TARPON SPRINGS — Curious wonders await in the manicured back streets of Tampa Bay. For instance: an estate named “La Villa des Beaux Arts” on a cul-de-sac, pillars and all, a miniature royal residence right in Pinellas County.
When the owner invites you to see a ceiling painting he just completed, the only answer is yes. When he explains it’s a 17-by-8-foot replica of The Apotheosis of Hercules from the French Palace of Versailles, the only answer is absolutely.
We assembled a photo and video team and headed to Tarpon Springs. Julian Hartzog and Sandy Schwartz were just coming off the high of an unveiling party for 90 friends. Julian had finished the painting on April 29, his 85th birthday. He, Sandy and two friends spent nearly 10 months on it, using wallpaper he found online as a guide and close-ups in art books to capture detail.
He’d mounted canvases on the ceiling, which in turn looked down upon his reproductions of John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw and Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. He’d ascended scaffolding, checked proportions and perspective, touched up clouds and robes with oils.
Julian and Sandy opened the double doors for us last week and we craned our necks. There! Hercules! Doing … something!
No, no. It was too soon to fully dissect this work, too early to appreciate the magnificence. We had to build up to it. Julian and Sandy took us on a house tour.
Julian is a Renaissance man who needs only one starter question to deliver a soliloquy. The engineer and real estate investor discovered a skill for painting in the 1990s. He built this dream house more than 20 years ago and filled it with the aesthetic objects of his affections.
We wandered through Roman courtyards with mythological sculptures. Julian briefly went back inside, which gave me a chance to dish with Sandy.
“We met on Match.com,” said Sandy, 87. She liked his picture, how he stood before the fireplace like Thomas Wolfe. She was a widow, and he’d been married several times. Julian and Sandy partnered up a decade ago and she still keeps a condo. He taught her how to paint.
Julian came back, and I confessed to pumping Sandy for intel. He laughed.
“At our age,” he said, “I don’t know what to call it.”
They took us through the French country sitting room, into his studio fashioned after a portion of the White House. He showed off new architectural drafts of a “fantasy house” different from this one.
Steel costume pieces hung overhead. Fashion is a passion he picked up after attending the Wearable Art show at the Dunedin Fine Art Center. Since then, he’s hand-formed more than 30 metal outfits, from party dresses to swimsuits to bras.
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“Who inspires you?” felt like the right question.
Leonardo da Vinci. He was a polymath — architect, painter, sculptor, never just one thing. Neither was the boy who grew up on an Alabama peanut and cotton farm.
“My dad was a good farmer, and it was a good life,” Julian said. “I was building things for others even when I was a teenager. I would take the axle from a wagon and I’d build my own little car and I would push it …
“When I was in high school, someone asked me what I was going to do. I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ And he said, ‘Well, what do you like to do?’ I said, ‘Well, I like to design things.’ And he said, ‘Well, you should be an engineer.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll be an engineer.’ "
We ambled into the Victorian office, the Gone With the Wind room, the Baroque foyer, the Angel room. We ended in the opulent King Louis the XVI bedroom with a bathroom fashioned after the Hall of Mirrors. A toothbrush and water flosser were the only signs of inhabitancy.
We passed a bust of Marie Antoinette.
“You get used to it,” he said.
It was time to discuss Hercules, and Julian fetched his laser pointer. He spent years looking for a ceiling subject before landing on François Lemoyne’s epic 18th century work from the palace’s Hercules Salon. It depicts Hercules becoming a god. Sandy painted flowers, horses and cherubs. Julian painted dozens of portraits.
Apotheosis is a story about mistakes, repentance, love, forgiveness, reward. It’s a story about life in all its seasons. It’s a story about possibilities. For Julian to fully capture that essence, gluing printed wallpaper to the ceiling would not have been enough.
He quoted Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius, which, if you were paying attention on the tour, brings us back to da Vinci. Julian’s eclectic tastes actually converge along a golden ratio, a divine proportion.
“The eye is always in search of beauty,” he said. “We all love and aspire to create beauty. That’s me.”
He gazed up at the muses dancing across a blue sky.
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