It is the last weekend of Italian Week in Ottawa, the annual celebration of all things Italian. It takes place in “Little Italy” during the week of the feast day of Saint Anthony of Padua, one of Saint Francis of Assisi's first friars, a theologian and faith-filled preacher, who, says the legend, addressed even fishes when human ears were deaf to the gospel. I have taken this week to think longingly again about our time as artists in residence at the Arte Studio Ginestrelle near Assisi in Umbria last October. It was not only an artist's refuge but also turned out to be an unexpectedly meaningful place of pilgrimage for both me and Shlomo, I, as a Catholic and Shlomo, a Jew. Assisi is, of course, a major Catholic pilgrimage site but, perhaps less well-known, it can be a destination for Jews in recognition of the city's successful hiding of Jews from all over Italy and elsewhere during the Nazi occupation. ( FYI ” The Assisi Underground” is a book and a movie on that subject. It was especially moving for us to visit the “Eremo”, the Franciscan monastery/hermitage where many Jews were concealed. )
Arte Studio Ginestrelle is the brain-child of a remarkable young woman, Dr. Marina Merli, director at the studio residence. Marina is a graduate in law, economics and international tourism. After some years in the business world in major Italian cities, Marina did a crazy thing: as a single woman with energy and a vision, she bought an old farm and started a business in hospitality to artists, focusing on artists whose practice incorporated deep love of the natural environment. Surely Saint Francis was onside! The Town Council of Assisi is certainly onside, providing the studio with important business support in the hospitality industry outside of the millions of pilgrims to Assisi, as well as the distinct honour of offering the town art gallery in the main square of Assisi to the artists in residence for their annual show each December.
The studio, its rooms and its environs are furnished and furbished with Marina's exquisitely creative and elegant Shabby Chic taste, using Umbrian vintage treasures in exciting new ways, repurposed to create harmonious ambiance (without the fakery we might shudder to experience in over-designed, under-hospitable, self-important Places To Stay.) All that at Ginestrelle, and wi-fi, too.
The heart of the Arte Studio Ginestrelle, though, is not the artists' comforts, the elegantly rustic accoutrements or the delightfully quirky “architectures”.
The heart of Ginestrelle is the hardworking, efficient, competent and intelligent business approach and astounding personal generosity of Marina Merli, the director, for whom nothing is too much trouble where artists are concerned. Is there a word for “no” in Italian? If so, Marina never used it…though she may have used many, many synonyms (I think she said “No TV” very directly, as well as: “NO, cats, you cannot come in the house”…However, the cats did not listen and they did not watch much TV, anyway…)
Situated a few kilometers from the medieval hill town of Assisi, the art studio is a restored farm house part way up a mountain slope of the regional park of Mount Subasio ( a conservation area), along a twisty road rich in Umbrian vegetation and spectacular views:
Outside the residence are cabin and barn, havens where one can enjoy nature, meditate, paint, write, sculpt, picnic…
A broom made from the broom plant – the ginestrelle dye plant which grows in abundance on the property.
A chair with seat woven from rushes or maybe broom plant:
Inside the residence, are many different spaces for artists, simply but appropriately furnished in creative rustic style for work in different media:
There is a great selection of books in the library, too, in many languages. I greatiy appreciated that Marina had stocked up on books about the vegetation of the Subasio and Umbria in general. Latin nomenclature for plants transcends my limited Italian!
Resident “working” cats, Cimabue and Negrito, try to get inside for treats at “breakfast” time:
And why not? The breakfasts are sumptuous, more like lunch or dinner, so delicious and generous, prepared freshly every day by Adria from locally grown and organic foods: and always there ar leftovers for lunch and snacks…
Little spinach, truffle and mushroom crostini (October was still truffle and wild mushroom season; truffles and mushrooms were foraged at the residency, courtesy of a neighbour with a truffle dog!) served with farm-cured ham.
Fresh bocconcini with peppers and home-pressed olive oil: yes, they have olive trees in the family.
Grapes from the home vinyard, drying in the residence kitchen to make raisins.
Fresh local cheeses, yoghurt, tomatoes and ham: set out in vintage pottery on vintage embroidered linens Adria, the cook and housekeeper (and most important, mother of the Director) knows her linens and her embroideries! She is a former textile designer, before the Italian fabric indusrtries went off- shore for workers…she has an amazing collection of embroideries in traditional Assisi-work; the linens at the table, on the beds and at the windows are all treasures of traditional handwork rarely practiced these days.
Adria's little raisin cakes still made in Umbria from a recipe dating back to the time of Saint Francis:
Mushrooms from the residency property: for breakfast omelettes.
A picnic lunch (artist-prepared) outside. The grocer and the baker come to the studio in their vans…
The nearby towns are fascinating centres of art, history and archaeology. Assisi is very close by car; for day trips (we went every third day for an adventure in the other hill towns) Spello, Spoleto and Florence are only a short train ride or car trip away. Even Rome can be made there and back in a day! When we did not feel like driving to Assisi, Marina would load up her four wheel drive with artists and off we would go for the day.
Assisi, beautiful city of peace. Looking down into the valley and the town of Santa Maria degli Angeli where Saint Francis dwelled at the Porziuncula.
The wonderful flea market at Santa Maria degli Angeli, outside the basilica and in the main square (I bought vintage linen here for eco prints to make “textile frescos” contact printed with local plant pigments.
The River Arno from the bridge in Florence:
Bruneleschi's Dome in the Duomo, Florence:
The Ducal palace at Gubbio. Francis ran away to Gubbio when he renounced the world, escaping the wrath of his textile-merchant father who disputed his son's vocation. At Gubbio, Francis is said to have tamed a wild and ravening wolf.
Gubbio also has a marvellous flea and farmer market in main square, at the same spot as in medieval times. It is a fantastically scenic mountain drive from Assisi to Gubbio!
Somewhere in Perugia, tne university town that we can see from Assisi. We had a wonderful day with one of the professors of environmental studies who came to the studio to give a presentation on the environment and took us on a hike around Mount Subasio, explaining the flora and fauna and management challenges in a national park where people still own and farm land. Marina arranged this for us!
Giotto's frescos in the basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi:
Saint Francis and Saint Clare. Paintings at San Damiano monastery:
Somewhere in Spello, a town that is home to frescos by Pintorecchio.
Mosaics in Spoleto:
Square in Spoleto, a town which is a stop on the Via Francescana (like the Camino to Santiago de Compostela in Spain)
Alley in Spoleto:
Bookstore, antique and handmade books. Each of the hill towns we visited had at least one shop that made and sold beautiful leather-bound journals – bookbinding is a craft that seems to be surviving in this part of Italy (even if, as we learned from a bookbinder in Florence, that they send to Talas in Brooklyn for many of their supplies…)
Thank you, Arte Studio Ginestrelle, and Dr. Marina Merli, for one of the most beautiful months we have ever spent. And we even made art.
Viva Italia! And grazie.