'Houses and the human psyche'

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again..........."  -  Daphne du Maurier

Those words always have such a haunting intensity for me because we all know and understand how emotive houses can be and Manderley the house has such a pervading presence in one of my favourite films of all time, Hitchcock's 'Rebecca', adapted from the celebrated book by Daphne du Maurier.

'Rebecca's' narrative takes the form of a flashback with that famous opening line and Manderley the house being one of the key elements. I believe a house can get into your psyche; it can haunt you especially if it's from your childhood. I'm sure this is one of the reasons I love to make houses look great.

My childhood home, North End House, an Elizabethan house with a prerequisite guest ghost, vast duckpond, 14 stables, orchard and paddock and acres of fun has had the same effect on me - it was a house that got into my psyche and soul. It has such a strong emotional pull back of vivid personal memories that are entrenched in my emotional landscape. It's obviously not just the walls of a house - it's the people, the memories and the history.

I was reminded of this feeling whilst I was too briefly in Umbria, Italy recently and stopped by a place I had not visited since I was there as a 17 year old. The place is called Castello Civitella Ranieri. My boyfriend at the time was related to a wonderful lady called Ursula Corning who had invited us to stay with her for the summer at her magical 15th century Italian castle she called Civitella. Castello Civitella has the same haunting effect on me that both North End and Manderley had commanded.

Castello Civitella Ranieri
Castello Civitella Ranieri

Ursula was such a character and a wonderful and generous hostess that Civitella and her left an indelible impression on me. The castle is heaven and everything you would want it to be and more. The turrets and tower rooms, the chapel and vast kitchens, swimming in the lake, the ghost, the heat and the sounds and smells of an Umbrian summer. Ursula would have at least @25/30 guests staying at a time - all friends from Ursula's wide and varied, always stimulating, always provocative circle of international friends. Mealtimes and seating plans were meticulously organized by her as she loved to mix people and never put couples together.  Our long stay for the summer lasted several weeks as Ursula kept insisting that we stay for longer. I remember drawing her a 'thank you' card of a cat (she loved cats) with a very long tail that unfolded over several pages, thanking her for our long, long stay!  She loved it.

We would go on adventures - which Ursula would call her 'tiddly-poms' - to the wonderful Roman theatre at Gubbio and see plays, climb Monte Acuto at 3am so we could watch the sunrise and drink mulled wine, endless adventures in Perugia, Orvieto, Spoleto, Assisi, etc., visiting monastries and chapels but always returning home to our beloved Civitella for more fun and games. Ursula would encourage her artistic guests to write poetry and music and perform plays as she believed the atmosphere of the ancient castle and quiet beauty of the countryside would inspire them. She was right.

Ursula was one of those people who just enhanced Civitella because she loved the place so much! Which was of course infectious. The castle looks even more beautiful now than when I last saw it - beautifully maintained but not too perfect. Ursula would be proud. In the last decade of her life she began with two associates to grow Civitella's arts programme and the castle is now thriving as The Civitella Ranieri Foundation to support gifted artists from different disciplines and countries. This is a non-profit operating foundation organized under the laws of the State of New York with offices in New York City. Ursula was a great supporter of the arts and her charitable works included supporting many New York arts and charitable causes, both personally and professionally through her foundations.

Ursula had been born in Switzerland, studied in England and had spent most of her life in New York. Her father was Professor H. K. Corning, a prominent medical anatomist in Europe. He was a member of the Ranieri family who were Bourbons. Ursula's father's cousin, Romeyne Robert, had married Marchese Ruggero Ranieri di Sorbello, whose family owned Civitella since the castle was built in the 15th century. Ursula began visiting it as a young girl and thus began the beginnings of the fabled Civitellian summers............

Thank you Ursula, Jonathan and that wonderful Civitella for giving me such great memories! I also would not be surprised if Civitella has a beautiful, new lady ghost talking of going for 'tiddly-poms'..................I told you houses can haunt you.  Amen.