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The Art of Living in Italy

Living in Italy – A Sea Analogy


by Leanne, a South African Artist and Expat


The art of living in Italy is comparable to painting the sea while swimming in it. Imagine the waves washing over your paper and spreading the paint in sublime ways you would never expect! Think of sparkling water! What you experience here is either bright crimson or deep, ultramarine emotion. What you learn here is to listen, to taste, to see with magnified intensity.


a Roman Vespa


Painting the Undercoat


 I left the big skies of South Africa with an Italian guidebook under my arm like a lifejacket. Arriving in Italy felt as if I’d jumped off a raft – into the turbulent sea. I felt pure panic when I saw the shadowy depths below. All I saw was a towering language block, a traffic tidal wave, whirlpools everywhere. My paintbrushes kept me afloat for a while. Happy to keep my head above the waves, I did not look down at first, unaware that I would have to learn to dive in order to find the treasure here.

I tread water: once I glanced down and saw the coral reef, then I began really noticing things.

At first I was like a fish that didn’t know it was wet. Life here is a very deep mix of currents, layers of history below the surface, swirling around, flowing one against the other. Each current carries with it a myriad of myths, legends, stories and events. Everywhere you look there are amazing palaces, art, people, markets, flowers and jewels, landscapes, rivers, food and wine, and showered with all the plankton of poetry, love, music, scents, religion and spirituality. What joy there is in trailing a net through all this!


The Background


On my easel stood a flat wet canvas, on which I could only hope to capture an abstract idea or two from the millions flashing by. Ideas, like schools of glimmering fish, catch the light and then they’re gone.

With a bit of inspiration, these ideas came to soak in. Once this happens, there are many ways to compose the picture. And a few lessons to learn first.


Perspective is an important lesson: it helps to keep small fish from turning into illusionary sharks. Living in a foreign country is fraught with illusions.

Discipline is another lesson: it keeps artists from being washed away and finding themselves on a deserted island. It’s very easy to go with the tourist flow, and make no attempt to construct something meaningful in life here.

The use of color and light gives richness and strength, subtly and sensually, it creates the contrasts of chiaroscuro. Taking care of yourself and learning the history, the culture and the rules is its daily life equivalent.

However, the most essential lesson is integrity, something every successful painting shows: the reason for swimming in the sea, to tell the truth about oneself.


The Paint and Brushes


The paint is the painter’s diction. What vocabulary is for the poet, so is paint for the artist. For a painter the anticipation of the final result does not mean much, it is each stroke of the brush that counts. Living in Italy is not always tranquil. It is an act of courage. Imagine lifting a brush, scooping up lots of thick paint and attempting the Mona Lisa. It takes time to adapt, to get your eye, to see the spaces between the shapes, to find the tones – where shadows lie– to mix colors with each other. Mixing with strangers to make friends, merging home and work, education and pleasure, blending all aspects of life.

Looking at this palette of fabulous colors, the pigments are subtler than you would expect. Tones change with the seasons from hot pink to faded terracotta, from olive green to vivid turquoise. There is an astonishing range of seasonal tints and shades to capture. This is when it’s important to know what we want to portray, and choose the correct size brush to apply it. For a wash of sky, a large brush will save time, whereas to paint a little sea urchin, a small brush captures the detail. So it is with the finer details of living with foreigners. Italians have a range of brush size behaviors applicable to each situation. It’s necessary to know how to use your brushes.


State of the Art


One becomes more aware of the seasons, not only of the country, but also of the soul.

The soul of Italy can be observed in the visible world: it is a carved white marble leaf on the side of the Appian way, where motorbikes rush past. It is graffiti on the underground trains,  elegant domes hanging above the laundry, mosaic floors and labyrinthine streets, neon signs flickering on frescoed walls. It is an enduring work of art, one that shatters pre-conceptions and sweeps you off your feet.

However, watch out for the waves of bureaucracy, they can give an icy splash when least expected. Once damp, it takes a lot of time to dry off.

To keep us from swimming in small bureaucratic circles, one must learn to speak Italian. It is absolutely necessary. For the privilege of living here, one must learn to speak -it’s like a tank of oxygen to the diver. It allows you to go in deeper, to see the palette’s colors, the rare and alluring vistas, the little vignettes, and the rich reef of life!



Living in Italy…is an art….
Such is Living in Italy…



Both images in this page by Leanne

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