Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Siena, Rome and Everything in Between

Steve and I have been back in Dallas as of late Saturday night, but I am just now getting over the jet-lag and attempting to catch up on things. I have one last post to share about our wonderful trip before I move on to other things. Thank you everyone for your comments and support - I took so many of you on this trip with me in my heart. :-)

On June 6 (Monday), we left Florence in our rental car and made the short but scenic drive south to Siena. This beautiful hilltown seems preserved in time. In fact, it hasn't changed much since the Renaissance, when it was controlled by the Strozzi family, which was constantly at war with its neighboring city of Florence under the Medicis. The emblem of Siena can be found in sculptures, reliefs, and images all over the city, and depicts the she-wolf suckling infant brothers Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.

Steve and I stayed outside the city, hoping for some beautiful drives around Tuscany and the Chianti region over the next few days. Our first day in Siena was gorgeous and we had a lot of fun exploring the city and walking down every single street (it's not hard to do, as long as you can handle hills!).

The famous Duomo, completed in the 13th century. One of the most distinctive things about this cathedral is its white and greenish-black marble stripes.

A gorgeous view of the city and city walls.

Steve and I with a view of the streets and tower of the Piazza del Campo behind us.

Tuscany and the Chianti wine country were absolutely breathtaking, but after our first day there, I was disheartened somewhat by the cloudy and unpredictable weather, so I didn't really get a chance to paint. You know that what that means... I'll just have to come back. :-)

Here was a happy sight, as we left Siena and were on our way to Rome: acres and acres of sunflowers!

In order to return our rental car, we had to drive it into the heart of Rome to the central train station. For future reference, we will plan on finding a way to AVOID driving in Rome! After that experience, Dallas traffic looks like a cakewalk. I was so proud of my husband as he navigated the crazy streets without denting the car or running over one of the many mopeds and cyclists that zipped in and out of traffic on their way to the front of the pack. Whew!

Once we had returned our car, we took a cab to our hotel. We stayed at the Hotel Abruzzi, which was right across the square from the Pantheon. As soon as we arrived, I flung open the shudders and the view took my breath away. From our room on the third story, I could look down upon all the foot traffic and honking taxis alike as they passed through the square or loitered near the fountain. And of course, the magnificent building itself stood before me in all of its ancient glory, its dome, cornices and triangular pediment casting blue shadows in the early evening sun. Without unpacking, I whipped out my paint box and got to work.

I ended up working on this painting for two evenings in a row, but will probably have to finish it in my studio if I want the architecture to look more true to life. Still, it was exhilerating to have such a famous building at my disposal.

The rest of our time in Rome consisted of an excellent guided tour of the Vatican, Vatican Museums, and Sistene Chapel (which I had seen once before and nearly cried when I saw it!), long walks around ancient Rome (the Coliseum and Forum, among other historical sites), and hunting down Michelangelo sculptures, Bernini sculptures and fountains, and Caravaggio paintings scattered throughout the city. We walked nearly eleven miles on Friday alone! With so much to see, it seemed impossible to do Rome in just two and a half days, but Steve and I felt pretty good about what we accomplished. Here are some pictures to show for it:

Our view of the Vatican on our way there, the morning of our tour.

A tapestry of the resurrected Christ that displays an optical illusion similar to that of the Mona Lisa, where the eyes follow you as you move around the piece. In this piece it's meaningful because Christ is watching over us always - in our past, present, and future.

Details from Raphael's "School of Athens" fresco. Pictured above is Euclid.

Raphael did this enormous commission while still a young man. He included a self-portrait in the fresco; he is the second to the right, making eye contact with the viewer.

Our tour guide asked the group, "Have any of you been to Milan?" I nodded my head. He then asked, "Have you been to the Pinoteca Ambrosiana?" I nodded again (I had just been there!). He then said, "So you know about the drawing that's there that is of great importance to this painting..." he then asked me to relate to the rest of the group about the full-sized cartoon, or preparatory sketch, that I had seen of Raphael's "School of Athens." I happily complied and would have prattled on about it had he not cut me off for the sake of time. But from then on till the end of the tour, he called me his "assistant" or the "art historian," which pretty much made my day. Moments like this, ever so rare, help me feel like all of my nerdy studies in art history have not been in vain!

A larger shot of "The School of Athens (above)." I mentioned the cartoon for this drawing in a previous blog post, but failed to post a picture. As you can see, the central figure in the foreground (the man leaning on a short pedestal), is not in the drawing (below). Raphael added him later, and painted him as Heroclitus in the form of Michelangelo, a contemporary Renaissance artist whom he had recently come to admire.

There was much to see on our tour of the Vatican and Vatican museums, and sadly I wasn't allowed to take pictures of the Sistine Chapel, but that was definitely the highlight. Second to that was being able to view Michelangelo's "Pieta," one of his earlier works and the only work he ever signed.

Here we are in front of the Spanish steps, an enormous set of stairs built in the 1700s to link a church to a piazza in a way that would be both functional and pleasing, while dealing with the enormous geographical slope that separated the two. The steps have become an icon in Rome, as well as one of the top tourist attractions. We happened to miss the "peak" season, when the azalias all around are in full-bloom.

Coffee at a local caffe.

A view of the Roman Forum.

Our last day in Rome. Not only did we walk nearly eleven miles, but I also got a two-hour painting session in, while sitting under the blazing sun. I think this little study of the Coliseum is one of my strongest though.

Here's the view from my perch.

And with the finished painting.

More ruins. I'm fascinated by them, and I know many artists before me have found inspiration among the ruins of Rome. I guess it reminds us of our own finiteness and the fact that no culture, country, or empire -- no matter how great -- will last forever.

One of the Bernini sculptures we hunted down. Bernini's Baroque style, alive with movement and energy, was highly sought after in Rome. This sculpture, "Ecstasy of St. Theresa," is located at the Church of Santa Maria Della Vittoria. The statue is famous for its vivid and sensual representation of St. Theresa's account of being visited by a seraph: "I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it..."

We also saw this sculpture of Moses, by Michelangelo. Housed in the Church of San Pietro in Vicoli, the sculpture was the only one fully completed for the commission of the tomb of Pope Julius II, and depicts Moses with "horns," due to the Latin Vulgate translation of the passage in Exodus. The passage describes Moses as having come down from the mountain, after receiving the Ten Commandments, with his face "horned from the conversation with the Lord." The Greek translation says this (and I believe this is the more conventional translation!): "Moses knew not that the appearance of the skin of his face was glorified."

There is so much more I could share, but I must get going. In the mean time, here is a picture we took at our dinner table, on our last night in Rome before heading home. I hope to post many more pictures on Facebook, and eventually have better pictures of all the paintings I completed on this trip. All in all, I did 16 oil paintings, averaging 1/2-hour to 2-hours apiece. I learned so much, and had a wonderful time. I hope that every artist gets an experience (or MANY) like this to explore their media, see the world, and fall more in love with what they do.


Monday, June 6, 2011

The City of Priceless Treasures - Florence, Italy

Steve and I left Venice on Friday morning and drove to Florence, stopping at a beach on the Adriatic Sea along to way. We didn't stay long, as it was windy and threatening to rain, but it was fun to say we've now seen the Adriatic! Neither of us had been there before.

Florence... now, this city is near and dear to my heart. I lived here for a summer five years ago, when I studied with Maureen Hyde at the Florence Academy of Art... and it was hard to be there by myself. However, I saw and did as much as I possibly could, going to class every morning and spending every afternoon and evening at the museums, churches, or historical sights. Now, to relive it with my husband is really a dream come true for me. I felt a bit like a tour guide as I showed him around this beautiful city. I can tell you where many of the most precious treasures of the Renaissance are to be found, from the most popular among tourists (like Michelangelo's David, housed in the Galleria dell' Accademia), to the lesser known but equally priceless (like the fresco of The Procession of the Magi, by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi). There is so much to see here - in the birthplace and mecca of the Renaissance! For example, we visited the church of Santa Croce. This beautiful church contains the tombs of an all-star Florentine lineup, including Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Dante. Florence is extremely proud of its historical heritiage, and boasts monuments to its heros all over the city.

As we learned on Saturday morning in our guided tour of the Accademia, the statue of David (1501-1504) alone represents a great deal for the city of Florence: political strength ("small but mighty"... although Michelangelo's David is hardly small at 17 feet tall!), the rebirth of Roman civilization and a new spirit of optimism after the Dark Ages, and in many ways, the beginning of modern art. Let me explain: Michelangelo didn't care about the historical accuracy of his David. His David had to look like this and only this. He is about 25 (not a teenager, as the biblical text describes), there is no head of Goliath at his feet, he is completely nude, and uncircumcised at that. After seeing the magnificent David, as well as the unfinished sculptures of slaves (which were supposed to be among the many sculptures to adorn the massive tomb of Pope Julius II), I am pretty much convinced that Michelangelo was the greatest artist who ever lived. He refused the help of assistants, but had a body of work that no artist will ever match or surpass. Even more remarkable is the fact that instead of carving his marble statues all the way around, as most sculptors would work, Michelangelo worked from front to back (very risky when working with an expensive block of Carrara marble!). This method backs up his own claim that instead of simply carving a statue, he was freeing the form. As he said of one work, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."

Here are a few pictures from Florence. Friday night was lovely and magical for Steve and I; we climbed the steps to the Piazzale Michelangelo, a beautiful lookout on the other side of the Arno that gives you an incredible view of Renaissance Florence, complete with the Biblioteca, the Ponte Vecchio ("Old Bridge"), the Palazzo Vecchio ("Old Palace" - one of the older Medici homes), the Uffizi, and of course, the famous Duomo (cathedral) and Campanile (bell tower). Steve and I enjoyed some Chianti Classico, which is the only wine you should drink while in Florence, and I painted the beautiful scene before me.
My painting drew quite a spectacle among tourists, but so did the incredible sunset. It was glorious.

The light changes quickly out there. I didn't have time to paint the lovely orange flowers in the foreground, but I enjoyed every minute of my painting.

Chianti - the truest of Tuscan red wines. :-)

The beautiful Duomo and Campanile. Notice the colorful green and pink marble, charactaristic of Renaissance Tuscany.

My art supply store was closed. :-( Steve and I still managed to swing by this morning (Monday) before we left Florence. They have everything a girl could want! Okay, maybe not shoes...

A visit to the Boboli gardens produced this little plein air sketch. It was very relaxing, as I simply sat down on a park bench and enjoyed painting in the nice weather... which later turned to rain. Thankfully, we were visiting the Uffizi when it started pouring.

I am so glad that Steve and I reserved a tour for the Vasari Corridor. This corridor is seldom open to the public, but contains thousands of priceless works of art, including the largest collection of artist's self-portraits. Pictures were not allowed, but we did sneak this one of me (below), completely elated to be there!

The Vasari Corridor, designed by artist and author Georgio Vasari, was built for the Medici family in 1565 on the occasion of the royal wedding of Francis I to Joan of Austria. The purpose of the corridor was to separate the royal family from the common people as they passed from their old palace (the Palazzo Vecchio) to the new (the Pitti Palace, to which the Boboli Gardens are connected). The corridor crosses over the Ponte Vecchio. I found it interesting to hear that the reason the bridge only contains the shops of goldsmiths and jewelers is because the Medici didn't want to smell anything bad (like fish or meat) when they crossed over. Today, the bridge is still home to small shops of fine jewelry. Also, it wasn't until the 19th century that the corridor came to be used as a place for hanging paintings. The Medici did possess an enormous art collection, and thanks to the last Medici in the family line, Anna Maria Louisa (d. 1742), the works of art stayed in Florence and remain to this day.

I was astounded by the treasures there and grateful to see them with my own eyes, even though the tour went quickly. Among some of the highlights were self-portraits by Anthony Van Dyck, Joshua Reynolds, Jaques Louis David, John Everett Millais, Cecilia Beaux, Philip Alexius De Laszlo de Lombos, Henri Fantin Latour, and Anders Zorn (my favorite of the lineup!).

Anders Zorn - Self-Portrait - 1889

Currently, Steve and I are in Siena and will be here for two nights. We will finish our Italian tour with Rome and be back on June 11. I can't believe how fast it's going! More to come...


Thursday, June 2, 2011

"Ah... Venice!"

Steve and I watched several movies in anticipation of our European trip before we left, including "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (see my quote in this post's title!) and "The Tourist." We also watched a bunch of travel documentaries, but it's always more fun to see how Hollywood romanticizes different places.

Anyway, we are here in Venice, and will be leaving early tomorrow morning, but I feel like I've seen and done everything I would have wanted to in this romantic and colorful city. The last couple of days, Steve and I simply got lost in the city... we had a map, and used it to get back to our hotel, but otherwise, it was fun to simply wander the streets, especially when it was picture-perfect with the turn of every corner!

Unfortunately, the light wasn't the greatest during our stay, and so I only managed to squeeze one painting in. With the humidity, the crowds of tourists, and somewhat cliche gondoliers whistling cheerfully as they toted tourists down the canals, I felt that I would have little or nothing new to offer in my own artistic interpretations. However, I still feel that Venice is extremely beautiful and worth visiting, and I'm hoping that as I begin to absorb all these new experiences, I'll be able to share them through my paintings, both now and later on when I return home. Here are a few pictures from our stay:

The day of our arrival: crystal blue skies and calm canals.

An amazing frame shop. I really enjoyed seeing all the specialty stores, especially the beautiful paper mache Venetian masks (I picked up a couple!).

Another lovely scene, colorful in spite of the gray skies.

Steve took these pictures of me on a bridge that was less-travelled, so I was able to paint in peace.

Dusk on the Grand Canal.

The expensive but worthwhile gondola ride. Where else can you do this? It WAS as romantic as everyone says it is. :-)

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