Tuscan Courtyard

I suppose not that many people save rejection notes but I’m glad that I framed this one from 1966. On cream-coloured card stock with the address, Borgo Albizi, Firenze, I am told in the nicest possible way by Pietro Annigoni that he must turn down my request to be a student of his because he is travelling a great deal and does not have time for any serious teaching.

In North America perhaps Pietro Annigoni is not a household name but in royal and business circles in Europe he was indeed known and revered. It was he who painted what arguably is the most famous portrait of our Queen with the regalia of the Order of the Garter.

My request was sent to him because I had the great good fortune to witness him as he painted two portraits. Both the President of Stelco and his wife were the subjects of paintings produced by him at the Ontario College of Art during my time there. We students were allowed into the studio at the end of each day to marvel at the progress of these works.

Firenzie, Florence, has for centuries been the home to artists and nobility that, let’s face it, kept the artists going. Much of the artistic history of Florence is housed in the Uffizi Gallery which is unfortunately opened on an off-and-on basis due to the volume of traffic which schleps through its corridors. The Uffizi is the oldest museum in the world, having been first opened to the public in 1591.

If, as the Florentine authorities claim, this city is the cradle of the Renaissance, then the Uffizi is the keeper of that cradle. Within its over 8,000 square meters, the patrons and saints stare down from the walls with frosty detachment. I saw many of the developments in painting such as perspective presented along its endless walls and wished that we might have had the top picks gathered in a few galleries to prevent what Marilyn and I call gallery head. That is the condition that results from cramming so much into your noggin that your brain congeals.

After a two-hour session of painting viewing, we stumbled comatose into the street looking to find a restaurant owned by the vineyard whose wine we drink at home. I knew Villa Antinori was near the train station. “Pardon me, could you direct to the centro?” Astonished at my ignorance, a middle-aged man threw up his hands exclaiming, “Chentro, Chentro!” Well the restaurant turned out to be a great hit. As always in Italy, it was difficult to get the waiter to bring the bill. Apparently Italian culture believes that a check presented too soon is rude and suggests that the diner should be on his way.

My bride is our travel investigator and we did a superb job in finding us a grand hotel across the Arno River from Florence which provided a magnificent view of the capital of Tuscany. In spite of masses of tourists that have forced the city to ban vehicular traffic to anyone but residents of the city centre, the air is still clear on the northwest coast.

Imagine my surprise when I opened the hotel brochure to find staring out at me, Pietro Annigoni. The caption under the photo of a group having dinner states that the grill-room is an informal meeting place for famous artists. This ochre-coloured Villa San Michele was once a monastery and reputedly designed by Michelangelo. You realize very quickly that if that great man had produced everything attributed to him, he would have died from lack of sleep.

The building was badly damaged by bombs in WW II, but restored and reborn as a hotel after 150 years as a private residence. The villa is very grand although our room in the cheap seats looked over the tiled roof over the kitchen, but the view dissolved into blue over the Tuscan hills. This is a beautiful hotel but it really does give a whole new meaning to the golden fleece.