ACCENT Florence: Art and Inspiration in Tuscany

This week’s post comes from Loyola Marymount University study Rena Olk, who spent this summer in Florence studying art history. Rena discusses her experiences as an artist in Florence, sketching the unique beauty of the Tuscan city.

This summer, I traveled to Florence, Italy to study abroad for a month. I’ve traveled around the world with my mom for work-related trips, but I’d never gone on a trip this big by myself, and that was a little nerve-wracking. Although I’d never been to Italy and didn’t speak a bit of Italian, I told myself that since I took French in high school, I’d be fine. Let me be the first to tell you— French is not even remotely similar to Italian, but don’t lose hope! By the end of the first week, I found myself picking up some words and phrases, and soon I was able to understand what people were saying (even if I had no idea how to respond!). With my phrasebook in one hand and my map in the other, I was prepared for anything.

As an artist (and explorer!) I found Florence incredibly inspiring. I made a point to go off on my own every day and explore a different part of the city, whether that was getting lost three different times on the way to the Boboli gardens or spontaneously going into every palazzo and gelateria I could.

The great thing about taking an art class that required us to keep a sketchbook for the entirety of the trip was that it made me incredibly conscious of my surroundings and how they could be turned into an art project. Every time I went to a café, I would whip out my sketchbook and draw an interesting looking person sitting across from me or a table setting that I would normally just take a picture of. The great thing about being an artist in Florence is that everyone is interested in what you are doing and are not subtle about it in any way! I can’t tell you the amount of times people looked over my shoulder or actually sat down next to me to watch me work! It might sound a little strange or weird, but it was actually a little empowering and made me more confident in sharing my artwork.

If you thought my love for Florence couldn’t have gotten any greater, then think again! By taking an art history class in addition to the studio art program, I learned so much about the history of Florence! One of the main reasons that drew me to this program in the first place was the opportunity to learn about art while standing right in front of the physical piece. I don’t think I’ll ever have the chance to study art this way again and I am so happy to have had this experience! Our teacher, Rocky, was so engaging and knowledgeable about the history of Florence and each artist and artwork we studied. His witty comments and connections to pop-culture were awesome and really helped me connect to the material.

Studying with such a small group of students also turned out to be a great asset in reviewing the material. Not only did I learn an incredibly helpful studying strategy from one of the students on the trip but, also, as we all walked around, we would quiz each other and continue to talk about the art works after our lessons were over. Seeing everyone else’s enthusiasm towards the art and architecture, not only in Florence, but also on our excursions to Pistoia, Pisa, Pietrasanta, and Fiesole, made me even more excited to learn and see as much as I possibly could. The amazing thing is that now, two months since the end of the program, I’m finding moments in conversations to bring up this information to “teach” others all the awesome things I learned in my class- for example, “Duomo” does not mean “dome,” but “house of God.” When my mom met me in Florence, I was able to give her a little lesson before we actually climbed the cupola! The student becomes the teacher!Also, thanks to this trip and the excursion we took to the art studios in Pietrasanta I have been inspired to look into mosaic studios in LA in the hopes of becoming an apprentice to the artists we met at Poli, the mosaic studio. I have begun to create my own “mosaics” with paper from magazines, inspired by my final project. It was so amazing to see all of the different studios, methods, and techniques of all the many artists in Pietrasanta— especially the bronze foundry, which gave me insight into the very labor-intensive process that goes into casting bronze, and in turn, helped me to understand how Ghiberti and Brunelleschi created their panels for the Baptistery door competition, and eventually Ghiberti’s “Gate’s of Paradise.”

I had such a great time over the course of this month and am going to try to implement everything I learned in Florence to my life back home in LA.

My top four takeaways from my time abroad were:

1) Always carry a sketchbook and never be afraid to just draw (whether it be in public or at home, just do it!)

2) Always carry a map, and don’t be worried about getting lost, because sometimes that’s the best way to get to know a place

3) Go out and explore! Take advantage of your surroundings and try to go off the beaten path… as long as it’s safe!

4) When in Italy, eat as much gelato as you can and always go for pizza at Tarrochi (even if you’re not hungry, it’s worth it)

Thank you for such an amazing trip— I will never forget it!

~Rena Olk, Loyola Marymount University

Did this post inspire you to open your sketchpad and explore Florence? Research your study abroad options at