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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Week One: Coming to Florence, Ricasoli, Santa Reparata International School of Art

July 4 – Coming to Florence

In 1971 if you would have told Barbra Riley and me that we would go to Florence together 40 years later, we would have said, “cool.” After all we were hippies – all things seemed possible.  We were in graduate school working on art degrees with the world at our fingertips.  Now Barbra is an artist and professor of photography at Texas A & M University, and during the summer she teaches at Santa Reparata International School of Art in Florence.
As a child I had the good fortune of trav eling with my family and one of those memorable trips took us to Italy.  I knew I would return some day. I wanted to feel the lifeblood of country, not just the passing glance experienced as a tourist.

When the opportunity to sign-up for Barbra’s class occurred – it was an opportunity too hard to ignore.  It is July 2011, and only the heat of the day slows us from absorbing the magic of the cobblestone streets, looming a rchitecture, and abundance of history book art. We both came to learn and grow, still motivated by the desire to discover inspired by our flower child heritage. Florence, we have arrived.

July 5 – 17 Ricasoli

We have a second floor apartment, which is actually on the third floor, up 53 steps from the ground. The stone stairs are worn from centuries of footsteps while new pots, pans and oscillating tabletop fans await assembly. Most everything in “Aldo”, the name painted in trompe l'oeil over our entry door, is outfitted primarily from IKEA. We quickly noticed the overtone of religion in our apartment with the tiny statue of the big belly sitting Buddha on the call box by the front inner door and a nativity scene, complete with Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, the wise men and assorted animals, under the sink with the sponges. The bathroom is clean, yet small. I take cold showers as the hot water is unpredictable and I leave the narrow sliding door open to ensure I don’t get locked in.

The light wood floors are done in a herring bone pattern with a foot wide border, all showing the same attention to detail as the mosaics found throughout the city. The great room is 16’x16 feet with 8’ tall shuttered windows opening to the active street below. We are less than two blocks from the Duomo, the cathedral most often seen on postcards from Florence, and a similar distance from the Accademia on Piazza San Marco, where Michelangelo’s David is located. Our school is three blocks the other side of Piazza San Marco. I am finding this to be a most pleasurable way to experience Florence – with a best friend, amidst endless art, and a new camera capable of zooming in on a cup of espresso two blocks away.

July 6 – Santa Reparata International School of Art

Conveniently located in Florence between two Last Suppers, the Statue of David, and the Harley Davidson store is my school – Santa Reparata International School of Art. It is in what appears to have been a retail space with street-side plate glass display windows and two large glass sliding doors that automatically separate when students approach. It has high ceilings, white painted walls, and lots of shelves filled with art books. 

There is a large painting studio, a printmaking studio, photo studio, and two lecture rooms. My photography class is taught in a lecture/studio room equipped with computers and big monitors. In this summer session there are 125 students ranging in age from 17 to 65.  Most are associated with one of seven universities in the United States. There are 16 instructors, many American, who offer daily courses in art history, fashion design, drawing, painting, printing making, and photography.

Four local cultural ambassadors offer two different one hour sessions each day on topics such as Italian Futurism; the relationship between Italian fashion and aesthetic value of food; the birth of Italian myths (1955-1965)from Vespa to the personal computer; and the Mafia in the fashion industry. The classes include lectures along with museum and point of interest tours. The cultural ambassadors will be taking students to the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum, a cheese and wine tasting, cooking class, and a trip to the cinema. Many students will be attending opening night of the final Harry Potter film. Needless to say, attending art school in Florence is enlightening on many levels.  

July 7 – Inside Aldo

Our “Aldo” has two bedrooms, a bath and a great room. The ventilation in the small bedroom is inadequate so we sleep in twin beds in the larger room which has tall windows opening to an air shaft. The 14’ ceilings in the great room boast frescos from the 1800s and 12” high trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye – a term for realistically painting a flat surface to look three dimensional) crown molding that takes its shading perspective from the natural light through the street side windows.

It has taken almost two weeks to realize that bathroom mirror was not actually inset into the wall but mounted on a trompe l’oeil cubby.
Florentine gold candelabra-esque wall sconces and light fixtures with small frosted white flame shaped bulbs and with degrees of ornateness are found throughout the apartment. Previous tenants have left a bevy of books on travel, art, fashion, drawing and food – if we never left this apartment and read every book, our education about Florence and its wonders would be broad.
The big living area contains the kitchen with a dining table three feet wide and eight feet long, and uncomfortable upright wooden chairs with raffia seats that we have seen in restaurants. There are also two chocolate colored naugahyde bucket chairs and a leather sofa, mustard colored with a light texture. Take your pick – you can get stuck with sweat to any of the three leisure seating choices or rise with spaghetti like imprints on your thighs from the dining seats. Following the path of inventive renaissance artists, we cover the sofa and chairs with extra sheets and put pillows on the hard dining table chairs; then we commend ourselves on our abilities to adapt and create.

July 8 – Sienna

Sienna is like visiting the town where the people live who participate in medieval festivals would live. It was built on three hills with a huge bowl shaped piazza as the centerpiece.

The road system seems to be designed for function. Cobble stone streets  undulate up and down the hills and just about the time you feel you can walk no farther up or down, the street turns and you walk a slightly different direction.  It is steep, but not too steep for children, pregnant women, or the elderly. All roads ultimately seem to wind you to the center, the bricked Piazza del Campo, famous for a twice yearly horse race in which the 10 of the 17 contrades (communities comprising Sienna) compete.  Jockeys, riding bareback, race clockwise around the piazza for 90 seconds. The first finishing horse, with rider or not, wins bragging rights for the contrade and emblematic flags are posted throughout their section of town. The Palio horse race is held on July 2 and August 16, my birthday, and attracts a crowd of 20,000. Dangerous , yes; magnet for adventure photographers, also yes; catch a clip on CNN, yes again.

The buildings surrounding the piazza create a surreal backdrop to the gift stands selling souvenir postcards, scarves, and t-shirts bearing the image of Bob (or Ziggy) Marley and Michael Jackson. On a knoll above the piazza is the gothic style Duomo, a magnificent cathedral where white marble statues stand majestically on the roof against the clear blue sky. 

Inside, stories are inlaid on the floor like carpet, sculptured heads of religious figures perch on a high-up ledge looking down on visitors, arches loom, stripes repeat, statues stand like-like, frescos fill walls, and golden stars almost pop off the rich lapis blue field painted on the dome interior – it all left me breathless.

July 9 – The Street Below

Floren ce is rich in color and the street scenes outside our window makes us feel as if we are living in a movie set. Our street, Via Ricasoli, is active with foot traffic and scooters as it is a straight three block shot between the Duomo and home of Michelangelo’s David. Across the street on the second floor is a designer’s studio. When they work late at night, they open the shutters and we can see the rolls of fabric overlapping in color stories. White backdrop walls are moved from place to place. Sometimes they are draped with fabric and accessories or sketches are tacked to the surface. The people inside are young; they wear black and look trendy.
In a neighboring apartment must be a designer or design student as a book on fashion rests on the desk by the open window, illuminated by a crookneck lamp, with a sharpened pencil neatly lying in wait.

The sound outside is so clear, the quick snaps of shutters on cameras serve as a chorus to the smorgasbord of languages echoing up the street. Sometimes they travel in packs and come in timed waves when their tours are done. We recognize the voices of 40 German tourists walking single file, French women admiring the fine leathers in the store below, the over-speaking jabber of teenagers, and the in-step precision of a high school marching band from Mexico. The gongs from the bell towers start at 7a.m. and the whine of the ambulances bounce from one building to the next. An accordion player serenades tourists dining in the outdoor café across the street with the percussion section provided by luggage wheels jumping from one cobble stone to the next providing an unpredictable tempo. Occasionally, a rich voice offers snippets from a recognizable opera. Maybe a local or maybe a tourist caught up in the moment.   


  1. Love it! Your last entry was my favorite by descriptive I can see it and almost feel it. Keep up the good work!

  2. I'll take a 5 x 7 of "Nativity With Sponges."