Over spring break, I went to Florence to visit Alena Allegretti ’11, who is there studying abroad for a semester as part of the Studio Art Centers International (SACI) fine arts program. The program allows liberal arts students to pursue a fine arts-style education, which includes six-plus hours a day of intensive studio art. About half of her teachers are Italian and half are American expatriates.
When I asked her why she went to Florence, she informed me that it was, after all, full of art. She even showed me a hospital daubed with frescoes, and it’s hard to travel even a block without finding some sort of statue or work of architectural genius. “I knew I wanted to study somewhere in Italy, and took a year of Italian with Professor Nicastro in preparation,” said Allegretti, who, despite her Italian-sounding last name, is of Greek and Irish origin. I should note that a single year made her more than competent; we spent much of my vacation speaking Italian. “Also, I’ll admit the appeal of Tuscan cooking may have influenced me as well.” And finally, “Dude, Leonardo da Vinci f—ing lived here!”
In her art, Allegretti favors a style she calls “narrative surrealism.” Her influences extend from comic books to church ceilings, both of which are easily found in Florence. “I love the heavy storytelling aspect of renaissance art, and I think my attraction to pictures telling stories continues into my love of comic books, which I consider a major influence,” Allegretti said. “Looking at the Sistine Chapel, it’s basically a frame-by-frame summary of the Bible.” She noted that a lot of the art that we currently look at as classic masterworks were, at the time, the equivalent of illustration and design in our contemporary society. “There were all these beautiful paintings of things from the Bible, because people couldn’t read,” she said.
Allegretti observed that the modern-day perspective on illustration is a something of a double standard. “We think of comic books as being for children because they rely so heavily on illustrations, but we still appreciate paintings,” she said. “We romanticize [renaissance illustrations] so much and yet we frown on the modern day equivalent.”
With her own art, she cites “dabbling and exploring” as key. “I don’t want to commit myself to a particular genre label. I do like to play with juxtapositions in my work. Antique vs. modern, beautiful vs. grotesque, subject vs. medium, etc.”
If you’ve seen Allegretti’s work in any of several campus art shows, you may know that she likes to work in stark pen and ink, and that she is particularly fascinated by women’s bodies (sometimes mutilated and sometimes growing out of trees, but almost always in a state of flux and transformation), birds and portraits. “I really like playing with the female figure, seeing how it can transform or change or move,” she said. Her style is intense, with strong, mannered lines, not shrinking from surrealistic exaggeration.
Since her arrival in Italy, Allegretti has expanded her focus to include more architectural drawings, executed in sepia because she feels preemptively nostalgic for the Tuscan city. “Usually I find architecture and perspective dull, but there’s something very captivating about the buildings here,” she said. “I walk around just taking pictures of random streets and houses like a dorky tourist.”
One of Allegretti’s drawings has been featured in a show at her art school: It depicts a nude female model in very clean pen-and-ink. Somehow she renders shadow, in contour, more compellingly than many could even with a full palette of paints; her drawings have real weight and real dimension. “I hate color,” she said. “I love lines.”
Perhaps not the lines outside the Uffizi gallery, where we stopped on our final day in Florence to see, among other things, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. At the galleries, we had the chance to see some of Allegretti’s inspirations, which include Renaissance draftsmen, Magritte, Francis Bacon, Munch, H.R. Giger and “a whole mess of graphic novel illustrators” (such as Frank Miller and Andy Kubert).
While in Italy, Allegretti has met a wide variety of fascinating art students. Since many of them are Jewish, and since my visit fell on the first night of Passover, I went to an informal Seder at the apartment where a few of her friends live. Of the Seder, I will say only that Italian matzoh is surprisingly good, if difficult to find, and that Allegretti’s talents extend beyond the visual arts. Of her friends, Allegretti said, “I’ve gotten to meet a mix of folks from all different kinds of schools. You’ve got [people] from liberal arts colleges, from large universities, from art schools and pretty much everything in between. Everyone has their niche, their specialty, their passion. For some people it’s making tiny hand-bound books and for others it’s making beautiful things out of ceramics.”
Other fun activities Allegretti has undertaken when not in class or wandering the city with her camera include eating “a ridiculous amount of gelato and pasta,” visiting museums, climbing to the top of the Florence Cathedral and getting hopelessly lost a hundred times.
Allegretti said she will miss Italy, but will bring home with her a memento: a sepia imprint, and the graphic, illustration-style rendering of herself, overlaid with the cityscape, which she drew during her first week in Florence. “I’m not sure how much Florence has influenced my work while I’ve been here,” she said. “I think it will have much more of an effect after I get home and have time for it to sink in without all the extra stimulus.”