A week with the Art Monastery Project

Casale Santa Brigida

I recently returned from a mostly lazy week with the Art Monastery Project in Calvi dell’Umbria, Italy. I met one of its founders, the irrepressible American tenor and theatre director Christopher Fülling, at the Metageum conference last year in Malta, and was fascinated by his attempt, along with his visual artist and synchronized swimmer wife Betsy McCall and a host of other fascinating people, to create a retreat for art production and community in a former Ursuline convent in the rolling hills of Umbria.

The monastery itself, located in the charming town of Calvi, is still in the process of being readied for occupation. Meantime, the project folk have taken to running a gorgeous nearby agriturismo, Casale Santa Brigida (check out the view above).

The tumultuous storm on the night of my arrival—the apparently untypical climax to the previous week’s baking weather—afforded some astonishing panoramas of dark lightning-threaded horizons, and eventually brought us all to the realities of rural living by wiping out the electricity supply with its torrential downpour. In retrospect it also heralded the sundry events that were to thread through the day-to-day of this rural idyll: the delightful sparks of meeting new people in evenings of convivial feasting, and occasional force majeure mishaps.

Everyone seemed to roll with the punches and rise to the occasion—be it a workaday mission to get pasta or a gathering for barbecued local meats—with the kind of panache you might expect from such a bold bunch of pragmatic dreamers.

Marriage seemed to be in the air, suspended as we were between Christopher and Betsy’s spectacular “Atlantean” wedding at Burning Man and their upcoming festivities in Calvi; and two of their friends passing through got engaged on the Santa Brigida terrace before dinner one evening.

The bountiful fig tree provided a culinary bass note for our ever-tasty meals; the burgeoning olive grove around us constantly gestured towards the upcoming olive harvest. Besides the nascent art activities, such on-site manifestations kept in focus the Art Monastery’s integration of ideas of localization and sustainability into its vision. The locals, the Calvese, have welcomed them as one of their own, and they’re aiming to give to the local community the nourishment of their art and performance much as the local soil will nourish their bellies. One of Christopher and Betsy’s old friends who visited recalled his reaction, years ago when their idea for the Art Monastery first came up, of thinking them a little crazy. Of course, such a project needs a healthy dose of madness; but as we watched the global economy begin to crumble during the week I was there, these goals of community and localization stood out as eminently sane.

For the most part I relished immersing myself in a few juicy books. A couple of notable visitors certainly added to things, though.

Medieval song and classical music specialist Wolodymyr Smishkewych (aka Vlad) peformed his reconstruction of part of the Lay of Igor, an old Kievan-Rus epic, playing his swan-headed lute, as part of Calvi’s San Pancrazio festival. I missed the story—the original Slavic being translated in projections into Italian—but Vlad’s performance, dipping into engaging narrative speech and soaring into emotion-laden song, was great.

And it was fantastic to meet journalist and archaeologist Christine Finn. Known for her archaeologically-minded trip through Silicon Valley—the book Artifacts—she’s currently working on a biography of the controversial, poetically-minded archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes. Christine seems to be heading towards the art departments in her academic studies, finding them more amenable to the increasingly creative approach she’s taking to excavating the past; we certainly had enough in common in our attitude to studying archaic cultures to make the brief time she was there nowhere near sufficient to exhaust our connections.

The Art Monastery’s one of the more compelling and promising projects I’ve happened across recently. Any artists or creative, interested people should certainly have a look at how to get involved.

If nothing else, if you’re thinking of taking a break in Italy, I suspect there are few more fascinating venues for sampling rural Italy and international creativity than the beautiful Casale Santa Brigida. Say ciao from me to Pipo (Italian for “goofy”, I hear) and Josie…