Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Saturday, December 20, 2014

the walls of Florence

On a pleasant day in October I sat down on the via del Monte del Croce in Florence and made this picture. It was, as often at that time of year, a damp day, but the oncoming winter had not yet sucked the colour from the trees.

On the top right, you can see the medieval wall of Florence running down from the Belvedere heights.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


Drawn from life, during a class at the University of Toronto on early medieval Italy, with a china marker.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Santa Maria degli Angeli

One of a series of very small etchings, based on quick sketches I made while cycling in Europe. This image is about an inch tall.

I sketched out this view while on the  (very short) ride between Perugia and Assisi, of Saint Francis fame. The church you can see is Santa Maria degli Angeli, a huge late Renaissance pile that contains within it the tiny church which sheltered Saint Francis in the early days of the Franciscan order.

The image is an etching, which is a form of hand printmaking in which acid is used to burn a drawing into a metal plate, which is then inked and transferred to paper using a hand-cranked press. It's a tricky process, but has the virtue of producing multiple original works. This one is number five in a final set of fifty.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Two Porcelain Cups

Tarragon has been channeling the teahouse aesthetic:

Black slip on the one on the left.
Both approximately 6cm high, 8cm wide and the foot 4cm across.


Saturday, December 6, 2014

"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library."

Drawn from life in a large local bookstore, using a felt pen.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Descent from the Garden

A picture about the ambivalence of symbols. The serpent is richly toxic, but sometimes you need a little poison to get things done. Whether it is friend or foe depends on the status of Eden in our mythologies.

Do we stay there forever, or go out into the world? Either way, a sacrifice will be necessary.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Vicino Montalcino

A few years ago I used to take bicycle trips in Italy. It kept me fit, and there was always something to draw.
On one day in mid-April, I set out from Siena and cycled south into the countryside. Monte Amiata loomed over me like a Tuscan Mount Fuji all day long. About mid-day, just before climbing the hill to Montalcino (where I would find a Brunello to fit in my bicycle's bottle-holder), I passed some farmhouses.

There wasn't time for more than a quick sketch:

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Monday, November 24, 2014

strolling in the suburbs

Suburbia swells. Once upon a time, Etobicoke was not part of Toronto, and Hackney wasn't in London. It's a familiar process, and it happens in the renaissance capitals of Italy as well. There, suburbs go by the charming name of fraction [frazione]. The term implies that they are part of a whole, but the relationship is often distinctly peripheral. It's easy to visit Florence, for example, without noticing its suburbs.

Some of them are, like Etobicoke or Hackney, so assimilated to the city that their independent existence resides solely in maps and signposts. Among them, Ponte a Mensola:

Some years ago I lived in the east of Florence. I could walk in 20 minutes to the city limits, and frequently did. One of those limits (the north-east) was marked by the former village of Ponte a Mensola, where a small cluster of houses adjoined a tiny stream called the Mensola.

There was nothing to distinguish the place, except that it was most of the way to Settignano, an altogether more famous location. But the cafe by the Mensola was welcoming and the streetscape moderately picturesque. The result was several pictures. You can see others here and here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

annihilation of time and space

Seen from the window of a high speed train, the world becomes somehow unreal, like the cells of an old hand-made cartoon.
The landscape, if it actually exists, is in France. The train was a TGV. The picture was painted later.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sake Jug and Four Sake Cups

One of them with Sake in it - it's use-value has greatly increased over the past five minutes.

At the Raku Museum, in Kyoto, they have one handling session a month, where you can do just that, handle the precious tea bowls made by the various generations of the Raku family.

Of course they don't bring them all out but potentially a bowl such as Human Soul in the Shape of a Demon might sit in its pristine vitrine thinking to itself, "364 days don't seem to mean that much when I've got one day, to eclipse them all...." If I may quote a song by the erstwhile one-man band, Documentary Films.


Friday, November 7, 2014

the stones of Florence

Two quick pen sketches of streetscapes in Florence. On the left, the view looking towards the old city gate at Piazza Beccaria, and on the right one of the still extant medieval towers, built into the block of buildings.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Drawn from life at the Arts Project in London, Ontario. You might notice that his left leg should be visible - but I ran out of time.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Friday, October 31, 2014

Vim Patior

Around the year 1580, a man named Jean Bodin told a grim story. It went like this:

"I heard from the Sieur de Nouailles Abbé de l'Isle, now ambassador in Constantinople, and from a certain Polish gentleman named Pruinski, who was ambassador to France, that one of the chief monarchs of Christendom desired to know the future of his country. He called for a Jacobin Necromancer, who first said mass, and having consecrated the host, cut off the head of a first-born son of ten years, and placed it upon the host. Speaking certain words, and deploying symbols that it is not necessary to know, he asked it what it wanted. But the head said only: 'Vim patior' [I suffer].  And at once the king fell into a frenzy, crying without end that the head should be removed, and so he died insane.

This story is held certain and beyond doubt by everyone in the kingdom in which it took place, notwithstanding that only five people were present at the event."

Our storyteller, Jean Bodin, was a jurist and political theorist in late Renaissance France. In many bestselling works, he argued for freedom of religion and property, a constitutional state, individual freedoms, and against slavery. None of which prevented him from believing fervently in demons and sorcerers. The story above appeared in his book De la démonomanie des sorciers, in which he opined that in cases of witchcraft and sorcery, existing legal protections should be relaxed, because sorcerers were everywhere and must be stamped out. Even kings might practice black magic!

There is, then, little doubt that Jean believed the story told him by the Sieur de Nouailles and the Polish ambassador. But who was this king who dabbled in necromancy and died insane? Several possibilities present themselves - the 16th century was not deficient in mentally deranged monarchs. James V of Scotland died in a delirium in 1512; Erik XIV of Sweden devolved into a Macbeth-like homicidal maniac; Ivan IV of Russia was simply terrible.

But the best possibility is Charles IX of France. Bodin's informant the Sieur de Nouailles served as his ambassador to England, Scotland, and Turkey. As for Pruinski, there were many links between Poland and France in that era: Charles IX's brother Henri was even briefly king of Poland. But the best reasons for the identification of Charles lie in the details of the story itself.

Charles was the king who ordered the infamous St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572. On that day, by targeted assassination and mob violence, Catholic extremists butchered thousands of protestant Huguenots. It proved a political trauma that reverberated for generations in France. For Jean Bodin, a man who believed sincerely in freedom of religion, it must have been shattering. His final book, the Heptaplomeres, is an interfaith dialogue in which all religions agree to just get along - but he never dared publish it in his lifetime.

Although it is sometimes thought that the massacre was instigated by others, chiefly Charles' mother Catherine de Medici, that did not stop the king from assuming the guilt for the slaughter. He was haunted by the screams of the victims and constantly prayed for forgiveness, leading to his mother branding him a lunatic. He died aged 24.

The parallels in the necromantic anecdote are apparent: the Catholic king murders protestants, who were royal subjects under his protection; a king employs a Catholic sorcerer (Jacobin signifies a Dominican friar, who were often inquisitors), who murders a first-born son. This is not subtle stuff. Children are the most deserving of protection, and first-born sons in particular, who by Biblical Law were considered to represent the future.  

The monarch was supposed to be father of the nation and ultimate protector. This was particularly important to Bodin, who saw the family as the model for the state. For the king to go around butchering babies, then, was to declare him unfit for the role that gave him his authority and legitimacy. The king who did such things was no king at all. And the nation under such a king might express its condition simply: "I suffer."

Whether any part of the story is true, nobody knows. Certainly monarchs have done stranger things. In any case, it makes a good subject for a Halloween illustration.

*Vim patior is Latin; patior means "I suffer" or "I endure," while vim signifies force or violence. A literal translation of the phrase might be "I am suffering on account of violence." But this does little credit to the tense brevity of the Latin, and so I rendered it with the simple "I suffer."

**Here is the original French, transcribed from page 155 of the fourth edition, published by Paul Frellon in 1598:
J’ai appris du Sieur de Nouailles Abbé de l’Isle, et maintenant ambassadeur à Constantinople, et d’un gentilhomme polonais nommé Pruinski qui a été ambassadeur en France, que l’un des grands rois de la chrétienté voulant savoir l’issue de son état sit venir un Jacobin nécromantien, lequel dit le messe, et après avoir consacre l'hostie, sit trancher la tête à un jeune enfant de dix ans premier né qui était préparé pour cet effet et sit mettre la tête sur une hostie, puis disants certaines paroles, et usant de caractères, qu’il n’est pas besoin de savoir, demanda ce qu’il voulait; la tête ne répondit que ces deux mots : Vim patior. Et aussi tôt le roi entra en furie, criant sans fin: "Otez cette tête," et mourut ainsi enragé. Cette histoire est tenue pour certaine, et indubitable en tout le royaume, ou la chose est advenue, combien qu’il n’y eut que cinq personnes quand la chose fut fait.

*** Political legitimacy and accusations of child murder were the theme of last Halloween's creepy illustration as well, which featured the added bonus of cannibalism!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

the dark house

I drew this at twilight, in the Tuscan village of Settignano. As the sun went down, the lights in the houses appeared in their windows.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014