The History of Street Painting
From the Book, Asphalt Renaissance.
In the history of street painting, 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?
Grazie, 1972. The small group of classic madonnari brought together by Maria Grazia Fringuellini seemed to be the end of a tradition rather than the beginning of a new and vibrant art form.
Flavio Sirio. Madonna della Seggiola. Grazie, Italy. By 1980, the imagery of the traditional madonnari had been replaced by more refined copies of known masterworks. Flavio Sirio won many competitions with his large and colorful interpretations.
Wanting to honor the last few street painters left in the history of street painting 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.
Maria Grazie Fringuellini was an energetic, enthusiastic person, who was generous to a fault with street painters. The stipend she gave to the old street painters to participate in the manifestation at Grazie was so considerable that the sum remained unchanged for nearly thirty years. This ensured the return of many of the traditional street painters for a number of years, giving continuity to an art form that might otherwise have been lost.
Grazie, 1972. The small group of classic Madonnari brought together by Maria Grazia Fringuillini seemed to be the end of a tradition rather than the beginning of a new and vibrant art form.
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.
Francesco Morgese. Maria Assunta. Grazie di Curtatone, Italy. Morgese had a sunny and cheerful character that was typical of street painters working in the south.
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. For the first time in the history of street painting, 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, they could now present these documents to the police officers that confronted them.
Morgese at Work. Many first-time street painters did not realize that the competition at Grazie started at midnight. More than half the working time was spent in the near darkness to avoid the melting daytime heat.
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 to the history of street painting, they were also responding to the changing tastes of the public. Street paintings of well-known works of art earned more donations than the static, staring portraits of saints and Madonnas.
Freddi from Cologne. Northern street painters arrived at Grazie, introducing new techniques and themes.
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 Professional without having to compete for the title. In addition, any street painter who did not create religious images was 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.
Manfred at Grazie. Manfred Stader won the Grazie competition with this piece, showing a flair for presentation that was new to street painting
By the time I arrived at the Grazie competition, I was not competing with the aged group of traditional street painters, but with a new generation of artists as the traditional painters had already been relegated to receiving special prizes and their stipend. Unfortunately, the two groups of painters were at odds with one another. 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.
Prisciandaro Disputes the Results. The grueling nature of the festival combined with fairly unpredictable jury results often resulted in tempers flaring. The townspeople loved the drama and would sometimes incite the artists.
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 naïve quality of a painting more important? Naïve painting had become popular among several younger street painters who asserted that the entire tradition was a form of naïve 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.
Claudio Sgobino. Madonna della Grazie. The Madonnaro surround his copy of the Madonna with sand and sawdust, recalling other early ephemeral traditions.
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 earn 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.
Archeologia Madonnara. Master street painter Andrea Bottoli demonstrates how a street painting may be done with stones and charcoal. For his picture, he collected stones from Lake Garda. Some of the red stones may be terra-cotta roof tiles from ancient Roman villas.
Kurt Wenner. Detail of “Titania Encantado”. Burgos, Spain. As street painting covered the globe the imagery was able to change with its environment. What was once a conservative folk art became a global phenomenon.
To read further, continue to: Becoming a Street Artist.