After drinking tea and eating a slice of prosaic panettone, Baroness Beatrice Monti della Corte von Rezzori, 96, rises in a flash from her armchair in her double-height office, lined on one side with books and paintings on the other, and will do what the nice assistant, Edoardo, a young man of 31, cannot: play music. He approaches the modern stereo, a white ball connected to an outlet, and shouts: "Alexa, un po' di Frank Sinatra, please!" The machine immediately obeyed, probably more for the volume than the delicacy of the request, and everyone in the room laughed, including herself, narrowing her green eyes. Twice a baroness, Beatrice could be sufficient, but even machines speak kindly. She is a collector of art, books, but above all of stories and friendships. And she's always ready to remember another episode of her experience with great writers.
In the foundation that she has run since the death of her husband in 1998, the former and prestigious gallery owner has already received, for literary residencies (retreats dedicated to writing), more than 200 writers. Located in Tuscany, Italy, the Santa Maddalena Foundation is, for the Spanish newspaper El País, the “most famous and particular” literary residence. I'll talk about the particularity later, about the fame I'm going to deal with now. In this isolated property of 37 hectares, where I arrived sorry for the car which transported me, and fearing that a wheel would come off, so bad the access was, there were Nobel Prize winners, like Annie Ernaux, distinguished in 2022, and Olga Tokarczuk, in 2018. But the list of renowned writers (and distinguished by important prizes, such as the Pulitzer, Booker, Princesa das Asturias, Renaudot, Costa, etc.) who have already wanted to write in Santa Maddalena is long: Andrew Sean Greer, Anita and Kiran Desai, Bruce Chatwin, Colm Tóibín, Emmanuel Carrère, Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, among many others. John Banville (Booker winner), Michael Cunningham (Pulitzer winner) or Zadie Smith (multi-award winning author) come every year, sometimes two or three times. But what makes them love this place so much? The obvious answer is that in Santa Maddalena they find a refuge, a place where they are not disturbed while they write, an absolute harmony between space, time and silence. The least obvious, and which explains why this residence is so desirable, I will look for in my own experience. I too came to write. The invitation arrived, by e-mail, out of the blue. It was signed by the Baroness herself who, in addition to being famous, likes to invite young writers. My name, I found out later, had been suggested to him by Alberto Manguel.