The night of my arrival, we sat down to dinner at eight o’clock. The teachers each introduced themselves and gave us a brief description of the following day’s activities – the market in Pistoia in the morning, then classes in the afternoon followed by an art history lecture and slideshow, then dinner and a reading of Dante’s La Vita Nuova. I was too tired to be very excited about much beyond dinner, but I was paying close attention.
The dining room, like the rest of the main floor of the Villa, has vaulted ceilings and two small chandeliers. There are two long wooden tables where the students sit, and a larger third table perpendicular to them where food is laid out sometimes. There are three mullioned windows and one high oculis (round) window near the ceiling. It is charming and comfortable and echoes pleasantly when we are all gathered for meals.
Oh, and what meals!! A first course of pasta (our first night, it was cannelloni stuffed with broccoli and ricotta), then a meat course and two vegetable courses, all delicately cut and well-seasoned with herbs and salt. There is plenty of good sweet red wine and bread and oil for the grabbing. I was starving that first night and ate well. The food is simple and expertly prepared and very very necessary, because our schedule is rigorous. We have no free days – in fact, free hours are a rarety, as any time between classes or tours of the cities is used for drawing or private meetings with teachers. I do get to spend a lot of time in the garden when I can, as I take my meals out there (except for dinner, of course).
In the last three days, I have had six classes, toured two cities, attended two art history slideshows and two readings of Dante. Yesterday was my first visit to Florence, and it was glorious. The Villa is only forty minutes from Florence by train, and we stagger our visits so that we are in Florence or Pisa three days a week, with the intervening days spent in Pistoia.
I rise early, before they ring the bell, because our windows are wide open to the air and light and the sounds of the swallows under the eaves waking up. At night, we are visited by bats who enter in at the windows, circle the chandeliers, and leave again with a chirring noise. Breakfast for me is usually a cup of tea in the garden next to the fountain while I wake up fully and try to prepare for the day ahead. We leave around 7.30 or 8 for the trains or Pistoia, and on days we are in Pistoia we are back at the Villa by 1.30 for a light lunch of vegetables, risotto with pesto, and various cold cuts. Then we have classes (today I have silver photography and basic drawing) with an hour break or so before our art history lecture (we all take this as a group) which is immediately followed by our wonderful dinner. Then Dante, then we all head out to mingle outside in the night air and point out constellations to each other.
The afternoons are uniformly golden and peaceful while we are at class. Sometimes we have classes in the garden or dining room, other times there are few of us, so we sit in the conservatory and listen to the sound of the large fountain mingled with the piano and sweet singing from the musical students taking their lessons.
I have seen and done many wonderful things in these three short days, but my best moments are in the afternoon in my high bedroom, leaning out the window into the soft air and listening to the faraway singing, the roosters crowing, the bells of the monastery ringing the hour. I have no watch or clock, so it is the clashing bells of the monastery and church that alert me to the time – they often disagree by as much as fifteen minutes. I have a feeling that this is an argument that has raged for centuries.