Italy is all about art, food, and wine, a combination that has beckoned creative souls here for centuries.
Cathedrals and museums exhibit art created by the masters. And it’s impossible to visit any major area without constant reminders that one is simply surrounded by spectacular paintings, frescos and sculptures.
That’s what prompted California art instructor Tricia Reichert to host her first art workshop abroad, in Tuscany, Italy, in 2017.
She followed that up with a pair of workshops in Tuscany in June 2019. And a 2020 workshop is in the planning stages.
An accomplished artist, Reichert has been teaching art students at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and her Arroyo Grande studio for years. The workshops are an effort to lend a more international element to her teachings.
Reichert chose to do her art workshops at the Verrocchio Art Centre in the walled medieval village of Casole d’Elsa, located on a hilltop about 30 miles from Florence and some 16 miles from Siena.
Founded by noted English sculptor and art historian Nigel Konstam, the art center is housed in an ancient stone-and-brick facility that once stored grapes and olives from the region, and produced wine and olive oil.
The long-abandoned property, which stands majestically on the city wall, was acquired by Konstam in 1982 and lovingly restored over a number of years. The art center opened in 1984 during the restoration.
The art center offers nine on-site rooms for students, as well as continental breakfast in the mornings and sumptuous dinners prepared by on-site staff, served each evening at 8 pm.
Those staying outside the ancient walls of the art center have various options.
Verrocchio assists art students in securing rooms at private residences within the small village. The boutique Torre dei Serviti hotel, housed in a former 12th-century monastery built partially into the city wall and one of its turrets, is a one-minute walk from the art center and a good choice for a stay.
There are also Airbnb properties in this walled medieval village of just under a thousand people.
I tagged along on both of Reichert’s 2017 and 2019 workshops with my artist wife, Sheree Cogan, and a group of art students of all ages from California’s Central Coast.
Students arrived in Casole d’Elsa on arranged shuttles from train stations in Florence and Pisa; most students had been traveling elsewhere in Italy and throughout Europe.
The village is readily accessible by car or by bus from Florence, Pisa or Siena through a connection at Colle di Val d’Elsa, less than 10 miles away.
What I experienced during my visits to Casole d’Elsa was far more than an art workshop, a nod to Reichert’s wise decision to further her students’ art education here.
It was an adventure and an experience in art immersion before, during and after the stay in Casole d’Elsa.
Spending time in Casole d’Elsa provides a true sense of what life is like in a small Italian village, where life unfolds at a relaxed and unhurried pace.
You won’t find crowded streets lined with shops and tourist-centered trattorias, or expansive piazzas as you would in larger and better-known Italian locales.
What you find is a slice of Italian life that’s truly a treasure, with picturesque streets, small bars, pizzerias and low-key trattorias. There’s also a historic fort that now serves as the town hall.
Reichert’s workshop sessions begin in the studio each morning at 9 a.m. with a break at 1 p.m. Then studies resume in the later afternoon, running through early evening.
Between drawing and painting sessions at the studio and within the village, there is personal time for lunch at one of Casole d’ Elsa’s quaint eateries and, if students are so inclined, a traditional afternoon siesta.
After lunch, it’s just a short stroll for gelato or freshly baked goodies at one of the village’s two bakeries. One of them is almost always distinguished with a Vespa, complete with a rear basket filled with breads, parked outside its doors.
Evenings find art students dining on the art center’s outside patio, which offers amazing views of the surrounding Tuscan landscape.
There is constant inspiration for art journals seemingly every step of the way in Casole d’Elsa. This picturesque, art-centric town is replete with sculptures, mosaics and paintings, and there’s an endless array of flowers and plants adorning the ancient walls along narrow streets.
Whimsical sculptures are also present, such as statues of a youth climbing out of a capped well in the square and a man seemingly relieving himself in a stone alleyway. Small-town humor is pretty big in this medieval village.
Field trips are an option during Reichert’s art workshops.
Art students may join in on day trips to places such as Siena and the walled towns of Volterra and San Gimignano for further art inspiration, taking their art journals along.
Those who choose to remain in Casole d’Elsa spend additional creative time in the art center’s studio or painting the area’s breathtaking Tuscan countryside. There is always inspiration here.
Beyond the natural inspiration of Tuscany, at Verrocchio Art Centre there’s the confident and knowledgeable, yet unassuming, presence of the proprietor and founder of this magical place.
Nigel Konstam not only runs the show and teaches sculpture here. He is also the perfect ambassador for this unique art center.
He leads introductory tours of the village and shares its history, as well as his own history as an artist and renovator of the once-neglected and historic fattoria, or, farm, complex.
Konstam proudly shares every interesting element of the art center and dines with students every night, moving from table to table in his perpetually personable way.
Experiencing this art adventure in Casole d’Elsa two years ago sounded enriching and fun. Returning for an encore in 2019 was a natural, given how memorable the first experience was and the way it made us feel many weeks later. We even ate Italian food and listened to classic Italian songs to keep the experience fresh in our minds.
Without a doubt, we will return.