Italy Through My Eyes

Diaries of my trips to Italy (starting in February 2008 - Perugia, Amalfi Coast)

Friday, 30 May 2008

May 2008 - A Weekend in Spoleto

This diary was written despite my resolution to have a totally relaxed holiday in Praiano for two weeks, without painting or writing. The weather was the factor that changed my mind. I hadn't been to Campania during May before and I hoped for solid sunshine, blue skies and warm sea. I should have remembered a five-day holiday in Venice in May a few years ago, when the weather was extremely cold, though bright.

If I'd looked back to that, it wouldn't have been a surprise to me when I found the Amalfi Coast chilly and showery for the first week of my stay there. It was invigorating rather than relaxing and I began drawing and writing most days. I hired a car for the second weekend and drove north to see Spoleto, in Umbria, where I'd been told there was a picturesque mediaeval town waiting to be discovered. The day that I drove my hired car out of Sorrento the weather changed and for the last six days of my stay it was hot, humid and intensely sunny, both in Spoleto and on the Amalfi Coast.

By this time I was enjoying drawing on the Amalfi paper I'd bought locally so the sights of Spoleto gave me new impetus. I didn't regret driving to see the town at all, and in all I made ten sketches on various local subjects, in Praiano and Spoleto. Below is the short record that I kept while I was in Spoleto.

My hotel in Spoleto was a real "find". I thought a hotel costing less than 40 euros a night would be harder to find than a blue tomato - and less appetising if you did find it. But my little hideout was just great. It's just at one of the gates to the historic centre of Spoleto, and surrounded by interesting buildings. I never actually went to the modern section of the town, I was too absorbed in the ancient part.

I arrived there at about 5.30 on Friday and when I'd settled in I went for a walk and began to see its possibilities. As I'd come round the corner in the main road to the town, I'd been taken aback by the sudden view of the fortress above the town.

This is the kind of castle I used to build on the beach - thick battlemented walls and square towers, all perched on a huge mound. I could see the castle from the hotel when it was floodlit at night. I set off towards it, through the town, that first evening in Spoleto.

I was surprised to find the Historic Centre was under wraps, most of it. It took me back to the eighties (or was it the seventies?) when an artist called Christo used to wrap up all sorts of things - Miami Beach, for example, and I know he gift-wrapped at least one skyscraper.

Spoleto may have been visited by Christo and turned into a work of art, or perhaps they're getting ready for the annual arts festival at the end of June. Anyway, there's scaffolding, tarpaulins and cranes everywhere. Every time I thought I'd spotted an interestingly weathered patina on a building further down the street, investigation proved it was a weathered sheet of hessian or poythene, covering maintenance works.

There are some beautiful and interesting buildings in the historic Centre of Spoleto, and I am looking forward to seeing the results of this programme of restoraion. Here's the Town Hall, the facade of which is clear of wraps, though there is work going on nearby.

It was a pleasant surprise to come across the unwrapped Duomo of Spoleto, at the foot of a wide flight of shallow steps - more like a bumpy ramp really - down into its huge piazza. I visualised the pageantry that the Catholic Church must have enacted here, with the backdrop of this stunning Gothic facade. Like every other tourist, I documented my progress down to piazza level with a series of photos.

Promising myself that I'd be back to pin the image of this Basilica on Amalfi paper, I walked on and found myself on a belvedere overlooking the valley below the castle.

It was nearly eight o'clock now. The castle was closed and I had to skirt round its hill. I came to the entrance to the huge Roman aqueduct that runs across the valley from the castle's rocks. It was still light enough for photos and I photographed the deep wooded cleft in the land as I followed the other tourists across the bridge that runs where the water must have flowed originally.

It was starting to get dark. I retraced my steps, past the wide vista of the valley, past the deserted Duomo steps, past the art shops and the souvenir shops and the leather and wood workshops, now closed, back to the ancient gate where I'd started. I had dinner in La Sacristia which is a pizzeria and restaurant housed in what from the outside is a crumbling ruin with weeds growing out of its rotting structure but which inside is a most cheerful and welcoming eating place, patronised solely by Italians when I was there (things will be different at the end of June I suspect).

And I had a bath in my English cast iron bath (the only one in my hotel, the manager told me - but it had a shower attachment as well, which I was glad about) and slept well.

Saturday May 24th: A very sunny morning today, and a sky of pure blue. Tomato juice, cappucino, cereal and croissants were on the menu for breakfast. I always eat well at breakfast, in case I don't get around to having lunch.

Today was a drawing day. I'd primed myself with Amalfi paper from a shop in Sorrento and put a new cartridge in my brush pen, so I was ready for the Cathedral.

The cathedral in Spoleto is big but simply proportioned. The main facade is Romanesque in its proportions and a very nice arcade was added in the 16th century which complements the older work beautifully. The campanile has a pointed spire.

The sun shone. I drew. The tourists above me breathed "Bellissimo" at the Duomo and later, as my drawing developed, "Complimenti". One lady wanted to photograph it and in return I got her to take a souvenir photo of me drawing it, on my camera.

As I walked back up from taking another closer look at the Duomo I noticed this sculpture outside the Chiesa S. Eufemia, in strong contrast with the church (which is undergoing restoration). There was no identifying placque. I thought of Marino Marini but this is more abstract than his images of horsemen and riders. Something urgent and windswept about it.

In the afternoon, I settled down in front of the Chiesa San Aseno, on the road back to the hotel. This is a robust seventeenth century Mannerist facade. It has huge capitals on top of pillars that run the whole height of the facade, dwarfing the entrance. It's a bravura piece of architecture. Two hours into the drawing I was ready to let the forms flow. I'd miscalculated the scale, though.

I have a photo of the whole facade and I'll probably do another study using that together with my drawing, when I'm back in England.

I ended my day with a meal in the restaurant I'd found yesterday when I was looking for the way into the carpark of the Hotel Casa San Borromeo, where I was staying. This is based in a building behind a coach park - not a very romantic setting, to be sure - with a facade so ancient, tumbledown and weed-encrusted that it's a surprise to go in and find a well run pizzeria and restaurant inside. La Sacrista was very busy, full every night of the weekend with locals and holiday makers, all Italian when I was there. The manager was helpful and friendly and there was a very welcoming atmosphere that made me go back each evening that I was there.

Its name suggests that it was originally the sachristy of the Chiesa S. Rocco, across the modern road into Spoleto. This church is also very old and I would have enjoyed drawing it if I'd stayed longer. It was closed for repairs and parishioners were redirected in a notice on the door to attend mass at San Aseno, further into the town.

Sunday 25th May: another brilliantly sunny day. I walked back into the old town of Spoleto to finish my picture of Spoleto Cathedral. I'd left it half complete the day before, intending to come back at the same time as I'd started it, to get the shadows right.

After I'd finished that little painting, I went on up to the Rocce de'Albornoziana, the fortress on the hill above Spoleto. It was about twelve o'clock and very hot. The banks beside the steep track up the hill were full of poppies and mallows. I even saw a large purple iris in the tangle of weeds and flowers.

The imposing walls of the castle were even more impressive seen close up.

The castle was built by Albornoza, a Spanish cardinal to the Popes Innocenzo VI and Urbano V, in 1360. The architect was Matteo di Giovanello from Gubbio, known as il Gattapone. Its position was originally chosen because it's highly strategic; it commands a view of the countryside for miles around. It was also intended to provide a court of honour for the cardinal, from which to govern the city and administer justice. At the end of the eighteenth century the administration of the city was moved inside the city walls, and the fortress reverted to its original strategic function. In the nineteenth century it was used as a high security prison.

Inside, the soldiers who guarded the city against invasion in the fourteenth century seem to have led an elegant life-style. Their dining hall, gallery and guardroom were covered in frescos, many added in the seventeenth century. Even when it was first built, the guardroom and dining hall were highly decorated with plant and flower forms, though the only lighting then came from narrow arrow slits in the thick walls. More windows have been added over the centuries.

Most of the remaining frescos were painted between 1400 and 1644. They are damaged but when they were complete the effect must have been very rich. The loggia which runs round the top of the central Court still has the remains of brightly coloured coats of arms and trompe l'oeuil paintings on its walls.

In the Camera Pinta, there are two cycles of frescoes commissioned by a Neapolitan family, the Tornacelli. The subjects are very Neapolitan, narrative scenes of courtly love and knights and ladies enjoying hunting and fishing in the country. (This information is from the information leaflet that came with the 7.50euro entrance ticket. As it's in Italian I hope I've got the facts right.) I enjoyed the frescos in the Camera Pinta and spent some time reading into them narratives that may not have been intended, as it looked as though someone had died beside a well in one of them. Perhaps he had just swooned for love of the lady who was looking on. There was also a battle scene with an audience of knights and ladies, which made sense once I'd read the pamphlet that explained the courtly subject matter.

I took some photos and enjoyed the peace and calm of the castle. Most people were having lunch so there was almost no-one there. Paradoxical to go to a place built for war and find peace there, I thought, but the building has been so cleaned up and immaculately presented, it's hard to imagine soldiering or brutal incarceration going on there. Papal functions, yes. I don't know whether its huge hall and two exterior courtyards are used in the Spoleto Arts Festival, along with the Piazza Duomo. I suspect they are not.

I photographed my way down to the old town again and called in to see the Roman house that is signposted near the Duomo. It was cool and dark, with some glass cases containing the bone hairpins and shards of pottery and glass that have been excavated from the site so far. I wondered what they will find when they excavate my house. Safety pins, single earrings that I've washed down the sink, and contact lenses, I suppose.

I returned to my base and climbed up to the Chiesa San Pietro. Today I had also planned to draw the carved relief panels on the facade of this big fourteenth century church across the main road from my hotel. Last night I went up there, too late to begin anything. and found it under restoration - almost a building site - but I got up close and saw the amazing Romanesque sculptures on the facade. The panels tell stories, no doubt well known to mediaeval parishioners. Parables from which to learn how to live - and die - successfully.

The sculptured reliefs are full of birds, beasts real and imaginary, and pious imagery. The good man on his deathbed is ushered into heaven by St Peter with his great key. In another scene, the sinner has his doings weighed and the sins are heavier than his good deeds. He's dragged from his deathbed by the hair and thrown headfirst into a very stylish cauldron, by smirking demons who are surely modelled on men behaving badly in the twelfth century as they can do today. The woodman with his axe who meets a prancing lion (but finds the lion is a friendly one whose injured paw he has treated in the past) is an archetypal image of aggressive fearful man. The lion is fierce and convincing.

There are twenty rectangular panels, mostly narrative but also containing a range of birds and beasts, including the four beasts of the Apocalypse. I had time to draw only the panels on the left hand side as you look at the facade, and didn't finish all of the painting I want to do on them.

I was befriended at the point where I was drawing the lions by a little cat (as opposed to a great cat). He was a tabby and he was looking for a kind hand to stroke him. I do speak Cat - it's mainly a matter of raising the vocal pitch to a gentle squeak and saying things like, "puddy-puddy-puddy, who's a nice little pussy cat then?" and not touching except if you are given a specific invitation to do so. This cat was full of invitations to stroke him and in fact kept insisting on climbing into my lap (I was sitting on the ground on a couple of pieces of marble rubble from the building work.) I was highly flattered. We reached an agreement that he could sit on my lap every now and then as long as he kept his paws off my sketch of the mediaeval reliefs.

I had gone past the barrier that said "Entrata Vietato" with impunity as it was a Sunday and there was no-one working on the restoration to stop me. A few other sightseers turned up and did the same, and a man who lived behind the site drove in and greeted me cheerfully without mentioning the barriers. My assessment that this was an Italian "Vietato" - a rational, pragmatic, flexible forbidding - seemed accurate in this case. The only potential for trouble was in the shape of a man who told me he was from Belgrade and suggested that I might like to see the interesting cupola at the back of the church. I explained to him that I was only interested in the facade and he shook my hand amiably, tried to kiss it politely, and went away.

I didn't finish my drawing - this is as far as I got:

The only image of the whole facade that I have is a postcard that was given to me by the owner of an antiquarian shop at the top of the steps to the cathedral. This kindly man chatted to me while I was drawing the Duomo in the morning and I took the opportunity to ask him about the big church on the south side of the town, because there was no sign of its name. He was very helpful, told me about San Pietro and said the reliefs on the facade are very important in terms of art history. I thought I had taken some photos of my own but I can't find them. What with the drawing, the cat and my acquaintance from Belgrade, it seems to have slipped my mind.

And next day I drove back to Praiano and spent three lovely hot days on the beach. Now I'm back in rainy England, at four in the morning, desperately missing the sun, the seas of deep acqua blue, tomato salads, pepata di cozze, garlicky gamberoni, and all the other Italian treats that draw me back there constantly.

But I expect I shall be back.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Italy Through My Eyes - 6 - Last Evening in Florence

I drive into Florence confidently, recognising streets that I've driven on before. This time I'm arriving in daylight, though from a different exit off the autostrada than the one I left on seven days ago. The hotel's directions as to how to find them are simple: make for the centre and park in the underground carpark in the Piazza della Libertá.

There comes a point of course when the signposts to "Centro" give out. I'm probably there, but where is the Piazza della Libertá from here?

I follow my nose in a generally leftwards direction, remembering the map, and suddenly stumble upon it. The huge Roman arch and the fountain are unmistakable.

And after circling the piazza a couple of times I spot a sign off to "Parterre" with a large blue P sign. The only drawback is that the sign is in a slip road parallel with the main route round the piazza and I can't see any way on to that sliproad.

I pause and ask a taxi driver. He is extremely helpful and says something like "I wouldn't start from here if I were you". I have to leave the Piazza and with some fear and trepidation (I may never find it again) go off on a circuitous ratrun round one-way streets to get back into the traffic stream he has pointed at.

I come off on the wrong street, twice, do U turns where no U turns have ever been attempted before (to judge from the uproar of hooting it arouses) and after about ten similar faux-pas I get into the slip road I've seen and find that it seems to be a dead end with no further signs to the carpark I need. I pause and ask a kind looking man in a doorman's uniform where the Parterre carpark is. I am causing a traffic jam on this slip road now - and it does have an opening at the end. He waves across the road. "It's behind that palazzo there."

And sure enough, with no further signposts, that is where it is. It has taken me about 30 minutes of causing traffic mayhem to find it. Thank goodness there have been no traffic police about during that time.

The Hotel Colorado is in the Via Camillo Cavour, diagonally across the Piazza della Libertá from the Parterre. I take an overnight bag and leave my main luggage in the car. It's five miutes' walk once I've crossed the Piazza. And it seems to be locked up - it's only 5.30 so I bang on the door. Then I see a phone number on a notice next to the bell and in response to my call the owner comes down and unlocks the door. He seems surprised that it was locked.

The Colorado is very reasonably priced (50 euros for one night and a breakfast that I can't use because I am leaving so early next morning). It's round the corner from the Piazza San Marco and an easy walk from the main historic centre and Santa Maria Novella railway station. My room is small but very quiet, with a little balcony overlooking an inner courtyard. The plumbing is new, though there's no shower tray which does make having a shower rather a paddling experience. There are very nice white fluffy towels and soap provided. I'm very happy with it.

I have allowed S to know my Italian mobile number and he has phoned once or twice while I've been out of Florence. I've missed his calls aand now when he calls again I wonder if I should answer. But his help on my first night was so kind and got me out of a very difficult situation (paused on a junction of the autotrada on the edge of Florence, with no idea where I was). I decide that I should buy him a dinner on my last night, to say "Thank you". So I answer his phone call and we have a conversation of which neither of us understands much. We agree to meet in the Piazza San Marco.

It's too early for dinner - only 6pm - so we walk down to the Duomo area, and across to the Uffizi. A friend calls S on his mobile. I'm asked to say a few words to the friend, A, who speaks a little English. We laugh together into the phone. S is keen to make a party of the evening and it's planned - A will get his girlfriend and thay will meet us near the Pitti Palace. We walk across the bridge, S telling me about the time when the Arno flooded to a height of several metres, so that the Piazza Della Signoria was flooded. It was a flash flood, and according to S many people drowned. He was about six years old, in 1966, and remembers it vividly.

We meet up with A and his girfiend at a pizza restaurant near the Pitti Palace and have an excellent evening. S. won't let me pay for his dinner though I contribute a few extra euros towards the wine. Both S and A work in the leather trade. A makes prototype handbags for a top designer. His girlfriend, R, is a lovely girl from Madagascar. She has lived in London and speaks more English than A. We all get on very well, in a mixture of my terrible Italian, S's strong Florentino accent, and the English that A and R can speak. There's a lot of laughter which fills any gaps in the conversation.

I have to be up and at the airport at six in the morning, so I can't have a late night. But I wouldn't have missed this cheerful last evening for anything. Looking back on it next day, it makes up for the pain of getting up at dawn and trying to find my car - and my suitcase which I've left in the boot - and sleep-driving my way to Peretola airport to catch the plane at 7.55.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Ten Days in Tuscany and Umbria (4) - Orvieto

13th April 2008

I've arrived in Arezzo, the birthplace of Michelangelo. I don't know what he'd make of it now. Like all the towns with evocative names that I've visited this week, it's spread and developed ugly industrial zones like pustules round the core of the historic centre that has been allowed to survive to feed the tourist trade. I know that sounds harsh, but as I'm doing this trip on a budget while trying to be as comfortable as possible I find I've booked hotels on the ring roads and in the trading estates that keep Italy afloat - they are great inside but the environment outside is a forest of concrete and giant advertising signs.

I've walked into the centre of Arezzo tonight - "Only a kilometre" said the nice receptionist as I left. But a kilometre is easily far enough for me to get lost in, and I must have walked about two miles, wishing I'd brought the car. I've promised myself a taxi back to the hotel and as I'm right by the railway station now, that should be easy to arrange.

But back to my day.... Orvieto turned out to be the exception to the rule I've set out above. Like Arezzo, it's just off the A1, which runs between Rome and Florence, but being high on a hill it's escaped the ravages of modern life, unless you count being turned into the most chic and pretty tourist town I've seen so far as a ravage.

I found myself missing Terni and its soft green mountains almost as soon as I set off. The road ran through gradually lower land until the attractive lumpy mounds of Umbria changed gradually to Latzio, where the uplands were set well away from the road, just in sight across a wide plain. There are clay and I suppose marble works along the way, and the trees are dusted white in some places.

The forms of the landscape along the autostrada remind me of the various areas of North Devon that I know - except that you don't get all those lovely narrow conical cypress trees in England. The delicate greens of the deciduous trees here are lovely at the moment, too. And the buildings are warm cream and yellows and peach colours.

At Orvieto I first went up the Funicular from the station, thinking that this was the only way up to the old town. Once I reached the top I realised I'd better take the car up because I was going to need more parking time than I'd calculated for when I left the car outside the station.

This lovely park is by the Funicular at Orvieto. It overlooks a huge view across the hills. In the turreted look-out place were lovers enjoying a little privacy on this sunny Sunday afternoon. I did feel just a little envious as I tiptoed past the opening to their temporary love-nest.

Having gone back for the car I drove up the hill past the strong mediaeval walls that barricade the place from all invaders - or did in the Middle Ages, before we were all invited in. It was a very good choice of citadel - I can imagine any army that laid seige to it getting a good helping of boiling oil and arrows on its head from the battlements.

Now, however, Orvieto is a very charming town, full of flowers and expensive stylish shops.

I parked by a church and walked towards the Duomo.

The shops were closed as it's Sunday but I found a good bookshop open and bought a guide book to read later. I'd parked outside the Chiesa S. Domenico, rather an austere church but with a faded little fresco above the main entrance. It is faced in part with the dark and light marble patterns that are a feature of Tuscan churches, it seems. From there I walked towards the Duomo, discovering other churches, towers and beautiful ornate doorways on the way.

The Duomo itself, though, was as much of a surprise as Florence's cathedral. It has a gigantic gothic facade, which took 300 years to complete, was started in 1290. Several architects were involved, therefore, and the building had safety problems - the transepts were in danger of collapsing from the start because of inadequate foundations, I read in my guidebook. The whole facade is a riot of decoration in carving, fresco and mosaic. The barley-sugar twisted pillars are there, with inlays of mirrored and coloured mosaic, and there are wonderful panels of relief, depicting sacred scenes, along the facade. Behind the facade the nave and transepts are faced with stripes of dark and light marble.

Inside, there are beautiful frescoes and carvings, free-standing figures and a lovely organ that I tried hard to photograph.

The huge rose window and other stained glass is also very lovely from inside. I spent a long time trying to take my own photos of the interior, laying my camera flat on the floor and propping it up on things, but I really needed my tripod.

Almost everyone in the streets seemed to be American or otherwise English-speaking. I got a lady from Australia to take my photo in front of the facade of the cathedral but I was wearing my rather strange blue Russian looking tunic and having a bad hair day, as you see...

The houses flanking the piazza where the Duomo stands are low, sway-backed and very picturesque. It's easy to imagine them as little dwelling houses when they were originally built. Now, of course, they are vey chic establishments of one kind or another....

I went into the little Museum of Etruscan Archaelogy, too, to look at the archaic smiles on the faces of the statues and the delicate depictions of stories about conversations and flying horses on the black and yellow pottery.

The sun was coming and going and by now it was about 4pm and getting cooler. I got back on the road and realised I was going to have to get some petrol before I went on to the motorway again.

Now, you learn something every day and today I learned that you can't trust automated petrol stations in Italy any more than you can in England. All the gas stations seemed to be closed (it is Sunday) so I took the risk. The thing rejected my Visa card, my Mastercard, and demanded cash. I fed it 20 euros and it clammed up. No assistenze button, no cancel button and no petrol. I gave up, wrote 20 euros off to experience and drove on. Just round the corner was an open and friendly manned Shell station where I filled up. So there was a relatively happy ending to that story...

Ten Days in Tuscany and Umbria (5) - Arezzo and my last night in Florence

14th April 2008

This morning I am determined to find the "real" Arezzo. I'm now armed with a map of the historic centre, a guide book, and some good advice from the waiter in my hotel.

Last night I got bored waiting for a taxi to get me back to the hotel and I walked back. I surprised myself with my orienteering skills. I'd noticed a lot of landmarks on my circuitous route to the station and internet point. (I'd failed to find my way into the historic centre). Going back, I kept the domes and steeples on my left and it got me to the Zona d'Affari where the hotel lies. Once I entered the zone, however, I thought I was in trouble - trade outlets and car showrooms on every side -but somehow I made it. The receptionist who told me it was an easy 1km walk to the station deserves a special mention for lying in her teeth.

I had dinner in the hotel, rather late. The waiter looked put out when I arrived - he was hoping that his evening's work was done, I suspect. He softened up when I asked him if he was French - he'd spoken to me in French, apparently thinking I came from France. He is Italian and he told me he'd worked in the best hotel in Capri before this. I think he was missing that hotel.

When I asked him how to get to the historic centre he became helpfulness itself and we pored over the map he fetched me. He advised driving to a car park just outside the city wall.

So I set off this morning in the car, found a carpark (where I wrestled briefly with the ticket machine but finally got in) and walked up the via Porta Buia, near where I was last night.

Quite quickly I come across the Chiesa SS Annunziata, a sturdy four-square church founded in 1490 after the local people witnessed a miraculous weeping Madonna incident during a terrible storm, on this spot. There was already an Oratory there, built in 1349, and a painting by Spinello Aretino (1350-1411) of the Annunciation.

I go in and am surprised and impressed by the richness of the interior. I go round snapping pictures and that's when I realise my camera battery is flat. I resignmyself to drawing for the rest of the day - I'll recharge the battery tonight.

The sun is shining as I stand for almost two hours on the corner of the quiet street (Via Garibaldi I think) opposite the church and the shrine with Aretino's fresco above a rectangular doorway decorated with Romanesque reliefs. I recognise the four creatures of the Aplocalypse over the lintel.

I make an ink sketch. No-one bothers me, though there are some passers-by. (Most of them are on the phone anyway.) As usual I can hear men at work behind me - banging and cheerful whistling and shouting - and when they pack up for lunch one of them comes and checks out what I'd been drawing, in a very friendly way, before they drive off and I get on with the drawing.

It's twelve thirty and I've only drawn one church. Time to go on and find the Cathedral.

I take back anything nasty I said yesterday about Arezzo. Its historic centre is as interesting as any other centre I've visited in this region. The building material seems to be mainly a kind of greenish yellow sandstone. It must be quite soft and there's often damage to the surfaces of reliefs and walls. I notice that the shrine next to SS Annunziata has lost its reliefs up to a height of about a metre where animls and perhaps the faithful had rubbed up against them. Perhaps children and vehices have played a part too.

I pass on to the Piazza San Domenico and stop to draw the church, as there's a vacant bench. This church is undergoing restoration as I find when I go inside. There's a forest of scaffolding on a par with Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. From the outside it looks like an eighteenth century folly - one of those decorative ruins that English landscapers erected in estate gardens. The scaffolding is less noticeable from the outside.

But it seems to be "business as usual" - notices of masses are on display and the bells are hanging in the tower. I spend a pleasant hour drawing the exterior. I'm harassed only briefly by an educational group of Italian teenagers who practise conjugating Engish verbs at me after their politely enthusiastic "Complimenti" on my work. In their usual high-spirited way the boys are ready to tease me but one of the girls kindly warns them that though I'm English, I do seem to understand Italian - I'm grateful to her for that!

At the top of the hill, in the oldest part of the ancient settlement of Arezzo, I arrive in the piazza where the town hall and the cathedral stand.

I find the Cathedral closed for lunch. I sit on the steps admiring the facade, the main entrance a simpler, sandstone version of the Duomo in Florence, erected at the beginning of the twentieth century. Here the Cathedral is raised on a high plinth and reached via two flights of steps leading up from the piazza on all sides. It's very grey and cold, and rain is in the wind.

This is a much older door on the south side of the cathedral. The relief over it is 14th century and it has two porphyry pillars outside, taken from a Roman site.

I try to draw the main doors but instead settle for details of the intricate carvings of flowers, leaves and snakes that run round the barley-sugar sticks of the pillars. I'm there until two o'clock, then hunger sets in at about the same time as it begins to rain properly.

I go down to the Bar Il Duomo, just off the Piazza, and find it's rather like the Tardis, much bigger inside than it looked from the street. The staff - two rather handsome men and a lively pink-lipped lady who is teasing them shamelessly - are very friendly and I discover I can actually speak Italian to them unselfconsciously. I have a delicious plate of penne with tomatoes and basil and a custard tart and a capuccino and sit on, unharassed, writing this blog until the Cathedral opens.

It's later, when I read my guidebook, that I realize that though the Cathedral is interesting in its own right, it's the church of San Francesco that has the great cycle of frescos by Piero della Francesca, one of my favourite Renaissance artists.

I spend the afternoon in Arezzo Cathedral, drawing the great carved Choir Gallery by Vasari and the curious, archaic wooden Madonna and Child in the niche of the chapel below it. The statue is from the 13th century and has the stiff formality of Byzantine art. The Madonna's face is modern in its gaunt angularity and the Child seems a little old man in comparison with the chubby two-year-od infants that Renaissance artists depict in Nativity scenes.

There is a fresco by Piero della Francesca of Mary Magdalene on the left wall of the nave, near the main altar. Her hair, by tradition flowing loose, is spread in fine strands over her shoulders, as delicate as cobweb silk, and her gentle face is very beautiful. The Catholic Church's acceptance of this Mary, with all her apparent faults, is for me one of the most sympathetic aspects of this otherwise alien faith.

There's art from every century from the 13th to the 19th in the Cathedral and I browse happily there. A service begins at 5.30 which adds much to my experience though I can't understand many of the words. I don't leave myself time to see anything else - drawing is a long process.

At last I make my way down to the modern town. It's pouring with rain at nearly nine when I come out of the internet point near the station in Arezzo.

The Scenic has been parked for nearly eleven hours in the Parcheggio Balduccini and is in danger of being locked in for the night.

The Scenic and I have come to a working partnership. Hiring a car sight unseen is rather like entering into an arranged marriage - you can be lucky, or you have to work at it. The Scenic takes me smoothly and comfortably round Umbria and Tuscany. I have to trust it to leave itself locked, as long as I can check the boot. If I try to check the doors, it unlocks everything if the flat plastic "key" is anywhere within 10 metres, it seems. This has been a difficult adjustment for me, and so has the absence of a handbrake, but we have shaken down together. I wouldn't like to lose the Scenic at this stage.

When I get back to my hotel after a few circuits of the Industrial Zone to find it, I book in for another night, my last before I have to go back to Florence to catch my early flight to Gatwick on Thursday morning.

15th April 2008

I put my camera on charge, and this morning, in the rain, I set out to see the church of San Francesco, where Piero Della Francesca's cycle of paintings on the Miracle of the True Cross waits.

Here I am at the end of the penultimate day of my holiday, back in the Internet Centre in Arezzo to post what might be my last blog of this series. It's been raining on and off all day and now it's settled ino a solid downpour. I've come in to dry my feet out a bit. Luckily I didn't take the watery sunshine this morning at all seriously and I put on my big winter coat - with the boots and my cheekbones (what you can see of them after all this pasta) I'm definitely in Russian mode today.

This morning I find the third and probably most "real" Arezzo - the shopping centre. As soon as I see Upim I know I'm there. I pop in and buy a scarf I coveted in Ravenna's branch. I'm glad I did because it's turned very cold here. The commercial centre of Arezzo is very pleasant, with wide piazzas and civic sculptures.

I make my way up to the historic centre again and find I've missed the Basilica of San Francesco - it's shut for lunch till 2.30. Nearby is the Museum Home of Ivan Bruschi, an antique dealer and antiquarian who lived here for most of his life and left his whole collection to the municipality when he died in 1996. He also founded the Antiques Fair which takes place monthly in Arezzo. The Banco Etrusco was made trustee of the collection and the money to maintain it. (You can find information about Bruschi at this website
It's dry and peaceful in the Museum and I feel at home there. Bruschi was a proific collector of objects from distant times and places. It's one of those collections that is not labelled - you are just presented with the artefacts, from Etruscan times, from Africa, from the Renaissance - all intrinsically and aesthetically interesting, set out beautifully so that you can let your imagination and eyes roam among them. This is the only photograph I manage before I'm told off for getting my camera out.

In revenge I sit on the staircase and draw the view of an antique statue and the pillared windows of the Church next door, Santa Maria di Pieve. As usual a group of Italian schoolboys turns up after a while, and then my pens run out of ink, so I go back to the Basilica of San Francesco with my camera.

It's expensive to get a close-up view - 6 euros that would have bought lunch - but I'm not hungry because I've eaten really a big hotel breakfast.

It's still shut for lunch, but the sun is shining (short-lived as it turns out) and I sit in one of the cafes opposite the church of San Francesco and enjoy a fresh orange juice. Almost everyone else there is English like me, mainly teachers because it's school holiday time in England. I try hard to look Italian, or at least French.

It's certainly worth getting up close to the frescos of the Legend of the True Cross that Piero Della Francesca painted in the apse behind the high altar. They've had to be restored, in common with most of the historic buildings in Arezzo, because the town was devastated by Allied bombing on December 2nd 1943. The colours are absolutely beautiful. I look at prints and photos in the gift shop but none of them comes close to the right colours so I don't buy one.

There are pictures and information about Piero and the Legend of the true Cross cycle of frescoes on this site.

The frescos tell a story that appears nowhere in the Bible that I know but that spans the Old and New Testaments. It traces the story of the wood that was used to make the cross on which Jesus was executed, going all the way back to Adam's death, when it seems that the branch of the Tree of Life that would have saved him from death arrived too late. Then it was passed down the ages to become the Cross. It's a story full of miraculous pronouncements by angels. King Solomon makes an appearance, and there's a battle in which the wood is taken back from infidels. After the Crucifixion it's hidden to protect it but Judas knows where it is and he gives the information away under torture (there's a scene where Judas is pulled by his hair from a dry well where he's been thrown, by a callous man)

The Annunciation is there, of course. There's a beautifully stark noose hanging from a bracket outside a black window above the pretty space where the pregnant Mary is receiving the news from the Angel. That noose could be three dimensional, so carefully has the perspective and light been depicted. It's ready for Judas.

The figures are expressive and classically beautiful and the story is told with many subtle biblical references, such as the straining workmen carrying the plank of wood that is to become the Cross, in poses prefiguuring Jesus and the two thieves.

Having paid 6 euros, I am determined to get my money's worth. My drawing pens have run out of ink and I'm not allowed to take photos. But I have the hotel biro with me. So I stand through at least two repetitions of the guided tour going round the chapel and sketch the chapel's great window, flanked by the marvellous frescos. It will serve me as a reminder and perhaps form the basis for a coloured work later. I'm starting to get the gist of the lecture in the end, because I already know the story from the guide book.

I take a few more photos but the rain is getting really serious so I make my way back towards the station, my reference point in Arezzo. I have the good luck to pass a shop selling art materals on the way and buy two new drawing pens.

I've booked my last hotel, in the centre of Florence. It's extremely cheap but since I have to leave it at about 4.30 am on Thursday morning, to catch the plane that leaves at 8, I'm not too worried.

About Me

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Like a butterfly emerging painfully in several stages I've morphed a few times in my life, from art student to teacher, from rebellious confused twenty-something to faithful wife and well-meaning mother, from bored middle-aged art teacher to egocentric freethinking Italophile and painter. For the last few years I've been writing poetry and painting, drawing illustrations for my own work and other peoples's, and sharing as much of my time as possible with Donall Dempsey, the Irish poet who has owned my heart since I met him in 2008. We've spent working holidays together since then, writing, painting and enjoying ourselves and each other's company in a variety of places from New York to Bulgaria. We visit the Amalfi Coast in Italy every year, on a pilgrimage to the country that that I believe saved my life from sterility and pointlessness back in 2004. I'm looking forward to a happy and creative last third of life - at last I believe I've found the way to achieve that. I have paintings to sell on my website,, and books and prints at But I'll keep on writing and painting whether or not they find a market!