“May I offer you coffee? Water? Vodka?” asked Baronessa Beatrice Monti della Corte as she welcomed me into her apartment on New York’s Upper East Side.
Monti, the widow of the fabled novelist of old Europe Gregor von Rezzori, led me into her book-strewn living room where she sat down, flanked by a polished-stone Noguchi sculpture to her left and a wheezing pug to her right.
A slender woman with elegantly coiffed silver hair, Monti has been in the thick of artistic ferment for over half a century.
Monti, now in her mid-eighties, is eager to talk about her Santa Maddalena Foundation, a writers’ retreat held on her estate. The splendid property in Tuscany, with cook and swimming pool, has attracted such literary superstars as Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk, Michael Cunningham, Edmund White, and Zadie Smith.
By now, she’s hosted almost 150 writers from more than 40 countries, raising fellowship funds to support the activities of her non-profit foundation.
She spoke to me a few days before leaving for Santa Maddalena where preparations for the arrival of this year’s artists were already under way.
Tarmy: You’re known for your writers’ retreat, but you’ve also had a career in art.
Monti: I had a gallery in Milan for 20-something years, where I introduced American and British artists to Italy.
I showed Robert Rauschenberg in 1962. At that time, Milan was the capital of culture, not just of fashion. It was a wonderful place to have a gallery.
Everyone was there: Eugenio Montale, the poet, and Italo Calvino, the author, would just come by my gallery.
Tarmy: Why did you shut down it down?
Monti: My husband preferred Tuscany -- he never wanted to go to Milan. So I closed the gallery, right at the moment when art dealers were becoming millionaires.
Leo Castelli said it was incredibly stupid of me, but I don’t regret it. I began to work for magazines instead. I’m still on the masthead of Vanity Fair as a contributing editor, actually.
Tarmy: You’re part of a Europe that in many respects no longer exists. Does the aristocracy still have a place in society?
Monti: We have categories for everyone else, dentists, doctors, this, that, why not the aristocracy? Look, I’m as left-wing as you can be, but if you destroyed what remains of the aristocracy, what would it be replaced by?
We already know: a little bourgeoisie who wants to become a big bourgeoisie. And that’s pitiful. Better keep it as it is.
Tarmy: Do you think culture is in decline?
Monti: It’s very difficult to think otherwise -- we’re in a period of total decadence. I remember after the war there was such hope, when we thought everyone could do their bit to build a better world.
And look at Europe now. All of the places I lived, all of the places I traveled to, they’re all destroyed.
Tarmy: Do you see your writers’ retreat as a response to this destruction?
Wild Boar Sightings
Monti: I know it’s not very humane or very grand, but I want to create a happy little island where writers can go out, see a wild boar, stroll in nature, a small utopia where they can be happy for six weeks.
They eat well, they enjoy the olive oil we make -- it’s a moment of pleasure and one of total freedom.
Tarmy: How did you get the idea to start the retreat?
Monti: Bruce Chatwin gave me the idea, without either of us really realizing it. He used to visit Santa Maddalena to write.
When my husband died, I realized I still wanted my house to be a place where writers like Bruce could come and work. For the first year I invited my friends, simply because it was the easiest thing to do. And it grew from there.
Tarmy: Do you enjoy having all of these people come and go?
Monti: After being married to a writer for so many years, I understand the needs of the artist.
I know how selfish they are, I know how large their egos are, but I also know that they create beauty. They create what makes me -- makes all of us -- happy. So I do what I can do to facilitate that.
If there are some extraordinary pages that come out of Santa Maddalena, then I’m happy.
(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)