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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Nizza is Nice

Seeking the pre-Nineteenth-century Landscape

watercolor and gouache on Arches grain fin
watercolor block
I’m happily, if briefly, back in Italy, and while here my wife and I made an excursion to Nice—or as the Italians call it, Nizza. It was in fact once part of what we now call Italy, as part of the Savoy dukedom; it was also the birthplace of Garibaldi, who went on to effectively create Italy from a patchwork of smaller states. So there’s lots that recalls Italy in Nice—the churches, one of which was designed by the great Savoy/Piedmont architect Bernardo Vittone; the fabric of Vieux-Nice, old Nice that spreads out as a triangle below the hill (which was the site of the earliest Celtic-Ligurian settlement) that separates the old town from the port. The colors are like those of Liguria, but there is the Proven├žal tonality that comes in part from painting the architectural details in the same or similar color as the walls (the Italians would render them white, or the color of the local stone). The city was first annexed by the French not long after the Revolution; returned to Italian (Sardinian) rule after the fall of Napoleon; and definitively back to France in 1860 (paradoxically, just as Italy was becoming unified). So I can be forgiven for posting a watercolor done there on this otherwise Italian plein air blog.

1910 postcard view from the citadel;
the sprawl has already begun
Nice has grown exponentially as beach-going became a big thing over the last century; indeed, standing on the hill overlooking the city it’s hard to discern where it ends—the sprawl is particularly unfortunate here, where the surrounding hills would have otherwise evoked a quintessential Riviera landscape. The hill itself, once a citadel, then a cemetery, and for roughly a century mostly a park, offers enough of an escape from the town, if not its weekend crowds (who flock there as well). But while I found the Place Garibaldi one of the most successful nineteenth-century squares I’ve seen, I find the nineteenth-century landscape rather over-designed and manicured—not the lushly shabby landscape I mostly seek out to paint in Italy.


For me the hardest part of plein air work is the choosing of a subject. I know watercolorists who can plop themselves down almost anywhere and crank out a passable image. I’m always looking for a composition with some structure: not all beautiful scenes make a beautiful drawing or painting. I spent an hour or more on a first excursion onto the hill of the citadel in the morning, to scout out some subjects; and then another hour in the afternoon to finally find a place to work, as the sun was slowly sinking. I found this compelling spot, on the flank of the cemetery, looking from the gate of the Jewish cemetery down a long ivy-covered wall toward the cemetery chapel. Color and structure brought me there, and if the image (done in a little over an hour) has any merit, it’s owed to these.