Maxfield Parrish, ‘The Pool, Villa d’Este’, Tivoli, Circa 1904.

Marc Appleton and I stumbled on to the pier at the Rio de S. Moise as Stephen dropped us off after an afternoon of watercoloring on the Grande Canal in Venice.  As Stephen disappeared in his tiny dingy into the roiling waves of heavy canal traffic, Marc and I made a vow to come back to Italy solely for the purpose of painting.

Watercolor gifted to me by Marc Appleton.

The Grand Canal by Author. Venice, Italy.

Many years later, Marc made good on his commitment and made me promise to come to Tivoli if he rented a villa. Of course I said yes, since the date he gave was still two years away. But when the email came for reservations I panicked; my daughter was getting married, we were swamped at the office, there were other commitments, on & on. But I held to my word and booked a ticket. One week- I’d give one week.

“Peace to you” greets us as we enter the Abbey de Sant’Antonio.

The view from our terrace at the Abbey de Sant’Antonio of the Grand Cascade.

The minute I arrived at Abbey de Sant’ Antonio, my jet lag melted away. Mariann (she woke up the week before and asked herself why she wasn’t going to Italy as well) and I dropped our bags in our quaint monk cell and made our way to the terrace. We were immediately struck with a view of Tivoli that had drawn visitors for thousands of years- the Grande Cascade.

As a charming Italian village, Tivoli was always a popular destination on the Grand Tour for its setting upon a travertine mountaintop overlooking the Roman Campagna. It offered dramatic ancient scenes of a picturesque view of classical utopia; the round Temple of Vesta and the rectangular temple of the Sibyl of Tibur perched on a cliff perforated with cascades as they pour through the mountain into a deep verdant gorge.

A view of Abbey de Sant’Antonio from the Grand Cascade.

On our way to the Grand Cascade.

Before Maxfield Parrish, before Turner, before Piranesi, the cool mountain air drew ancient luminaries such as the Emperor Hadrian, who built his palace in the fields below, and Cardinal Ipolito II d’Este, who constructed his famous renaissance water garden around his Villa d’Este. These were the real reasons they had come to Tivoli.

David Roberts, Tivoli, 1854, graphite and watercolor on wove paper, Gift of William B. O’Neal.

Tivoli, the Cascades, 1819, Joseph Mallord William Turner.

A short taxi ride over, we meet the group at lunch in the village. A long Italian lunch only built anticipation for getting started- first stop, the Gardens of Villa d’Este.

A Villa d’Este urn by Author.

We hurriedly walked through the vacant renaissance villa to reach the garden side. Cool air scented of cypress and boxwood foreshadowed the breath taking view of gardens sloping to a distant hazy view, only to be interrupted by cascades of water in every direction.  This has been the destination of painters for centuries.

Villa d’Este.

Villa d’Este.

Mariann wandered as I found a spot to set up my palette and brushes. What I thought would be the start of a sketch of a simple small gurgling fountain was abandoned for a scene far too ambitious for the first day.  But soon I was lost in my head as little children surrounded me, fascinated by the brushes and bright colors. I would paint until afternoon spring showers threatened to ruin my progress.

Piranesi’s etching of the Canopus at Hadrian’s Villa.

Heliocaminus Baths, a precursor to the Pantheon, at Hadrian’s Villa by Author.

Piranesi’s drawing of Emperor Hadrian’s estate.

The following morning we headed off to Villa Adrianna, or Hadrian’s Villa, built in the first century at the height of the Roman Empire. Once lost to time, the enormous complex of 250 acres of baths, domes, garden pools and colonnades presented a daunting prospect for an architect and amateur artist.  I found my viewpoint of the Scenic Triclinium, or the Nile Pool. Once again, overly ambitious- have I thought about how to paint the subtle reflections of light on the water? No, but I hope my time painting in Maine would help.

The fish Pond, Villa d’Est- by Author.

For four days I repeat the fascinating observations of Villa d’Este and Villa Adriana, in the mornings painting vigorously only to be halted in the afternoon by showers. Our fellow abbey-mates, all experienced and well-known artists in their own rights, would spread out to find a secluded spot where tourist could not oogle over their shoulder. Alex shares his tricks of a tin can with change or even a hotel “Do not Disturb” sign around his neck to keep tourist at bay.*

Alex Creswell contemplating the Grand Cascade from the loggia of the Abbey de Sant’Antonio.

Stephen Harby painting the colonnade at Hadrian’s Villa.

A quick study before a light rain shower drove me to shelter.

We would retreat to the Abbey in the cool afternoons, wrapping up small details of our drawings, discussions or attempting to capture the Grande Cascade as a storm cloud passes over.  Some would crowd into the antique kitchen, chopping basil, roasting eggplant and garlic and grating local cheese.  Evenings were spent over wine and homemade Italian meals, recounting the days and planning our next great painter’s retreat.

Wendy Artin’s study of the snow peas from the Abbey’s garden.

Watercolorist Michael Reardon and Stephen Harby do their part prepping for dinner over a glass of prosecco.

Marc Appleton and I sheltering from an afternoon rain shower at Villa d’Este while contemplating “where to next?”

*Alex once used this trick in Egypt only to become amusing entertainment for the locals, when one noted his sign read, “Please make me.”