In an inconspicuous corner of Tuscany’s south an artistic movement is taking shape.
The movement is typically Italian, languid and completely spontaneous. The product of an unlikely friendship between two artists who aren’t tied by style, age or even nationality.
Piero is an Milanese with a gregariously personality and a perchance for carving hundred-year-old oaks into sculptures so fluid and smooth they look like they’ve been melted into shape.
Felipe is a Frenchman. Quiet and so pensive you’re sure the best conversations he has are inside his head while his hands paint watercolour landscapes with a finesse you thought had surely died with Monet.
As he layers delicate colour over delicate colour, his hands shake with the undeniable effects of multiple sclerosis.
Felipe can only paint for short bursts, persevering until he can no longer hold his brush still enough to get the tiny strokes that are his life’s joy. And yet, his whitewashed apartment is awash with the colours of his paintings. They hang in pride of place, watching over the others that repose by the door in anticipation of their generous patrons.
Felipe is the real star of this story. His determination to paint past his disease is an inspiration without the need to embellish.
But you can’t tell his story without Piero. The infectiously amiable Milanese was the first to arrive in Southern Tuscany, buying a small 19th century palazzo in Montegiove. His house sits on the very edge of the hilltop, but you can’t help but think Piero was looking for the very edge of the world.
The natives call the palazzo il Vecchio Ufficio Postale or the Old Post Office. No one’s sure if it ever was a post office or whether the person who coined it was just being poetic. It doesn’t matter. Piero has abandoned the old name anyway. il Vecchio Ufficio Postale is now Il Palazzo delle Artiste or Artist’s Palace, and it’s all thanks to Felipe.
The warmth of the Tuscan sun eases Felipe’s nerves. He could have joined any artist’s enclave anywhere in the world, but the isolation of Montegiove is a comfort to him. Better to be in a small town where everyone knows about your disease, then to be in the grandest streets of Paris where people think you’re drunk.
From the second storey window of his tiny apartment, Felipe can paint the undulating hills of Tuscany, the turbid depths of the Tyrrhenian Sea or the red and orange wash of landscapes he has only seen in his head. And all the while, Piero lives in the apartment across the hall, just in case something should go awry.
Except Piero spends very little time in his apartment. Most days, you’ll find him pottering in the sculpture garden that pools around the Palazzo delle Artiste. The garden, Arte e Parte, as Piero has affectionately called it, is open to visitors all day, every day.
Piero’s sculptures have featured in galleries all over the world from New York to Paris to London, but here they are tenderly, if a little haphazardly, lain bare for your exploration. They are the chronicles of more than 15 years of Piero’s life. His take on the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks, on the undefined tenderness of community and on the simple pleasures of nature’s bounty.
The garden’s heart, although not necessarily its geographical centre, is a sculptural interpretation of Buddhism. To us, it is simply a beautiful concrete fountain, woven with gold and cotton. To Piero and Felipe, it’s where the fine threads of their lengthy friendship spool.
It’s what brought them both to Montegiove. What provoked them to start their own artist’s enclave high in the hills of a territory better suited to butteri cowboys and brigands.
La Maremma Amara. A territory that bears the immortal scorn of Dante Alighieri in La Divina Commedia. Whose name doubles as a blasphemous swearword, but whose landscapes have become a nouveau destination for those who want to see Tuscany before it became famous.
To the locals, Piero is a carbon copy of the clichéd artist. Eccentric with a greying ponytail and overalls. The harsh bite of the varnishing oil he laves over all his sculptures clinging to his skin. But beyond the physical tells, Piero has none of the haughtiness of the artist typecast. He is gentle and kind, quick to befriend and humble enough to invite a veritable stranger to help him finish painting his latest oak sculpture.
Felipe is treated with a touch more curiosity and the pandering sympathy that comes with knowing someone is fairly unwell. His warm smile and soft brown hair betray his youth. He is younger than Piero. Not by much, but enough that the locals are more forgiving of his reclusive behaviour and aged suit pants and sweaters.
Felipe’s stunted Italian has nothing to do with lack of fluency and everything do with his disease. He is peacefully intelligent, reserved with his affection, but utterly free from bitterness or regret.
He studied at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, where he learnt from the masters, both living and dead.
He clings to an artistic style that is antiquated, and yet sorely missed, mostly by those who have no patience for Post Modernism and its fickle fans. It was so much easier to read the talent of the artist in a work of Impressionism. Felipe knows that. And yet, it is by pure coincidence that he chose to tie his life and considerable talent to that style.
Even after he was diagnosed, he never considered changing. Instead he found another inspiration to accompany his Impressionism. Buddhism and a fervent belief that he will one day be at peace with samsara.
Montegiove is a place as good as any to ponder this cycle of life and suffering. Not because Felipe can look out his window and see Piero’s concrete interpretation of his religion, but because he is within arm’s length of Tuscany’s only Buddhist monastery, Merigar.
It’s the lucky among us who can clearly see what brought them to stand in the spot they stand today. In Felipe’s case it’s Chogyal Namkhai Norbu’s 30-year-old monastery, and it’s a sentiment he shares with Piero.
Neither of them were particularly tied to Southern Tuscany when they moved. The comfort that comes from being so close to something they hold so dear transcends the feeble words of someone who does not share the sentiment.
If Merigar decided to move they would probably have gone with it… in the beginning. Now Piero and Felipe are preoccupied with their artistic movement. Their dream of bringing more artists to Il Palazzo delle Artiste.
Of expanding the sculpture garden and transforming inconspicuous Montegiove into a Tuscan Montmartre.
And of sharing even the smallest sliver of their artistic passion with those who couldn’t paint to save their lives, but are inspired by the glimmer that shines in Piero’s and Felipe’s eyes when they interpret the world into something far more beautiful than the reality before them.