Grounded in Tradition
A History of Pavement Art
A madonnaro’s itinerant lifestyle is born of necessity, as he must move on in order to find the next crowd or mass gathering. In the Middle Ages, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims laboriously journeyed to sanctuaries and shrines to celebrate the icons or relics they venerated. Individuals and groups of worshippers made pilgrimages to leave votive offerings at holy sites. The annual trek of hordes of pilgrims to a site often overwhelmed the food and supplies of small towns. Country fairs soon sprang up to sell food and other goods to pilgrims on their way to and at the sanctuary sites.
After completing their religious devotions, pilgrims enjoyed leisure activities such as Passion plays, music, and equestrian displays. Fairs soon became attractions in their own right, attracting residents from the countryside in addition to pilgrims. Locals came to socialize and enjoy the entertainment, but mostly they came to buy goods from traveling vendors that were otherwise unavailable to them throughout the year. They also came to seek out the itinerant craftsmen who followed the fair circuit—artisans sharpened knives, repaired shoes, fixed umbrellas, and caned chairs. Even executioners traveled from town to town, dispatching hapless prisoners who had been languishing in jail until they turned up.
During my street painting travels, I occasionally ran into Antonio Grillo, a traditional madonnaro, in Rome, Milan, and Verona. He would write a message in chalk below his large icon-like images that said, “Painter traveling without means. If my work merits it, I will use the donation to continue my travels.” He walked with a crutch, but was hardly a cripple. He was a tough old bird, and did not tolerate finding younger street painters in “his” spot. If need be, he would make sure that the artist moved on to another space. One evening I had dinner with him, after promising to vacate his painting spot the next day. He had a strong sense of his place in the world, and was extremely proud of his work. He made good money on the street, and spent his winters painting commissioned works.
Very early madonnari traveled between city-states going to pilgrimage sites, country fairs, civic pageants, and sanctuaries on religious holidays and saints’ feast days. Each city-state had different languages and customs. Even today, dialects differ dramatically from region to region in Italy, and linguistic differences remain even between neighboring villages. Fortunately, a street painting is a visual language that is universally understood.
Using simple materials such as white chalk, a piece of charcoal, and the broken end of a red brick, a street painter was able to make a copy of a cherished icon on the pavement. There were, however, many technical difficulties to be overcome by these early street painters. The Italian word for “pavement,” pavimento, does not distinguish between the flooring material used in a building’s interior and that used to pave the streets. Beautiful marble flooring can be found flowing right out of a church in order to provide a continuous smooth walkway to the sidewalk or piazza. Ancient mosaics inspired other surfaces, where paving is composed of rocks or cut stones. In order to work on a rough surface, a street painter would push fine grout made from sand and chalk into the cracks and gaps between the stones. Even though this gave a smooth surface on which to work, fine details could not be painted, as the chalk was blended into the grout with the palms of the painter’s hands. Therefore, traditional street painters had a repertoire of faccioni, or “big faces,” that did not require much detail. These oversized portraits of Madonnas and saints generally measured four feet by eight feet.
A much easier surface to work on was terra battuta, literally “beaten earth,” which was formed by combining clay-rich earth with hay and lime. The mixture was spread out and then beaten with poles until it dried. Terra battuta was typically used in public areas that were not paved with stone, and on the ground floor of many homes. The eventual widespread use of asphalt in public areas provided a smooth, uniform surface, which contributed to the shift in the types of images that could be created. As the surfaces that painters could work on improved, so did the level of detail in their paintings.
Continued on Part 4- Rebirth