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

I pass through the gipsoteca—a silo-like space that soars 90 feet high—and enter the studio. There's a disquieting moment as I realize I'm the only male in a room full of women, one of them nude. Nobody else seems to notice or care. Throughout the studio, kept steamy as a sauna for the life model's comfort, there is a hushed concentration.

With Ann's help, I set up my easel, and get to work. I learn the sight-size method—standing back from the easel, I visually fit the model onto the paper, using a piece of string as a plumb (perpendicular) line to take measurements. In the beginning, I find working on a vertical plane a challenge. (Though I've painted and drawn before, this is the first time I've used an easel.) But I soon get the hang of holding a pencil like a brush, walking back and forth between the plumb line position and the easel, making little marks on the paper that grow into a forest of coordinates as the image slowly takes shape.

The moment of truth comes when I look back through a mirror at what I've done. Maybe I stopped measuring and started connecting the dots too soon, but the mirror—il vero maestro, as Leonardo da Vinci called it—doesn't lie: the mistakes are glaring. I've no choice but to erase and start over.

For the next three hours I remain lost to the world. When the session ends, the studio empties fast. Leaving strips of tape on the floor to mark easel positions, the students (mostly twentysomething Brits and Americans) gossip, roll cigarettes, and make plans on their cell phones as they clatter down the hall and out into the street. They seem at home here, enjoying the safe, bohemian-lite way of life that has long been part of Florence's allure. It was not so different in Charlie and Gladys's day, when the insider status assumed by foreign residents was founded upon a sentimental view of Florence as an art-lover's protectorate.

It feels like early spring as I walk up the Viale Galileo Galilei. With the help of an old map, I find the Villa Arrighetti, where my grandparents lived from 1922 to 1948. The handsome building, now owned by a religious order, has been renamed Villa Agape and turned into a spiritual retreat. The grounds—an avenue of cypresses, a sloping grass path, olive orchards—are exactly how I imagined they would be.

At the bottom of the garden, I discover the iron gates to the Viale, where in May 1938 Gladys stood and watched Hitler and Mussolini drive by in a convertible on their way to San Miniato. She refused to wave; instead, she turned to her companion, Miss Good, and said, "Darling, if only we had a bomb. Imagine... "

The war, when it came, stranded my grandparents in Switzerland, where they were interned. The Villa Arrighetti was closed, and their few valuable possessions were taken into safekeeping by their friends the Fioravantis, an unconventional family who enjoyed dancing Highland reels and kept a crocodile as a garden pet. The Fioravantis hid the Maclean candlesticks from the Nazis—just as many villa owners bravely concealed the great art treasures of the city—by burying them in their olive groves on the other side of the Porta Romana.

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