A Reluctant Artist Finds His Way In Florence

To say that I’m a reluctant traveler would be to vastly undersell the case. When asked to take a trip out of town my gut reaction is to blurt out WHY? as if I were being threatened with banishment for committing some wrong. So when my parents asked me and my girlfriend to join them in Florence for a week and I agreed, everyone was taken aback…myself included.

My girlfriend is a planner. In the weeks leading up to our departure she immersed herself in guidebooks, maps, internet searches, and even Italian language lessons on tape. My seeming lack of curiosity or interest in involving myself in these preparatory studies irked her relentlessly. She wanted to know whether I even wanted to go on the trip at all. I’d tell her I was looking forward to being in Italy with her and to seeing my folks. This was a vague, unsatisfactory answer in her eyes but it’s all I could say.

A sudden storm delayed our takeoff from O’Hare some two hours so instead of Chicago-Zurich-Florence it became Chicago-Zurich-Frankfurt-Florence. Mercifully, walking off the plane to meet my waiting parents took mere minutes.

Florence’s airport would fit inside of O’Hare a dozen times over, and soon we were squeezing a rented Audi around cars, scooters, bikes, pedestrians, and other less-classifiable modes of conveyance in the narrow free-for-all of Florence traffic, a steady chorus of vaffanculos raining down on us from impatient Italian motorists throughout. We were headed into the hills above the city, to Fiesole, where my folks had rented an apartment in a farmhouse set in an olive grove; part of Italy’s agriturismo program.

My parents have vacationed here for three of the last four summers, coming back for the vistas of lush hills, interrupted every so often by red-roofed villas; for the relief from summer heat that this altitude afforded; and, probably most of all, for the locally grown and produced food and wine. Waking the next morning and looking out the window, I could see why painters have been painting this landscape for all these many centuries.The center of Fiesole is home to a beautiful monastery, and we peeked through the barred windows of the ancient cells to reveal tiny spaces filled with one or two pieces of furniture-a desk with a cross most often-where it was hard to imagine a person could stand up and stretch, much less spend years.

One evening we drove to San Minuato del Monte-a stunning 13th Century church-which afforded a clear view of the center of Florence. I was taken enough with the place to return a couple mornings later and paint a watercolor of the setting, backlit by a steady stream of weary tourists stopping on their journeys. We knew that our few days wouldn’t allow us to take in even a fraction of the architectural, artistic, and religious treasures one stumbles over around every other corner here so we were content to linger in the places that drew us and not to worry about missing the many wonders we’d doubtless miss.

On a lark one steaming afternoon we got in line for a look inside the Duomo. We thought it’d be a quick look upward until we saw the sign by the cashier’s window warning those with heart conditions to turn back. We climbed over four hundred steps up to the top of the dome, with respites on two catwalks for views of the tremendous Vasari mural, and the hike culminated in a view of all of Florence and the surrounding hills. It was the exhausting, exhilarating, and unexpected highlight of the whole trip.

Before we left I spent a couple hours sitting and painting outside the door of my parents’ place up in the hills. I’ve always heard that the point of a vacation is to get out of your routine, to do and see things you wouldn’t in your workaday world, but for a painter, those everyday sights form the vocabulary of what he does. If I stayed in this place longer I’d have likely remained in this courtyard with the olive groves, painting and drawing and trying to get a better sense of the place than a week could possibly hope to afford. This is what stopped me from traveling more over the years, the sense that nothing but a scratch of the surface could ever be had from these excursions.

As I told my girlfriend before we went, I was glad to be in Italy with her and with my parents but getting these glimpses of a world other than the one I knew proved more worthwhile than I would have ever suspected. In a way those red roofs, hairpinning, blind roadways, and green hills will stay with me for a while.