Introducing the Sketchbook Series: Whenever I travel, I like to bring a sketchbook with me and take time to capture a few scenes from each new place. Filling up several sketchbooks over the years has created a great visual journal of my travels, but even better are the amazing stories you get when you sit on a bench and draw.
This series is a tribute to the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met along the way!
I first started keeping travel sketchbooks in college when I studied abroad in Italy for a semester through my architecture program. We were required to do a minimum number of drawings per day, and the number ramped up whenever we were traveling.
Some days you were hard-pressed to find enough unique subjects to fill your quota for the day, but other days… you were in Florence.
In Florence I could hardly take two steps without stumbling into a vista worth capturing. The town is steeped in artistic history and architectural innovations. The entire central plaza is a UNESCO World Heritage site, for Pete’s sake! Motivation to sketch came easily in that city.
So I started with the obvious: Il Duomo di Firenze, the main cathedral in Florence. I did the tourist thing first, exploring the interior, and climbing up to the top of the dome to marvel at the engineering brilliance of Brunelleschi's double-enveloped design. These Renaissance blokes were literally making up structural innovations as they built, and their ingenious structures have stood the test of time.
(I know I’m architecture-fangirling here, but I’m serious! There was not enough timber in all of Tuscany to build traditional scaffolding to construct a dome of this height, so Brunelleschi invented a mortar-laying technique that allowed scaffolding to be built into the layers of the bricks as the dome was constructed, and then moved up with the workers as they progressed. BRILLIANT.)
Tourist duties complete, I walked a lap around the entire cathedral to find the best angle to sketch. It had rained briefly while I was inside, and the ground was dotted with puddles amongst the cobblestones.
In a clear reflection in one of the puddles, I saw a nice framing of the dome from a corner of the basilica. There were no benches nearby, so I perched on a dry bit of curb and began my sketch.
While I blocked out the basic form of the building, I smiled at the charade unfolding before me. Street vendors hawking their unlicensed art poster goods to tourists lined up outside the cathedral, with their wares laid out on large black blankets to protect them from the rain-drenched street. A pair of police officers were slowly circling the cathedral, shooing away the peddlers, who I suppose weren’t supposed to be doing business so close to the cathedral.
Like a choreographed dance, as the officers approached, the vendors swept up their goods into their black blanket bundles and feigned casualness until the moment the officers rounded the next corner, out of sight. Then it was back to business until the next lap.
As I began adding detail to the building, a gorgeous 30-something woman asked to sit next to me on my primo curb. I smiled and gestured for her to join me. It turned out she was waiting on her husband to pick up lunch from one of the nearby restaurants, and she was in charge of finding a good spot to picnic and people-watch.
We exchanged small talk as I continued to sketch, my “Intro to Italian” skills just passable enough to carry on a conversation (with the occasional support from my Spanish-speaking background).
“Are you from here? Your accent is Firenze but your hair is Milano…”
“No, I’m just visiting. I’m an architecture student studying in Genova. I’m from the U.S.”
(She clearly already knew I wasn’t a fluent speaker and was just being kind by asking if I was local, of course. My Italian professor was from Florence, which perhaps explains the subtle Tuscan accent. My blonde hair and fair skin, however, fit in better in the North.)
Shortly after, her husband returned with a towering stack of pizza boxes. His wife introduced me to him in rapid fire Italian, of which I caught only “student” and “architecture.”
“Ah a student! How wonderful! And to be studying architecture in the most perfect place in the world!” he exclaimed in English, while gesturing wildly to the imposing structure in front of us.
Clearly his English was much stronger than his wife’s, and he was happy to chatter away about my studies and my sketches, and to give me travel tips for the entire region.
“You must join us for lunch! I insist, I insist – I bought so many pizzas and if you do not help us eat them they will go to waste, which would be a terrible thing! Because this is the best pizza in Florence.”
He wouldn’t take no for an answer, insisting, “If I know one thing about students, it’s that they are always broke and hungry! Today you can just be broke! Haha!”
I put away my sketchbook and joined them for a picnic on the curb, with slices of pizza heavy with rich toppings crumbling off of the generous slices. Who am I to refuse Italian hospitality?
So now, when I look back at this simple detail sketch of the Dome, I see the kindness of Italian strangers and fondly remember some of the best pizza I’ve ever had.
Just as Brunelleschi would have wanted it.
After you climb up the dome, climb up the adjacent bell tower (il campanile) as well. If you buy the tickets together it only costs a couple of Euros extra, and the bell tower is always less crowded. Plus, you get a bird's eye view of the top of the Duomo for great pictures. It’s hard to fit all of the Duomo in frame when you’re standing on top of it!