THE campground attendant at Camping Fontemaggio said there had been snow on the ground a week earlier, but as I unfolded my wire and canvas stool and hooked it securely, I looked for shade; even at 10 o'clock in the morning the day was getting warm. I had just stepped through the Porta San Giacomo, and my first view into the walled city of Assisi, with the soaring arch above me framing the pink-stoned buildings leading to the Basilica of St. Francis, was enough to tell me I need look no further for a sub ject to sketch.
We had arrived at Assisi the evening before and drove into the campground outside the city too tired to do more than set up our little Hungarian tent, feed ourselves, and go to sleep. It was only 100 miles from Rome, but we'd taken the scenic route, avoiding the autostrada and wandering over back roads when we could find them. We stopped occasionally and enjoyed the Umbrian countryside and began to unwind from our last nine days, days of rushing from the Forum to the Vatican, from the Colosseum to the Sp anish Steps, from the Sistine Chapel to the catacombs, not forgetting the Church of St. Peter in Chains, the Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, the Appian Way, the Pantheon, the Victor Emmanuel monument, and assorted other columns, statues, churches, gates, museums, temples, arches, palaces, villas, piazzas, and fountains.
I set up my stool so I could lean against the wall as I worked. With my sketch pad opened to a fresh page and my fountain pen ready, I mentally began to block out where each building would appear on the paper. I waited until I could see in my mind's eye the completed picture before touching pen to paper. It was just as I started finally to put it down that a man wandered into my scene and leaned against the wall below the arch like an actor on stage, posed beneath a proscenium arch. I hesitated for an in stant and began to sketch him, working fast before he moved away.
He was a short, stout man in a porkpie cap and oversized shoes. His pants were droopy, and he wore a wide belt that wrapped around his ample pouch with a big buckle to cinch it up. His shoulders were small, as if gravity had taken from his upper body and given to his middle in recompense. His face was in profile, with a large Roman nose and a bushy mustache, between which his nostrils flared in defiance, as if daring anyone to distract him from his pose. And to augment this, his hands hooked determinedly
on his hips.
Oh, the tricks an artist must use when he's sketching. I pulled them from my hat like a conjurer as I worked on my figure: shading behind his cap to make it less obvious (I'd gotten it too big), a hint - but only a hint - of a mustache, a suggestion of a hand. A hint, a suggestion; a shape, a shadow, a distraction. Tricks of the trade. Angles, areas, spaces, lights and darks, textures, patterns, contrasts, lines, all turning into my sketch of Assisi.
It was a diversion, this side trip to Assisi, a rest period between the hustle of Rome and the bustle of Florence. It was a break between Michelangelo and more Michelangelo; a week away from the world. But it was something else too. It was the response to a call from my childhood. How could I pass by the birthplace of St. Francis, who I'd admired since my youth?
It was all going well till the dog. He was a supporting actor, come to pose for me on my stage. An actor, perhaps, but a mighty poor one; more a distraction. Like a newly arrived fly not knowing where to settle, from actor to artist to fire hydrant, the dog circled our square, angled our circle, and squared our angle. He was everywhere at once. Round and round he went until with a string of Italian expletives our actor broke character and, with a speed and energy that dazzled, lit out after the dog in a cacophony and chaos to put any playwright to shame. They dodged and darted, from pillar to post, one after the other, other after the one, till finally, dog with tail between his legs and actor, cap swinging wildly, they exited in a grand finale down center stage.
Silence settled over the scene. The dust settled back on the props. I settled back in my stool and looked at my half-sketched actor. I wished I'd had time to finish him.
"That's Tito, you know. That man you were sketching, that was Tito." I jumped. I'm sure of it. I visibly jumped. In all the excitement of dog and drama an onlooker, an unbeknownst audience of my own, had been looking over my shoulder. "Tito, he just lives down the street. He's my friend. That's his dog too. He just got him, and he can't do a thing with him."
Strange things happen with languages in Europe. Don't ask how my Italian audience spoke English or knew even that I spoke English. In Europe you don't ask, you communicate with whatever works best. You can wonder about it later.
"Well, can you tell your friend, Tito, that I'd be very happy if he would come back and pose just a minute longer? Tell him I've got a picture of him that makes him look very handsome, but it's only half drawn. If he could come back, I'd make him look even better."
My audience was gone in a flash, cutting across stage left and into the wings. I went back to work and, mentally blocking out my scene again, began to put it down on paper. Somewhere between the tower of the basilica and a tall chimney that was giving me trouble, my nose buried in my work, Tito reappeared. No fanfare, no lights coming up, as if lowered clandestinely from his proscenium arch, he was just there, back in his role, Titoesque as ever. My pen skipped across the paper, and quick as I could, I c aptured those baggy pants and oversized shoes. I worked on him until I had him, sketched onto my paper and etched into my memory forever.
They say you never forget your first love. I did other sketches in other towns, but I remember enjoying none more than that first sight of Assisi through the Porta San Giacomo and with Tito standing there.
I like to think he's still there, posing as he did those many years ago. I like to think that, come whatever doggish distraction, Tito will always be there, taking one more encore at Assisi.