When searching out how street painting first started I encountered a variety of versions of the story, from a variety of sources. All, however, generally agreed that it was first documented in Italy. While other forms of ephemeral works have been documented in other countries and cultures throughout history, I would like to concentrate on street painting in particular.
Most sources agree that street painting began in the 15th century in Italy. The reasons for its arrival revolve around various cultural phenomenons which brought the artists out to the public areas to impart their message. One story has it that street painters began working outside on the plazas to celebrate the religious holidays or events they were observing. In Italy the term Madonnari is used to describe street painters – this means literally, Madonna painter. Most often the images were of the Madonna,
as a thanks or way of expressing reverence to the blessed mother. It would not be unreasonable to imagine artists creating homage pieces to the Virgin during the Feast of the Assumption, for example. Europe and Italy in particular, have a long history of pageantry, through public festivals, which utilized the most talented artisans of the day – Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Pozzo among them – to create wildly sumptuous and fantastic public theatrical sets and décor. This would include everything from costumes to backdrops to moveable theatrical props and more. Additionally it is easy to imagine artists making wondrous images on the surface of the plaza square as an element of festival celebrations.
Another version of how street painting began had more to do with a darker side of history. This involves men arriving home from the trials of war, and, having traveled home safely,would draw images of the Madonna
on the streets during the course of their journey, as thanks to the blessed mother for having spared their lives. Of course, eventually the street painters and their images faded into history, lying dormant for several hundred years, as an almost forgotten art form.
Interestingly, India also maintains a long tradition (centuries old) of drawing with chalk on the streets, similar to the Madonnari tradition, creating images of Hindu deities as a form of respect and reverence. Images of Shiva, Vishnu, Lakshmi and other spiritual figures will magically appear on a plaza somewhere you least expect. (This is not to be confused with Rangoli images, which are made from powder pigment, chalk powder, rice water and/or flowers.) These drawings are made as part of a spiritual practice – the artists don’t photograph them or preserve them in any way; they simply draw and move on. Since India has a long history of sharing and expanding it’s traditions beyond it’s own borders, I wonder if perhaps the Europeans of yore witnessed this expression somewhere in the East, bringing it back to their own countries to share?
We may never know the true beginnings of street painting. Unfortunately there does not seem to be any written documentation of this that I know of, only words or ideas that have been passed down verbally through the generations. Fortunately every now and then a hint of this art form would resurface, such as can be seen in Disney’s 1964 film classic ‘Mary Poppins‘, in which Dick Van Dyke’s character Bert creates a street painting on the park walkway that magically seems to reflect another world.
What we do know for certain is that street painting saw a rebirth in Italy in the 1970’s, with a handful of artists who committed themselves to developing this art form into a permanent cultural phenomenon. Through their efforts they established the first street painting festival in the world in Grazie di Curtatone, which has since inspired many others of its kind throughout many countries. Fortunately street painting has enjoyed universal support and popularity which makes me think it will be with us much longer this time around!