Monday, November 23, 2009

Gifted hands

The fruit of other artists' hands never fails to delight and astonish.

Across France and Italy, from the hands of craftsmen and artists of many centuries, you can see wonders to dazzle the eyes.

This older Italian gentleman made me long to run for my long-neglected gravers and have a go at a shell or two. Such is my admiration for his artistic touch with the simplest of materials.

I wonder at the skill of this man's hands and his imagination.

He only speaks Italian and I do not, but we did communicate, and he had never met an American before who appreciated the feel of a fine hardwood graver in her hand.

But most of the artisans of Europe are long gone and their work must speak for them, leaving mysteries speaking loudly.

Tarquinia's sarcophagi, made by Etruscan craftsmen centuries before Christ. Who were these stone carvers? What were their tools?

Who designed the motifs that seem to almost fold and layer on Pompeii's column capitals? I muse over their design method... did they sketch first on a paper-like substance? Use something to model it first?

Street signs, paintings in the brothels... You can see the results of these imaginative ancient hands but not the tools or methods.

I am left staring, pondering, curious about how these brilliant minds made their art. I'm shocked at the sophistication and beauty they built into raised cobbled stone sidewalks, public drinking fountains and graceful clay amphoras.

Will we, I wonder, leave behind anything half so lasting? And what can I learn from the gifted hands of artists both ancient and modern?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

More splendid lettering

Europe has a dizzying scale that can leave you with a staggered feeling.

Which explains why I was standing in Saint Peter's Basilica with a stiff neck last week from looking up and up and up again.

When we left the glories of Museo Vaticani and the Sistine Chapel I thought I was done staring skyward. But I'd forgotten the glories of Saint Peter's, and soon found myself gaga over the lettering on the upper edges...

How graceful the Roman lettering, black on gilt.

How perfect the spacing.

Which has me thinking back to the maps I saw on the walls of the Museo Vaticani...

The golden lettering and calligraphic swirls are the work of a master. How I would love to talk to that calligrapher!

Who was the anonymous letterer? What was his or her training? What materials did they use? Did they sketch first on the walls below the gilt and paints? And how did they think up that ornate bumblebee that decorates the Tyrrenian Sea?

When in Florence the very next day I found myself in an old, old courtyard savoring the lettering again.

This one, according to Noel, who is a Latin scholar, tells about the best families and the knights who made up the monument in 1648.

And don't you love the hand below? Doesn't it make you long to run for nibs and ink?

There is no end to the inspirations in Europe.

Already I long to visit again, this time with more time to sit and sketch and spend time making art of my own.

But I brought home pigments from Rousillon, and they are calling to me now. Off to create something this rainy Sunday afternoon at home.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Lettering down the centuries

From Pompeii to the Vatican, from the promenade in Aix-en-Provence to the prices on street menus, I'm convinced that Europe is covered with lettering, and has been for centuries and centuries.

For a calligraphy and typography nut like me, it was hog heaven.

I almost drove my patient husband past the point of no return, snapping hundreds of photos and lettering in my sketchbook until my pencil lead was down to the nub while he waited with infinite kindness, smiling at my delight.

I first noticed it in Pompeii, where the original lettering in the marketplace was the perfect example of Roman clarity.

I am dying to know what it says. I've sent photos to my own personal Latin scholar, lucky me!

If she translates for us I'll let you know.

"Apples on sale, half off this week?"

"Please don't drive your chariots on the lawn?"

What did the merchants of Pompeii put on their equivalent of the billboard?

The numbers chiseled 2,000 years ago survive in Pompeii's streets today, and I was fascinated. This one, outside a tavern, stood just above the raised stone sidewalks.

If you ever get the opportunity to visit Pompeii, you must go. It's captivatingly, shockingly, astonishingly modern and sophisticated.

Days later I found myself in Aix-en-Provence, where artist Paul Cezanne's family were hatmakers. You can still see the ad for their shop written high above the Cours Mirabeau, the main street in town.

I found the lettering so charmingly French I snapped almost a dozen pictures. Ha!

And the colors, the way the paint weathered, that amazingly cool orangey-yellow ochre shades...

If the lettering in Aix seemed old to me, the Colisseum was absolutely ancient.

There is lettering on almost every kind of stone you can find in Rome. But as gemologists, my husband and I found ourselves whispering to one another.

"Sandstone," we'd scoff. "No wonder!" when the lettering was worn to soft curves.

"Gorgeous!" we cried over and over at the wondrous carvings we saw everywhere. "Brilliant!"

But this tablet in the Colisseum almost knocked the wind out of me.

And you can see the tiny chisel marks all over it.

The hand of the maker was beautifully present.

Who made this tablet? What was their story? What kind of gravers did they use, and what did they use for a straight edge and measuring tools?

Even if I force myself to share only a few delectable bits, there was far, far too much to fit into one post. So I'll share this much today and ask you to bear with me.

More delicious lettering tomorrow!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Market day in France

Her name is Nicole and she lives outside the charming university city of Aix-en-Provence.

"Taste some cheese," she said to me. Or something similar!

I speak no French but that was no problem. She held out a sliver of the most delectable cheese imaginable, and her smile said the rest.

"Oh, Americans!" Then between her wonderful accent and some rather hilarious charades we understood that her family makes the cheeses and she has a friend studying in Florida.

"Merci!" my husband smiled as Nicole pressed another sliver of cheese toward us.
"Au revoir!" I laughed, and snapped her photo as I swallowed.

If there is anything more vivid and friendly than market day in France, I don't know what it is.

The carrots, the cabbages, the spices galore.

Even the handwriting on the price signs is stylish in France.

I love how different this is than the giant American supermarket.

There is the bread vendor, the cheesemonger, the spice merchant.

The women with flowers, the family vegetable stands, even a pair of brothers who sell nothing but mushrooms with the earth still clinging to them and a few oak leaves strewn about as decorations.

The colors and scents are dizzying.

How I wish I could shop like this at home.

I long to stop and sketch the scenes but a camera will have to do.

How about you? Do you find the open air markets endlessly captivating, too?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Charming doorways

Do you find yourself taking pictures of the same subject over and over?

I just glanced through my photos and there are at least 50 doorways.

At least.

I can't resist the stone steps, the climbing ivy...

... the wonderful weathering.

Climbing roses seem so charming around a doorway...

... while others say, "welcome!"

I loved the whimsical tiled canopy on this doorway, like an eyebrow almost!

And the timelessness of other doors speaks of a slower, gentler era.

Our doorway is so plain when I look at these and enjoy their unique details.

Our own doorway is a Plain Jane. France and Italy have taught me I need to add a special touch. What fun to dream something up!

But plain as it is, our very own door is the sweetest one of all to me.

There's truly no place like home, is there?

Terres et coleurs

Terres et coleurs. Earths and colors.

What an amazing riot of colors crossed our paths in France and Italy.

What fun to shop from the street market's ceramicist...

and wander the ochre mines of Rousillon.

"Don't wander there," Dominique told me, "unless you don't mind stains that will not go away."

She shook a warning finger.

"The earth is strong here."

And she was right.

And it's not just the earth itself that seems to glow from within. The buildings echo the colors you see in the landscape.

I brought home pigments from the ochre mines with the dream of ragging my kitchen walls and formulating paint and ink to use in my work.

The sky and earth colors come to roost on the buildings here, almost seeming to glow.

And it's not just the buildings that reflect the terres et coleurs. The spices you see in the open air markets, the cheeses and vegetables are a brilliant visual feast.

But there are also places for the eye to rest, gentler shades and hues and tones.

Plane trees along the roadway.

And quiet versions of the landscape's vivid shades.

There is something essential about these colors, something built to last.

I'm completely smitten.