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

Looking at art is part of the atelier's curriculum, and with Charles Cecil's help, I make a plan of what to see while I'm here. It is said that one-third of the world's most important works of art are located in Florence. A lifetime isn't long enough—I have a week. Cecil's strategy is based on opening hours: museums in the morning, churches in the afternoon.

First encounters with famous pictures can be awkward. Face to face with Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation, Uccello's Battle of San Romano I, Botticelli's magical Primavera, I feel an elation tempered by the shock of the familiar, as if reproduction has sucked the life from some images, disconnected their power to astonish. In the flesh, so to speak, Botticelli's women still look to me like English girls of the hippie era, when the poster was king.

Tour groups, ruthless as piranha shoals, boil around the great canvases. While the stars are under siege, I discover lesser-known paintings and enjoy the views from the gallery windows. There's a corner of the Uffizi from which you can look down on one side to the Piazza della Signoria, where the Neptune fountain and the colossal statues of David and Hercules are lined up under the façade of the Palazzo ­Vecchio, and on the other follow the sludge-green Arno, spanned by five of its bridges, to a vanishing point on the plains of Tuscany.

The intimate scale of Florence makes it easy, if hazardous, to get around on foot. Plagued by noise and traffic, this is a modern working city that stubbornly resists becoming a shrine to the past. Yet the ghosts of the Renaissance shine on. On every street I recognize faces from paintings in the museums. A brush with a scooter at an intersection reveals a proud beauty by Raphael... the Madonna of the Vespa. I glimpse an old man tending a tower of canary cages inside a doorway and recall ­Ghirlandaio's tender portrait of an old man and his grandson. Even the huge mastiffs that drag their fashionable owners past the dazzling storefronts on Via Tornabuoni could have bounded from a hunting scene by Uccello or Vasari.

Thursday is lecture night at the atelier. Cecil's scholarly talk on Masaccio, the first apostle of humanistic realism, attracts a wide audience from Florence's English-speaking community. Afterward, we stand around drinking wine from paper cups and talking earnestly about tradition versus Modernism. My uneasy defense of contemporary art is swept aside by Cecil's magisterial vision of a chain of ateliers extending back to Titian, Velázquez, Van Dyck—and forward to a new renaissance. The discussion continues over roast duck at a restaurant in the Oltrarno, where more- adventurous visitors have always come looking for the "real" Florence.

Next day, after class, I visit Santa Maria del Carmine's Brancacci Chapel and see for myself Masaccio's groundbreaking use of light and shade in the folds of a beggar's cloak. At San Marco, which was my grandmother's favorite church, I detect pencil-work behind Fra Angelico's pious frescoes—the drawing under the skin. My apprenticeship is opening my eyes, learning about line and form is helping me to unlock the secrets of the early masters.

I get "fresco neck" from constantly looking up. In the black and white marbled baptistery, where the visual miracle of Florence began, I notice a pew full of French nuns comfortably studying the ceiling mosaics in vanity mirrors, which gleam from their laps like gold plates.

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