I have drawn the interior of Civita’s Chiesa San Donato a few times times, as for the past 7 years, each workshop group comes here on the last day for the most challenging sketch of all. It’s a space I find both simple and ornate at the same time, and it’s a wonderful, cool and quiet place to sketch on a hot day.
This first image below was done in 2013. It was the first year I taught in Civita–a workshop of one person– so the two of us basically just sketched together. My son, Nicholas came with me too. His plan was to help me haul groceries up the bridge, then hightail it back to Rome to do the youth hostel thing. But he, too, walked through that Porta Santa Maria and entered a different world…he climbed the steps to our apartment, entered, turned and looked out the window, saw the breathtaking view, pulled up a chair, found a book, and stayed in that spot reading and drinking wine (age doesn’t matter in Italia) for at least a week. So much for Rome! Then, he went back to his sophomore year at UW and started studying, you guessed it… ITALIAN! He ended up graduating with a minor in Italian, and he is more or less fluent. Thus is the power of Civita!!
So 2013 was my first year in Civita, my first workshop here, and my first wide angle view sketch!!! This image is loaded with emotion for me.
In 2014, I was in Civita with a 2-month fellowship through The Civita Institute, a non-profit based in Seattle that used to have associations with the University of Washington architecture program. My project was to research the town’s history and draw an illustrated walking guide. What resulted was a sketch of the interior was WAY over the top… I tried to show every little detail that I wanted to call out in the guide. Overworked, it’s like a cake that is too sweet…
Next is 2017. Cleaner, with more control over the drawing (I was probably remembering my overworked 2014 image). Here are some photos taken during the process too. You can see in the “good bones” how I lay out the big shapes and use full ellipses to get the arches.
A few steps further into town, and I mean maybe 15 steps, is the Piazza San Donato. It’s the town’s primary gathering space for nearly 3000 years! Once an Etruscan and then a Roman forum, it is located at the auspicious intersection of Etruscan roads, what the Romans would call the Decamanus (east-west) and Cardo (north-south). There probably would have been a Roman temple here, and the pieces of what were columns still stand along the front of the church–they are granite and likely came from Egypt!
The Campanile or bell tower rings every quarter hour, and when you live in Civita, it chimes the rhythm of your life. At longer 7am and 7pm chimes once signaled the start and end of the workday to the farmers in the valley below.
As part of my 2014 fellowship, I documented all four directions…it’s like you are there! I had an exhibit of work at Washington State University a few years back…we printed huge copies of these sketches and hung them at eye level to make a box. You could stand in the middle and imagine you were in Civita!
In terms of technique, if you look closely, you can see the subtle evolution of my drawing and painting. The earlier ones have flatter color, and as time and practice went on, the colors got more varied and refined. I was figuring things out! My favorite is the last one shown here, as this is where I finally got the feel for representing this place. Not overpainted, just enough. While I was doing this, I remember there was a wedding taking place. All the guests were from either the US or Lebanon, and my gosh, I’ve never seen more amazing clothing in my life!
So many stories, so many memories, such an incredible opportunity. I am so eternally grateful for having received the Civita Institute’s Astra Zarina 2-month fellowship here in 2014. It was during these two solid months of work that I really found my sketching self and developed a way of drawing and painting that I still use to this day.
Huff and puff up the steep bridge, through the Porta Santa Maria, turn and look back at this view as you emerge into the Piazza San Pietro. The workshop group often sketches here in the morning while we sit in shade and the facades are bathed in crisp morning light, plus the bar (what we call a cafe) on the piazza opens early and serves yummy lattes. Appropriate, as apparently there was a market here long ago.
Look carefully at this wide-angle view and you’ll see blue sky in some of the windows of the Renaissance era Palazzo Colesanti…yes, the building collapsed into the valley below and all that is left is the facade! The outdoor stair is called a proferlo and is typical of this area of Italy. The gray stone around the windows is a very dense balsatina, which is mined locally. It’s also used for some amazing fireplace throughout town.
In terms of technique, this is where we learn to leave a swath of the paper as white untouched by paint in order to get a sense for the sun hitting the face of the building and ground. This is also where we learn to do varied washes of color so the color isn’t flat and also talks about the materials and stone texture. Just look at all the colors that are dropped into any one facade! That was done with one layer of watercolor wash. And my favorite part, just look at the arch on the far right under the stairs…that glow of red is a drop of Daniel Smith Quinacridone Burnt Orange into wet paint. I love that color!
I am looking back as a way to dream about next year…gosh I miss this place!
Yesterday, the workshop folks would have huffed and puffed their way up the long and steep bridge to the amazing tiny town of Civita di Bagnoregio.
Instead of the island in the sky it is now, Civita was at one time surrounded by fairly level fields with entry roads coming into town from various directions. But the rivers to the north and south, aided by earthquakes, cut into the soft volcanic and undersea soils and left it standing alone and cut off. There used to be a skinny land bridge that connected Bagnoregio with Civita, and the main mode of transport until only a few decades ago was by donkey! These days, in the mornings you’ll find shop and restaurant owners on their scooters, loaded down with bags of supplies.
Walking up the bridge is something of a ritual ceremony. And for those of us who are afraid of heights, it takes some getting used to. But with each step and gaze out to the vast landscape, you leave the real world behind and get closer to the timeless, auto-free, ancient world of stone that is beyond the gate.
Just inside the Porta Santa Maria, you can see the Etruscan era original arches which are held in place with no mortar, only gravity. The current facade was actually added in the Renaissance by the local cardinal who made it look like a sort of medieval gate. There used to be a chapel here, a hospital, roads down to the chestnut fields below town, and much more, but it’s all fallen into the valley by now, joining the wild boar or cinghiale that roam the hillsides (yes, you can eat pasta with cinghiale, and it’s delicious!) But pass through this gate, as pilgrims have been doing for thousands of years (you can see the crosses carved into the stone walls), and a spell comes over you. This place really is magic.