Many of you reading this have been to La Romita, have met Edmund, Valerio, Ivo, Raniero, Silvana, Egizia and Franca, Tracy, and all the others who make up our staff. We cannot overstate our appreciation for their dedication and commitment to making every student's experience at La Romita special, but you may not be aware of a larger circle of people who donate their time, energy, and expertise behind the scenes. These people serve on our Board and work through committees and other functions to provide direction to the school, coordinate marketing efforts, handle outreach, and generally work to ensure that La Romita continues.
La Romita Letters – January 2020
from Harold “Ben” Benson
As one of the few people who has been connected to La Romita since the school was founded 53 years ago, I am perhaps uniquely positioned to give credit to some of the people who have helped us along the way.
When Enza Quargnali visualized La Romita, she was finishing her MFA as a Fulbright scholar at the University of New Mexico under the tutelage of Elaine de Kooning, one of the icons of American modernism. Her experience in the US convinced her that there were deep connections to be explored between the art of the “old world” in Italy and that of the burgeoning “new world” art of post-war America. When she thought of her family summer home, the centuries-old convent at La Romita, she saw an opportunity to put her dreams in motion, but knew that it would take a lot of work.
She envisioned La Romita as a special place where people of similar interests could come together to enrich their lives by active involvement in the arts and by participating in the culture of Umbria. Enza could never have imagined that the school she started in 1966 would still be going strong over 50 years later, but she always felt that the Capuchin Friars must have approved of our care for their property…that their years of hard work and creativity in an atmosphere of contemplative study would take such a different but complimentary form hundreds of years later.
Enza and Ben in 2010
Enza teaching in the Studio
None of this would have been possible without the assistance of the people we called our guardian angels – participants, staff, instructors, and special volunteers who made significant contributions at the outset to the growth and success of La Romita. Some of the people that come to mind include Prof Bainbridge Bunting, Prof Arthur Adair, Adabelle Hill, and Betty Lynch.
Enza began by contacting Bainbridge Bunting, Professor of Art History at UNM, with whom she had worked on developing an art slide collection for his art classes. When Prof. Bunting began teaching at UNM, he was the entire faculty of the Art department and he developed the department’s slide collection from scratch. Years earlier he had toured around Italy on a Vespa taking photographs of the architecture, sculpture and paintings for his courses. He fondly remembered Umbria, so he volunteered to promote Enza’s ideas. He also initially helped in recruiting students to La Romita by giving talks at the art departments of other schools. Through his network of his former students and other art professors, he made the connection with Professor Arthur Adair, Chairman of the Fine Arts Department at Rockford College (RC) in Illinois, which became the first college to run their study abroad program at La Romita.
Professor Adair, who had a MA in Art from Columbia University, lectured on art history. The daily schedule was like it is today with alternating studio time and trips to nearby towns for art history. In the second year Arthur brought his wife and three daughters who all stayed in the newly built but unfinished tower apartment. In the seventies the Arthur retired from teaching and went back to creating his original art medium ceramics and moved to Taos where Enza and I were living. He opened the “Clay and Fiber” shop downtown and Enza and Arthur continued to host art exhibitions together.
After three years, Rockford College terminated their Italian program and Enza sought other art institutions. During the next nine years La Romita hosted the summer art programs of Elmira College, Kansas State University, and the University of Colorado. Although most of the students were college-age, there were also a few older students getting credits for higher degrees.
One of these a student in the second year with Rockford College was Adabelle Hill, who was earning a MA in art history from SUNY Binghamton. In Enza’s words “she was taken by the mysterious allure of La Romita” and became Enza’s main partner. While her most important help was finding other art departments to come to Italy, Adabelle also was gifted in writing and the visual arts. She took many photos on the trips to the main artistic towns such as Perugia, Assisi, Spoleto and Orvieto and the out of the way places like Todi, Narni, Spello, Bagnio Reggio, etc. She developed and narrated slide presentations for the participants in the evenings before their scheduled to visits. These are still being used today.
When Enza and I were transferring to Saudi Arabia in the late seventies, La Romita went through another transformation. Paola Quargnali, Enza’s sister and, remarkably, also a Fulbright scholar at UNM, contacted the Extension Program at the UNM to sponsor a four-week session with one week in Florence, Rome or Venice. Enza again taught studio art, Adabelle taught art history, Paola taught Italian language and culture, and a friend from Taos, Dick Spas taught photography. During this period there were also other workshops with painters who were already well-known teachers in the United States…much like the programs run at La Romita today. One of these teachers was an up and coming artist named Betty Lynch.
Betty was a very gifted watercolor artist and had a great following in her painting workshops. One of her techniques was to start by making a light splash on the paper and then find the images she was observing in the negative spaces. Her results were magnificent and her book, “Artist en Route”, is still treasured and available online. She also provided townscapes used in our brochures and was a great help in advertising the School and recruiting other instructors, particularly from the western states.
Then and Now
The most difficult phase of any project is the beginning. The first session was in 1966 and it was new for both Rockford College and Enza. The original plan was for two sessions with fifteen students each. Enza and her parents had to quickly convert the premises from its normal familial use into a school with classrooms and appropriate furniture. One major project involved converting what had become the garage for the farm wagon (il capanone) into an open-air dining area. Breakfast was served by the staff, while lunch and dinner were brought up the hill in a Fiat station wagon from a restaurant in Terni. Another problem was that there were only two bathrooms in the entire complex. Not ideal but it worked during the first couple of years.
The for-credit program in painting and art history was for two six-week sessions. Each session included four weeks at La Romita, with a week in Rome and a week in Florence. Enza taught studio painting in La Romita’s church and on the grounds.
The UNM connection, with varying instructors, lasted until 1984 at which point Paola and Enza founded the “La Romita School of Art, Inc” as it is known today. They implemented the format which, with some slight changes, is still in use: many independent workshops hosted by professors and instructors vetted for their excellence in both art and teaching skills. Adabelle and Betty continued to be our backers and returned to lead and participate in our sessions for many years. We even had a special storage area for their gear when they were away.
Over the years there have been many others who have been “taken by the mysterious allure of La Romita”. We could not have survived without their assistance. We are particularly grateful to the many instructors and students who kept (and keep) returning year after year. Now the next generation has taken over from Enza and Paola, but true to the original vision, the Convento at La Romita, continues as a special place where people of similar interests can come together to enrich their lives by active involvement in the arts and by participating in the culture of Umbria.
Left to Right: Amina Bucci (Enza’s mother), Enza, Claudia Gnoli, and Adabelle Hill