And one day – this was in 1930- John [Norton] said, "You know what you ought to do? You ought to go to Europe. It's time for you to see some of that stuff over there." So we [Nancy and I] went to Europe on the Ile de France, third class.
I found out that there was going to be a great exhibition in the Louvre, and it was featuring Eugène Delacroix's great, wonderful works…And for some reason Delacroix was my favorite, so Nancy and I spent two or three days in the Louvre, being absolutely awed by the wonderful paint quality this man had…Then I found out that the Church of St. Sulpice was still open and there were two great murals by Delacroix, and one of them was Jacob wrestling an angel…And we spent the day in the sacristy. There were a few people in there praying, the doors were open. But there was this great tree over Jacob wrestling with the angel and it was the most magnificent painting…It thrilled, thrilled me.
We arrived in Florence in early September, and God, Florence was a wonderful place…So we asked about pensiones and there was the Pensione Picciolli, I remember, and it was right on the Arno. We were on the fourth floor, and we could look down and it was supposed to be the exact spot where Dante had encountered Beatrice. And we looked out across the river and there was a spire of Santa Trinità and God, it was glorious! Another thing about Florence that we loved so much was the little Church of the Carmine where Masaccio's murals are….Then also the Church of Santa Croce, which is a big church, had all the Ghirlandaio mural portraits over the choir stalls…We went down to Arezzo and..we went up to the Church of San Francesco…And I found that I could buy 8x10 black-and-white prints called Alinari. All the masterpieces in Europe were done in Alinari prints. So we bought a whole set of these there in the Church of San Francesco that Piero had done. And we didn't have to sketch because we had the photographs and they were good photographs. The second day I was there, we gave the old sacristano a tip, and he let me climb up on the choir stalls so I could touch the bottom of Piero's work, and it was lovely.
…then we went on to Orvieto. I think the reason we went there was because we were so anxious to see what Luca Signorelli, one of Piero's best students, could do…Signorelli really had studied human anatomy, you know. Nobody could imitate him. But we loved the plain austerity of Signorelli's mural just as much as we did the serenity of Piero in the Church of San Francesco…
We went south to Rome and, of course, Rome was a whole new world, too. We were in Rome a month. And in those days I think we paid five lire and that was twenty-five cents or something to get in [the] Sistine Chapel. And you could rent a mirror for ten lire from the old sacristano, who was a kind of gatekeeper, and there wouldn't be anybody in there but you. ..But you could sit on the pews and with the Alinari prints and with the mirror you could study the Delphic Oracle or see how Eve was beseeching Adam and how the Lord was in the whirlwind creating Adam. …I never understood why Michelangelo made that figure of Christ so fat and so wide. It's a very strange figure of a male. It may have something to do with Michelangelo being old, or I don't know what.
And one thing [that happened in Capri], I don't know how to explain it. I was by myself up on the path that led to the top of Monte Solaro, where there was a little shrine. And this old woman appeared out of nowhere and she had a stick that helped her walk, a crooked stick, and she held out her hand and mumbled something in Italian, which I did not understand. She was asking me for alms, and I didn't pay her any. It frankly frightened me. I didn't…I couldn't acknowledge her. I was very emotionally impressed by this old beggar woman. I came back to the pensione and I told Nancy about it [and said], "I'm going to make a drawing of it." And I made a drawing…And many years later, I found the picture in a portfolio ..Then I [realized] what it was, what I had seen. And this probably is very sentimental, but it seemed to do something for me. I was this kid, an ignorant youth from a new world, encountering the past and the past was asking for something. So I wrote it on the back of this [drawing] that Jim has.
Anyway, the money ran out. We figured we had enough to get back to Le Havre, and we had a round-trip passage, third-class again, on the Ile de France; it was making a return [trip]. This was in December. We were only there from August until mid-December. So we came back to Paris and guess what we found at the American Express? A check from Dad! So we could go back second-class instead of steerage, and there was something left over.
Tom Lea speaking to Adair Margo, published in Tom Lea, An Oral History, El Paso, Texas: Texas Western Press, pps. 34-38.