Most of the posts on this blog are articles previously published in national periodicals. Folks have been asking for these to be collected in one spot...and this is that spot. And, unless otherwise noted, illustrations are by David Gillett as well.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Fiction edition  Spring 2016

Roman Sketchbook

" Each page was site-specific, a loosely rendered line drawing of a place and a moment. He thought often of her as he drew. “The historian in her will love these drawings” he thought and the thought kept him going as he walked the darkening streets alone. “She has to love them.”  "

Roman Sketchbook

PERSPECTIVES Magazine    Spring 2016

Leaves slopped into the gutters and crunched underfoot on the uneven streets of Trastavere. Night was coming on and the lights of Rome with it. Still no sign of her.

His sketchbook was filling in nicely. It would be a treasure for him, for his family. An heirloom for future grandchildren: a Roman Sketchbook. In his mind, he worked out the graphics for the cover of the published version.

Each page was site-specific, a loosely rendered line drawing of a place and a moment. He thought often of her as he drew. “The historian in her will love these drawings” he thought and the thought kept him going as he walked the darkening streets alone. “She has to love them.”

Still no sign of her. “Pick any ancient ruin and I’ll be there,” he’d said.  She’d been silent.  “Just look for the guy with the sketchbook, getting all Etruscan,” he’d joked. But maybe she hadn’t looked and maybe she never would. He didn’t know that she drew a blank on Etruscans. On Romans for that matter. It wasn’t her era.

He tried to remember where they had parted. It had been while sipping prosecco in Pizza di Santa Maria, hadn’t it? Or maybe it was long before that. He couldn’t remember. “Let’s split up for a bit and explore,” he’d said, his eye on an architrave.

She’d looked tired and hadn’t enjoyed the prosecco, the day or the view, but he hadn’t noticed that. Her hands were empty and she had a certain look on her face. She’d walked off without glancing back, down via Della Lungaretta, towards the Tiber. But his mind’s eye was on a broken pediment, something from 160 BC the guidebook said.

His phone was not ringing. The problem with smart phones is that they tie you to other people, to deadlines, to hassles, to the office. You can’t be in the moment, you can’t be really present. But he’d take those problems if it meant being tied to her at this particular moment. She’d stashed her phone because one between them (just for emergencies and airline check-in) would be enough. His sat like lead in his pocket, lifeless and refusing to vibrate.

He took a tiny street-side table; maybe he could think and try to remember what they’d agreed upon. “Vino rosso,” he told the waiter who looked impatient and queried him further: “Red wine?

 “Yes, si,” he said. “That’s what I was trying to say. Grazie.”

He wasn’t doing well with his Italian. Or, he thought further, with anything much. His sketches were actually crap. They were stilted and controlled, scratches on a page. They were all the same: frozen upper bits of ruined classical architecture. There was no life in them.

Still no sign of her.

It had been hours now. He couldn’t remember how many. Months really, he mused. Years. He sipped his wine, thought of the endless pediments he had drawn and how he now hated them all. They were heavy lumps of stone, burdening him by a gravity older than Rome.

He watched the Trastavere night fold in on itself, and with it his world.

Published in PERSPECTIVES magazine
Spring 2016       see:

Friday, February 5, 2016

Stay in a spectacular monastery in Venice for what you can afford
The author's sketch from his balcony overlooking Piazza San Marco, Venice
DAVID GILLETT, VENICE     —     Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Published in print  Saturday January 30, 2016   On line Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016 12:16PM EST

                       The curious instruction that bookings could only be made by fax should have been our first clue.
                       Our stay at the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice would be one to remember, akin to sleeping in the quiet eye of a tourism hurricane. And when I asked Dom Paulo, who met us at the thick oaken door in his brown monk’s habit, how much they might expect us to pay for a night’s stay, he bowed ever so slightly and replied: “As you wish.”
                       San Giorgio is one of the world’s longest continually operating Benedictine abbey, offering hospitality in this location since 982. It sits on a tiny island of its own directly across the Giudecca Canal from the famous square Napoleon is said to have dubbed Europe’s drawing room, the iconic Piazza San Marco. It has unparalleled views of this mother-of-all tourist draws, one it shares with the exclusive Belmond Hotel Cipriani on an island next door, scene of George and Amal Clooney’s wedding party. But rooms with a view at the Cip start at an eye-watering €1,650 (more than $2,500) a night. Our room? About €1,600 less, plus we had a hands-down better view from our first-floor balcony. And no zoom-lens paparazzi.
                        That master of Renaissance architecture, Andrea Palladio, designed what would become arguably his finest church in 1565. It is a cool, neo-classical dream in this very un-Italian city where ancient Oriental and Gothic architectures collide in a tumbling cascade of competing styles. Like a marble escarpment of pediments and pilasters, the church is the prow of a much larger ship that is the Monastery of San Giorgio, occupying most of the island with its cloistered mystery. Our private room, one of only five in the monastery’s hostel, was suitably spartan, with two single beds, a crucifix, a desk and a book for our reading pleasure: The Rule of St. Benedict. The floors were terrazzo, the ensuite bathroom was well equipped with shower and bidet and a large antique armoire served as a closet. This was not Cipriani luxe by any means, but spacious enough, cool and quiet; a room for contemplation and rest. It is also an undiscovered gem: During our five-night stay, we met only two other guests, and the hallways echoed with an eerie silence late at night, broken only by the sound of lapping waves and the occasional passing boat. It felt like a world apart – dreamlike. One morning, we flung back our wooden shutters and strolled out onto the balcony to find our building the subject for a group of painters from Florence – that is an experience not to be missed.
But this oasis of calm sits uneasily in a city that is a victim of its own success, a place literally sinking under the weight of an estimated 22 million yearly visitors. Massive cruise ships deposit as many 30,000 tourists daily at the height of the season, causing Silvio Testa, spokesman for Venice’s anti-cruise ship campaign to say a few years ago, “The beauty of Venice is undoubted, but the city pays for it like a prostitute that is too beautiful.”
                        Tourists outnumber Venetians by a ratio of 20-1 in high season, and the locals (an ever-dwindling population), grumble. But this is Venice, the Serene Republic, a city thick with art treasures; a city without cars, floating like a vision upon the Venetian Lagoon, supported by wooden piles made from millions of dead trees, pounded deep into the silt. So to discover this quiet place, one designed for contemplation and yet so close to the centre of action, is extraordinary. I spent an afternoon just sketching, drinking in the atmosphere and the surreal watery light of Venice. In the hushed nave of the church itself, a contemporary sculpture exhibition (part of the Venice Art Biennale) brought the ultramodern into the womb of the sacred and serene. Outside, attached to the church, is a bell tower that seems yet to have been discovered by tour guides, strikingly devoid of lineups for the quick elevator ride to its top. It offers breathtaking views out over Venice, the Lido and the Dolomite mountains that loom in the mainland distance. Unreal.

The writer's wife approaches the Monastery beside Palladio's Church
                     Food in the monastery is strictly DIY. (The monks keep to themselves and eat elsewhere.) A tiny refectory kitchen, stocked with basics such as dried pasta and olive oil, is available 24/7 if you are attempting Europe on €10 a day. The guest book tells of visitors from all corners of the globe who have cooked up their own Italian feasts, which can be eaten in an adjoining barrel-vaulted dining room, hung with portraits of eminent Benedictines. But the Venice of restaurants and caf├ęs is temptingly close, so when it beckoned, we waited at the Giorgio vaporetto (waterbus) stop at the monastery steps for a quick ride to the action. We could take the No. 2 water taxi in one direction to the James Bond-movie set world of San Marco with its inflated prices, Prada shops and trinket hawkers, or in the other direction to the Zattere promenade and the much more interesting and less crowded Dorsoduro precinct with its crooked calli (alleyways) and hidden campis (squares).
In the maze of Dorsoduro, cozy restaurants, often with canal-side tables, abound. Fresh seafood is never hard to find. Al Casin dei Nobili, a lovely trattoria just off Campo San Barnaba, serves a mouth-watering tagliatelle with Adriatic shrimp in a nonna-friendly setting. Or just across the campi, beside the Ponte dei Pugni (Bridge of Fists) and next to one of the last fresh produce barges in Venice, which serves as a floating open-air fresh food market, is Pasta & Sugo. This restaurant is a welcome departure from touristy and overpriced “Olde Worlde” eateries with its bright, contemporary interior and menu of Italian street food. Mix and match the pasta of your choice with one of the mouth-watering ragus prepared at the open kitchen counter. A plate of pasta and glass of wine for a mere €8 ($12)? The city that invented inflated prices still has its bargains.
                             In the 1972 novel Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer, describes the many cities he has seen to a mesmerized Kublai Khan. But in fact, every city he described was actually Venice. It is still like that, a city that is the compact culmination of a thousand years of explosive creativity, a city with a thousand faces. And, in one quiet corner, still available to contemplative visitors, a city of dreamlike peace.
                             Our no-strings-attached monastery stay was refreshing and inexpensive. One does not have to be devout, or even male, to stay in one of the high-ceilinged rooms, or sit quietly in the shadowed church and drink in the ancient music of echoing chants. But a hunger for peace and quiet in the eye of the Venetian storm is a must. That, and a fax machine.
If you go 

   Venice is always busy, but the summer months of July and August are the worst and best avoided if possible. We went in October and had nice weather, fewer crowds and plenty of restaurant choice. If you avoid the crowds at the Rialto Bridge and Piazza san Marco, you can even find some deserted squares and quiet alleyways.
Getting there
   Fly into Frankfurt and then to the compact Marco Polo Airport. From there it’s a quick bus ride out to the main island of Venice via the causeway, but take the Alilaguna water bus if you’ve never been. Arriving by water is the only way to approach the city for the first time. E-mail
Getting around
   Since Venice is made up of more than 100 islands, ACTV, the public-transportation authority, operates vaporetti and other water buses around the clock, with routes that extend out to many of the islands of the Venetian Lagoon. A single trip is expensive at €7.50 ($11.50), but a three-day travel card for €40 is a great deal, and you’ll use it a lot.
The monastery
   Inquire about a room by sending a fax to 39-041-520-6579. Or try calling calling 39-041-241-4717. The monastery has no e-mail or website. The monks offer rooms as part of their mission, so make a cash offerta of what you can afford upon leaving.
When you arrive on the main island of Venice, take vaporetto No. 2 along the Grand Canal to the San Giorgio stop (one past St. Mark’s Square). When you arrive, ring a buzzer marked Monaci Benedittine (Benedictine monks) on the heavy door to the right of Palladio’s church. There’s no checking in; you will simply be led by a monk up some worn stone steps to your quiet room. Rooms have no telephones, TVs or WiFi.

(Online see:  ) or Google David Gillett Venice

Domini Clark - Travel Editor

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


The little Wiltshire town of Bradford On Avon is considered by some to be the most picturesque in England.
Maybe.  But the day we visited was cool and weta darkening sky rendering the narrow streets lanes of despair, relieved only by the ubiquitous tea rooms awaiting the bus tours that , on this particular October day, stayed away in droves.
                Undaunted, my Medievalist wife, Katy, had somehow convinced her husband and three young children to forgo the crescents of Bath for an afternoon and search instead for the tiny Saxon church of St.Laurence built by St.Aldhelm at the turn of the 8th century. Lost for centuries, the small church served as a school, a house and then a warehouse before its resurrection in 1856 by a local curate.
                Sheltering from the rain, we found it permeated by gloom, cave-like. It exuded age, the most thoroughly ancient building we’d encountered so far on a month’s sojourn in England.
                My four year old daughter, Molly Claire, her eyes adjusting to the dim light, responded to the architecture of the tiny chancel by singing, her plaid skirt swinging as see twirled, lost in the mystery of the place. She was alone in a circle of sound that reverberated off the aged stone walls.
                Maybe it was a good thing St.Laurence was lost for a thousand years, consumed by the organic  build up of the town around it. It survived with its soul intact never having suffered alteration, its spare interior imbued with atmosphere, “whispering”, as Mathew Arnold said of nearby Oxford  “the last enchantments of the Middle Age” .
                Carved angels above us on a striking Saxon arch, we watched silently from the side stalls as Molly Claire’s voice rose and lost itself in the echoing shadows amongst the ancient oak black with years.
                No one had told her to sing, but the building suggested it and she heeded. She sang the only song that somehow seem appropriate, an old Victorian hymn her grandmother had used to lull her to sleep:  “This Is My Father’s World”.
                “All nature sings
                And round me rings
                The music of the spheres”

                I kind of doubt she grasped the meaning of the words, if indeed that even mattered. But I’m certain she did sense that some magic was happening,  that the architecture had elicited something from her that was real, and spiritual and beautiful.  The notes she sang rose and joined the myriad others, notes from 8th century voices and a million songs and latin chants since then.
                She joined in and became part of something that day, like a part of the building’s very architectural  fabric.  Her response to the spirit of the place and the built form of the room were nothing short of exactly right. And really, she had such a cute little voice.
-David Gillett
(First published in PERSPECTIVES magazine, Fall 2015)


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Letters to An Aspiring Architect

                I was where you were once, on the cusp of something really exciting, really big, really intimidating.  I had my own preconceptions and misconceptions, hopes, dreams and fears, and maybe I still do. There are a hundred things I’d tell my younger self, but I’ll begin with just three:
                Put that joy to work.
                Get your hands dirty.
                Look, look, look.
                You are heading this way not because you see architecture as a path to riches. You’re smarter than that. But you think you can make a living doing something you love; creating space, shaping community, building beautiful places.
                To begin with, design excites you and the prospect of dreaming it, planning it and seeing it built brings you a deep kind of joy. Hold onto that – keep that alive as you study the art form, as you learn the business, as you collaborate with others who may (or may not) have that spark in them.
                Nurture your joy by living a life, not just doing a job. Get involved in the community. Get to know and care about those clients and learn about their life. Study the ways of the city you live in. Truly become a citizen. And then the good design you produce will bring joy to you, just as it does to those who commissioned it. Design for fun. Draw for pleasure. Don’t let deadlines and building codes deaden your curiosity and  smother your enthusiasm.
                Secondly, always have a bit of dirt under your finger nails.
                Despite the comforting illusion that buildings are isolated forms on a screen in front of you, the reality is very much about weather, concrete strength, square corners and good drainage. There is nothing that can replace or replicate time spent on a construction site. And once on that site, there is nothing more instructive than climbing a ladder, nailing down shingles, cutting rafter angles, towelling concrete ...doing the coffee run for a bunch of fellow builders.
                It will pay off in the way you detail your buildings, in your understanding of the sequence of construction.  Perhaps even more importantly you’ll have empathy for the people who construct your designs and an understanding of what is most important to them (and it likely won’t be your design theory but rather the accuracy of your dimensions).  And when you eventually arrive on site as the designer, smack in the middle of the noise and mayhem of construction, you’ll be at home and  have some real credibility. Maybe even respect.  And you’ll have a chance to wear that ancient mantle of Master Builder and deserve it.
                  Lastly, look around you. Look at the pavement you walk on, the alleyways and broad avenues of the city you live in. Look at the ancient world where it all started and those places where great architecture has transformed lives, brought joy and created a culture.
                Don’t just see, but truly observe, as Sherlock Holmes would say. Pick apart the proportions of that temple. Think about why that great room feels  so right to you. Is it the light? The height of the ceiling? The sound of your feet as you walk through it?
Travel as much as you can. Around the block, across the city, across the country and  around the world if you can. There is so much to see, so much to absorb. And take a sketch book with you. Make that hand-eye-brain connection and stretch lines out across the page. Document the things that seem to work, feel those superb proportions through your fingertips. I had a professor who always carried a tiny 10’ tape measure in his pocket and wasn’t shy about pulling it out to measure the ideal doorway, the perfect chair or the magnificent proportions of a lovely archway. He had a whole notebook full of little dimensioned sketches, and he used them everyday while designing.
                Don’t worry that your first job might have you reading Building Codes and detailing stairways in hospitals. The Parthenon can teach you, an ancient cottage can speak to something deeper than those things, the width of a perfect street will stay with you ...and you’ll use all this knowledge someday. You will.
                To be a good architect you need to be a great observer, a competent builder, a person who thrills to good design.  But the tyranny of the urgent will try to subvert all this and soon you’ll only see balance sheets, deadlines and the wolf at the door. That’s reality.
                But the reality is also that you have chosen the path of design, of creation. Use that creative spark to keep the main things the main things. Stick with your gut instincts, push for that excellent design, stay true to the things that attracted you to this life in the first place.

 David Gillett    Published in PERSPECTIVES MAGAZINE Spring 2015