In his youth, Escher's land of inspiration was southern Italy. He devoted the first part of his life as an artist to expressing his enchantment with the Italian landscape. He first visited the country in the spring of 1921, returned twice the following summer, and settled in Rome in 1923.
He travelled and sketched in Italy regularly until 1937, taking off each spring by train or boat to discover a new region: Malta, Sicily, Corsica, Calabria in southern Italy, or nearby Spain.
Artists have been fascinated with vedute, views of Italian cities and landscape, since the eighteenth century, when wealthy travellers sought to acquire works of art recording a particularly enthralling stop on their "Grand Tour" of Europe. Twentieth-century Italy has remained a source of inspiration, owing to its many attractions, including art treasures from antiquity, magnificent architecture and breathtaking landscapes.
Escher explored every corner of the most remote regions of southern Italy on foot, sometimes taking a mule to carry his baggage. He was particularly captivated by Calabria, with its boundless panoramas punctuated by jumbles of houses built centuries ago.
Escher's study of spatial relationships through his depiction of the Italian landscape undeniably had an impact on his later work. Although he was to focus his subsequent efforts on expressing his inner visions, he never lost his affection for Italy's towns and countryside.
Due to the rise of fascism, and also for the sake of his ailing sons, he left Italy in 1935, moving to Switzerland, where the mountain air was more healthful.
Escher's trip to Calabria from 28 April to 25 May 1930 is typical of his Italian sketching trips. Accompanied by three friends, he took the train to Pizzo, and then went on to Tropea, Scilla and Mélito.
At that point, the travellers followed mule trails and dried-out river beds until they reached Pentedattilo, where they stayed for several days. They then moved on to Palizzi and Stilo, Crotone, Santa Severina and Rossano, Morano and Rocca Imperiale.
Compare Escher’s works of the region of Calabria with photographs taken by Mark Veldhuysen, the managing director at the M.C. Escher Company. Veldhuysen took a trip to Calabria in 1989 in search of Escher's subjects.
This is how he described his "discovery":
“Tropea is built high on a rock and dates back to Roman times. Its houses are built on top of and into a huge rock, and over the centuries a huge maze of little streets has been created. Since the houses on his litho are so distinct, we had no trouble finding the location. Hardly anything has changed, except for a few houses that have been replastered and a road that has been constructed over the beach. Even the old Roman aqueduct can still be seen in the distance!”• M.C. Escher in Italy: The Trail Back" by Mark Veldhuysen published in M.C. Escher's Legacy
Not all of Escher's landscapes faithfully reflect the physical world. For example, The Bridge (March 1930) borrows numerous elements from nature but places them in an imaginary framework. As Escher describes in Escher on Escher: Exploring the Infinite, the scene remains a fantasy. On the other hand, some of his landscapes seem to be imaginary when in fact they are real representations of Italian architecture.
Mark Veldhuysen made the following remarks about the town of Atrani's architecture:
“Streets look like dead end streets but continue when climbing some stairs, at a completely different level. The roof of one house is the first floor of the next. What looks like someone's front door can actually be the entrance to a square with various side streets ... With the help of a friendly policeman ... we found the famous covered alley. Although it was a bright, sunny day with temperatures soaring into the upper nineties (near 40° Celsius), it almost looked like nightfall.”• M.C. Escher in Italy: The Trail Back" by Mark Veldhuysen published in M.C. Escher's Legacy