Friday, 30 March 2012

Painting courses in Italy: Tuscany’s best painting vistas

Tuscany’s landscapes, cultivated for thousands of years in wise harmony with nature, are giant artworks in themselves. Simply visiting the place is almost an Italian art course in itself. Small medieval hilltop towns overlook rolling countryside soothingly decorated with vineyards, silvery olive groves, and the region’s signature tree: the "sinuous, flame-tall cypresses” so admired by DH Lawrence, who thought they hid the secrets of the Etruscans.

No wonder so many come here to study painting . Those Tuscan hills don’t just provide an escape from the tourist bustle of the towns; they’re also timeless subjects for paintings themselves, and indeed provided the backdrop to Italy’s Renaissance both on canvas and in real life.

For classic views, you can take your easel and brushes along pretty much any side road in the triangle between Pisa, Siena and Florence. This is the Chianti landscape people wax lyrical about in Home Counties dinner parties – and with very good reason. Try the villages of Santa Luce or Orciano Pisano, near Pisa; Volterra and Monteriggioni, near Pisa; and perhaps San Gimigniano, with its bizarre, skyscraper-like towers – but try to find somewhere away from the crowds of camera-toting visitors.

The route southwest from Siena, along the N438 to the dramatic Crete region, shows off typically picture-postcard undulating hill towns and villages; for contrast and drama, Crete itself is a moonscape of clay mounds, bare gullies and cypress avenues.

The Val d’Orcia, south of Siena, is a UNESCO World Heritage Landscape – quintessential Tuscany, with ridgetop farmhouses, bands of plane trees and pristine villages, all asking to be painted. If you’re looking to paint a hilltop town from inside or out, nearby Montepulciano is one of Tuscany’s most beautiful.

Fancy tackling some unspoilt coasts or seascapes? Out west, on the Mediterranean running down to the chic Monte Argentario peninsula at the southern end of Tuscany, is the Maremma region. It’s a long series of drained marshes, beaches, and traffic-free parks full of wildlife – including white cattle tended by Tuscany’s own version of cowboys. The hilltop villages Massa Marittima and Gavorrano are good spots to head for.

If you’ve done enough cypresses and would like to tackle something a little more vertical than those perfectly-balanced undulations, then mountainous Garfagnana, up in the northwest near the border with Emilia Romagna, provides something spectacularly different. This is Michelangelo country: his raw material came from the quarries here, and the high marble alps are covered in snow virtually year round.

To cap it all, Tuscany offers the most desirable, inspiring magic ingredient of all for artists – a warm, clear, rich quality of light. Though for some, the local food and wine might run it a close second!

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