Castles in the /Real World/

The tag line for this blog is “on art, the environment, and what might suffice.”  And, earnest girl that I am, I meant it pretty precisely.  Which is why being in Italy this month, at a place called Castello di Spannocchia, is both a fabulous and congruous opportunity, and also an occasion for some soul-searching.

The castle and surrounding hundreds of acres are the extraordinary remnant of a tenuta—an agricultural estate that once was home to more than a hundred tenant farmers (and the landowner).  The egalitarian disposition of the present owners and some mid-century changes in Italian law both contributed to the end of sharecropping here.  However, a desire to keep alive the traditional methods of working the land persists.  Now, that work is done by a staff whose numbers swell each season with interns and WWOOFers.  These young apprentices learn about age-old agricultural practices, and bring those insights home.  The recent explosion of interest in sustainability, and in organic and artisanal foods, has contributed to creating a fantastic pool of candidates for these physically demanding (and usually volunteer) jobs.

The current owner has both a keen sense of the architectural and cultural history of the castle, and of its significance within the system of social life in the region.  He understands the links between the agricultural production of the Tuscan countryside and the rise of banking culture and hence of a commodity-rich culture in nearby Florence.  And he knows what that has meant to the consolidation of an arts culture dating back centuries here.

I also now know this because I am currently one of more than a dozen guests staying in his castle.  Our group will be here for just under three weeks, as part of a doctoral program in art and philosophy.  The program, IDSVA, blends short residencies with distance education.  The five year program includes time spent at a range of locations.  The lucky first and second year students start each new academic year here, a location chosen in part for the immersive opportunity it affords, away from family and the distractions of everyday life, and in part because the castle is a hop and a skip from where the Renaissance began.  During their stay, the students read and discuss philosophy and art theory, travel to Florence and Siena to see artworks, and forge an understanding of the ways in which even seemingly “straightforward” artworks evidence thoughts and beliefs and ideological commitments that are worth noting.

Amazing art and art conversations.

An extraordinarily beautiful location, and hosts whose commitment to the environment is manifest through sustainable agricultural practices and lifestyle decisions.

I should feel like I’m in heaven.

And I do.


When I went to NYC in conjunction with an IDSVA residency last January, I could not help but wonder whether the now-common claim that urban areas are models for sustainability took all relevant factors into account.  I’ve come to believe that they actually do not.  Here, again, I cannot help but engage that question.

Our hosts certainly seem to be living and working sustainably.  It is we, their guests, about whom I wonder.  Most of the interns and WWOOFers are from the United States.  And while I think WWOOFing is amazing, I question whether it is, in and of itself, truly sustainable.  Tonight at dinner, I was talking with two WWOOFers who have spent time at five farms this season.  They are from the states, and the farms where they worked were Spannocchia, two others in Tuscany, one in Sicily, and one in Switzerland.  No doubt they’ve learned a ton.  And they’ve been of real help to the farmers.  But they are doing this as a gap year, rather than as preparation for future farming careers.  So I wonder whether the amount they’ve contributed balances the amount they’ve used in resources in order to have this experience.  And similarly, I wonder who “foots the carbon bill” when we calculate the sustainability of this system—is it the farmer who employs the WWOOFers, the WWOOFers themselves, or has it been left unregarded?

But perhaps even with imported, short-term labor, this system really is ecologically sustainable.  And even if not literally ecologically sustainable, perhaps the social benefits and possibilities for personal transformation are its carbon offset.

It is more when I am forced to think about us—art and philosophy appreciators who have come all this way—that the question really takes shape.  Like nearly everyone else who works for or participates in IDSVA, I traveled here from the U.S.  And that was no small feat.  I left my home 100 miles from Portland, Maine, and drove to the airport there, then flew to Philadelphia, then flew to Rome, then rode by chartered bus (with the others in the program) to the castle, which is not too far from Chiusdino, in the Tuscan countryside.  So much transit, as you know, gives me pause—not because of the jetlag, unpleasant and illustrative as that is, but because of the tacit presumption that it’s appropriate to expend that much fuel for a non-extraordinary circumstance.

With those gallons of crude starting to weigh heavily, I have tried to take a step back, and look at the program from a bird’s-eye (jet plane’s?) perspective.  Seen as a whole, this program probably carries a very modest carbon footprint.  Without a bricks-and-mortar infrastructure to maintain, without a daily commute for students and faculty and administrators, we are not burning fossil fuels to do our work most days.  True, we have travelled far, as have our guest speakers, but any given group of students makes just four flights a year (to and from two residencies), while the faculty and administrators make six, occasionally eight.  And once we reach a locale, we tend to stay put or to use public transportation.

I’m pretty sure that our carbon load is less than that of the average graduate program.  But what the WWOOFers and we bring to the fore, beyond all my fancy justifying footwork, is the real question:  what reasons do we (should we) deem legitimate for such grand expenditures of energy?  I don’t mean our own energies, which are (supposedly!) renewable, but those non-renewables that can only, in truth, be said to belong to us all collectively?  How do we decide which potentially transformative experiences are, a priori, worth the collective cost to the commons?

While I don’t presume to know the answer, I do feel sure that among our sundry jobs here at the castle—whether we’ve come as advocates of sustainability or as philosophers—is to formulate precisely this sort of question.  And to face even an uncomfortable answer with open eyes.