Portraits in Rome’s Piazza Navona

I sometimes think of Piazza Navona as the tourist capital of Rome.  Maybe its tied with the Colosseum.  But people don’t really “hang out” at the Colosseum.  Morning, noon and night there are tourists packed into Piazza Navona’s open spaces eating gelato, sitting at cafes lining the edges or taking pictures of Bernini’s fountain.  During the day, there are dozens of stalls with artists sketching tourist’s portraits and selling original artwork.


 How touristy, right? Portraits in a piazza.  Who would do that?


I’ve always liked watching people create art.  I’m an awful artist, myself, but watching an artist start from nothing and develop something beautiful has interested me since I was a little girl (I used to LOVE watching Bob Ross on PBS!). There was one artist in particular in Piazza Navona who I kept drifting back to.  I loved his style, the way he shaded his portraits and achieved – I thought – a good bit of realism.


After four days in Rome I still had not found anything I wanted to take home as a keepsake.  I didn’t have any interest in a snowglobe of the Colosseum, didn’t need another rosary and didn’t want anything I could’ve gotten just as easily at home.  I wanted a memory.

Silly (or vain) as it sounds, I’ve always wanted to have my portrait done.  It’s a very sort of romantic thing, in my head, but I’ve always been afraid that I wouldn’t like how I looked when it was done. My cousin and I had gotten our caricature done in Times Square and it had made us both look like hideous witches; just add a hairy mole (for some reason she has this hanging in her room, even though I tried to destroy it right after we got it). Seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes is a very vulnerable thing.  Of course, the artists in Piazza Navona are used to drawing tourists and probably purposefully don’t make anyone come out unattractive, but I thought the same thing about that awful little man in Times Square, too.

I walked up to the man in the green glasses after he had just finished someone’s portrait.  ”Quanto costa?”, I asked tentatively.

“35 euro”.  Wow, ok, well perhaps it was a bit more than I had wanted to spend on a souvenir but if I preserved it right I’d have it for years.  And I’d have the memory forever.

I agreed and he motioned me to sit.  He began drawing and I got so embarrassed I started smiling. Broadly.  People started watching.  I tried not to smile.  I had heard you’re supposed to keep still and keep a calm expression on your face when having your portrait done.  That’s why all those women in paintings look so stoic, isn’t it?

“Smile!  Smile!”, Green Glasses said.  ”It’s ok to smile!”  I kind of got the feeling he was laughing at me.  HE was smiling, too, and even if he was laughing at me it was in a nice way.  His eyes were kind and he made me feel comfortable.  If only I could see what was on the other side of that paper…

On one hand it seemed like an eternity, trying to read the faces of the people who were watching him draw.  How was it? Good? Bad? Somebody give me some sort of hint!

Finally he stopped drawing.  He took out a can of something and sprayed the painting to keep it in place, then motioned me to come look.


I loved it.  I love it.  ”Oh, wow” I said, staring at it, “You made me so much more beautiful than I am!”  Everyone standing around laughed, Green Glasses most of all.  He rolled the painting up into a cardboard tube, I paid him and bid him farewell.

When I showed my friends and family via Facebook that night, a few people told me it looks nothing like me.  I was a bit offended by that.  I think it does – a lot! – though perhaps a bit more flattering.

What do you think??





About the author



Italian Travel Planner and Italian Culture Enthusiast

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