Sunday January 13, 2013

LENOX -- With season three of the immensely popular PBS show "Downton Abbey" underway, Gilded Age fever has swept through the Berkshires and the world.

In honor of the season premiere, the Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum brought historian and British country house architecture expert Curt DiCamillo to Lenox to deliver his visual lecture, "Lords, Ladies and Mummies: The Story of Highclere Castle, the Real Downton Abbey."

DiCamillo, a Boston native, has spent his entire life studying his first love, British history and architecture, so his admiration for the show comes naturally.

The show is "an escape from reality for many people," DiCamillo said. "With all the violence, terrorism, school shootings and economic turmoil, people are looking for something else to draw their attention away. And who doesn't want to be swept away by a handsome prince?"

There were plenty in attendance who felt the same way. More than 150 people packed the auditorium of Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, anxiously waiting for the journey DiCamillo was about to take them on across the pond.

The majority of the lecture focused on the Lady Almina and her husband, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, who financed the 1922 Egyptian expedition that discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamen and ultimately their home, Highclere Castle, the real Downton Abbey.


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As DiCamillo navigated through the details and explanations behind the real history of Highclere Castle and Downton Abbey, the audience audibly "oohed" and "ahhed."

Patricia Ryan, of Great Barrington, who had visited several of the places DiCamillo featured, and her friends were among those on the edge of their seats.

"I thought his timing was wonderful and I learned so much," she said. "It's such an appealing time period."

Following the lecture the audience was able to ask DiCamillo questions during a high tea at Ventfort Hall, which was built in Lenox during the Gilded Age and shares many similarities to Highclere Castle.

Tom Hayes, one of the program committee members for Ventfort Hall, met DiCamillo several years ago and the two quickly became friends.

As the popularity of PBS's award-winning show boomed, and DiCamillo was asked to present his lecture across the country, Hayes knew he had to bring him to the Berkshires.

"He's such a great speaker and so knowledgeable," Hayes said of his friend. "The show appeals to so many but few have the expertise that he does."

Samuel and Joan Hellerman drove up from Longmeadow for the lecture and tea.

"The show is so interesting because of its layers," Joan said. "It's like 12 dramas under one roof."

"Downton Abbey" airs Sundays on PBS.

For more information on Ventfort Hall, visit www.gildedage.com.

To reach Josh Stilts:
jstilts@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6243
On Twitter: @JoshStilts