The longer I live in Florence, the more convinced I am that there is some unusual magic in this place where artistic souls have not just passed through for millennia, but have come and remained, their souls still hovering among us. There’s Dante, before his exile, sitting on his Sasso, his stone by the Duomo, dreaming of Beatrice while composing eternal poetry. Michelangelo circling his Pietà Bandini, putting final touches on his own likeness in the sculpture. Brunelleschi thinking up what he could do next with eggshell halves, the basis for his Duomo plans, while Ghiberti wonders what other construction could benefit from sculptured bronze doors the way the Florence Baptistery had. There’s Leonardo mulling over his work inside the Palazzo Vecchio. There are the female artists, too often inexcusably overlooked: Sister Plautilla Nelli, the 16th-century painter-nun, and the miraculous 17th-century Artemisia Gentileschi, the first woman to be inducted as a member of the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. These artists are living, breathing human beings and they are indeed among us. Some even deliver olive oil pressed from their own groves.
It was a midwinter afternoon and the hand-blown bottle filled with Tuscany’s translucent golden-green syrup adorned with a simple red bow lay squarely on the centuries-old wooden table. Who is this gift from? I wonder. I am told that the neighbor is an artist, a master of the “fine” arts, and that his gift is a “welcome to the neighborhood”.
Months pass, and there is no more from the neighbor; life and travel had taken over, as it did in the old days. Then one day almost a year later, the artist himself appears at the door, determined to say hello. He was slender and elegant, but “cool”, a broad forehead crowning a face of fine features and, most poignantly, eyes that indicate years, if not centuries, of observation and deep thought. “I’m Daniel,” he said. “I live just across the road, and I’ve wanted to say hello to the new neighbors for some time. I’m an artist here in Florence. I’ve been here for 40 and then some years. I paint in the old tradition. I also have a school in town, an atelier as it was 500 years ago, where we teach young artists to carry on in the way of the masters.”
He couldn’t have known of my lifelong dedication, or rather my manic desire to be surrounded by the history and art of great masters, hoping that just a fleck might rub off in whatever I myself might do: music, art, theatre, cooking…
Daniel senses my bubbling enthusiasm and invites me to tour his school, The Florence Academy of Art, along the via Aretina on the city’s outskirts. To enter is to be drawn back centuries. The 100 artist-students, of all backgrounds and ethnicities, might be dressed in 21st-century casual, but one immediately sees Botticelli, Vasari and Nelli in their figures and faces. Some seem to be adorned in 16th-century robes of hemp, palette in one hand, Mahl stick to support the brush hand in the other, a parade of fine artists floating in the natural white light.
That was a little more than a year ago. Now students are separated by plastic, painting through some odd looking-glass in order to stay safe and healthy. The plague has been in these parts before, devastating, debilitating and deadly, but the art of Florence persisted then, as it does now, while the world slowly rights itself. For the moment, the school is not a place for visitors, so Daniel, master painter, founder and academic director of The Florence Academy of Art, invites me to his private studio just a few blocks from the institute.
If school in the “before-times” whirled through the centuries, Daniel’s private studio plunges into an artist’s mind and soul. The moment the grand atelier door opens, it is no longer Daniel in his atelier, but the whole body of Daniel, with the man who represents him inside. Daniel Graves was born in 1949 in Rochester, New York. He graduated from the Maryland Institute of Art in 1972 before making his way to Florence and studying with masters of realism such as Nerina Simi. He created a studio with noted realist painter Charles Cecil and, in 1991, founded the internationally renowned Florence Academy of Art, all the while painting still lifes, portraits, figures and landscapes, which remain in private collections and galleries throughout the world, once even including the Accademia, alongside Michelangelo.
Daniel asks me if I wish to see him at work. My eyes explode with excitement as he draws me to his paint-mixing glass palette. Daniel mixes all his own paints: carefully washed linseed oil, which I learn started out life as hemp-seed oil, but once washed with small stones, salt and water, provides the medium to create vibrant and long-lasting colors. Daniel demonstrates with a Terra di Siena, a rich chocolate brown. I ask him about its ingredients, apart from the oil.
The chocolate brown is so luscious that one just wishes to dive in. But some colors are dangerously born of chemicals, so care must be taken, in particular with the crushed white lead. Daniel mixes some of that, too. I’ve used titanium white in my own amateur way, but lead white has a much deeper aura to it. More than pure white, it is a white rich with the ages, reflecting color and depth almost impossible to explain. Daniel hands me his brush and asks me to create strokes on his palette using the white lead. I do. It has almost a putty feel.
“Yes. So important for creating strokes. The soul of the artist is in the strokes. It is there where so much is revealed.”
Daniel then stands at his easel, angled against a full-sized mirror, all of it gently bathed in natural light. He picks up a brush from his collection of hundreds of spotlessly maintained hog-hair magic wands. “Some of these I have had for almost 50 years.”
I marvel at the attention to the cleanliness close to godliness, which is key with regard to the craftsman part of the artist. There is such a great reveal of the quiet respect that this artist has for his surroundings and his good fortune to be able to create within it.
Daniel looks at his image in the mirror. Then very carefully, and very specifically, he paints one stroke, and Daniel the man is no longer before me. Instead he is looking at me alive and breathing out of the canvas itself. I quietly take my leave, knowing that it’s now the artist’s time for work. As the door of the atelier closes behind me, I take a deep breath and look up at the pure blue Florentine sky. How lucky I am to be here.
Hershey Felder as Sergei Rachmaninoff in Nicholas, Anna and Sergei
Sunday, May 16, 2021 at 5pm Pacific / 7pm Central / 8pm Eastern (includes extended viewing access to the recording through Sunday, May 23)
Tickets now on sale: 55 US $ / 45 euro per household
Anna and Sergei takes place as a memory play in the house in which the Russian Rachmaninoff died in Beverly Hills, this is the story of a very strange meeting between Rachmaninoff and Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the sole surviving member of the Romanov Dynasty, the Princess Anastasia. Featuring Rachmaninoff’s most beloved melodies and music.
A percentage of ticket sales will be generously donated to The Florentine and other cultural organizations.