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Painting in Tuscany (September 2019)

Updated: Jul 15, 2022

An early start out of Lucca saw us in Certaldo by 8:45am at the dealership responsible for delivering Karen’s hire car for use during her week of Organic Cooking classes.

So I left her to it and scurried on through Poggibonsi and onto the autostrada, bound for Siliano Alto, which is apparently somewhere near Chiusi.

The art school’s instructions promised that, using the GPS co-ordinates, I would be “delivered to the door”. But this is Italy, and GPS systems have a mind of their own, so good luck with that! Instead I was deposited at the base of a mountain on a tractor trail. Ten minutes later I drove into 'La Close' private estate, and lucked into a local bella-farmer-figura, who immediately called upon his farm hand to escort me to “Ah, you wanta Julian - is 1 kilometre - ‘e will show you”.

Three kilometres of twisting goat track later, and Enrico signalled I had arrived. Thank you kindly.

The rest of the students had already settled into their first morning’s lessons, having variously arrived the previous evening, but the studio looked to be a happy grouping of assorted souls from Canada (2) , the US (4), and Oz (1 Sydney-sider plus me). All female except for Hal from Cal. (That’s California.) We spent the day covering art basics and retired to the comforting sounds of wild boar and wolves carousing the hills; then express trains rumbling through the valleys below in the early morning.

Saturday, and we loaded into Julian’s people-mover and headed to a nearby Umbrian vineyard to fill up demijohns with excellent quaffers (€2/litre, no sulphides). Julian complained that the road to the vineyard was ‘the worst in Europe’, which proved prophetic, as a rear tyre was as flat as a tack on arrival. Hence our quick stop turned into a hour waiting for the local motorman to conduct tyre replacement surgery. But the vineyard has marvellous views across the landscape to Montepulciano, so we happily settled into sketching the panorama on a lovely day.

With wine supplies aboard, we scooted down towards Chiusi, with a whistle stop at Europe’s largest tree nursery. It’s enormous. "You want forty fully-grown cypress 40’ tall?" No problem. €1500/tree, delivered, planted with watering system, guaranteed replacement within three years if it dies/significant discount inside 5 years.

Palm trees, blue spruce, topiary, pittosporum, pomegranate - they’re all here for the taking (for a price). Paris (as in City of) is their biggest client, but they ship all over Europe (and internationally). The trees they deliver to Paris have their tap root shortened and installation includes a complete, programmed watering system for the first three years, by which time the tree has learned to survive without going searching for water in the city’s infrastructure (as in metro, sewers etc.); and Paris is then responsible for the ongoing system maintenance. Marvellous.

On the short drive Into Chiusi, we passed olive plantations sculpted in the Tuscan fashion - the trees must be shaped like an empty wine glass, with the centre hollowed out to allow the air and sunlight to penetrate the entire tree and promote fruiting (or whatever it is that olive trees do).

Into town, and there was a wedding in progress in the Duomo, so we did an architectural tour through town to the belvedere, including photography advice, then lunched under a courtyard vine-covered pergola. €10 for food and wine - delightful.

It's a trip down a short flight of steps descending into the Concattedrale di San Secondiano, as it’s built on a site that has been a place of Christian worship since 150AD (i.e. since Roman times when Christianity was outlawed).

There’s a Roman sarcophagus (excavated during one of the reconstructions) with an inscription translated roughly with the occupant’s faith - “a Christian from beginning to end”. The structure on one side of the portal includes a sculptured pagan (Roman) stone, set upside-down; and twelve metres beneath the isolated bell-tower, there’s a Roman swimming pool. No doubt Chiusi contributed well to the Roman and Vatican coffers.

Back in the studio, we set about deciding our individual creative preferences in the faint hope of producing something worthy of viewing. Next morning, armed with a couple of photos that I quite fancied, I set about stretching a canvas or two (a classic form of procrastination), then priming them which, combined with sketching/measuring images onto same, got me to lunch without putting brush to canvas. Then I settled on attempting a landscape panorama in acrylic, in a poster-style composition. By knock-off time I had a stiff neck and a half-done something resembling Tuscan sky and hills. Sort of.

At 5pm we loaded into Julien’s trusty Renault people-mover and scooted across the border into Umbria to Citte della Pieve (aka Priest-town). The ancient centre is lovely - all-brick construction versus the Tuscan plaster style - chockers with teeny laneways and arches and bricked-up death doors, a legacy from the middle ages when the plague was a regular visitor, and the dead had to be exited separately from the ‘live’ entrance.

But its real attraction is that Colin Firth lives here for six months of the year (it’s his lovely wife’s home town). I kept my eyes peeled but he didn’t show. Bugger.

The little city has its own “Palio dei Terzieri” - competed for by the communities (yellow, red, green standards) every August. And every month each Terzieri puts on a special meal so that the poor can have an outing at very cheap prices - mostly €2-7. Nice.

An aperitif (Aperol Spritz) put us in good humour for an excellent dinner at a local trattoria.

Time for a big day out; and we headed for Florence - a two-hour drive north - for a day of (mostly) art education. Julian hosted classical art tours here for several years - eight days apiece; 8 hours per day. Thankfully we were getting the day-tripper’s snapshot of the Renaissance.  When Lyn and I stayed in Florence in ‘93, it was a lovely city to stroll around; with quality bespoke shopping and some nice little osteria/trattoria at which to enjoy decent food. Even in August ‘09 it was busy, but bearable despite the ambient temperature being 35C. Now it’s a zoo, heaving with the detritus of humanity, slovenly dressed to a man, slurping sorbetto whilst elbowing through a fifteen-deep throng to selfie-snap in front of Ghiberti’s golden doors.  But we were here for the architecture/sculpture/painting, so we started with Brunelleschi’s beautiful dome. When he came up with his ground-breaking structure (based on a busted-bottom egg, with an outer shell and an inner skin), the cupola hole had been open to the elements for forty years, making Florence the laughing stock of Milan and Rome and everyone else who had a proper duomo with lid. So in 1417, the city heavies held a competition, which Bruni won; but the judges jointly appointed Ghiberti with him, to share the construction responsibility (and the fees). Ghiberti, being Florence’s best goldsmith, was several pallets short of a load when it came to architectural/engineering skill, so he was in for a free, profitable ride. After a while, Bruni spat the dummy and, in a fit of pique, took to his bed. For six weeks nothing happened, with Ghiberti clueless in the ‘next steps’ department; then, claiming to have a full book of gold commissions, he buggered off and left Bruni to it (and the money).  There was another structural issue when it came to topping the cupola with the lantern. It was initially assumed the lantern would have to be lightweight, but in fact that would have caused the cupola to split apart, so instead it was built out of Carrara marble, and strong enough to anchor the cupola’s segments together.  Unfortunately Bruni died just before the lantern was topped with the golden ball, so never got to see his masterpiece finally completed. After scooting around the Duomo, we headed down the Via dello Studio for some art retail therapy at Zecchi where I picked up a few acrylic essentials, and a couple of brushes that I needed (possibly). Around the corner to the Bargello, a former prison that now houses the Museo Nazionale, for a sculpture fix. And it’s grand. My instant favourite - a lifesize Donatello of St George, possibly the first Renaissance (as in classical style) sculpture, with the groundbreaking innovation of having George appear to step out of his niche. Nearby, Donatello’s small bronze ‘in the round’ of a pre-pubescent David, armed with Goliath’s sword, with his foot entwined in Goliath’s beard and severed head. Not sure how Donatello managed to top David’s crown with what looked like his mum’s gardening hat but - hey, it’s high art so who am I to quibble.  Then there are the Ghiberti and Donatello quatrefoil competition panels for the commission to produce the gold sculptures for the Baptistry doors. Ghiberti won (I preferred Donatello’s), so Donatello was relegated to being only the second best goldsmith in Florence (status being everything) so he upped sticks and headed for Rome, where he studied architecture for four years before returning to Florence and Cupola fame and fortune. Up you, Ghiberti! Downstairs to check out a few skerricks of Michelangelo’s work - a drunken Bacchus, a superb bust of Brutus and replica of a couple of Medici sarcophagi. Onward to Piazza della Signoria, to the copy of Michelangelo’s David - carved out of a massive block of Carrara marble. The original's block, purchased by the Cardinal, had been put into storage for thirty years after the initial sculptor (perhaps Donatello?) discovered that there was a crack running up from the base, which rendered impractical the usual style of having a solid base to support a sizeable sculpture. So a competition was held, which the young Michelangelo won.  The lad had a fetish about his work-in-progress being for his eyes only, hence his David was unseen until its unveiling before the waiting hoards assembled in Piazza della Signoria. (Its intended site was in front of the Duomo, but the Medici demanded that it be in front of their offices.)  We then strolled down the the perfect Renaissance street, Piazza D. Uffizi, with its classical mirror-image streetscape, complete with niches holding sculptures of Florence’s art, architecture, philosophy and literature luminaries, and on to the Arno riverside and the Ponte Vecchio, which gives Prague’s Charles bridge a run for its money in people-swarming. Lunch. Fish please - grilled sea bass with teeny roast potatoes and a quaffer. Shopping time. Don’t bother. The streets are now chockers with bog-standard trattoria/osteria/pizza joints & leathery stuff (apart from the via Tornabuoni of course, where every high-end Euro-extractor has a beautiful shop adjacent to the superb architecture of the Palazzo Strozzi).  Luckily Julian had pointed out the Hotel Continentale, opposite the Ponte Vecchio, as a place to repair from the madding crowds. It has a lovely terrace on the sixth floor, where one can relax and take in the views across the river to the Boboli gardens for the price of an excellent G&T with nibbles (€20, and it’s worth it)!

More art stuff. We met up with Julian at 4PM - first stop - S. Trinita - to view the painting by Ghirlandaio who put the wind up the bragging local tempura fresco-ists by painting in oils nicked from the Dutch. His madonna and child was a sensation (apart from its glossy paint), with the infant lying on the floor instead of reclining in the madonna’s arms. Ghirlandaio was self-obsessed - he popped himself into his paintings, always looking important. In this one, his hands are pointing to himself, and to the infant, as if “this is all because of me”. It’s the same deal at the next stop - Santa Maria Novella - where mister-look-at-me had himself as a young man on one panel of the apse frescoes looking across to himself as an elegant older man in the fresco opposite. But the highlight of Santa Maria Novella is Masaccio’s Trinity fresco - the first perfect painterly use of perspective, which was a shocking innovation in 1425. Masaccio was a great painter, but jealousy was alive and well in the C15th, and he died at 27 (supposedly poisoned by a rival).  Also hiding in Santa Maria Novella is a little water stoop carved in marble by Michelangelo when he was fifteen (he also worked as a painter on the Ghirlandaio frescoes, possibly when he was just fourteen). Our Renaissance Man, Brunelleschi, also contributes to this church, with his wooden sculpture of the crucifixion. He did this in response to being shown his friend Donatello’s wooden sculpture, to which he commented “Jesus looks like a peasant” (funny thing, that); so Donatello replied “you do better, then”. When Bruni completed his sculpture, he invited his friend to see it, and Donatello brought eggs for dinner. When he saw Bruni’s sculpture he dropped the eggs. So no dinner then. I prefer Donatello’s sculpture. Exhausted, and after taking in the gorgeous view of Florence and the Duomo at sundown, we headed back to Chiusi, dinner and goodnight!

After our big day out in Florence, I was determined to use my “day off” to snaffle some landscape photos of the Val d’Orcia - a favourite from days gone past when I’d painted several scenes from a book of Tuscan photos.

Cindy (from Nebraska) and Christy (from Vermont) decided to join me, so we headed for the hills, leaving the more studious to their arty exploits.

After Chianciano Terme we took the back roads in search of the famous ‘cypress zig-zag’ drives. Rounding a bend, there were three large wild boars mooching around, but, before we could grab our cameras, they barrelled into the forest. Later, having negotiated a seven kilometre goat track, we lucked in at the Foce interchange for THE view (and a few dozen photos).

Onward, to San Quirico d’Orcia, and onto the road towards Pienza for another classic photo - the Capella della Madonna di Vialeta - a tiny chapel set on its own rise within pristine fields. From the road it’s a very long walk down into the vale before the uphill slog to the Capella for decent photos, but I’d brought my telephoto lens along, so that made for some fine happy-snapping.

As we drove toward Pienza, a few kilometres on I spotted a second teeny sign to the Capella, so headed down a goat track to find a parking spot which provided for a short hike across flat ground to the Capella, so we got to see it ‘in the round’, and very photogenic it is too.

That made for a quick scoot to Montelcino for lunch. I’d booked a table at Boccon DaVino with its stunning view across the val d’Orcia, and excellent food (a fine Caprese followed by Tagliata) washed down with an equally excellent 2011 Brunello.

Retracing our route back to Pienza, we were almost party to an horrific crash when an oncoming car braked and the following cyclist crashed, with bike and rider flying skywards. I only just managed to avoid the cyclist as he landed. In the split second as I looked in the rear vision mirror, there were several Italians mobilised into action, so we pottled onwards, badly shaken.

Suitably subdued, we finished our day with quick stops at Pienza (for the view) and Montepulciano and arrived back at Siliano Alto in time for aperitivos.

Thursday was ‘finish off the project’ all day in the studio, before Julien took us to a ‘bar typico’ in a small town a few kilometres away. It was unique - the ‘garden’ decorated with a toilet bowl jammed into the fork of a tree, among other creative niceties. The cheery matriarch, Angelina (Mrs Have-a-chat), knows everything about everyone within miles, including all the construction politics and progress of Ed Sheeran’s Umbrian hideaway-to-be.

With Siliano Alto being close to the Umbrian border, Friday gave us a day to visit Castiglione di Lago, overlooking Lake Trasimeno (where I made friends with a three-legged cat when I was here in ‘93) and lunch at a restaurant that luckily served protein as well as the ubiquitous pizza and pasta. Time to clean up, pack up, and head north after a lovely nine days, with mostly wonderful weather and good company and arting.

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