The Grand Tour of Tivoli

Saturday 9 July 2011

“Pronto, Padre Guglielmo? I am phoning about the room for the course”

“What course?”

My heart sunk. It sounded like the Brother didn’t know about it! And yet, Brother Domenico, to whom I spoke previously (and was now on his holidays), had reassured me that whoever was in charge of the convent would know.

“ The art course with a group of Irish people” I insisted.
“Ah, gli irlandesi! Si, certo.”

Thanks Madonna mia!
Two hours later the room, large and airy, was set up.
A smiley and welcoming Padre Guglielmo handed me the keys and said “Make yourself at home”. The previous summer he had been in Ireland to learn English. We had a connection.

The Myth of Hercules

By Monday morning the group was there ready to start working.

Villa d’Este, whose house and gardens were to be the central theme of the art week, was closed that day (like all the museum and galleries in Italy).
In preparation for our visit the following day we did some work on the myth of Hercules and his eleventh labour. This theme associates the garden at Tivoli with the mythical Garden of Hesperides from which Hercules stole three of the golden apples of immortality after slaying the dragon Ladon who guarded them.

According to Renaissance history, the Este family was reputed to descend from Hercules, and Tivoli, the location of the Este villa, had been an ancient town dedicated to Hercules.
Hence the appropriateness of the symbolism of the cardinal Ippolito II d’Este’s garden: a white eagle, a lily and three golden apples form the Este family crest.

In the villa and in the gardens every painted or sculpted image you come across is linked to each other by a wealth of mythological references that never cease to surprise and marvel.

Through the Senses

I had urged the participants to ‘soak up’ the experiences of the week ahead through all the senses.
“Open up and take it all in” I suggested. And so, obediently they did.

They remarked on the colours, the contrasts, the shapes, the light, the perfumes, the aromas and the smells. They observed and wrote, sketched and painted.

They bravely endured the heat of the day and the constant thirst. They took turns in making trips to the drinking fountain to fill up the bottles, so as not to lose concentration in the artwork they were producing.

They commented on the sound of church bells, the deafening noise of the cicadas and crickets, the murmurs of running water from fountains and falls all over the town.

They tasted the local food and took light-heartedly to a less than customer-focused waiter (it was like a Faulty Tower-type experience). They relished the juicy peaches bought at the market in the piazza and the freshly baked pizza from the local bakers. They drank an inordinate amount of cappuccinos and an ordinate amount of wine.

They even had a go at speaking the beautiful language with amusing results.

On Wednesday, as the heat was reaching melting point, the group started to produce artwork at an alarming rate. Whatever they had observed and experienced over the previous days was now pouring out on to the pages. It was a joy to witness it and that was only the beginning.

Horrid Beauty

On Thursday we all visited the grounds of Villa Gregoriana and we came back stunned, speechless and with sore legs.

‘Under a dense forest of gigantic and dark trees, near somber and massive vestiges of ancient constructions, on the edge of frightening depths, inside hard rocks and steep crags, in the middle of green, small clearings gloriously lit by the sun, myrtles lanes, craggy paths, steep alleys, eroded flights of steps and small tunnels, wind and find their way, leading the visitor to the discovery of the most varied and unexpected visions’.

Silently and without being asked one by one the participants started to ‘respond’ to the visit. Waterfalls amongst dense green foliage started to appear on the pages but also a more abstract type of work, which conveyed better a strong feeling for a landscape in which Nature appeared to reign supreme.

Gran Finale

On the last day there was the sense of rush typical of the end of any course.
Some participants were leaving that day and the paintings or drawings needed to be finished (some were even framed!).
Other people were staying on and being joined by friends or partners to continue the visit of the area beyond Tivoli itself. A small group ended up in Rome for a last blast of heat and gallery viewings before returning to an overcast and rainy Ireland.