Grounded in Tradition
The hardships of World War II, industrialization, and the mass migration of the Italian population to the northern cities all took a toll on the madonnari. In the second half of the twentieth century, it seemed as if the tradition would soon be lost. In the early 1970s, a young journalist named Maria Grazia Fringuellini read that a man had been tossed into jail and heavily fined for making street paintings. Madonnari had been a common sight during Fringuellini’s childhood, and were considered part of the daily life in her community. She suddenly realized that she no longer saw them at festivals and markets painting saints, Madonnas, or characters from popular operas on the pavement. What had happened to all the street painters? When had they disappeared? And why was this lone artist being punished by the police for doing what seemingly had always been done on the streets of Italy?
Intrigued, Fringuellini went looking for street painters. After much searching, she was able to locate a small number of elderly men scattered around Italy who were still making paintings on the streets in exchange for donations. Their arduous lives were more challenging than ever, as they were being harassed by the police and treated as vagrants, while their artistry went largely unnoticed and unrewarded. What was once an integral part of Italian culture was rapidly coming to an end.
Wanting to honor the last few street painters and call attention to their dying art form, Fringuellini and her friend Gilberto Boschesi, a member of the noble Gonzaga family of Mantua, conceived the idea of a street painting manifestation and selected the piazza in front of the sanctuary in the town of Grazie di Curtatone as its venue. The sanctuary was a centuries-old pilgrimage site, and its asphalt piazza was suitable for painting. The village’s historic annual fair was also in need of a boost to attract more than just the local population.
La Fiera delle Grazie had been inaugurated on August 15, 1425, to provide food for the numerous pilgrims who had journeyed to Grazie’s sanctuary to celebrate the festival of the Assumption of the Madonna. To promote the fair and encourage vendors to sell their wares, the duke of Mantua had lifted the taxation on bread, meat, wine, and other comestibles. Taxes were eventually removed from gold, silk, linen, dry goods, animals, and grain as well, helping the fair to grow and become one of the largest in northern Italy. In order to earn income, the sanctuary rented merchant booths that lined the piazza. Displays of livestock were an especially impressive feature of the fair; even in 1945, at the close of a devastating war, vendors still brought fifteen hundred horses to exhibit there.
Life was changing, though, and soon livestock was replaced by farm machinery and winemaking equipment as the fair’s primary wares. Then in 1972, an economic boom led to a better general distribution of goods and services, and it appeared that after more than nearly 550 years the fair had reached the end of its usefulness for the people of Grazie. When Fringuellini and Boschesi presented their proposal, the community leaders readily agreed to host the street painters. August 15, Assumption Day, was a fitting holiday to honor those who had traditionally painted images of the Madonna. To strengthen that connection and bestow a mantle of respectability on the artists, Fringuellini and Boschesi officially referred to the street painters by their traditional name, madonnari. The first festival, held in 1973, drew eight madonnari from as far away as Puglia and Naples. One street painter, who was in his nineties and lived in a rest home, snuck out his window and bicycled eight kilometers to Grazie. Unlike the grueling all-night competition it would later become, the first event was easygoing. The artists began working on the morning of August 15 and painted at a leisurely pace until they were finished. These men were accustomed to spending about five hours on a painting, and the festival conformed to their pace.
Street painting’s popularity surged with the advent of the festival and the resulting press coverage. The competition also brought a new level of credibility and recognition to street painters as artists and to their art form. For the first time, street painters were recognized as professionals and received awards along with letters of recommendation from the festival judges and organizers. It wasn’t long before the Italian Ministry of Culture issued a decree legalizing street painting on the national level. If anyone attempted to stop a madonnaro from working on the street, he could present these documents to the police officers who confronted them.
Once the street painting manifestation was established, the community took the event over from Fringuellini. Soon the last exponents of this art form were asked to choose between attending new events started by Fringuellini and continuing to participate at Grazie. This created the first of many schisms. In order for Grazie to make up for the number of lost artists, they opened the event to all artists and the local community. That changed the art form forever. The newfound respect and popularity accorded to street painting encouraged a new generation of artists to take it up. These artists eschewed the classic icon-like images that the traditional street painters had created for generations. Instead of creating original works from memory, they opted for copying famous masterpieces. In the late 1970s, many young Europeans were traveling throughout the Continent, and street painting traditions from the northern countries, especially Holland, Germany, and England, began to arrive in Italy. A few of these artists had studied art formally, but most had little art education or training and therefore chose relatively simple images to copy, such as Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola, or small works by Caravaggio. By introducing new imagery, they were also responding to the changing tastes of the public. Street paintings of wellknown works of art earned more donations than the static, staring portraits of saints and Madonnas.
The Grazie festival organizers needed to find a way to cope with the new skills and image repertoire of the younger artists while still continuing to honor the old guard. The organizers came up with the idea of creating two categories within the competition. They made a rule that every newcomer to the competition had to start out in the Amateur category, regardless of ability. Only one Amateur painter could win each year and move up a rank to Professional. At the same time, the elderly traditional street painters returning to the festival were automatically designated as Professionals without having to compete for the title. In addition, any street painters who did not create religious images were automatically out of the event regardless of their level. In this way, only one new artist each year could join the ranks of the elderly traditional street painters.
By the time I arrived at the Grazie competition, I was competing not with the aged group of traditional street painters, but with a new generation; the traditional painters had already been relegated to receiving special prizes and their stipend. Unfortunately, the two groups of painters were at odds with each other. The older traditional painters accused the newer, younger ones of being copyists and not holding true to the spiritual element of the art form. The younger painters were unhappy, as they wanted to explore new imagery, even if it meant copying. Occasionally, a shouting match between the two would end in the destruction of the works with buckets of water.
There was much debate about how to evaluate the merits of the works when it came time to award the prizes. Street paintings had never been judged before. Did you reward virtuosity? If street painting was considered a type of folk art, was the naive quality of a painting more important? Naive painting had become popular among several younger street painters who asserted that the entire tradition was a form of naive art. The festival organizers finally left it up to the men who actually did the work to decide on the criteria for winning the competition. It became clear that the traditional madonnari considered themselves skilled artists. They felt strongly that skill and talent should be rewarded rather than some romantic notion of a rustic folk artist doing charmingly crude works.
In reality, street painting had no choice but to change with the tastes of the public. Although the festivals are a great venue for giving the art form recognition, its survival ultimately depended on an artist’s ability to make money with it. The public supported the artists one coin or bill at a time., and therefore had the greatest say in how the art form would evolve. Street painting is a living form of popular art, so no matter what critics or judges might say, it will continue to evolve according to the response and encouragement of the public.
End of “Grounded in Tradition”