LIFE ON THE STREET 1983-1985
That summer, Kurt Wenner and Manfred Stader, one of the artists in Rome who had initiated him into street painting, decided to do some painting together. They boarded a crowded, all-night train to Vienna, and arrived in the city exhausted but eager to get to work. Immediately they began looking for a good site. Wenner was still new to street painting and drawing copies of paintings to scale, so he and Stader ended up painting a twenty-foot Madonna! The Viennese responded enthusiastically to the theatricality of the gargantuan painting and gave generously. The two later moved on to Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace, where the annual Salzburg Music Festival was taking place. However, as Wenner and Stader wandered around looking for a likely site, they discovered that all the streets were paved with quaint but impossibly bumpy cobblestones. Europe is filled with a variety of paving materials, which pose endless challenges to madonnari.
After their disappointment in Salzburg, they decided to stick to cities that Stader knew, such as Nuremberg and Saarbrücken. Knowing Wenner’s weakness for painting bizarrely large and complicated pieces, Stader selected cities with huge underpasses that protected them from the elements. Unbeknownst to them at the time, many northern street painters work on paper. This is due in part to the weather, and in part because the northern cultures relate better to highly crafted images that take a long time to create. Painting in Germany was decidedly different than in Italy, but the earnings were good and Wenner was saving money to fulfill his dream of buying a camper. One evening while they were in Saarbrucken, a drunken man began yelling at Wenner and Stader, saying, “This is the worst work I have ever seen and I should know, because I am a Meister Tapezierer!” Wenner’s knowledge of German was far from complete, but even Stader was perplexed at the man’s statement, because Meister Tapezierer means “master paperhanger.” The next thing they knew, the man was reaching down and smearing the edge of the picture with his fingertips.
While in Nuremburg, the two friends encountered a German trait that didn’t lend itself to street painting: cleanliness. Each morning at 5 am, a street cleaner would pass by and wash off any paintings he found. The artists had to stand by their painting each morning and physically guard it. As the colder months approached, Wenner decided it was time to buy a camper. With Stader’s help, he found an ancient but sound vehicle that met his budget. It was an old Mercedes that had been used as an armored car for emptying parking meters. This seemed to suit Wenner’s new profession quite well. Stader stayed on in Germany, while Wenner drove south to warmer weather in Sicily.
The first place in Sicily he created a street painting was Messina. He made a copy of Bronzino’s Holy Family. The chalk painting looked beautiful on the smooth piazza, and there were plenty of people, but nobody spoke to him and few made an offering. Wenner drove from Messina to the city of Catania, arriving very late at night. He was uncertain if the people of Catania would be receptive to his work, but he knew he wanted to try a simpler painting than the one he did in Messina. He decided to paint a copy of Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola, a small Renaissance painting with a devotional character that made it iconlike. It was the kind of traditional image madonnari had copied for generations.
I set out my baskets as usual, but they were completely ignored. Instead, the locals placed money directly onto the image itself, sliding bills under the mounting stacks of coins to keep them from blowing away. It was a distracting way to work, but I was very enchanted by their practice of giving an offering directly to the Madonna. It didn’t take long until this charming tradition completely obscured the painting.
Wenner’s success in Catania gave him the courage to paint in the towns of Piazza Armerina and Caltagirone. He continued with the theme of devotional Madonnas, as they seemed to go over well with the traditional Sicilians. Wenner found Sicily to be beautiful and fascinating, but it was an austere environment for street painting. Although the initial distrust of the people transformed into warmth and generosity in each town, the cycle repeated itself wherever he went.
After traveling through Sicily, Wenner headed back to Rome, where he met up with Stader, who was preparing to return to Germany. The two of them agreed that Wenner would take over Stader’s spot on the fashionable Via del Corso, where the passersby were a mix of government officials, high-end shoppers, journalists, tourists, and an assortment of young Italians. The location was just across the street from Piazza Colonna and the Italian Parliament, in the heart of Rome.
Such a setting meant that Wenner never knew what the day would bring, as there could be demonstrations with shouting protesters or a general strike that left the streets empty and deserted. But being at the center of Italian politics also meant that the national newspaper’s offices were just a stone’s throw from the painting site, and Wenner soon became the subject of many articles. Unlike sites in most cities where the monetary offerings would start to dwindle after several days, it seemed that the Via del Corso could be worked indefinitely.
Wenner was content to stay on the same spot for months, washing his finished pictures off and starting new ones. Observing his pictures became a part of people’s daily lives. Romans were especially accustomed to seeing street paintings, and they were munificent in their appreciation of his efforts. Besides tossing coins into his baskets, they showered him with boisterous, effusive compliments. As they left an offering or passed by, they would exclaim, “Molto bello! Magnifico! Squisito!” Supportive shopkeepers who had taught him only months earlier to carefully scrutinize his change so he didn’t get cheated came and lobbed a coin or two his way. Wenner enjoyed the Romans immensely.
As Wenner’s images grew more expansive, they also became more interesting and lucrative. He would now spend three to five days on a picture, which meant he had to protect the image at night. In the evening, he would stretch a sheet of plastic as tight as glass to shield the work from dirt, wind, dogs, and homeless people who might draw on it during the night to get tips from the odd passerby. It rains frequently in Rome, so seeing a picture through to the end was often an arduous task. Wenner soon learned to heed the ranting of several vagrants who were able to predict storms with uncanny accuracy. Every time they would mutter their warnings, he would instantly cover his work and head for shelter. The plastic didn’t keep the painting dry for long, as the water would seep under, but it did prevent the work from being stepped on and the colors tracked all over the sidewalk.
Once a storm passed, I would take off the plastic and wait for the ground to dry. Then, working swiftly with large, bold strokes, I’d redo what had been lost to the rain and continue at a frenetic pace to finish the picture. The pressure of having to draw quickly increased my artistic ability, as did the exercise of copying so many great masterpieces. Because my street paintings were copies and not original works, I was content to produce a vast number of them and then watch them disappear. Each one gave me invaluable information about color, form, and perspective on a large scale. Once a copy was finished, I had learned all I could from it, and was happy to have a rainstorm wash it away!
As Wenner worked on the streets of Rome, people would constantly offer him commissions for permanent paintings and drawings. This became a cultural conundrum, because Wenner couldn’t sort out who was serious and who was angling for cheap, or even free, artwork. Some kindhearted locals began to advise Wenner about who was trustworthy and who was out for a free painting. They told him not to work for priests with churches in the rural countryside (campagna in Italian), as such priests had no resources and would have him painting in return for hospitality. Unfortunately, the language still caused him to often misunderstand people.
One day while street painting, a priest with a magenta-colored cap approached Wennersaying that he had a church in Campania, and needed someone to paint the ceiling. Immediately Wenner assumed that this was the sort of priest he had been warned about and quickly told the priest that he was too busy to accept commissions. Later he learned that he had turned down the archbishop of Montecassino, who had come personally to ask Wenner to paint the ceiling of a major cathedral. In this case, the word Campania referred to a region of Italy outside Rome, and not the countryside, but the sound of the two words is so similar that he couldn’t distinguish one from the other at the time. Focusing so much on the idea of a church in the campagna, he completely forgot that you can identify priests, bishops, and archbishops by the color of their caps.
Two years later, an art restorer told Wenner about an important commission for the ceiling of a famous cathedral. As they walked into the archbishop’s office to offer their services, Wenner recognized the archbishop as the one who had approached him in Rome. He remembered Wenner as well and was very cordial. Unfortunately, he explained that while he had possessed the funds to pay for the ceiling two years before, they were no longer available.
On another occasion, a man in an elegant suit handed Wenner his business card, explaining he was a set designer for the great filmmaker Federico Fellini. He asked if Wenner would come work for Fellini. Wenner did not understand at the time that in Italy when someone hands you a card, it is an important invitation. Two years later, Wenner followed up and Fellini’s secretary wrote a lovely letter saying there were no films in progress at the time. Fellini died in 1993. Not having full command of the language was difficult, but Wenner did not miss every opportunity that came along.
Ironically, he was invited on several outings by his East Coast alma mater, which besides telling him as a student that he had no talent to draw had also denied his application to its Rome program. He felt privileged to be experiencing Rome on his own terms. Other people he met invited him to assist with archaeological digs, view hidden masterpieces, see long-closed churches, and climb through secret passages to vaults and cupolas in certain churches to view frescoes up close.
One day as I was working on the street, a bearded man introduced himself as an art restorer and asked if I was interested in seeing the restoration work of the Sistine Chapel ceiling up close. I told him I was, and unbelievably, he returned the following day with an appointment. When we arrived, the restorer was surprised that the Vatican guards knew me by name. As I climbed the scaffolding, I saw the meticulously rendered Signorelli and Botticelli frescoes. Then, straight above me, through an opening in the platform, an enormous foot appeared. Although I had viewed the paintings on the ceiling for countless hours from the floor below, and copied several of them, I was unprepared for the sheer size of Michelangelo’s figures. After months of chalking on the street, I found myself imagining the arm movements he must have had to make to create the enormous forms. Up close, I could see details that are otherwise not visible from below. Standing at arm’s length from the work, I had a sense of the struggle and fatigue Michelangelo must have suffered. Because of that experience, the ceiling is even more remarkable to me.
People of the Streets
Eventually, Wenner did accept several large commissions from people he met on the street. Creating copies of masterworks in a permanent medium was not to his liking, and it was another year before he felt ready to create original permanent works of art. The homeless meant no harm and merely hoped to profit a little from the people strolling through the city after hours. Since Wenner was familiar with the challenges of earning a living on the street, he empathized with them and thought about how he and they could both benefit.
Once I began making original compositions on the street, it became more important to me to protect the painting from damage or destruction by the elements. I wanted to spend my time moving the picture forward, not repairing damage. Sun, wind, and rain all took their toll, but Rome’s large population of vagrants was a problem as well. In order to make a little money at night after I had gone home, they would strip away the protective plastic and pretend to work on the painting, drawing invisible strokes with a cigarette butt in place of a piece of chalk.
To protect the paintings, he enlisted and paid the more capable street people to guard his work when he wasn’t there. They had a pecking order among themselves, so they worked out their various shifts of protecting the picture. During each turn, a man would pass himself off as the creator of the artwork, collecting all the gratuities and compliments. Late one evening as Wenner passed by on his way home, he saw one of the “assistants” giving an elaborate art history discourse to a small, spellbound group of Romans. As he looked to be about seventy years old, with blackened teeth, he seemed to fit the stereotype of a street painter. He had listened to Wenner respond to frequently asked questions and had memorized many facts and concepts and could now deliver his own lecture with great conviction and gusto. When a person attempted to commission a painting from him, he cited the purity of his work, asserting with disdain that his work was “true art” and could not be sold.
When a picture was completed and there was no rain, Wenner would occasionally take a break for a few days to enjoy the city and its endless treasures. His “assistants” would take over the painting and collect the offerings. They proved to be invaluable, for not only did they look after the artwork, but also they enabled him to hold on to his prime location indefinitely. An unwritten law among street painters is that good sites are always available on a first-come, first-served basis. No other artist will take over an area as long as someone else is working on an image. However, there can be a race to grab a lucrative spot the minute it is empty, even if it is because rain has erased the image. Over time, Wenner’s images grew so large and impressive that the space on Via del Corso was no longer sufficiently lucrative for other street painters with their smaller and simpler images, yet it was still important for his street assistants to guard the spot from drifters or addicts.
I came to know many of the street people, such as an old crone selling roses. When my painting site was especially crowded, the Flower Lady would appear out of nowhere and push her way through the spectators. Pretending to berate me, she would work the crowd, waving her hands in the air crying, “What’s this? Not again! I keep telling you not to paint these large, complicated works. What do we know about art? Give us some little Madonna or a saint and we’re happy. Forget these large masterpieces! You work for days, and does anyone understand it? No, they don’t. Just look at these baskets—empty! You make nothing. Just paint some simple little Madonna, and then people will give you something!” Naturally, her harangue would cause the crowd to drop lots of money into the baskets. After they had dispersed, she would quietly circle the painting and pluck a couple of bills from each of the baskets as compensation. Before departing, she would leave behind an offering of some particularly poor roses.
Early street painters survived on bread, wine, olive oil, and an occasional coin received as donations for their work. By the time Wenner began street painting, coins and small bills made up the bulk of the offerings. He depended on the tips he received, and the virtuosity of his work attracted such appreciation that it ended up causing a considerable problem: too many coins! Most Italian coins were worth very little, which meant there were a lot of them in circulation. As a result, the banks refused to change them into bills or accept them for deposit, and very few merchants would agree to be paid with them.
The baristas at La Tazza d’Oro, a café Wenner frequented, told him to bring his coins in and they’d exchange them. That evening, he hauled a large sack bulging with change back to La Tazza d’Oro. The baristas were shocked at the quantity of soldini (small change). After a rapid-fire discussion involving much gesticulation, they poured the coins into the bags used to sell coffee beans and placed them on the scale to determine their value. It wasn’t long before the Tazza d’Oro had all the coins it could possibly use. Wenner had to find other means to exchange or spend them. In order to possibly convince a merchant to accept the coins, Wenner needed to roll and carefully label them.
Then, to be on the safe side, he would let a merchant know up front that he needed to pay with them. It took effort to convince others to accept the neat bundles as payment, but his efforts were rewarded with a good meal, an evening at the opera, or a train ticket for more extensive sightseeing. Eventually, his earnings enabled him to rent a room in a pensione across from the Pantheon. He also found a small room in a nearby piazza to use as a studio. He now had lodging and a studio in the heart of Rome, with his work site just around the corner. He received roughly four thousand coins each week, which meant he could scarcely carry the heavy sacks away at the end of each day. In his studio, there were so many bags piled up that there was practically no room to move, and all the merchants he knew had already accepted buckets of change from him. On one particularly lucrative day, he had to call a taxi, as the coins weighed too much to carry. When the driver arrived, he tried to casually lift the bag so as not to call attention to how much money he had made. In front of everyone, the handles ripped off, leaving the heavy bag firmly planted on the ground. The crowd instantly understood what had happened and went wild with laughter, applauding his good fortune.
Luckily, Wenner heard about a pizzeria near the Trevi Fountain that was always short of change, because tourists would cast their coins into the fountain before deciding to buy a slice of pizza. Wenner approached the owner, who offered to take all the coins off his hands for a reduced price per pound. It took several trips to transport all the bags from the Pantheon piazza over to the Trevi Fountain. The owner instructed his workers to accept the coins in his absence, most likely thinking there would be just a few sacks full. When he returned, he discovered that his storeroom was full of coins.
During Easter, Rome fills with pilgrims, making it the one time of the year when lots of artists arrive to work on the streets. Rather than compete for space, I suggested to several street painting friends that we work in groups and occupy four heavily trafficked sites. Because we were spread out all over the city, we needed someplace to store our earnings. Each evening, we’d mix all the money together, divide out the bills, and place the coins in my camper, which was parked illegally in front of the Bank of Italy. There were no legal parking spaces near my work site, and I figured the camper was too heavy to be towed, as the wheels had flattened under the weight of the coins. By the end of the week, the vehicle must have had more coins than the bank itself.
After the Easter festivities came to a close, Wenner and his street painting friends decided to take a day in the countryside to sort, count, roll, and divide up the coins. They packed a picnic of bread, sausages, cheese, and wine, and headed out to the hills of Frascati. They set to work, but soon conversation and good food took over and no one felt much like going through the coins. As the light began to fade, they piled up the sacks and covered them with dry leaves, marking the spot for another day. The group never did go back for the coins.
When Wenner made his first street painting in Rome, he had no knowledge what laws might govern the art form. As it turned out, street painting is considered a valid form of popular art and is not illegal. However, it is a bit like parking in that it is legal to park in many places—but not everywhere. The problem with street painting is that the legal spaces are not delineated, and asking for permission from the authorities is seldom effective. No official will deny permission, but they will rarely grant it, either. The bottom line is that if you want to be a street painter, you have to accept the possibility of being moved on by the police.
Frequently, on the first day in a new location the police would show up in the late morning. Shopkeepers would typically call them when a street painter starts to work. Madonnari were not known for causing any threat; therefore, it would generally take the police quite some time to appear. By the time they arrived, the image was usually well under way. The police tended to watch Wenner paint for a while before speaking with the shopkeeper, and they normally left without saying anything. Wenner had only one serious encounter with a particularly aggressive officer. A vigile urbano (traffic officer) arrived at his painting, bellowing, “Get out of here!” while kicking over the baskets and sending coins rolling every which way. Wenner would have normally tried to reason with the officer, but in this particular case he was working with a friend, a German baron who loved to act the part when angered. The baron told the vigile, “I’m a real artist, so you should call a real policeman.” While this was all well and good for his friend, Wenner had been in the country far past the official three-month entry limit. The last thing he wanted was a real policeman showing up.
Thanks to my friend, a carabiniere with the power of arrest was on his way! The officer arrived on a gleaming motorcycle, wearing an impeccable uniform. The vigile was by this time in a heated discussion with a crowd of angry spectators. The carabiniere didn’t hide his irritation with the vigile, and proceeded to humiliate him by loudly informing him that we were permitted to street paint, and that it was unfathomable that he had been disturbed for this. The baron reveled in the spectators’ praise, while I disappeared in search of a stiff drink. The Romans always love a good show, and on my return I found our baskets overflowing.
The most dramatic confrontation with the police occurred in Naples. The neighborhood priest asked Wenner to create a street painting of San Gennaro for the saint’s feast day. The saint’s dried blood is kept in a reliquary in the church and publicly displayed while prayers are said for the miracle of San Gennaro to occur (the liquefaction of the blood). Wenner had just started painting when a police officer arrived and ordered him to move on. Wenner returned to the church and found the priest.
The priest said Wenner had his protection and, more important, the protection of San Gennaro. He advised Wenner to return to the painting, adding that the officer would have already departed. Wenner continued working on the street painting for a few hours before the officer returned with a companion. By then, a large crowd had gathered around the painting. The officers politely attempted to pack up his supplies. However, the onlookers stopped them by unpacking everything and putting each item back in its place. The officers attempted to force the issue, but in a moment of inspiration Wenner faced the Neapolitans and asked, “Is it right to destroy the image of a saint on his feast day?” That was more than the people could take. They lifted up the officers and carried them away.
By midday, the streets were nearly empty and Wenner was still working, but not without a sense of dread. Off in the distance, he heard sirens approaching and decided he had better quickly pack up his belongings. Retreating into the church, he looked through the door to see police cars pulling up alongside his work. He ran upstairs and interrupted the priest, who was eating lunch. Wenner apologized and explained that the polizia had just arrived. Calmly, the priest said, “You have my protection, you have San Gennaro’s protection, and you have the protection of the Madonna.” He further assured Wenner that all was well and encouraged him to continue with the painting.
Wenner returned downstairs and peered out the door. He could see the polizia cars surrounding his drawing, which now looked like a crime scene. Sensing that the protection of the priest was similar to that of San Gennaro, more spiritual than physical, he opted to put his trust in St. Peter and immediately returned to Rome. He never found out what happened to the painting. Eventually, Wenner would receive a letter from the superintendent of culture, history, and monuments for the region of Campania. The letter gave him sweeping privileges to enter any museum for free and to create a street painting wherever he liked. A similar letter from the Italian national government provided a further talisman. Notwithstanding such high acknowledgments, the possibility of a confrontation never completely disappeared.
Wenner headed to Rome, looking forward to being back on its familiar streets. He had many pleasurable months creating large, elaborate paintings for the appreciative Roman audience. With the arrival of the summer heat, however, the Eternal City is transformed into a ghost town, and without the Romans to set an example of tossing a coin or two in a street painter’s basket, the earnings evaporate. The year before, Wenner had booked a room at a pensione in Rimini, on the Adriatic coast, where he spent the summer working among the hordes of bathers that fill the coastline. Always in pursuit of new sites and experiences, he decided to try summer in Switzerland.
Street painting in Switzerland is not universally permitted. Some cities allow it if you’ve paid for a permit, while in others the police will allow you to stay on as long as they see the locals enjoying your work. Wenner knew about the regulations in just a few cities, which meant the easiest way to find out if it was permitted in the rest was to start a painting and see what happened. He was fined just once, in Montreux. Generally, if street painting wasn’t permitted he was politely asked to move on within a day or two. The Swiss keep a tight rein on their cities with the help of surveillance cameras, and whenever a policeman approached Wenner the officer knew exactly where Wenner had parked and how long he had been painting, and even had a good approximation of his earnings.
Life on the street in Switzerland is much easier than in Italy, and the pavement is so immaculate that there is never any need to wash it off before starting a painting. The Swiss are also generous with their donations, which they consider to be a tip rather than a religious offering or a handout. My only complaint about working in Switzerland is the weather. Even in summer, it turns bitterly cold with icy Alpine winds the minute a storm comes up. The storms not only move in swiftly, but they drop a lot of rain and hail as well. Most of my paintings had to survive several bouts of rainfall before completion. When the weather was good, Switzerland was spectacular; there was no better place to be. In Lucerne and Lausanne, I did paint beside crystal-clear lakes filled with elegant swans.
The Swiss accepted street paintings with secular subjects, and this gave Wenner the opportunity to branch out from the traditional religious compositions expected by Italian audiences. The tranquil environment, combined with the flexibility the Swiss showed toward the subject matter, allowed him to progress toward developing his own style of street painting and experiment with allegorical and mythological themes. On the sidewalks alongside the lakes, Wenner first began to refine and formalize the geometry of his anamorphic illusions. Like a true madonnaro, he eventually developed a circuit of lucrative and friendly cities to paint in, and his reputation grew as he traveled among Italy, Switzerland, and Germany.