Saturday, February 13, 2016

Castelli—Part 2

I almost don’t want to reveal this hidden jewel of a town, high up in the Abruzzi mountains.  So remote, we found ourselves asking how and why it ever got there.  The drive up was like discovering Shangri-La--an exaggeration perhaps, but this little gem, unexpected in this rugged mountain landscape, produces that effect as one comes around a certain curve.  Let me introduce you. 

"The medieval hill town lies beneath Mount Camicia on the eastern side of the Gran Sasso Massif. Castelli is best known for its maiolicas, a form of decorative ceramic, which were collected by the nobility of Europe for centuries and which were at their pinnacle from the 16th through 18th century and are still produced today by local artists. Castelli maiolica was a favorite dinnerware of Russian Tsars." (Wikipedia)

As we made plans with the local Christian community on how to plug in and serve, we quickly made the no-brainer decision to visit  Liceo Artistico per il Castelli.  Marco had connections in, as a former instructor, and an open house was coming up.  Our major challenge: how to move 47 of us up the mountains in a 9-person van.  

Our logistics ninjas worked and drove like bosses, some testing their skills as Italian race car drivers, only to abandon all hope as near misses multiplied (with both cars and car sickness).  Ancient OM vans do not perform quite as well as Fiats. Neither do stomachs.

Rounding one last switchback, we caught a glimpse of our destination, sparkling in the sun.  Spilling out in the little town then, we got a glimpse of a top-of-the-world view of the region.  Ceramic shops, statues and signs filled the town.  Shutters were soon clicking on the cameras. 

Those on the first shift of van transport had time to browse a bit until we all got there, and then we relayed the team up the last leg, to the high school.  Pretty desolate place to plant an art school.  And not just any art school, but Italy’s leading high school for the arts. 

Carla Marotta, its beaming director, greeted us in pretty-darn-good English, and proudly showed off her domain.  Studios, galleries, workshops, a few potters at work, the senior projects, the library (where a computer-driven machine whirled plastic into unbelievably complex designs).  After our tour, she left us to explore on our own, advising that we be sure to visit the international museum on site--which we did--filled with works donated from around the world.  Gads.

As we wandered down to explore the monumental sculptures of the seniors’ art projects—up to maybe 15 feet tall—a classical guitar duo parked in a corner and lulled us into a happy stupor until the vans pulled up.  It was time for the first group to leave.  Sigh. 

I was in the second group, and almost got to hear a quartet acting/singing Mozart's Marriage of Figaro.  Of course, just as introductory remarks completed and the singers took the stage, the vans arrived.   Dang! 

Votive candles lined the driveway, leading us out through the logjams of those arriving. We returned our students to their studios, pumped and inspired by this glimpse into Italy’s glorious art heritage.  And we definitely need a return trip to Castelli.  

So there you have it.  The secret is out.  If you're ever in Rome, you might want to take a car or a bus ride (about 3 hrs.) and visit Shangri-La.  Overnight accommodations in Centro Evangelico d'Isola, of course!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Marco di Castelli

It doesn’t take long for a small village to get wind of a large international community of artists plunked down in their midst.  My plunk came last Sunday, when I attended the local church of my host family.  A tiny gem in the heart of the village, its ancient facade camouflaged a contemporary interior that had the sense to preserve stone walls and vaulted brickwork.  The church quickly filled with about 50 people—not bad for a European church.  

Though translation was offered, I respectfully declined.  Translation can tie you up in knots after you reach a certain level with a language.  It was time to ‘let go of the rope.’  If I was going to learn this language, I needed to cut off my own, even if only for 2 hours. 

And two hours later…let’s just say language immersion can do a girl in!  But I survived and earned points from those who understood what it is to endure immersion to learn a language.  Others were convinced I understood Italian, a notion that quickly evaporated as they plunged into conversation and I had to call for a translator.  Several languages were fractured that night, but I made progress—in both Italian and relationships. 

Marco preached that night, in the absence of the pastor.  He chose his words carefully and spoke slowly, making it relatively easy to follow him.  Projecting a beautiful piece by Gauguin for our contemplation as he spoke—the beauty of the image speaking volumes into our right brains, while our left ones chugged along in language. Well done, Marco!  I thought.  Well done.  Theresa leaned over and whispered that he was a great artist.  I must meet him.  

As Marco’s sermon ended, along with the service, there was a flurry of handshakes and kisses.  All the artists in the church were pointed out or introduced to me, but when Marco approached, the crowd parted like the Red Sea.  A volley of Italian burst out of him, his eyes piercing me as if searching my soul.  I sensed the thirst of the isolated artist for connection, understanding, hope. 

Marco’s story unfolded, through the translator: a master ceramic painter, he had worked as a professor at a local high school famed throughout Italy for its ceramics.  Heads nodded as the translator tried to impress upon me the stature of the artist before me.  I looked at Marco, who shrugged as if to say, “Whatever.”  The crowd waited for my reaction and I summoned one of the few words I know, but which I delivered with the utmost Italian gusto: “Bravo!”

“Now I work in the local middle school, with children with special needs,” he replied through translation, with an air of resignation. 

“Maybe you could speak at our school,” i suggested and his eyes lit up. 

“Absolutely!  Any time!” he responded, and the crowd nodded again, satisfied that I had offered an honor befitting the artist. The poor translator, sweating under the strain of resurrecting whatever English he knew, nearly fainted when my hosts (below) came to extricate me from the crowd. 

Before I left, however, Marco invited me (and all our students) to visit the famous high school in the nearby mountaintop village of Castelli.  The following Saturday was an open house. 

“Absolutely!” I replied in return.  And went home to recover.