• Steven Heller

From Florence With Sketchbooks

By: Steven Heller

Stephen Alcorn, through his annual Global Education Program, Florence Revealed: Drawing from The Wellspring of History, offers his VCUarts students a unique opportunity each summer to work and study with him in Italy in one of the world’s most historic cities, Florence. The DH takes this opportunity to share a selection of images culled from his ever-growing library of 11 in. x 14 in. Florentine sketchbooks, along with a series of Alcorn’s reflections in which he articulates the raison d’etre of this program and the role that drawing, “in all its infinite variety,” plays in the experiential learning he fosters as a passionate Instructor.


The Florence Revealed: Drawing from The Wellspring of History Program addresses the artistic, architectural, philosophical, political and economic currents that made Florence the center of the Italian Renaissance. Through discussions in the venues where the key historical events of the period occurred, my students learn how the most important currents of the late Middle Ages coalesced into a revolutionary rebirth of classical art and thought in a relatively small city in Tuscany, and more specifically, how artists, architects, bankers and thinkers joined forces to create the fabled Quattrocento Fiorentino.


The world in which the artist of the Quattrocento Fiorentina came of age in was a world which was defined physically by the city and territories of Florence but which, because of the special character of this city, was intellectually and artistically boundless. Florence was a miraculous place; and what contributed to and sustained the miracle was that its citizens knew that they were living in a miracle. They compared their city and its place in the arts and learning of their era with the place of Athens in ancient Greece—and they were right. As Athens had led the way among the Greek city-states to the glory that was Greece, so Florence had led the way among Italian city-states in the “revival of learning,” the Renaissance. The Athenians had the Golden Age, presided over by Pericles. The Florentines of the later fifteenth century strongly sensed—and again rightly—that they were living in the Golden Age of their city and that the Periclean equivalent was at hand in Lorenzo medici, “Lorenzo the Magnificent,” the contemporary head of the family that for four generations had had the leading role in the city’s affairs.


A special spirit of individuality, adventure and sophistication set Florence apart from the rest. Many things had contributed to the creation of this spirit. The accident of geography had made the city a major land avenue of trade between the north and the south of Europe. Trade breeds initiative, industry and ideas and the Florentines developed in abundance. Importing wool and silk and flax, manufacturing and dyeing cloth, Florence became a leading European center of the textile industry and in time the financial capital of the West. Out of the money-changing activities spurred by trade, Florentine banks grew and thrived; they were the money lenders to princes and the financial agents of the Church.


Along with economic vitality, Florence had great political verve. It lay in a part of Italy that had never been highly feudalized, and the traditions of republican Rome had survived there. At a time when despots flourished elsewhere without challenge, Florence remained a republic in which there was room for conflicting political factions and outspoken public opinion. It was, in sum, an open society with unlimited horizons for the ingenious and ambitious. The impact of the city’s intellectual and artistic life was profound and far-reaching. As wealth spread, so did opportunities for leisure, for gracious living, and for the cultivation of the arts. Riches began to pour into the building of fine homes and palaces, into the beautification of churches and public structures and into the advancement of learning.


Interested in the temporal rewards of life, the new materialism needed an ethos not supplied by the Church, with its primary concern for the hereafter. Increasingly, Florentine creatives turned to the distant past, to the philosophy of the “good life” expounded by the Greeks and Romans. The fascination with antiquity deepened. The impressive mementos of Greece and Rome were looked at with fresh interest by architects; antique coins and fragments of statues with awakening admiration by artists; old Latin and Greek texts with new absorption by scholars. This was the beginning of the Renaissance.


Through daily life-drawing sessions conducted all’aperto (in the open), students immerse themselves in the cultural heritage of the city. Excursions to venerable landmark piazzas, churches, and museums provide students with the essential primary source material for their city-based sketchbook entries, while providing an art historical foundation to the program at large. This part of the program, titled Florence Observed: Cultural Immersion Through Drawing is conducted in the heart of Florence, Italy, the cradle of the Renaissance, and its surrounding environs. It revolves around the use of an 11 in. x 14 in. sketchbook.

Employing mixed media to create imagery, students address the fundamental analytical, anatomical, structural and compositional challenges involved in drawing directly from life. These include, but are not limited to: linear and atmospheric perspective, proportion, space/shape relationships and their measurement.  Line, shading, color and composition are explored while students are introduced to a variety of media including (but not limited to) graphite, pen and ink, colored pencils and watercolor. Inspired by the venerable tradition of 15th-century Illuminated manuscripts, considerable attention is paid to the placement of content within the sketchbook, and more specifically, to the harmonious integration of text (in the form of copious course notations) and imagery (in the form of life-drawings).


A second part of the program, titled Beyond the Walls of Florence: The Art of the Travel Journal, is dedicated to the creation of nature studies that range from (macro) views of the city itself to (micro) studies of Tuscan flora. Explorations of Florence’s surrounding hills (Fiesole, Bellosguardo, Piazzale Michelangelo, etc.) and visits to Florence’s fabled Boboli Gardens and the Orto Botanico (Botanical Garden) provide students with primary source material from which to create their nature-based sketchbook entries, while excursions to Siena, Pisa, and Venice serve to put the Quattrocento Fiorentino into the broader cultural context of its time. My students have the opportunity to learn about the masterpieces of the Florentine Renaissance by communing with them for extended periods of time.


The drawings my students and I make are the fruits of repeated, sustained efforts, through which we construct analyzed equivalents to reality in which every inch of the surface has to be won and argued through. The results bear witness to our curiosity and spirit of inquiry. We transcend the typical tourist’s approach to art appreciation—a cursory approach that rarely has an observer spending more than a few fleeting moments before a work of art and walking away with little more than a series of snapshots to show for their time in a museum.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that photography and its related media, e.g., film and television, tell the most truth about what we see. This is not true: the camera may tell another truth about a subject, but not necessarily a more convincing one. Experience shows that the practice of drawing by hand can bring us into a deeper and more fully experienced connection to a given subject. It is often said that Leonardo drew so well because he knew about things; it is truer to say that he knew about things because he drew so well.


The ambition to transform pigment and stone into a representation of life is perhaps part of a wider anthropological impulse. It is behind many myths, ancient or modern: Pygmalion carving a living statue, Dr. Frankenstein creating his monster. This creation of life from dead matter is there in the bull Giovanni Pisano carved for the façade of the cathedral of Pisa—part of a line of progeny stretching back through classical antiquity, to the Cretan Minotaur and beyond. Consequently, there are intimations of Picasso in Pisano’s work—a reminder that the Renaissance also looked forward. A similar sublimation of ancient art historical precedents can be found in Donatello’s celebrated David. In this case the miracle isn’t just the conjuring of the life force; it is the delicacy and the precision with which a moment of feeling, of consciousness has been captured. There is a message forever caught in this figure: what is inside a human being can be a whole world.



There is no end to the pleasure of unlocking the secrets of drawing. It has so much to say about how artists think, look at the world, and express themselves on the page: about how about we communicate with ourselves, telling stories through the timeless language of pictures. In Florence we explore how artists have used drawing to grasp the world around them—to grasp its beauty but also to grapple with their own place within it. We trace the stories of some remarkable individuals–a series of pioneers who were the first to capture many of the wonders of our planet. We follow in their footsteps; we take, so to speak, a line for a walk, and through the drawn image explore the city’s wonders, its surrounding landscape, its neighboring citadels, our own humanity.


An artist may make marks using an exquisitely delicate wrist action, as in the case of Botticelli, or, he/she may create works that are the result of or his/her entire arm—or even entire body— as in the case of Jackson Pollock. Regardless of one’s particular temperament, one thing remains constant: the uniqueness of one’s eye-mind-hand coordination. This coordination begins with sight itself, and extends to the brain, then to one’s arm, then to one’s hand, only to be transferred to an inanimate drawing tool, culminating in marks deposited on a 2-dimensional surface. Through the transformative act of drawing, the artist becomes one with the physical world, and in so doing forges a relationship between the material, and the spiritual.


Meaningful drawings put the conscious mind, and sometimes, perhaps more unsettlingly, the unconscious mind, in contact with the eye and mind of the proverbial beholder. I feel that this is one of greatest strengths of drawing: the way it makes the viewer experience what the artist contemplates. It is, arguably, the medium that speaks more freshly, directly, and immediately about the mystery of the human mind. Indeed, if you want to get to know an artist, the drawings are the ideal place to start.

Viewing a monumental painting or work of sculpture can be like attending a formal lecture or a public performance. But looking at an original drawing is another experience altogether, one more akin to having a conversation. Drawing is an inherently intimate activity where artists go to reflect on what engages them. It is where they reveal their true temperament. A drawing can represent a map of the mind or a labyrinth—something into which we are irresistibly drawn and through which we must find a way, but from which we emerge enriched and inspired. Drawings can provide a foothold to reality or take flight. The spirituality of a drawing is predicated upon realizing what had been imagined. Drawing, in other words, gives substance to the imagination.


Consciousness is essential to humanity. It’s what artists such as Giotto depicted. I find the process to be is every bit as fascinating as, say, Christ raising Lazarus from the dead. Drawing represents the union of the spiritual and the actual. Drawing, in other words, gives substance to the spirit.


By putting feeling into a drawing, it may appear to be full of inner life. By giving a subject psychological depth, the artist elicits an emotional response from the viewer, the recognition of fellow feeling. Empathy is the key to viewing/experiencing any work of art. The artist reacts with extreme sensitivity to the subject at hand, and its identification is a form of spiritual contemplation. By giving form to this contemplation, the artist makes space for the viewer to inhabit the drawings. To draw is to look and look again. To take nothing for granted. Drawing was how Leonardo drew and thought. How he unmade the mistakes of medieval anatomy and grasped so the bodies most intimate secrets. Paradoxically, For Leonardo, the study the human body was a way to understand the soul.


My students enhance their powers of perception through the rigor of a sketchbook: a visual and written journal for the development of ideas through text, annotation, and drawing. Leonardo da Vinci is as famous for his sketchbook-journals as he is for his paintings. A true Renaissance man, Leonardo was an engineer, anatomist, inventor and architect as well as a painter and sculptor. Many of his ideas were too advanced for the technology of his time and would not be realized until the twentieth century. Nonetheless, he understood that inventions often begin with a picture, with a means to allow the inventor and others to grasp the physical possibility of an idea. The ability to see potential outcomes can be assisted through informal, intuitive sketches and notes long before they are formally developed on a drawing table or computer.

Even in the age of digital virtual reality, few things can match the creative power of two eyes, a hand, and pencil and paper connected to an imaginative and curious brain. The work my students create in the Florence Revealed program demonstrates that such power is available to those with the will to harness it. Their enthusiastic response to the challenge of working in the field is a testament to the sentient nature of being, and of the need to engage all the senses (touch, sight, taste, smell, sound) in conjunction with all the higher mental faculties (reason, memory, perception, will, intuition, imagination).


Make copies, young man, many copies. You can only become a good artist by copying the masters

~ Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (French neo-classical painter (1780 – 1867)).

Tradition is not nostalgia, but knowledge passed on from age to age. The invaluable training derived from making exacting copies of fine drawings has been recognized by great draftsmen from Leonardo to Picasso. This practice offers students a unique opportunity to engage in a systematic, month-long revival of the once required, but long abandoned, practice of copying old master drawings as means of self-discovery worthy of the fabled atelier system-of-old.


Drawing is the single most fruitful and vital artistic skill at work in the world today. Drawing lies behind almost everything around us; after all, much of what we see that is man-made began life as just a few lines on a page, then, through a series of more detailed drawings, transformed from a figment of the imagination into a tangible object. The plane that takes me to Florence each summer was once nothing more than a sketch on a designer’s drawing board—the same is true of my linen jacket and my mobile phone. Drawing is everywhere.

What is left today for the artist to say about the act of drawing? I am confident that it is possible to evoke sensations that go back to a primitive primal response to the basic experience of seeing. By bringing the hand back to the forefront of the creative process, and by rediscovering the tactile properties of physical media, art students may begin to reconnect in meaningful ways to the physical world around them.


The Tuscan poet and scholar (1304-1374) Francesco Petrarca adopted antiquity as a homeland of the mind. Einstein, in turn, believed that “the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” This theory is now considered to be the closest to the true answer of what the universe means on a cosmological sense. Is it unreasonable to think such a continuum actually existing?  Rather than thinking that time and events sail past us and then completely vanish, I encourage my Florence Revealed students to think that they still exist and are existing simultaneously in different parts of space-time. In this sense, The Florence Revealed Program constitutes a sort of time travel.


The History of Art, stores the past and serves as a collective memory. Memory echoes the soul, which Time stretches, and which belongs to our nature. In Florence, the past is made ever-present by the tangible evidence, visible on every street, of its transcendent artistic and cultural heritage. Through this heritage, we can recall our shared consciousness. As Saint Augustine wrote: “There are three times: a present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things future. For these three exist in the mind, and I find them nowhere else: the present of things past is memory, the present of things present is sight, and the present of things future is expectation.” Our past or future does not lie somewhere out there in physical reality. Rather, it lies within the regions of our mind; as such it extends to what does not exist in physical reality.


The triumph of the Florentine Renaissance depended upon a respect for the natural order of things. The yearly return of the life-giving waters of the River Arno. The new life that the Quattrocento Fiorentino so beautifully breathed into ancient traditions was based on a sense of renewal—including the husbanding of nature, not as ours has been, on a greedy expansion and exploitation of resources. Nowadays, we are told that it is discreditable to look backward to find inspiration in the beliefs and moral standards of the past.

We are told that Humanity has changed. Well, has it really? Although humanity’s increasing dependence on emerging technologies may come to cost us something primordial and vital, it is not going to remove our deep-seated need for order and harmony, or the feeling of sympathy for our fellow creatures, both Human and Animal. Or the belief, on some irrational grounds, that through our creative endeavors, some part of us is immortal. These ideas found eloquent expression some six-hundred years ago in Florence. And even if they may be lost for a time, we can renew them, just as the Florentines did.


By and large, the cultural and art historical references of the majority of art students today do not predate the advent of Star Wars. The Florence Revealed: Drawing from the Wellspring of Renaissance Thought and Vision Program is one of the ways in which I seek to counteract this lack of connection with the past. Upon completing the month-long program, my students return home with a greater awareness and appreciation for the larger history from which they descend: art historical and cultural references that will inform their life’s work.


The Florentine Renaissance artists continue to amaze us with the freshness of their thought, their willingness to experiment, and their modernity. However, civilized culture depends not solely on innovation and modernity, but also on a critical and imaginative assimilation of the past. In Renaissance Florence, we can see the reintegration of the Classical worldview into Modern life, not only in the erudition, the pagan humanism, but also in the rich mythological themes of its pantheism and its profound psychological insights. We experience to this day what the Florentines made of that tradition. A continued, renewed interpretation of this tradition is a necessity for the West if it is to understand its own. This is why I introduce my students to the wonders of the history of art, and the wealth of physical media that gives it its form.

If I speak of the Italian Renaissance with passion, it is because I witnessed firsthand the power of that flowering. Yet, I have always understood that the brilliance of the quattrocento was linked to a larger human brilliance that extends around the globe and includes the unknown works of West African cultures, Pre-Columbian Peruvians, and all the other ancient civilizations which Europe only came to discover and appreciate in the last 500 years.