The Sacred Roots of Street Painting
Competing at Grazie
From the book Asphalt Renaissance, available on Amazon.
The Street Painting Competition at Grazie di Curtatone
To pass the hours after visiting the sanctuary and learning about the sacred roots of street painting, Wenner and Stader spent time exploring the many stalls, enjoying the vast array of goods and specialties available. At that time, Italian society had nothing similar to supermarkets or large do-it-yourself stores except in the largest cities. The exotic foods, household goods, and farm implements on display were a welcome sight to the local population, who saw these items only at the annual fair. While strolling about, the two artists were summoned inside the local elementary school by some of the festival organizers. The assembly for the Congress of the Italian Street Painting Association was in session. The two men discovered that they had automatically become members of the association when they signed up for the competition. At the assembly, they witnessed the bitter rivalries that existed among the older generation of street painters as they exchanged angry words and colorful insults. The streets had not always been kind to many of the older madonnari, who were used to vigilantly defending their scraps of turf. Misery does not always love company, especially when the company might compete for one’s meager livelihood.
The mayor repeatedly warned the madonnari that anyone who sabotaged or attempted to destroy another artist’s work would be expelled. A street painter sporting a magnificent mustache and a northern accent whispered to us that a previous competition had grown ugly when the older madonnari began trading insults. The confrontation culminated with the men heaving buckets of water over each other’s paintings, until all that remained on the asphalt was a few patches of color. Until then, I had thought of street painting as a fun, unfettered means of traveling around Europe and making a living with my art, but I could see that it was serious business to these artists.
The sun had set by the time the meeting adjourned, and the piazza was illuminated with stadium lights and lanterns hung from poles around the merchant’s stands. The heavy evening air sat motionless, as the asphalt, which had reached oven like temperatures in the afternoon, radiated the day’s heat. Wenner and Stader followed the street painters as they joined the townspeople and tourists to form a procession. The two eldest street painters carried a reed basket with colored chalks for the ritual blessing by the local priest.
Wenner after Pontormo. Hands. Mantua, Italy. The surface of the street dictates the speed of the work, and the amount of detail an artist can obtain. The piazza of Grazie has always had terrible asphalt, making the competition especially difficult for less experienced artists.
The summer sun sets late in northern Italy; around 10 P.M. we elbowed our way into one of the large food tents for dinner. We headed toward the big grill, identifiable through the crowd by the rising smoke from the charcoal fire and the smell of spiced meat through the tent. We bought sausages, bread rolls, and a bottle of Lambrusco wine to fortify ourselves for the upcoming artistic marathon just a couple of hours away. The sacred roots of street painting were now a memory as we geared up for the immediate experience of competing.
Along with the other street painters, the two friends took their assigned places on the piazza and set up their materials. There was now a sense of anticipation, as a great number of painters were standing on their spaces waiting to begin. Some knew each other and were conversing, while others glared at the competition, sizing them up. Finally, at midnight, a whistle blew and the event was officially underway. The artists would have twelve hours to complete their work. Although they had made their practice run in Ostia Antica with a painting of St. Michael, Wenner and Stader had since decided to make a copy of Jacopo da Pontormo’s The Deposition from the Cross. They felt a skillful copy in chalk of this famous complex masterpiece would have a stunning presence.
Pontormo’s painting of Christ’s body being removed from the cross is a personal favorite. The large altarpiece hangs in the Capponi Chapel in the church of Santa Felicita in Florence near the Ponte Vecchio. The Vasari Corridor is an enclosed passageway that connects the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti and was used by the Medici dukes to observe Mass at Santa Felicita from the safety of a screened balcony. The small side-chapel containing Pontormo’s masterpiece is seldom open to the public, though it is on view through the iron screen. A few months before the competition, I had discovered a narrow passage that led from a nondescript side chapel to the area behind the screen of the Capponi Chapel. I spent many hours studying the painting, trying to understand Pontormo’s vision. What I especially love about the work is that although it was painted in 1528, it is very abstract in its intention and formal organization. Unlike the earlier Renaissance painters, who strove for realism, Pontormo didn’t make any attempt to copy reality. Intuitively, the mannerist artists understood the qualities of abstract form that allowed them to reach beyond the natural world when creating their works.
Wenner after Pontormo. The Deposition. Pontormo’s great masterpiece was a particular inspiration to Wenner because of its abstract and otherworldly forms.
Painting at night saved the artists from the scalding sun, but the stadium lights on the edge of the piazza were spotty and illuminated some workspaces better than others. As observers milled about, they cast shadows onto the surface, making it impossible for the artists to see their work. The rough and porous asphalt was particularly challenging, making detail exceedingly difficult to produce. Wenner and Stader were not used to working on such a poor surface. Their attempt to find an artistic solution, while painting in near-darkness, was a formidable challenge. The sacred roots of street painting did nothing to facilitate the harsh reality of the competition.
Around three in the morning, the shadow of two people obliterated our painting. However, this time the shadows didn’t move on. We looked up to find two thugs hovering over us, dressed in old grease-stained shirts and work pants and reeking of sweat, stale tobacco, and liquor. They were obviously not among the competing street painters, but had a message to relate. Italian threats are indirect and subtle, and we didn’t speak enough Italian to understand the men’s elliptical utterances, so we kept shrugging our shoulders. The thugs got increasingly exasperated as they were forced to become more explicit. They finally performed a dramatic pantomime of beating us up if we were to win the competition. Although rattled by the encounter, we reasoned that we were safe as long as we stayed in the crowded piazza.
Testing the Pavement. The pavement of Grazie has always been porous and rough. Even for experienced street painters much detail is lost in the final images.
At daybreak, hundreds of exhausted chalk-covered artists descended on the first open bar. Sanitation facilities were at a minimum throughout the village, and the bar’s tiny bathroom was one place where the madonnari could clean up. Wenner looked admiringly at one of the old-guard artists, who wore a white suit that was seemingly impervious to chalk dust, black asphalt, and perspiration. The number of participants surprised Wenner and Stader; however, by morning it was clear not all of them were artists competing for prizes and recognition. Various local residents, including entire families, came to paint simply for the joy of participating in the festival. They greeted friends, ate, drank, sang songs, and went home when they were tired. They slept, showered, and returned, refreshed and ready for more fun. Most of the older traditional street painters started their pictures in the morning after a good night’s sleep, as they seldom ever worked on a picture for more than a few hours. Although it is not obligatory to paint through the night, those who hope to win use every available hour.
The painters who remained in the piazza all night were the ones who were competing for the next title or prizes. Manfred and I worked furiously throughout the morning, hoping to finish our painting in time for the judges’ final walk-through at midday. The late-morning sun was melting the asphalt, which caused it to emit fumes. The heat burned our hands and knees, as we painted frantically through the final hour. A group of judges walked by each painting, stopping occasionally to write their observations on small notepads. Onlookers, artists, and local participants, all went by, taking in the finished works and sizing up the competition.
While the judges convened, the artists speculated among themselves. Finally, amid much fanfare and reverie, the judges mounted the stage. They made never-ending speeches that Wenner and Stader could only partially understand. Eventually, the judges ran out of things to say and announced the winners. Wenner and Stader were jointly awarded the title Madonnaro Qualificato and ceremoniously presented with a gold-colored medal, and an invitation to participate the following year in the Professional category. The artists’ dreams of a large cash prize evaporated. At the time, the only prize obtained was the promise of receiving a payment the following year in the next category.
The Award. Every festival ends in an award ceremony. Awards are also given toworks outside of the competition.
We were just about broke, yet too tired and disappointed to wait by our painting for any tip money that might be thrown onto it. Besides, we were mindful of the thugs’ threat if we won the competition. After pooling our loose change, we had just enough money for one night in a cheap pensione and train fare to Rome. Looking out the window, as our bus to Mantua pulled away from the piazza, we saw the bullies passed out in a grassy field alongside the road.
The pair searched for hours for a pensione willing to take them in, but no one would accept them in their filthy post-competition state. They wandered around exhausted and dejected, until Stader spotted some rusty chaise lounges outside a gas station. They carried them down beside the lake and collapsed.
We did our best to adjust our bodies to the bent metal and patches of broken webbing on the chaise lounges. After a fitful night of sleep, we boarded the first train to Rome, saying that we would never return to Grazie.
The Museum. City officials gave Wenner the use of a dilapidated house in thepiazza of Grazie pending restoration. The house later became part of the museum of street painting.
Little did the artists know that their experience was only the beginning of a long relationship with Grazie di Curtatone. They would eventually see the once sleepy local festival explode in size and become the prototype for a worldwide phenomenon. The sacred roots of street painting would inspire an artistic movement that became global and multicultural.
The Permit. Although the City Hall of Grazie had no authority to permit street painting, it issued a letter quoting a national law and certified the artist as a bona-fide exponent of the art form. Otherwise unprotected, street painters often relied on this talisman when confronted by the police.
To read further, continue to: Life as a Street Artist, part 2