Life as a Street Artist: Part 1,
On the Street.
Life as a Street Artist is an excerpt from my book, Asphalt Renaissance. It tells the story of my life as a street artist in Italy and Europe in the early 1980s. The first ample narrative document describing a street artist was in the book, “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell, published in 1933. My memoir, therefore, lies roughly halfway between Orwell’s account and the present day.
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.
Wenner and Stader after Correggio. Madonna di San Gerolamo. Saarbrucken, Germany. Sometimes the public had a hard time believing the works were actually painted directly on the pavement. In this case, a drunken paperhanger smeared the picture several times trying to lift it up.
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 Nuremberg, 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.
Wenner and Stader partially after Tiepolo. Fall of the Rebel Angels. Nuremberg, Germany. This large composition (fifteen by forty feet) could only be documented by tiling many photos taken from the ceiling of the underpass. An overzealous street cleaner destroyed the work the day after it was finished.
Wenner and Stader partially after Tiepolo. Detail of Fall of the Rebel Angels. Nuremberg, Germany. Wenner and Stader started with a work by Tiepolo, but improvised on the bottom part, creating their own fallen angels.
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.
Wenner after Bronzino. Sacra Famiglia con Sant’Anna e San Giovannino. Messina, Sicily. This small composition received a cold reception in Messina. Wenner fared better with simpler Madonnas in other Sicilian towns.
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 evidently part of life as a street artist. Still, 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. Sacred Family detail.
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. Life as a street artist was easier when he was inserted into a familiar environment such as Rome.
Wenner after Raphael. Madonna della Seggiola. Catania Sicily. This famous work was a bread-and-butter image for the madonnaro in southern Italy.
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. Piccola Madonna. Rimini, Italy. This image was typical of the kind of small picture Wenner created in southern Italy. Not wanting to overdo the copying, he created original images like this one. Some people would not believe they were original, even if they could not see him working from a reproduction.
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.
Wenner. Piccola Madonna detail.
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 frequently rains 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.
Wenner and Stader after Giordano. San Michele. Ostia Lido, Italy. The artists created this work in preparation for the festival in Grazie. Eventually they selected Pontormo’s Deposition as the subject.
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!
Wenner after Leonardo and Rubens. Battle of Anghiari. Rome, Italy. In the case of this composition, the original painting has been lost, and it can only be re-created by referring to copies of it.
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 misunderstand people often.
Wenner. Battle of Anghiari detail.
One day while street painting, a priest with a magenta-colored cap approached Wenner, saying 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.
Wenner. Three Archangels. Rome, Italy. Another improvised composition meant to be seen from different viewpoints.
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. Evidently, life as a street artist had a sharp learning curve.
Wenner after Michelangelo. Jonas. Rome, Italy. Wenner especially enjoyed copying the Sistine Ceiling frescoes. It was pleasurable to work on figures that had been conceived on a large scale.
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.
Conversation with nuns. Rome was filled with clergy and pilgrims who were especially appreciative of the street painters.
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. For this reason, life as a street artist became an unexpected pleasure.
Wenner after Leonardo. The Last Supper. Loreto, Italy. The Last Supper was an all-time favorite of the public as well as street painters. The original is so faded that each street painter gives a different interpretation of the work.
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.
Wenner after Leonardo. The Last Supper detail—St. Thomas