Charles Maclean enrolls in one of its best-known drawing schools and discovers that it's never too late to become a Renaissance man.

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Art Classes in Florence

Andrea Fazzari Charles Cecil (center) surrounded by students and a model, in his drawing studio in Florence's Oltrarno district.

Photo: Andrea Fazzari

Across the river, in the blue-collar Oltrarno district, where for centuries the art of Florence has been made and mended in neighborhood workshops and bottegas, I enter with some trepidation the oldest operating atelier in the city: Charles H. Cecil Studios. In continuous use as a drawing studio since the early 19th century, the Cecil Studios is also one of the last schools of fine art in the world that teaches pupils how to draw like the Renaissance masters.

The volatile fug of oils and turpentine thickens as I climb the steep marble stairs from the street. A pretty woman in Levi's and a dark turtleneck drifts by with an armful of small mirrors. "Weren't we expecting you... yesterday?" she asks vaguely in an English accent and with a distracted manner reminiscent of Warhol Factory personnel circa 1979. "He's working. I'll see if he can be interrupted."

She leads me through a complex of rooms lit by high windows; we're in the roof space of a former church. Blackout curtains are pulled aside, and Charles Cecil, interrupted, emerges, palette in hand. A tall fiftysomething man in faded denim, with strong chiseled features and longish hair, he looks like everyone's idea of a master painter. Gravely exuberant (I half expect the shoulder clasp with which Charlton Heston greeted acolytes in The Agony and the Ecstasy), he welcomes me to the city of Michelangelo. On a whirlwind tour of the atelier—the cast room, the sculpture room, the gipsoteca, and the drawing studio where I will be joining the first-year life class—Cecil expounds on the importance of upholding the tradition of naturalistic figure painting. Cecil, who studied at Yale and apprenticed with two American painters, opened the school in 1983. He shows me some of his own works in progress. I'm struck by a Titianesque Deposition from the Cross and a small delicate portrait of Ann Witheridge, the woman in Levi's, who turns out to be one of Cecil's chief assistants.

Besides learning how to draw, I've come to Florence to fulfill another delayed ambition. Though my father grew up here, I have never stayed long enough to get to know the city. I want to discover the Florence that I dreamed about as a child, raised in Scotland on tales of the Medici and reproductions of Benozzo Gozzoli, whose Procession of the Magi hung above my bed. I want to see the houses where my grandparents Charlie and Gladys lived as part of a raffish, once glamorous Anglo-Florentine colony.

In the courtyard of a grand apartment building on Lungarno Amerigo Vespucci, their last address, the portiere bellows over the intercom that there's no one here called Maclean. When I explain that I'm talking about 40 years ago, she hangs up. Back at my hotel on nearby Via Montebello, I order a cup of tea with a nostalgic brand name, Sir Winston English Blend, that offers, absurdly, a soothing, if remote, connection to Charlie and Gladys. It was his lifelong friendship with Churchill that helped secure my grandfather, who had been disabled by wounds received at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the post of British consul to Florence.

Following the daily route he took to the consulate, I wander up Via del Proconsolo to look at the sculptures in the Bargello museum. Onto the crowded sidewalk I project a Merchant-Ivory vision of Charlie: straw hat, white suit, glint of a gold watch chain, walking with the help of a black malacca cane. A simple, soldierly character, he seems an unlikely gamekeeper for Florence's famously louche expat community.

In an upper room of the Bargello, I stand spellbound by Andrea Della Robbia's glazed–terra-cotta portrait of a young noblewoman. Her hair, scraped back into spiky plaits and adorned with rows of pearls, reminds me alternately of Beatrice's (I'm re-reading Dante's La vita nuova) and the retro-punk look favored by my teenage daughters. Her face, demurely reflecting the love it must have inspired, enchants me. I want to know who she was and whether her likeness in clay began life as a drawing... but I'm already late for my first class.

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