Mission and History

Artists require unfettered time and space to engage in their work and the world. Building on the legacy of our founder, Ursula Corning, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation opens the doors of its 15th century castle in rural Umbria annually for four six-week residency sessions of self-directed studio and work time.

Each residency community of 12-14 brings together accomplished international artists, writers, and composers at emerging and established moments in their careers. They are joined by a limited number of invited Director’s Guests to foster a robust contemporary dialogue that transcends disciplines and geography. A Civitella Ranieri Fellowship changes lives, develops permanent connections, and refreshes one’s work.


Ursula Corning and Civitella Ranieri

Ursula Corning, founder of the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, was born in Switzerland in 1903, studied in England, and spent most of her life in New York City. A gifted linguist whose extended family lived in four countries, she crossed borders with ease. Yet, if there is such a place as one's true home, for Ursula, it surely was her beloved Civitella.

Her father's cousin, Romeyne Robert, had married the Marchese Ruggero Ranieri di Sorbello, whose family had owned Civitella since the castle was built in the 15th century. Ursula began visiting it as a young girl but it wasn't until 1968, after she had retired from her career as a physical therapist at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, that she made the momentous decision, at the suggestion of Roberto Ranieri, Ruggero's grandson, to rent the castle indefinitely.

Thus began the fabled Civitellian summers enjoyed for the next 35 years by Ursula's wide and varied, always stimulating, always provocative circle of international friends. The atmosphere of the ancient castle and the quiet beauty of the countryside inspired her artistic guests to express themselves through poetry and music and, on one memorable occasion, to perform a play based on the legendary ghost that haunted the castle. As for young guests, the castle was the perfect milieu for whimsy and mischief - their high jinks amused Ursula enough to occasionally join in.

The generations of regular guests, whom Ursula called "the Civitellians," their friends and the occasional strangers Ursula spontaneously invited, had the good fortune to enjoy her unparalleled hospitality. The ultimate hostess, Ursula took great care in planning the seating chart for evening meals. With guests sometimes numbering as many as 36, she would spend an hour each day working on the seating arrangements. Ursula took great pleasure in breaking down social barriers at the dinner table, seating backpackers next to bankers, the old next to the young, and always separating couples. Ursula, who preferred others take center stage, would sit back and listen to the conversations, carried on in as many as five different languages, and watch friendships blossom between people whose paths were unlikely to otherwise have crossed.

Ursula delighted in taking her guests on what she called tiddly-poms, day-trips or forays in and around Umbria to visit her favorite monasteries and chapels and enchant her guests with the stories behind the medieval paintings and frescoes she loved. As comfortable on the back roads as a native Umbrian, she was famous for whisking her guests around hairpin mountain turns as they clutched the edges of their seats. Her daring driving perhaps came from her fearlessness as a mountain climber. A pioneering woman mountaineer in Europe, she scaled the Matterhorn several times and continued climbing well into her middle years.

Although she never married or had children, Civitella, the idyllic home she created, connected her to a large extended family of devoted friends. At the end of each summer, Ursula followed a ritual of driving to the cathedral in nearby Castel Rigone to light a candle before the Madonna dei Miracoli, and to make a wish to return the following year.

In the last decade of her life, Ursula often wondered aloud, "What will become of my dear Civitella after I die? Will it be turned into a dusty museum?" It was at this time, with the help of Gordon Knox and Cecilia Galiena, that she began to grow Civitella's current arts program. Those who knew her well say that, were she to return today, she would be thrilled to see the castle abuzz with creative activity generated by the new Civitellians, the international Fellows now enjoying the castle. They can almost hear her say, as she so often did: "Oh, splendid. How very splendid."

By Deanne Stone, 2008