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Hidden Places

Act like you belong, as the phrase goes, and you'll get in the door. I've used the technique over the years, and more often than not, I did get in the door and never once took such a gift for granted. This past month on a trip to Italy, artist friends suggested that I visit the drawing library at the Uffizi Gallery. My friends had lived in Florence for many years and often visited the collection: "you can actually handle these fragile amazing master works," they said, still themselves amazed. Of course there is a catch. You have to have a letter of introduction from a professor or scholar to gain entrance. It's a bit complicated and being Italy, some things are impossible, but sometimes the impossible is quite easy.

I got a letter of introduction and made contact with the department, the Gabinetto dei Disegni. I then made my way to a side door of the Uffizi, where I checked in with security. I was then directed through a back hallway, up a stairway and an elevator, then through a massive oak door, to the main hall filling with the day's visitors. I crossed the hall to another massive door and entered to the offices of the director, a middle-aged woman who sternly asked for my letter of introduction, then almost begrudgingly pointed me to the adjoining room.

A two-story, dimly lit chamber is lined floor to ceiling with shelves of boxes. This is where you get down to business. Each box is labeled with an artist's name, like Michelangelo or Botticelli or Pontormo. In each box are photo reproductions of each drawing in the collection. Under most circumstances you could spend days happily pouring over these images.

I found a Pontormo image that spoke to me, four of them actually. Then the librarian in charge, a very nice man, struggled to communicate with me in English, as I desperately mangled Italian. Eventually it became clear that I needed to choose the image I wanted to see, write the file number on a note pad with carbon copies, and the librarian will clear my request with the stern middle-aged woman in the outer office.

A raucous squabble ensued in the outer office. My dream of viewing an original Pontormo began to fade. The nice man returned smiling and said, "I will see that you get something, maybe not four." I smiled back and said, "grazia, prego, no worries, I'm very pleased to just be here." He smiled, left the room, and returned shortly thereafter and sat at his desk. I waited and continued to flip through the box of reproductions.

Ten minutes or so passed, and a small partition slid open. A no-nonsense kind of woman passed a parcel wrapped in white construction paper to the nice librarian. He walked the parcel to my table and placed it in front of me. My heart was beating - what had I gotten myself into? Do they really know who I am? No, you really don't know me, I am not who you think, I could possibly start chewing on this beautiful drawing -- quick, man, protect this masterpiece before... The librarian slowly opened the parcel, and there in front of me was a real original Pontormo drawing.

My new friend then removed the matte, then the acetate, and there it was, in all its glory, as if this beautiful drawing had just been removed from the master's sketchbook. Next my friend used two pieces of matte board and gently flipped the drawing over, revealing another drawing on the reverse. I was and as I write this still am in awe of this moment.

I ended up with two drawings by Pontormo and spent a good half hour scouring them with a magnifying glass and sketched from one. Then it was time to return them to the darkness where they spend their days, out of the light that would eventually render the page blank.

I remained for about three hours looking, studying the reproductions. Reproductions that are not even close to the subtle, amazing beauty of Portomo's original hand. The subtle line, the shading, the actual smudges, the cross hatching. I've always felt an affinity to Pontormo's use of exaggeration and proportion. Spending just 20 to 30 minutes sketching this one drawing was life changing, life affirming -- grazie, Uffizi, grazie molto.

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