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San Gimignano

After completing his printmaking studies in Haarlem in 1922, the young Escher embarks on his second trip to Italy. The previous year, his parents had taken him to Southern France, from where they travelled on to Florence. On 5 April 1922, Escher leaves Arnhem for Florence, accompanied by his closest friends, Jan van der Does de Willebois and Bas Kist. They travel on an overnight train. In Florence, they are joined by Alexandra van der Does de Willebois (Lex), Jan’s sister.

They spend two weeks in the city soaking up the cultural highlights. They attend an opera performance (La Traviata) and visit the Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti as well as the most important churches and palaces. They make a return visit to some of these to take a closer look at the artworks.

It is 1922, the days before low-cost air travel and four-lane motorways. In fact: for the majority of the Dutch population, an outing to the seaside town of Zandvoort was the highlight of the year. Two-week art tours such as those undertaken by Escher and his friends were the preserve of the happy few. Years later, while living in Italy, Escher spent virtually every spring undertaking long journeys on foot. Often with friends, sometimes alone.

Walking is a slow way of getting around, allowing you to absorb the views and immerse yourself in the landscape. It allows you to notice lines of ascent and marvel at the countryside as it stretches out before you. Tuscany is hilly and breathtakingly beautiful. In 1922, the towns and cities had not been as lavishly restored as they are today. A medieval town such as San Gimignano, nestled between Florence and Siena, had not yet been discovered by coach tour operators and hordes of tourists. The small central square was still a village square.

On 22 April, Jan and Bas return to the Netherlands. Alexandra and Mauk, as Escher was known to his friends, take the train and transfer to a small carriage to make the onward journey to San Gimignano, of which its enormous towers dominate the townscape. Lex bids farewell ten days later, on 2 May. Escher stays on until 5 May. He spends a lot of time drawing in and around the town. In late June, upon his return to his parental home in Oosterbeek, Escher sets to work on the prints of his travels in Italy. This is to become Escher’s annual routine for the next 13 years: walking, sketching in spring, and spending the rest of the year working out his sketches. First as woodcuts, and later also as lithographs.

Escher produces two prints of San Gimignano. The first, completed in July 1922, is characterized by lots of flowing lines, while the second, completed in February 1923, captures the surrounding countryside in much straighter lines. In the first woodcut, Escher appears to have taken his inspiration from the Jugendstil artists, as the landscape and town glide into movement. The characteristically tall medieval towers do not stand out so much amidst the hustle and bustle of lines and strokes.

Escher’s woodcut of February 1923 is a lot tighter. The tall steep towers, which once served as luxurious objects to reflect the wealth of their owners, take on an austere appearance in the stark moonlight. They glisten in the night sky, while lights flicker through the window panes. The fields and olive groves are covered with a blanket of serenity.

In the earlier print, San Gimignano seems far away and roughly at eye level. As the viewer, you feel like you are looking down on the tops of the stylized olive trees. It is as though the roots are right in front of your feet. In the second print, which Escher made six months later, the viewer looks up at San Gimignano in the dark night sky. The structure of the town with its celebrated towers (see also the photo of modern-day San Gimignano) is instantly recognizable. By capturing the town from a valley, Escher invites the viewer to look up. You sense the towering presence of the steep, rigid towers as they rise up in front of you.

Escher does not depict reality in either of these prints; he omits certain details or plays with distorted proportions. Instead of depicting “one to one” reality, he wants us to experience what he felt during those weeks in San Gimignano. The first print is a florid reminiscence of the gently sloping hills and the straight strips of farmland. The second print is an attempt to depict the town as a fortified entity that has turned in on itself. It is bereft of detail, and all the attention is focused on the monumental size of the towers.

Both woodcuts are intended to capture the essence of San Gimignano, to evoke a sense of place. At the tender age of 24, the up-and-coming artist Mauk reveals his innermost thoughts about what he has seen, and how he conveys this feeling into a work of art. The two woodcuts of San Gimignano approximate truth and yet are quite different from reality.

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