Painting the Future: A Tuscan Tale of Art, Inspiration and Destiny

Sun drenched italian tuscan hillside

We were driving from Rome to my friend Bianca's house in the countryside. She lived in the hills somewhere near Sassoferatto, which is about an hour from Assisi and an hour from Ancona.

As we drove through small winding roads through the valleys and hillsides of the Le Marche region, I saw the exact Italian country scenes I had painted thousands of times and sold during the Tuscan decorating craze (which is still going on to this day). The hills were drenched with ochre sunlight, and the newly grown grass looked electric against the dark green cypress trees. Each hill rolled into the next, draping violet shadows over its curves and valleys.

The trip to Bianca's house took us twice as long as we had expected because John kept stopping every quarter mile to take pictures. I was sure I saw clusters of houses and churches I had painted before in this incredibly familiar landscape. Although I had never been here before or seen this in person, I felt like I was home.

Bianca's dreamy cream stone house had a spectacular view of the valleys below and the next hillside, which was a patchwork of farmland lined with cypress trees and clusters of other stone houses. Inside, she had decorated her villa with an eclectic collection of furniture, each painted in bright hues of red, turquoise, emerald, and yellow against the natural wood, stone, and tile. Truly an artist's home. Thrilled to spend time here with Bianca and her husband, we sipped local wine and enjoyed our first moments together.

Discovering Fabriano's Ancient Craft 

The next day, we visited Fabriano, home of the 800-year-old paper mill that produced the first paper in Europe. I have used their watercolor paper and was excited to see the museum. We looked at all the old mechanisms and equipment they had and watched demonstrations on how the paper was made. The intricate watermarks were fascinating; the museum displayed years of artistry through the progression from thin wire sculptures embedded in the paper screens to reliefs created in beeswax and then cast in bronze. They had a tiny store selling little handmade journals and sheets of watercolor paper with deckled edges.

Now I was obsessed, and I asked Bianca if she knew whether they had a paper store in the town because I remembered that Florence was one of the premier manufacturers of decorative art papers. I knew Fabriano would surely have their full section available in their namesake town. As we walked to the nearby paper store in the back of a bookstore, I began to think about all the Italian art supply brands and how quickly I could fill my suitcases.

I'm pretty sure John and I bought at least one, and sometimes two, of each paper they had in the store, some with ornate filigree patterns and designs, and, of course, many sheets of the famous Italian marble papers and some Fabriano watercolor blocks. 

A Colorful Encounter

Artists Elli Milan and Bianca Lever enjoy a nice italian dinner together

Next, we drove to the charming town of Assisi, home of the famous priest St. Francis and the murals by Giotto. After reinvigorating ourselves with some pasta and calzone, we walked through the town and, within only minutes, stumbled upon a shop filled with clear glass vases, each containing different brightly colored pigments. I stopped in my tracks and went in to investigate.

It was the Gallo handmade watercolors, made from raw pigments, gum arabic from the Acacia Senegal tree, local honey from Umbria, and rosemary. The store was gorgeous and made me want to buy everything. I had recently committed to practicing watercolor and getting better at it. We spent the next hour in this store meticulously looking at every paint color, and I made my own custom palette.

We talked with the shopkeeper about the various workshops they offer. She mentioned they could create an experience where they bring the pigments and materials and teach us how to make our own paint. I have been contemplating organizing a large artist retreat in Italy and thought learning to make watercolor paint from pigment and local materials would be incredible. I walked out with three sets of paint and some brushes. I had to bring Dimitra a set of these paints with all her favorite colors. I could hardly wait to get back to Bianca's magical villa on the hill and play with my new treasures.

John, Bianca, and I stayed up late talking and painting in her living room while drinking local wine and enjoying each other's company. We laughed and played and colored, and laughed some more. We blissfully enjoyed every second.

Painting My Future and My Past

The next morning, we woke up to warmth and sun kissing the hills with golden light. We brought our new paints out to the table by Bianca's pool and drank our coffee while we continued to paint. I began painting the gorgeous landscape before me and watched the pigments from the earth shape and form the image of the earth. Truly transcendent! I hadn't painted a "Tuscan" landscape in a long time, but I felt like I was touching something profound in the moment. It seemed like I was painting my future and simultaneously recalling my past paintings that prophesied this very moment. I knew something in my destiny was taking form.

We reluctantly pulled ourselves away from our paints to leave for Borgo Belfiore, the property where we were considering hosting the next Milan Art Experience. As we drove to the property and I gazed out the window, taking in all the beauty, I braced myself for disappointment. I told myself to lower my expectations and stop imagining something romantically epic. Bianca turned around and said, "I really hope you like this place."

"I'm trying to keep myself from having any expectations because I know I can get carried away with overly utopian thoughts."

But as we pulled into the parking lot and looked at the complex of centuries-old houses and buildings landscaped perfectly with shade trees and flowering bushes, my heart leaped with excitement. We were immediately greeted by Maud and Roland, who welcomed us with a cappuccino in the garden courtyard. We began discussing the possibility of an art retreat and graduation at this location.

Easy, Effortless and Meant To Be

Julio, a black and white, curly-haired Lagotto Romagnolo, an Italian truffle-hunting dog breed.

After our coffee, Maud offered to give us a tour. We walked around the property, taking in the incredible views. While looking at the swimming pool, I met Julio, a black and white, curly-haired Lagotto Romagnolo, an Italian truffle-hunting dog breed. He was curious but cold, always positioning himself a bit away from us, keeping his distance. I was in love! But I had to keep it cool because Julio was playing hard to get. I wanted to pet him, but he kept moving away just as I was close to touching him.

We continued to tour the property and looked inside the buildings at all the rooms decorated authentically with traditional Italian antiques. The apartments were fascinating and felt like a pristine, not-so-creepy museum where we would be sleeping.

Julio kept finding us and joining our conversations, and just as I would nearly touch him, he would run away again. I gave up on petting him and decided to film him instead. Now, when he would come close, I would get shots of him while he posed, looking off into the distance. I noticed he liked being filmed and came around more and more and began following me everywhere I went. Like a typical Italian man, Julio loved the camera and relished in the admiration.

At the back of the property, the entire hillside was blanketed in fuchsia, violet, yellow, and lavender wildflowers. I could hardly take any more beauty. Every moment, I saw places where artists could paint and lose themselves in the radiance of this estate and the landscape that surrounded it. I knew it was perfect and could see the entire experience coming together for the fall of 2024.

Roland, the resident chef, made us an Italian feast in the courtyard. We sat down and were served a salad with local fresh vegetables, cheeses, Ossobuco, and lasagna. Everything tasted extraordinary, fresh, and healthy. It might have been the best Italian food I have ever eaten. We drank wine from a nearby winery and enjoyed a new friendship.

"Bianca, what do you think about graduation? It doesn't seem like there is space for an art show here."

She looked at Maud. "Yes, I suppose we would have to find another place for the art show."

"What about the winery where you had your show last year, Bianca? How far is it?" I asked.

"Only 20 minutes! Yes, that would be great! They would love to host the event there," Bianca answered.

I couldn't believe how perfectly everything fit. How easy it all was. The entire event seemed almost effortless. 

The Serendipity of Art and Life

Artist power couple Elli and John Milan

The following morning, as I was packing to leave for Florence, I remembered my dream from that night. I was pregnant and supposed to give birth soon. I began to feel pressure and knew I was about to have the baby. I thought, "The baby is coming fast! I don't have time to get help or go to a hospital." The pressure was increasing, so I pushed one time, and the baby came out all at once. I held her in my arms. She was a beautiful three-year-old girl with long hair. I thought, "Wow! I must have been pregnant for a long time because this baby is already a child.”

From 1998 until 2005, I painted Tuscan landscapes and red-roofed houses. I painted thousands of them and sold them all over the U.S. I painted these landscapes so much that I didn't have to look at reference pictures anymore. The collection of paintings featured a cluster of houses, cypress trees, vineyards, poppy fields or fields of wildflowers, flowering bushes, and turquoise skies. I painted this place where I had the magical lunch and walked through the landscapes, taking pictures of Julio. I painted this place and the golden light thousands of times.

Planning the 2024 Milan Art Experience

Now, we are at the moment in time where we live in the manifestation of these paintings. Like the child in my dream, a beautiful future is being born and growing before our very eyes. What once was only a series of brushstrokes on a canvas is now the reality that surrounds us.

From September 24th to October 5th, we will host 36 artists at Borgo Belfiore, and we will have an art show and graduation this year in Italy at a nearby winery. The Mastery Program Graduation will be on October 4th, and the retreat art show will be on October 3rd.

We may not be able to predict all the ways our visions will be brought to life, but I know that something beyond incredible will happen at this year’s Milan Art Experience, and the transformative experience will be unforgettable.

Share your story in the comments below!


  • Morri Sims

    I enjoyed reading this. Tuscany changed my life as an artist but more importantly as a person.

  • Gretchen Sharples

    Wow! Wow! Wow! What an awesome trip to get to experience! 👏🏼 I bet you and John are full of inspiration! ❤️
    I am going to start praying now that I can work it out to get to go to that special graduation/MAE!
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Yes! You can do it!! see you there!

  • Beverly McIntyre

    I was in tuscany and also Assisi a few years ago. So beautiful and so worth basking in the beauty that has been created all over the world! Only an incredible Creator could think up such beauty!
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    yes! absolutely!

  • Tanya

    The only paper I paint on for the past 15 years is the glorious and wonderful Fabriano which I adore, therefore it is written in the stars that I must come! 🤩❤️
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Yes!!! Of course!!! 🙌🏽

  • Bianca Lever

    What a great time we had and how beautifully you have put it all into words, exactly how it was! Super excited for the future and all the beautiful adventures that lay ahead! Italy is more then ready for you and your Artist Odyssey to come create wonderful memories. I can hardly wait for it! 💞💞💞
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Yes! Me too Bianca! And you are such a special part of it!!!

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