My 42 Days in the Civitella Ranieri Castle, by Li Yiding (translated by Li Yixiong)
The Civitella Ranieri Foundation is a non-profit corporation with offices in New York City, USA, named from the 15th century picturesque Civitella Ranieri Castle in the Umbria region of central Italy. It is a workplace for gifted musicians, visual artists and writers who demonstrate exceptional talent and an enduring commitment to their disciplines all over the world. It encourages the creative process by providing fellows with good conditions and opportunities. It invites them to stay and work for 6 weeks and provides them with fellowships, international return air tickets, private studio spaces, accommodation conditions and opportunities for trips to surrounding cities, and so on.
The Civitella Ranieri Foundation is not the one “for environmental protection, education, poverty alleviation, and health”, but a higher level one “to provide the Fellowship and suitable condition for the artists from around the world who demonstrate exceptional talent and an enduring commitment to their disciplines in order to encourage them to create new works”. There has never been such a precedent in our country.
Ursula Corning (1903-2002), founder of the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, was born in Switzerland, studied in England, worked in the USA, and enjoyed her holidays in Italy. Her father’s cousin owned Civitella, so Ursula began visiting it as a young girl. It wasn’t until 1968 after she had retired from her career that she rent the castle. She often invited a lot of international artist friends to Civitella. The atmosphere of the ancient castle and the quiet and beautiful scenery of the countryside inspired her artist guests to express themselves through poetry, music and paintings.
Today, the international artists of Civitella Ranieri Center continue to enjoy the castle and change the individual and spontaneous salon into a strict and regular foundation. In 1995, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation began to seek and invite excellent musicians, visual artists and writers all over the world. Chen Yi, a Chinese-American woman composer，was invited to Civitella in 1997. Another Chinese composer Qu Xiaosong was invited there in 2004. Also a few well-known Chinese writers and painters were once invited there, such as Xi Chuan, Bei Dao and Zhai Yongming. By 2005, 200 artists from various countries had been to the Civitella Ranieri Center in all.
In 2007, Chen Yi and Zhoulong, the composer couple, recommended me. After filling out a series of forms, waiting for a long time, and being strict selected by the Civitella international jury of peers, I was permitted to take part in the period of June, 2009. There were 11 persons all together, including 3 composers, 4 painters and 4 writers, selected from 200 candidates of 8 countries, including the United States, South Africa, Vietnam, Russia, the Philippines, Canada, Sri Lanka and China.
We can see from the map that both Civitella and Florence are in central Italy, apart from only one or two hundred kilometers. Now Civitella follows these traditions: to seek and sponsor the leading contemporary artists to get to Civitella and engage in literary creation; to establish a library to collect and conserve their works. In the 42 days, the Civitella Fellows have to create a certain number of new works. And before leaving, each of them has to submit his article, score, or painting. Everyone should make one statement to explain his work and creative experience. In the end of each period, Civitella would grant the diplomas to the Fellows in order to encourage them to continue devoting themselves to creation.
On the second day after I came to Civitella, I visited the ancient castle. The walls were very high. There were a small family chapel and a bell tower at the gate. You could see some traces of patches with some huge hoop iron embedded in the broken stone wall. In the rooms, some portraits of princesses and Dukes as well as the old candlesticks on the table showed that this family was prominent in history. The main hall of the Castle was high, leading to the fourth floor. And on the third floor there was a circle in the corridor. The library on the second floor was open 24 hours a day, with a collection of the works and CDs by the artists in all periods of Civitella. Every new member was invited to donate his works to the library. I also donated two of my CD albums and a number of my music scores to it.
In the garden of the castle there was a pavilion, covered with some small white flowers. We had our dinners there every evening. The carpet-like grass and small flowers were under our feet, only about an inch tall, wild but so delicate, always emitted pure natural atmosphere, but also beautified the nature everywhere silently. Tall oleanders were in full blossom, white, pink and peachblow. On the surrounding lawn, a variety of wild flowers were in full bloom: red poppy, purple lavender, and blue cornflower. The castle was surrounded by trees which had grown for centuries and now became barriers: pine, chinar , palm trees and laurel as well….The air was filled with the fragrance of wild flowers and grass, breeze blowing, sweet and moist air intoxicated everybody.
In the kitchen, two women chefs were busy cooking. The breeze brought us the soft voice of Italian words mixed with the sound of cutting vegetables, and the undulating intonation sounded like nice music. There was a very good cook, good at all kinds of tastes of Italian home cooking. In the long 42 days, we enjoyed few duplicate dishes. To express gratitude to the cook, every evening before she went back home after supper, all Fellows in Civitella would applauded for her. It became dark at 9:30 pm there in summer, so we had supper at 8 pm. Sitting in the pavilion for dinner, I often watched the sunset, and the sunglow reddened the horizon, little by little. Enjoying the Italian cuisine in the cool evening sunset, having a free chat with other artists, I felt pleased especially.
Each studio and bedroom in Civitella had an interesting name. I did not know why my studio was called “tobacco”, which was out of the castle. If you would be there, you had to come out from the castle gate, and then go through a long avenue. My bedroom was in a small two-story building next to the studio and opposite the Philippine writer Gina’s room. “Tobacco” was a small independent two-story house, about 40 square meters, and a Steinway grand piano stood on the carpet. There were a computer, some audio equipment, scores, and books on the two long tables. Inside the room, there were a fireplace, sofas, benches, a refrigerator, a toilet, and a simple kitchen. Out of the old wooden windows, the orchard was extremely quiet. Peach, plum, fig and apple trees hung low with a lot of fruits. Picking a ripe plum to taste, you would feel the yellow sweet fresh juicy fruit so delicious. Sometimes I could see squirrels and small cats wandering under trees. Sometimes, one bird with black and white striped feather and a yellow crown stood singing on fruit trees. The breeze blowing gently, the blue sky and white clouds frozen. No one and nothing would bother me. I was completely at ease, and all impurities were excluded from clean. A sense of vacant was found! I had been looking forward to such frame of mind, such environment and the best state of creation for many years, and now I found them in the Civitella Ranieri Center.
In my studio, I came back to listen to the music I had composed in the past, and recalled my 20 years of creation. I felt my music was so pleasant and beautiful. In this castle in the mountain area of central Italy, the pure Chinese music sounded, which in itself was a great success. In particular, some of my composition works, the theme song and episodes for the drama Princess Wencheng sung by Tan Jing and Dai Yuqiang, were then so nice. I had never thought so before in China. But the music was really so exceptionally attractive here that it even also moved myself profoundly. I am becoming more experienced as a Chinese composer’s unique advantages: the traditional Chinese culture for thousand years, the humiliating Chinese history of being aggressed by the West for centuries, and the rise and development because of Chinese reform and opening nearly 30 years, which have been focused attention on by the world. Chinese culture and Western culture are too different, and our music is so unique and character. So what we can compose and write is so much. I am really full of self-confidence more and more.
Sometimes, the artists in Civitella visited the studios and rooms each other. All houses were different from each other, but all were very special. My studio was the largest one and far away from the castle, so it interested other artists. It was about 500 meters from the castle through the avenue to “tobacco”. I had six keys then: one key to my bedroom, one to the door shared with Gina, one to my studio, one to the avenue gate, one to the laundry room, and one to the elevator. The keys were rather big and heavy, jingling in the pocket. Maybe they were just like this several hundred years ago. This reminded me of Lev Tolstoy’s wife, who often held a bunch of heavy keys and managed the estate outside Moscow, Tula. Both sides of gravel paved boulevard were covered with grass. The thick and tall trees were along the roadsides. There were many crops: the golden sunflowers, green corn, purple alfalfa …, seen from afar, like a colorful picture. We had our lunch and dinner in the castle, so I would walk back and forth on this avenue twice a day at least, often slowly, humming a song: “Look at the fields, look at the wilderness, beautiful scenery…”, I had completely melted in the nature.
The Canadian woman composer Jacquie’s studio was on the second floor of the castle, very large, very noble, walls covered with the huge portraits of Princesses and Dukes of the family in 15th century. Like a movie scene, a dark house, the old dim chandeliers, big old sofa, a giant candelabra, an old-fashioned piano…. I couldn’t help playing an Italian song My Sun on it, and won the applause. Another American composer Jim was a professor at the University of Kansas, whose main compositions were symphonic and electronic music. His house was not in the castle either, but in a separate cottage out of the castle gate, where there were a studio, an electro-acoustic equipment room, a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom. This house was called “Pizza Hut”. Outside the window, under the shade of thick trees, the bright red cherries were very attractive.
Every painter had its own studio, scattered on the floor of the castle or in a cottage, hidden and secret. In the tall studio, the table was filled with a variety of pigments. White canvases with some new works hung from the walls, quite modern in different styles.
The writer’s studio was generally connected with the bedroom. They could create with computers, so their instruments were a little simpler than composers’ and painters’. Through every window, you could see different landscapes of the castle from a different orientation, and each of them looked like a beautiful painting.
The Civitella Ranieri Foundation is still in action nowadays. Each of the 11 artists should recommend the outstanding artists from one’s own country as the Fellow of the next period. Of course, I am prepared to recommend Chinese composers first, because they are of the same occupation with me. And I hope very much that they can share the Civitella life, and compose the most beautiful piece of music freely in the bright and sunny fields.