If the baronessa Beatrice Monti della Corte has found a secret to life, it is stories.
At the Santa Maddalena writer’s residency at her rambling estate in rural Tuscany, Monti has hosted some of the foremost storytellers of our time — Zadie Smith, Michael Cunningham, Colm Tóibín, Teju Cole, Sally Rooney, Olga Tokarczuk, Michael Ondaatje, Edmund White, and a couple hundred others. While authors appreciate her hushed writing rooms with olive grove vistas, her company is the principal draw.
“The only things Beatrice won’t talk about,” Smith said, “are things that are boring.”
At 97, Monti is animated and unstoppable. She runs Santa Maddalena as her personal passion project, accepting no applications and choosing writers according to her instincts, in consultation with her network of friends, publishers and other authors. Her taste, developed over a lifetime of nurturing and being nurtured by literature and art, is considered a bellwether, with several fellows going on to win the Nobel, the Pulitzer, the Booker, the Prix Goncourt.
At Santa Maddalena, “literature is the primary value,” said Cunningham, an annual visitor for two decades. “There are times when I swear that enough significant work has been done in those rooms that they’re imbued with something, the way smoke will eventually inhabit the walls of a place.”
Nestled among the orchard slopes beyond Florence, Santa Maddalena appears like a quintessential Tuscan idyll: an ivy-cloaked farmhouse from the 1500s, a medieval stone watchtower, a swimming pool in the garden. But it’s also a worldly enclave: The pool is where the actor Ralph Fiennes, a friend of Monti’s since filming “The English Patient” nearby, likes to sunbathe in the summer; the tower is where the writer Bruce Chatwin would spend months working on his books between travels; the farmhouse — cleared by Monti of occupying chickens — was remodeled with the Modernist architect Marco Zanuso.
“I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life,” Smith said of her initial visit to the estate — a quiet escape from the cyclone of fame following her publication of “White Teeth.” “I was such a parochial person. Part of Santa Maddalena was understanding that Willesden is not the center of the world,” she said of the suburb in northwest London.
After her stay, Smith relocated to Rome for two years, learned Italian and even adopted a pug identical to the dog faithfully found by Monti’s side. She’s returned repeatedly to the writer’s residence ever since.
On a recent afternoon, Monti was upstairs in her sitting room, healing from a tumble that left her with four stitches on her face but her spirit unscathed: “A fallen woman,” she deadpanned. Her eyes were the blanched blue of sea glass, a silk scarf was knotted around her neck, and she was surrounded with books and artworks by the illustrious talents who have populated her life. Behind her was a canvas by Antoni Tàpies; Santa Maddalena has become a home to writers, but it also houses a decent museum’s worth of Modern art.
Her involvement with the art world began during her childhood on the island of Capri, she recounted, when she was the adolescent mascot of a creative milieu that included Italy’s premier novelists of the time, palling around with Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante and Curzio Malaparte, the latter of whom enjoyed bike-riding naked on the roof of his supervillain lair-like house.
“There was a sense of total freedom in Capri then,” she said. “That island turned me eccentric for life.”
Her mother, an Armenian from Istanbul (then known as Constantinople), had died of typhus when Monti was 6. Her father, an Italian aristocrat, was away for years in Ethiopia — as cultural attaché, and later as a prisoner of war — leaving the child stranded with a callous stepmother. “The writers and artists seemed more agreeable to me,” she said. Both would buoy her life.
In 1955, Monti founded the Galleria dell’Ariete in Milan. At 25, she was one of few female gallery owners and rapidly established herself as the vanguard with early exhibitions of New York’s new school of abstraction — Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko — and of Italian painters and sculptors who defined an era — Lucio Fontana, Pietro Consagra, Carla Accardi, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Enrico Castellani and Piero Manzoni (indelible for his literal cans of “Artist’s Shit”).
But for Monti, these earthshaking artists were simply more of her interesting friends — friends who would drop by unannounced for dinner, and leave her artworks like the monumental stone vulva now in her living room, for which she said she provided “the inspiration.”
The baronessa married Gregor von Rezzori, a lauded writer, in 1967, and together they discovered the dilapidated Tuscan farm that became their home. She shuttered the gallery space in 1979, taking on an artistic role at Condé Nast and Vanity Fair, and bracketed work with world travel and countryside living with Grisha, as he was known to friends.
As a child mourning her deceased mother, Monti had been consoled with a litter of puppies, and she has surrounded herself with them ever since. When she lost Grisha in 1998, she erected a stone pyramid in his honor near his favorite writing spot in the garden — it stands about six feet tall, like Grisha himself. He had begged her not to become a “lugubrious widow,” and she soon launched the Santa Maddalena Foundation, surrounding herself, in this bereavement, with writers.
The experience of Santa Maddalena, for writers, crystallizes at the table, where leisurely multicourse lunches and dinners are consumed communally each day — with wine, if you please. On a warm autumn day, Monti and the fellows in residence sat around the courtyard table, where, over plates of broccoli pesto pasta, Parmesan and prosciutto boards, fresh fruits and final tarts, the conversation veered from the translation of inner monologues to postcards from the German writer W.G. Sebald to Monti’s Madrid adventures with the director Pedro Almodóvar.
“It’s the Italian tradition of dining as a discussion,” the German author Hans von Trotha commented over dessert. At Santa Maddalena, unhurried meals, served with Monti’s century of stories and the camaraderie of table-side banter, break up the workday. The retreat functions like a sleepaway camp for great writers, its ritual group meals and hourslong chats bonding residents in what many described as everlasting friendships.
After lunch, the Swedish writer Karin Altenberg, a six-time fellow, gave a tour of Chatwin’s former tower room, where she was currently working. A curtained four-poster bed and an antique desk chair — unacquainted with terms like “ergonomic” or “back support” — shared space with an apparently active colony of geckos. The room opened out onto expansive valley views.
Santa Maddalena is “a place where creativity is freed,” Altenberg said, a private home whose idiosyncrasies and surprises — Isabella Rossellini dropped in for dinner one evening! — bolster the writing process.
“There are things around your room that might inspire you, or it could be the person you’re sharing the tower with, or even something annoying, like bats attacking you,” said Andrew Sean Greer, who directed Santa Maddalena for two years — and won the Pulitzer while residing across the hall from Monti. He declined to comment further on the bats. Writers “either absolutely love Santa Maddalena or they leave in a week,” he noted.
Writing is a portable art, and location can play a powerful role in informing even fiction. At the retreat, the real-life characters and situations often weave their way into writers’ stories.
“One day I decided that no matter what happened at Santa Maddalena,” Tóibín said, “the events would become the first pages of my novel about Henry James.” And, in fact, “The Master” begins with scenes drawn from his observations of Monti’s formal table manners, an outing to nearby Siena and an elderly Russian princess’s visit to the estate.
Santa Maddalena is not a writer’s residence in the institutional sense, Tóibín said.
“The paintings, the books, the presence of Beatrice” form a generous wellspring of creativity for those who trade in the imagination, he said, recalling an incident of a hat on a bed — considered very bad luck to the superstitious in Italy — where dispelling the hex required a ceremony of interpersonal gonad-touching.
Santa Maddalena has no endowment, with financial support coming principally from the occasional sale of an artwork or an old jewel of her mother’s. Monti is the foundation’s current director, its one-person advisory panel, its entertainment committee, its auction-house fund-raiser and its dowager guiding light. “Now,” she said, “I’m also a builder.” Rather than slow down as she approaches her 98th birthday, she is constructing a three-story library at Santa Maddalena. “It’s a gamble,” she confided, inspecting the library’s cement foundations, set among bamboo and oak tree woods. “I need to finish it before I die.”
For Monti, a lifelong companion to creativity, the story continues. “There are old people who only think about the past, but it’s not like that around here.” She leaned her cane on a rock. “You have to do things,” she reflected. “There’s always a future, even if it’s very small.”