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

Back in the studio, Ann makes regular rounds of the students' easels. I overhear phrases: "building up the values" and "getting the contouring right," and "might need to re-plumb... this leg, that arm... don't shade in too quickly."

There are 14 of us in the life class, 35 in the whole school (the atelier method discourages big numbers). Some are here short-term, to do a year's foundation course for art college or university; others, like Danielle DeVine, a willowy Bostonian, and the wonderfully named Ardis de Fries, from Portland, Oregon, are committed to becoming painters. The training is rigorous and intensive, and, looking around at the easels during break, I can only envy the promise on display.

"We always get a few who don't work out," a teacher explains tactfully. "You can tell by their attitude more than anything. They miss classes or they're not driven, they lack that passionate fury in their eye when they draw."

The moment I enter the studio and get settled at my easel, I become instantly and wholly absorbed. Time stands still, the universe contracts—I even forget a nagging toothache. Fred Hohler, a high-flying executive who attended Cecil Studios' summer school a few years ago, told me that the experience of learning to draw changed his life. I can see what he meant now. I think I may have got the "passionate fury" in my eye.

On Cecil's designated two days for teaching, the master stalks the studio floor using his charisma to breathe fire into our amateur souls. By the time he gets to me, I am eager to hear a critique, which, if you buy his continuity theory, carries an authority invested in him by, well, Michelangelo. He stands back, strokes his jaw (another Charlton Heston moment), and frowns alarmingly at my drawing.

"Lots of good things happening here. Contour is good...that is a likeness. Ideally you would have had more demarcation between light and shadow, then put your sfumato—the smoky transition from light to shadow—on afterward. You have a very fine outline. If you'd had another week, there's no telling what you would have done."

His enthusiasm is contagious, but I am under no illusions. I joined the atelier to learn an endangered craft, much as if I'd apprenticed myself to an artisan turning out faux antiques in an Oltrarno workshop. But I can't say that I haven't been affected by the experience. My days at the studio have taught me to look more intently not just at paintings but also at the world around me, and I want to go on doing this.

The myth of the first drawing, recounted in Pliny the Elder's Natural History, tells of a Greek maiden who watches her lover asleep by the fire and longs to preserve his beauty. Taking a charred stick from the embers, she traces his shadow, thrown onto the wall by firelight, and so makes permanent his presence in the world. The result may not have achieved all she hoped it would, but in her instinctive urge to make a mark, to record and so stay the fleeing moment, there lay an antidote to the human condition.

On my last evening, up at the Villa Fioravanti, I try to explain to the owner in halting Italian that during World War II my grandparents' tesoro was buried in her garden. When language fails me, I use my new skills to sketch a coffer and an open trench under an olive tree, which causes a bewildered Signorina Fioravanti (distantly related to Charlie and Gladys's friends) to comment brightly, "Ahhh... il coccodrillo!" Disappointing, perhaps. But then she asks if I would like to see the crocodile, which I've heard was given an elaborate funeral in the garden many years ago. She takes me upstairs to a room with panoramic views of Florence, and there on the wall above the TV, stuffed and glaring, hangs the once formidable guardian of our family silver.

Novelist Charles Maclean lives in Scotland with his wife and four children. He has just finished a thriller that is set partly in Florence.

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