Story by Alyssa Matesic
I remember looking like a sloppy tourist that day. My hair was loose and tangled between the straps of my cross-body bag and camera. My Italian flag shirt was hanging off one shoulder. At any given moment, my eyes were covered either by my sunglasses or my lens. My mom and I stood in the middle of the square. We were probably stopping the flow of Vespas and pedestrians, but we were too engrossed in what was before us to care. We had just come down from the top of Brunelleschi’s dome and were looking at it from below.
I lowered my camera and pushed my sunglasses over my head, squinting. I tried hard to understand how the people of Florence could so easily walk by such a masterpiece every day. The kiosk workers, it seemed, hardly appreciated the beauty of what was on their postcards and key chains. I determined that if I lived as a Florentine, I would either be endlessly inspired by my surroundings or go mad because of them, for nothing I could create would ever amount to the same level of artistry.
I didn’t see the man walk over; he seemed to appear out of nowhere. He had dark features and was wearing a black coat. I wasn’t suspicious, though.
“Excuse me, I saw you from across the square and I knew I had to draw you,” he said to me in an Italian accent. “You see, I walked a long way for you.” He gestured to an empty chair and canvas set up near the base of the dome. He followed up with a number of flattering comments, all of which I brushed off shyly. After a brief exchange, we agreed to have my portrait drawn and I followed him to his station. I know that, to some extent, his compliments were simply him trying to make a sale. But there was something genuine about him that I couldn’t quite place. I sat down on a stool facing him and he pulled out a sketchpad and charcoal pencils. His hand began moving swiftly and smoothly down the page; it was obvious that he was starting with my hair. Though I couldn’t see the picture, I could see his hands, which were more interesting to me. They were worn and coarse and tinted with black where he had touched his medium—artist’s hands, I thought. Several languages passed by me. The people speaking them would pause behind the artist, stare at the drawing, then glance at me, then look back at the drawing. Some would finish off with a nod. Others a smile. One laughed. Most just walked away.
The man’s name was Arthur, and he came into the square and drew every day. He lived the life that I had been pondering in the moments before his approach: life surrounded by beauty. He had easels set up around the stool—there were his caricatures, which he said were ugly and he just made for the money, and watercolors of places in the city. Watercolors were his true passion, he said, but they were less popular than caricatures and portraits.
He then began working on my eyes. I continued staring off behind him at the people passing by.
“Look straight at me,” he said. His pencil was moving in tighter circles now, and every once in a while he would smudge a line or two and add to the blackness on his hands. I was worried that holding eye contact for so long would be uncomfortable, and it was at first. I felt scrutinized. I wanted to cover my face or check a mirror; I feared he saw my flaws. I didn’t like having someone look so deeply into me. He was a stranger, and yet he saw me closer than most people I know have. He began making conversation; I suppose to lighten the intensity of the situation. I think I talked more than he did. I told him about living in Texas, and about how I want to be a photographer and a writer. He just smiled and kept working.
After watching him draw for some time and looking into his eyes for the moments in between, I realized that I was seeing him just as closely as he was seeing me. When he would glance up, he would squint and furrow his brow, an expression somewhere between concentration and heartbreak. The creases around his eyes deepened, as did those in his forehead. For as much as I looked into them, I cannot recall the color of his eyes. I was too absorbed by what was behind them.
“Deep. You’re deep. I can see it in your eyes,” he broke a long run of silence.
“You’re a romantic, yes?”
“A bit,” I responded, impressed that he could tell. And I could tell he was one, too.
After a few more minutes, he was done. I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect. He turned over the sketch toward me. It was absolutely beautiful; she was absolutely beautiful. But she wasn’t me. There was only a single feature that he perfectly represented: my eyes. I wasn’t upset, though. A part of me didn’t want to see my face looking back at me. I believe that for those 20 minutes, beginning with when he saw me across the square, he pictured me how he wanted me to be, not how I actually was. My portrait was an idealized version of myself. I realize, in retrospect, that I have done the same to him with my writing. Maybe that’s how I saw Italy as a whole, as some perfect abstraction that exists more beautifully in art than in physicality. But I’m okay with that. I’m okay living with some exaggerated, perhaps romanticized recollections—my memories are more beautiful that way.
This story appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Baedeker.