The Sacred Roots of Street Painting
The Sanctuary of Grazie di Curtatone
From the book Asphalt Renaissance, available on Amazon.
In Front of the Sanctuary. As the sun sets on the piazza, artists await for the judges and the award ceremony.
Grazie: The Spiritual Home of the Madonnari
After Wenner had completed his first two Roman street paintings, he traveled to Vienna with his friend Manfred Stader. While the two artists were in Vienna searching for the right spot to begin a painting, they came across the work of another artist. The painter was not present, but all the tools of his trade were neatly arranged on the sidewalk. A small photo album lay open for passersby to leaf through, and lying next to it was a dog-eared brochure for a street painting competition in Italy. In the true territorial style of one accustomed to surviving on the streets, the madonnaro had cut out the event pictures from the brochure and replaced them with photos of his work. That altered pamphlet would not only change the lives of the two friends, it would forever alter the course of street painting. They would discover for themselves the sacred roots of street painting.
I studied the pamphlet, trying to make out the text, which was in Italian. I learned that the street painting competition was an annual event that was to take place in three weeks’ time in a town called Grazie di Curtatone, near Mantua. We had heard spectators on the street in Rome talk about a competition, but nobody there could remember where it was held. We asked other street painters about the event, but since cash prizes were involved they were not willing to share the information with us. Summers in Austria are ideal, and we knew that northern Italy would be abysmally hot and humid; nevertheless, we thought it would be interesting to join a large gathering of street painters, and Manfred was eager to enter the competition, believing we had a good chance of winning.
It wasn’t long before the two artists left Austria’s summer charms and returned to Italy to practice their composition for the competition. Much of the population of Rome had already left for their seaside holidays, so Wenner and Stader decided to head to Ostia Antica, an ancient Roman port town. There, they found miles of sand dotted with rows of sun beds, umbrellas, changing cabins, and vacationing Italians en masse.
Madonna della Grazie. This much-revered panel is a symbol to the community that hosts the festival of street painters, and therefore an icon for the art form as well.
Our subject was a painting of St. Michael I had seen in Berlin. We set up to work in front of the train station. Every forty-five minutes, a train would arrive and a new wave of beachgoers would surge out of the cars into the station. As soon as the cars were empty, a swirl of outbound tourists would board and depart. Between trains, we retreated to an outdoor café table for an espresso or a cold beer. It was a relaxing and comfortable venue.
By the end of the dry run, Stader was confident they were ready for the competition in Grazie di Curtatone. They decided to take a night train to avoid paying for a hotel room. The signora at their pensione offered them a sleeping pill to help them get some rest on the train, instructing them each to take half of the tablet. The pill turned out to be fiendishly powerful, however, and the two of them were rendered comatose almost instantly. They awoke in Mantua, four miles away from Grazie di Curtatone, so groggy and disoriented that neither of them could remember changing trains in Verona.
We staggered into a ratty hotel across the street from the train station and checked in. Then we went to the nearest bar and drank copious amounts of strong Italian espresso in an attempt to counteract the effects of the sleeping pill. In this inglorious manner, we entered the town that would become my home for nearly two decades.
The two caught a bus and headed to Grazie di Curtatone. The route wound through fields of corn and sunflowers, which sizzled in the intense summer heat and humidity. The village sits on a tiny peninsula in a vast lake. The banks of the lake are lined with dense patches of reeds, and giant water lilies blanket the water as far as the eye can see. The village itself is comprised of a ring of medieval houses with red-tiled roofs and crumbling stucco walls that reveal centuries-old brickwork. These structures surround a paved piazza, with a graceful fifteenth-century Gothic-style sanctuary, complete with a delicate arched portico, as its focal point.
We arrived two days before the festival, but there was little evidence of the upcoming event. A few orange traffic cones blocked off the streets leading to the piazza, and some crude hand-lettered signs designated nearby fields as parking lots. A row of planks in front of the church delineated the competition area, and heat shimmered as it radiated off the asphalt. We had never imagined having to work on such a violently hot surface.
Thanks to the tattered pamphlet they had come across in Vienna, Wenner and Stader had just stepped into the most historic venue of the sacred roots of street painting. They needed to find a festival representative, and in a town of a few hundred inhabitants that wasn’t hard to do. The organizer let them know that the competition was structured into two categories, and that every newcomer had to start in the Amateur category and work his way up the ranks by winning the title of each section (Amateur and Professional). Each division could have just one winner each year.
At the Lake. Grazie, Italy
In my case, the organizer was right: I was an amateur, since I only had a couple of street paintings under my belt. However, Stader had made many paintings and was not pleased with the idea of being regarded as an amateur. We tried to persuade the organizer to alter our status, as we imagined a much-reduced prize in the Amateur category, and we needed to win in order to pay for food, lodging, and travel back to Rome.
The next day Grazie transformed itself from a sleepy little village into an enormous fairground, with stands spilling down the main and side streets. The closed-up trailers and trucks that had lined the streets the day before unhinged their side panels and transformed into stands selling roast pork, cheese, fruits, nuts, polenta, underwear, fur coats, and a variety of useful gadgets. After the better part of the day, Wenner and Stader had reluctantly registered as Amateurs. This category has the much-despised title Amanti del Gessetto, or “Lovers of the Little Chalk.” The two artists then claimed a painting space on the asphalt in the piazza.
The competition was set to commence at midnight, which seemed absolutely bizarre to us at the time. We squeezed through the crowds and found a peaceful, idyllic area behind the sanctuary to pass the time. The apse of the Sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Grazie rose dramatically above the lake, with flocks of ducks and swans swimming close to the nearby shore. A lone fisherman propelled his boat slowly forward with a single oar; standing up in the small, thin craft as if it were a Venetian gondola. I had read the biography of Renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini and knew the lake once harbored malarial mosquitoes. Their non-malarial descendants had feasted on us the night before, flying freely through the open window of the bleak pensione. The sultry air and suffocating heat lasted well into the night. The lake, however, radiated tranquility and magic, and in the shade of a willow tree, we feasted on some delicacies bought at the stands as we waited for the big event that night.
The Sanctuary. Layers of dust and decay once covered the decorations inside the recently restored sanctuary. Although the restoration was necessary, it was especially suggestive in its unrestored state.
The sanctuary’s elegant and restrained exterior does nothing to prepare a visitor for its interior. The upper walls of the nave are lined with strange wooden structures, and an elaborately painted floral ceiling runs overhead, neither of which conforms to any preconceived notions of a Late Gothic church. A dead crocodile, suspended by a chain from the ceiling, dramatically underscores this point.
On entering the sanctuary, I was immediately greeted by a large reptile, hanging above me on a long chain. The creature’s feet had long since fallen off or been eaten away by insects, and bits of straw hung from openings in its body, exposing the taxidermy. The locals claimed the crocodile had once terrorized the community, which bathed and laundered in the lake, until a brave knight prayed to the Madonna and miraculously slew it.
The Crocodile. Swimming in a sea of floral decoration, the beast is a protagonist of local lore.
The stuffed carcass had been presented to the sanctuary by the locals in gratitude to the Madonna for rescuing them from its threatening jaws. But the crocodile, while an unusual religious ornament, is only the overture to the rest of the décor.
The sanctuary’s cool interior contrasted starkly with the blazing heat outdoors. I slide onto the nearest wooden pew and pressed my feet flat against the cold marble floor. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, the crocodile appeared to be swimming in the vast sea of complicated floral designs on the walls and ceiling. On closer inspection, I found that the ornaments, which were made from wax and plaster, and were arranged as garlands and decorative geometric designs, were replicas of hands, eyes, breasts, hearts, and bubonic plague sores. Just above arm’s reach, the walls were lined with wooden columns and niches filled with decaying life-sized statues made from wax, plaster, and papier-mâché.
These eerie effigies portray the people who attributed their dramatic rescues from untimely deaths to the Madonna’s divine intervention. The commissioned statues had been left at the sanctuary as ex-voto offerings to the Madonna delle Grazie. Some of the figures were clad in the Renaissance armor of the donor, while others were draped in rare antique fabric. Those whose clothing had disintegrated over the centuries were now dressed in papier-mâché gowns.
Niches. The columns and cornices of the niches are covered with wax hearts, eyes,breasts and plague sores. In the niches are various figures being put to death inmacabre ways. Presumably, they miraculously survived their gruesome executions.
The statues of those who had been saved from imminent execution are particularly evocative. Some of them peer out at the viewer, while others gaze downward as if still contemplating some tragic or violent scene. Although the figures depict those who escaped an encounter with the Grim Reaper, the statues themselves are fighting a losing battle against time. Slowly, it dawned on me that the sanctuary was overflowing with votives. As I walked around the perimeter I saw a large collection of wooden crutches and canes, offered by those who credited the Madonna with their ability to cast them aside. There are even modern-day soccer balls mounted on the wall, evidence that the locals believe in the Holy Mother’s intervention on behalf of the community team. I was particularly drawn to the tavolette, small painted panels depicting miraculous rescues attributed to the Madonna. These paintings showed men being pulled from a stormy sea, being saved from a firing squad, or being lifted out from under the hooves of a horse drawing a carriage.
Crutches and Soccer Balls. The crutches are testimony to miraculous healings. The soccer balls possibly attest to equally miraculous victories.
In all the tavolette, a simply painted figure of Grazie’s Madonna blesses the devotee from the upper right-hand corner. Some panels have only the initials P.G.R., which stand for per grazie ricevuta (“for grace received”) stamped in metal or embroidered on cloth. Only the Madonna still knows the nature of the miracle, though many stories about the statues are woven into the local folklore. The tavolette are works by folk artists and were often created by early madonnari.
Soldier. Before restoration many of the paper mache statues in the Sanctuary were in advanced states of decay, giving them a haunted house appearance. During one cleaning some statues were found to have fabulously valuable suits of Renaissance armor.
I picked up a small leaflet from a pile placed near the altar, which explained that the sanctuary was built between 1399 and 1406 as an ex-voto, in gratitude for deliverance from the plague. The gilded icon of the Madonna delle Grazie embracing the Christ Child is still considered by the faithful to be a miracle-working image. Whether the Madonna is keeping plague outbreaks away from the village, or extending her grace to the local soccer team during an important match, the recipients of her grace have always left a visible token of gratitude. To me, this sanctuary filled with thousands of ex-votos is certainly the spiritual home of the madonnari and their art.
Wax Body Parts. On close inspection one notices that the decoration of the niches is done with wax replicas of body parts. These are meant to represent ex-votos, but add another morbid touch to the drama of the overall effect.
To read further, continue to: The Sacred Roots of Street Painting, part 2