beatrice. ‘Here he finally found a home.’ Grisha worked daily in his writing studio, an old clock tower behind the farmhouse. According to author Francesco Goldman, his writing desk was ‘as vast as a Mongolian plain.’ When Grisha had guests up to his tower studio, which was often, he would swing open the large windows onto thirty hectares of Tuscan countryside and say, ‘Write all you want about Tuscany!’ Just after completing his memoirs in what was to become his final work, Anecdotage, Grisha told Beatrice that he didn’t want her to become ‘a lugubrious widow’. So just after his death, she put together an impressive board of directors and formally named their home The Santa Maddelena Foundation. The American based foundation invites selected fellows to stay at the Tuscan farmhouse for up to six weeks, and its guests admittedly find the peaceful surrounds and stimulating mealtime conversations the perfect remedy to unblock the blocked, inspire one to finish an ongoing work, discover an idea for a new novel or simply return to a neglected craft.Beatrice says the foundation is simply a continuation of her life with Grisha. Indeed, the couple had a pattern of living that included both collaboration, introspection and a constant flow of guests important in the world of art and literature. The foundation’s rooms display books from Grisha’s vast library, antique furniture, valuable threadbare carpets and an eclectic mix of Oriental and contemporary art. Yet one does not hesitate to pick up objects of interest in order to inspect them more closely. And it is precisely this informality and unpretentiousness combined with a sense of intimacy with Grisha’s spirit that claim dominion over this Tuscan sanctuary. Author Edmund White said that shortly before Grisha died he had shared all his relevant recollections with the young American novelist, Michael Carroll, after discovering that Michael was researching the same colorful Czech aristocratic family that Grisha had been planning to devote a novel to. ‘Maybe Grisha knew he wouldn’t live long enough to complete that novel,’ said White. ‘To eavesdrop on conversa-tions between a man in his 80s and a writer just starting out was to learn spontaneity is just another name for generosity.’For those novelists like Zadie Smith, who arrive at the foundation exhausted and ready to give up writing all together, the foundation’s unique atmosphere works wonders. Smith said she was ‘all washed up’ when she arrived in Italy. ‘At 25, and with only one novel to my credit, I couldn’t see myself writing another. Nothing I liked about it – about the practice of writing – was the same. What had been a hobby was now a job, what passed for a quiet life had turned all shouty, all busy, all screamy, all the time.’ Later Smith came up with a pro-duction summary of her days spent at the foundation: Days spent on retreat: 62, Pages produced: 121, Word count: 32,271, Average num-ber of words per day: 527. Smith remains grateful to Beatrice for the simple offer that brought her back to her craft, and is now on the founda-tion’s advisory committee.Similarly, John Burnham, author of the novels Bicycle Days and Reservation Road, arrived feeling ‘desperate for time and peace,’ both of which he found at the retreat in such abundance that he left after six weeks ready to complete a new novel. Among the foundation’s other visitors have been unlikely combinations of international authors including the Indian-born Anita Desai (Clear Light of Day), the mad Russian, Victor Erofeev (Russian Beauty) and the Irish novelist Colm Toibin (The Blackwater Lightship).Beatrice speaks Italian, English and French, sometimes all at once. She is usually seen with her wheezy pug in tow, strolling among the garden’s rose-twined olive trees. An interesting, sometimes scandalous friend may stop by for a visit, or she may organize a dinner for her fellows at a nearby villa, at which dinner is served by candlelight and the other guests have titles similar to her own.The foundation’s selection committee and board of advisors include names like Bernard Bertolluci, the Italian director, Micheal Cunning-ham, author of The Hours, Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient and Bob Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books.

 

For those interested in attending the free, public readings by the foundations’ fellows or making donations to the The Santa Maddalena Foun-dation, please write to: donations@santamaddalena.org

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