The art of street painting almost died out…until the tradition of the Madonnari was revived…
Grazie di Curtatone, Lombardy
Street painting was first recorded in the 16th century Italy. The Madonnari were itinerant artists who would paint religious icons on the courtyards of the great Italian cathedrals.
Most had been brought into the cities to work on the huge cathedrals and when the work was completed, they needed to find another way to make a living. They would often recreate the paintings from the church onto the pavement. Because the images these artists would paint were often of the Madonna, St. Mary, they became known as Madonnari.
Aware of festivals and holy days held in each province and town, they traveled to join in the festivities to make a living. Leaving their chalk boxes open, they hoped that pilgrims would leave offerings or coins if they approved of their work. For centuries, many Madonnari were folk artists, reproducing simple images with crude materials such as brick, charcoal and white chalk. Some, such as El Greco, would go on to become well known.
The tradition was in endangered by World War II which took a toll on their population. However, it was revived in 1973 when Grazie di Curtatone in the Province of Mantua, Italy, held the first International Street Painting Competition.! The two-week competition and festival is held every year during the Feast of the Assumption. It begins the eve of August 14th, when the chalk is blessed by the Bishop, and finishes the evening of August 15th when the jury picks the winners.
The goal of the Competition was to honor and recognize the traditional Italian art form and it has been successful in doing just that. Over the past decades a new generation of street painters has emerged and today the Italian tradition of street painting is enjoyed year round, not only in Italy, but at festivals all over the world.
And certainly these lovely labors of love are worth a few coins, don’t you agree?
This article was published in Italian Notebook on July 26, 2013.