A description of a stay at the Rockefeller Foundation's Study and Conference Center at Bellagio, Italy, in August-September, 1997.
Bellagio 1997
This 'tree' is really a pyramidal neuron of cerebral cortex.  The axon exiting at bottom goes long distances, eventually splitting up into 10,000 small branchlets to make synapses with other brain cells.
William H. Calvin and Katherine Graubard

The most interesting of our 1997 travels was Bellagio, Italy. It's hard to explain this without lapsing into superlatives over and over, so let me try bare facts first. The Rockefeller Foundation was, in the 1950s, given a 50-acre estate known as the Villa Serbelloni. It was also given enough endowment to maintain the place and run it as a retreat ("The Bellagio Study and Conference Center") for artists and writers. They get selected from a pile of applicants and consequently get to spend a month there with spouses, guests of the Foundation, fed and housed in splendor, each with a nice study in which to write or paint or compose. That's where we spent the late summer. Places like Bellagio are sometimes known as "The Leisure of the Theoried Class," but they're amazingly productive; my coauthor and I actually got a book written.

The Villa Serbelloni

First a few postcard views, to give you the lay of the land in northern Italy:

While it's Italy in the foreground, those are the mountains of Switzerland in the rear. This is looking north along the peninsula that splits Lake Como into a Y shape. Bellagio is on the point. [Geology fans will recognize this as the cleaver of the many ancient glaciers that flowed down this valley.]
And that point rises like the bow of a ship plowing through the waters. Most of what's seen in the center of this north-facing view of the eastern shoreline is the Villa Serbelloni and its grounds. The town of Bellagio is hidden behind the hill on the western shore.

And here you see the view from the other side of the peninsula, looking northeast. That's Bellagio, ferryboats and all, nestled below the Villa and its grounds up the hill.

Here's the Villa up close, with a view of the formal gardens. [Geology fans will recognize the granite dike in the western wall of the valley.]

That's the end of the postcards. The rest are amateur pictures; I wasn't a very diligent photographer. I missed, for example, taking any pictures during the days that the Rockefeller Foundation's illustrious Board of Trustees met at Bellagio, one of several short conferences that occurred in our month's stay.
Looking downhill to the lakeside area of the grounds, you can see the 25-story hike (the bocce court was down there, and a 5pm game of bocce was a tradition -- as was an early morning hike around town, for some of us, some of the time. We stayed in that building to the left and hiked up through three levels of gardens for meals in the Villa.

This was the view out the window of my study, showing the winding drive that led up to the Villa. It was somewhat distracting.

The hill above the Villa is forested with many gravel paths wandering throughout, with lots of statues, grottos, and even park benches. Here's Katherine walking up the path toward the "Castle."

Here's the statue of Pan and the park bench with a view down Lake Como. And you see the grottos in the background, nice little limestone caves which stay cool on hot summer afternoons.

People at the Villa

When there weren't overlapping short conferences, there were usually about two dozen people for dinner, and we often ate outside on the terrace. Lunch was more intimate, simply because so many people opted for a sack lunch that they could eat in their study or on a park bench up the hill. As you'll see, the place is filled with opportunities for the residents to talk with one another.
      Derek Bickerton and I decided to aim our book on the evolution of syntax at exactly the sorts of people we were talking with at Bellagio (serious readers, but not necessarily scientists; see the list). It will be published as Lingua ex machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain in 1999 by MIT Press. And to give you an idea of what this audience spanned, among the people pictured hereabouts are a novelist, a historian of the ancient Greek novel, a musicologist, a composer, several painters, a literary pathologist, a linguist, two neurophysiologists, an engineer, a plant geneticist, and several professors of media studies. And some of those labeled "US" came from Uruguay, Mexico, or the UK.

Breakfast was informal, and you could often get a cappuccino from one of the waiters at other hours and sit outside.

Here's Susan Sontag with her Herald-Trib.

Sitting around after lunch had been cleared away.

LEFT: Marélia Pinheiro (Portugal); Carol Law (hidden; US); Charles Amirkhanian (US); Antonio Frasconi (back to camera, US); Frank Gonzales-Crussi (US).
RIGHT: my hardworking laptop; Katherine Graubard (US), Serhiy Serbin (Ukraine); Irayida Serbina (Ukraine).

The other end of the lunch table.
Clockwise: Frank Gonzales-Crussi (US); Frank Ukadike (Nigeria); Yvonne Bickerton (US); Irayida Serbina (Ukraine).

Here's the other favorite place to sit, the two tables on the east terrace. Derek Bickerton and I are discussing linguistics (and what chapter to write next).

About 7pm, this same terrace table became the scene for drinks before dinner.
L-to-R: Gianna Celli (the assistant director); Ruth Katz (Israel); Po Tien (China); Elihu Katz (Israel); Derek Bickerton (US); Yvonne Bickerton (US); Katherine Graubard (US).

And, panning to the left....
L-to-R: Frank Gonzales-Crussi (US); Leona and Antonio Frasconi US); Ruth Katz (Israel).

Another evening.
L-to-R: the Italian waiter; Xiang-hui Li (China), Po Tien (China); Katherine Graubard (US); Derek Bickerton (US); William Calvin (US); Susan B. Rifkin (US-UK); Yvonne Bickerton (US; obscured); Marélia Pinheiro (Portugal). Photo by Jing-Iuan Jia.

Here's a typical dinner scene, with most of the "residents." When there was a short conference also going on, we ate with them (and usually indoors, where there was more room).
Clockwise from head of table: Frank Ukadike (back to camera; Nigeria); Frank Gonzales-Crussi (US); Susan Sontag (US); Ruth Katz (facing camera; Israel); Serhiy Serbin (Ukraine); Irayida Serbina (Ukraine); Marélia Pinheiro (Portugal); Po Tien (China); Jing-Iuan Jia (China). Right side from far end: Jingyi Zhang (China); Xiang-hui Li (China), Yvonne Bickerton (facing across table; US); Derek Bickerton (US); Leona and Antonio Frasconi (obscured, US); Katherine Graubard (US); Elihu Katz (Israel); and my empty chair.

As the days got shorter in September, dinner was increasingly by candlelight. Our last week, there was a total eclipse of the moon, conveniently timed for the after-dinner liquors. The moon rose, fully eclipsed, over the Dolomite peaks to the east of the lake. (No, I don't have any pictures.)

      After dinner there was often a talk by a resident -- not always on their current project. For example, I gave a talk on abrupt climate change, a repeat of the one I'd prepared for the admirals and generals at the Pentagon in July (certainly my all-time oddest venue for giving a lecture).

Calvin@WilliamCalvin.com || Calvin Home Page
Graubard@U.Washington.edu || Graubard Home Page