Saturday, April 14, 2012

Listening Summit, Gargonza Castle

Doesn't the impressive location above look like a movie set?  Gargonza castle
 is not something Hollywood constructed but for real.
Located an hour and a half from Florence, Gargonza castle was built in the 1200s on a strategic hill between Arezzo and Siena.  Dante Alighieri stayed at the castle in 1304 when he was exiled from Florence.  In his Divine Comedy, Dante cites the surrounding valley, the Val di Chiana both in Inferno and Paradiso.  I confess I have not looked up his impressions.

I do confess, however, that the one and only time I had been previously to Gargonza was in the 1990s on assignment.  I had the pleasure of going up in a hot air balloon for a story I wrote for the Italian newspaper "La Repubblica."  More about that later in this post.

Fast forwarding to spring 2012, Gargonza Castle hosted a three-day Listening Summit.  Professors and students from the Florence campus of Pepperdine University, the University of Florence and LUISS-Guido Carli university in Rome met to discuss "U.S. - European Relations, the Economic Crisis and Beyond," in this ancient fortification.

The Listening Summit was presented by Pepperdine's International Programs Division as a pilot project at the school's campuses in Shanghai and Tuscany with the underlying philosophy, as expressed by Ralph Nicols, "the best way to understand people is to listen to them."

Involving American as well as Italian professors and students of political science and communication, examined were the causes and effects of international miscommunication and intercultural misunderstanding.  The lingua franca
was English the entire time, 
no simultaneous interpreters in sight!

Above are the professors who guided the Listening Summit 
(left to right): Prof. David Davenport of Stanford's Hoover Institute; Dr. Rick Marrs, Dean of Seaver College, Pepperdine University; Pepperdine Associate Professor Steven Lemley; Pepperdine Professor Milton Shatzer and LUISS Guido Carli Professor Roberto D'Alimonte.

As an eye witness, I cannot only say that we were privileged
 to listen to wise sages.
Among the topics they discussed were "U.S.-European Relations:  Through Which Lens: Crisis or Normalcy," (Davenport),
"A Union in Crisis--Is the Euro a Bad Idea?" (D'Alimonte), "The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict--Differing Views," (Shatzer), "Western Values Questioned," (Lemley) and a thought-provoking "Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus," (Davenport).

On their part, students completed a survey regarding cultural attitudes and had a chance to put their beliefs to test in their small work groups (above) which had to come to a consensus on issues of foreign policy, culture, domestic policy and economy.

LUISS student Samantha Figeruero, along with Tibein Tedermet of Pepperdine and Michele D'Aloisio of the University of Florence examined the trade partnership between the U.S. and the European Union, which Listening Summit participants learned is
 the world's largest
 (and not China as is commonly believed).
Figeruero spoke for the group, "it would be best if both the E.U. and the U.S. would work towards a greater integration of the economies.  To move in that direction, we would like to see more long-term investment in the U.S. and greater consumer spending, at least in the short term, in the E.U."

All was not purely academic, however, at the Listening Summit.
As an icebreaker after dinner, Pepperdine University director Elizabeth Whatley hired two
professional instructors to teach the students ballroom dancing!
The students were asked to dress the part.
I admit that an instructor pulled me in for a few lessons.  My photographer, Marco Giacomelli,
tactfully did not point his lens in my direction, but focused on everyone else.

So much for cultural understanding.  After a couple of hours of serious and not-so-serious ballroom boogie-ing, disco music was put on and students danced until the wee hours of the morning.
Below is the view which waited for us later outside when we walked back the short distance to our lodgings, Gargonza's rooms and apartments.

Stunning, genuine Tuscany, wouldn't you say?  
So what were all these buildings?  Originally these were the homes of Gargonza's tenant farmers, who all left, with the abolition of sharecropping in the mid-20th century, for the big city.
The owner, Count Guicciardini Corsi Salviati, transformed the complex into a historic holiday residence.

The past is represented by the red doors, which Marco told me were characteristic of farmers' dwellings 
(case contadine) and the Italian three-wheeled utility vehicle, the Ape or "bee" named for the buzzing sound it makes when in movement.

During the Listening Summit, I met the Count's son, Neri, who remembered the hot air balloon excursions and the English pilot, Robert Etherington, very well (molto bene).  They were an attraction at Gargonza in the '90s until the pool was built for guests.

Well, 20 years later, I was impressed by the dialogue created at the Listening Summit as well as the complete renovation of the complex (I remember '60s furniture when I originally stayed over in the '90s).

The experience reminded me of seeing the incredible view of countryside and cities from the hot air balloon.

The entire spirit of the event and the place--dialogue, change, peace and poetry--is captured by the following photo I asked Marco to please take.

In all my years here, I had never before seen fragrant hyacinths actually blossoming in the sweet earth of beautiful Tuscany.


  1. Rosanna, I gave a concert there many, many years ago! I remember it was an enchanting place!!

  2. Rosanna: What a wonderful recount of a very special weekend.