The Civitella Ranieri Foundation provides annual fellowships to visual artists, musicians and writers from around the world who demonstrate exceptional talent and commitment to their disciplines. The fellowships were created by Ursula Corning in 1995 with the aim of encouraging the creative process and collaborative spirit by providing fellows with lodgings, a private workspace and uninterrupted time.
The location of the 15 century Civitella Castle is in central Italy near the town of Umbertide in the province of Perugia. The castle grounds are stupendous with huge lawns, trees including olive trees and beautiful gardens.
At present there are three fellows from Africa, writers Uche Umez, Nigeria, Ugandan, Monica Arac de Nyeko the 2007 Caine Prize winner for Jambula Tree and Zanele Muholi visual activists from South Africa. I interviewed the programme coordinator Diego Mencaroni on the fellowship programme and the foundations involvement with African artists and writers.
SE: I understand Ms Corning first opened up the Civitella castle in 1968 to personal invitees and friends but it wasn’t until much later that a formal fellowship was created.
DM: The first year of the fellowship programme was 1995. It was Ursula’s wish to establish this programme along with the suggestion from the Board of Directors to begin the foundation here at the castle. Civitella was very much part of Ursula’s life as she spent her summers here from 1968 until 2002 when she passed away at the age of 99.
SE: Has the programme changed in anyway since the beginnings in 1995?
DM: Of course the programme has changed. I have only had this position since 2006 but it has changed a lot in terms of structure of the programme, number of fellows and the period of the residency. We have learned over time what is best for the fellows. Now the residency runs for six weeks and this is based on our past experience. The number of fellows increased because we were able to use spaces that in the past were difficult to use especially at the castle. Just imagine how difficult it was to have the internet here in this semi-isolated place before the introduction of WiFi!
SE: How many times a year does the residency run and how many fellows do you invite?
DM: The programme runs four times a year for six weeks and we have 15 fellows for each residency divided into three categories, writers, artists and composers. Altogether we have about 60 fellows every year starting in May through November which is the good season here in Italy.
SE: I notice also you have Director Guests, can you explain who these are?
DM: Yes some of the 60 could be Directors Guests. These are people invited by the director of Civitella and they could be art historians, architects, designers and so on. They are people who we believe could give an added value to the residency.
SE: So the Director Guests are people who could come and give support to the fellows?
DM: In a way yes. But they have to pay their own travel whilst for our fellows we provide board lodging and travels. Also the Director Guests only stay between 1 and 4 weeks.
SE: How does the selection process work?
DM: We have a group of nominators and a jury.
We invite writers, composers and artists who are nominated to apply for the fellowship and this goes to the jurors…
The Director plays the most important part as she selects the nominators. But it is important that the nominators and the jury know about Civitella, how it works and the fellowship. The jurors will of course choose people who are going to benefit from the residency here at Civitella.
The jurors gathers once every other year to make the selection. We have people coming from all over the world. For example we have a map of the world in our office and we want to fill the whole map so there are no empty parts left.
SE: So each year when you make your selection you try to throw the net wider to bring in people from more countries?
SE: I read through your fellows list and it is highly impressive. I particularly noted the names from African countries. However, I wondered if the fellows have to be people who have already achieved a certain success?
DM: It’s not always like this. Generally speaking we have people mid-career and we have at this moment people who are well known and have achieved a lot. But we sometimes have younger and innocent people through our UNESCO [Aschberg Bursaries for Artists Programme] which allows us to invite fellows from areas where we do not have contacts [India, Asia and Africa]. Sometimes if the jurors like the work of someone, they don’t have to have achieved great results in their career. This is not so important.
SE: And what does the foundation expect of its fellows?
DM: Really nothing. Nothing is compulsory here. We know we achieved our goal when at the end of the residency our fellows tell us they were able to do work that would have taken them three or six months. The fellowship is essentially generosity.
People who come to Civitella are aware of the great opportunity to work in a wonderful environment which they can enjoy without feeling a burden on their shoulders. And also you know, the fact of being amongst talented people is important. We do not expect anything. We are happy when our fellows dedicate their work to us. Or they acknowledge us with their compositions or art or even they give us some of their work as a present.
I have to tell you that our fellows have donated books and their works to the library and now we have a significant library of about 5000 books created over the years from the donations of our fellows.
Sometimes it could be we have people who come to Civitella after a season of intense work and here they can rest and recharge their batteries.
SE: So it could also be called a retreat? I like the idea of you not wanting to place burdens on people.
DM: It’s more than that because it takes place in a beautiful space. Also basic things like for instance you don’t have to worry about day to day life like doing shopping. We also offer initiatives for instance every week we have field trips in the area. And not to cities like Rome or Florence but to the to those small jewels of Italy, the parts of the country that you would not normally visit if you had ten days in Italy. We realise that these are recreational but also didactical activities which in a way enhance the residency itself.
SE: At the moment you have three African fellows, Uche Umez and Monica Arac de Nyeko writers from Nigeria and Uganda respectively and Zanele Muholi, photographer visual activist from South Africa - can you tell us a little about each and why they were selected if thats not too personal?
DM: The reason why they were selected is essentially because they convinced the jury to select them. This is the only explanation I can give you because there is no other. Of course it is quite interesting because they are young and also Africa is a young continent which is now coming out. I realise that over the years we have more and more African fellows. This is the result of a higher level of education on the continent I presume.
This year we had many African writers for instance, Brian Chikwava [Zimbabwe] two Nigerians, Obi Nwakanma and Toni Kan. They are writers but in the past we have had Nigerian visual artists and South African writers and artists. This year we also had an amazing Kenyan visual artist, Peterson Waweru, all young people under 40. This is something that is important for us. Talking about Zanele, Uche and Monica they do the standard fellowship apart from Zanele who is now in a great moment of her career and she travels a lot because her work is exhibited worldwide. She received several invitations and for us this is great. It was not easy for her to find a moment in her career to spend time at Civitella. She was supposed to arrive last year but she couldn’t so she came this year.
It is very important to say that sometimes it is not easy to have African fellows because of the international laws. For instance with Uche, who is a very nice and sweet guy, we had to do a big procedure at the Italian embassy in Nigeria to allow him to get a visa. Uche because he had to present a discussion on his PhD he arrived one week after than the rest of the group. Monica is also a very nice and sweet person she is also very funny both great wonderful writers and talents as are all of our fellows.
SE: You mention that all the African fellows were young, do you have an age limit to attend Civitella?
DM: No age limit, not at all. We have had fellows from 22 years, a young Pakistani woman, a visual artist and the oldest have been in their 80s. We try to have a perfect mix of everybody – age, nationality, gender, domain, so that heterogeneity gives lots of impulse and conversation to the group.
SE: One question is how do you keep in touch with fellows after they return to their regular life especially after 18 years it must be hard to maintain contact?
DM: We are always in touch with them from their activities as any time there is an exhibition or new book as soon as we receive the information, it will be on our blog or website and social networks where we publish information about fellows. And sometimes we organise some parties in Italy or New York. Of course many fellows in their career may pass through New York where we have an office and there is always an opportunity to meet with staff. Here in Italy it is more difficult as you have to find your way to Civitella. We have also organised in the past exhibitions of fellows work which we have in our collection or if a fellow comes to us we can organise a reading.
SE: So basically fellows can always get in touch with you and say I have just published a book or completed a piece of work and I would love to have a reading or share with you?
DM: The acknowledgment is important. It is not always easy to return to Civitella but what is important is it’s great to receive for instance books of fellows from 10 years ago.
SE: Thank you Diego, just one final question or rather a comment which is the grounds of Civitella look beautiful and I notice you have some olive trees so I assume you have olive oil. I assume you also grow your own vegetables?
DM: This will be the first year of picking our olives. We have just 8 olive trees and though the mills are not open yet we would like to take our olives to a local mill and give a bottle of Civitella oil to our fellows as a present. We grow our own vegetables. It was not difficult for us as in Italy in general but especially in Umbria we have always eaten organic food and we only serve seasonal products. We buy locally directly from the producers, wine, meat and flowers and we have a wonderful staff especially the chef and the people who take care of all the grounds, the trees and the vegetable garden. They are all part of our programme at Civitella and we realise our fellows really adore this.