The sight of kids drawing on the pavement with sidewalk chalk is practically guaranteed to induce a round of nostalgia. As summertime traditions go, getting down on a lawn to let one’s artistic imagination run wild is right up there with running through sprinklers and establishing lemonade stands. But what adults swept up in reveries about the long, lazy days of childhood might not realize is that sidewalk chalk art is just a pastime that connects us not only to memories of our smaller selves, but to an abundant historical tradition that goes entirely back again to 16th-century Italy.
While people have already been using chalk to produce pictures since age cavemen, the Italian traveling artists known as madonnari appear to possess been among the initial practitioners of street art. Robin VanLear, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s director of community arts, explains in an article on the museum’s website
In 16th-century Italy various beggars, primarily amputees, began looking for a bonus over the other beggars who proliferated in the plazas and market areas around cathedrals, especially on feast days. Some of them decided to generate art , and charcoal from braziers became their first drawing implement. These were rewarded because of their efforts with coins thrown down by pilgrims visiting the cathedrals. Ultimately the more artistic beggars began copying portraits of the Madonna, particularly those by the favorite early 16th-century liturgical artist Raphael. They were dubbed Madonnari, painters of the Madonna.
While the 2011 book Asphalt Renaissance, written by the street artist Kurt Wenner along side B. Hansen and M. Hospodar, explains, madonnari realized they could maximize their earnings by working as traveling artists, moving between towns according to religious festival schedules. The Italian tradition continued for centuries, and soon street art began popping up in countries like England and Germany as well.
The English counterparts to madonnari, called “screevers,” emerged in Victorian London and remained a fixture of the city up to World War II. Screevers were less closely associated with religious material, but like the madonnari, they made a living with their ephemeral art.
In George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, an autobiographical book about poverty published in 1933, mcdougal describes his encounter with a screever named Bozo. A self-declared “serious screever,” Bozo specialized in drawing political cartoons informed by the day’s news. (“Once a child got its head stuck in the railings of Chelsea Bridge,” Bozo said. “Well, I learned about it, and my cartoon was on the pavement before they’d got the child’s head from the railings.”) Orwell suggests Bozo had ample competition among London street artists: “In those days there clearly was a screever nearly every twenty-five yards across the Embankment.” But whereas lots of Bozo’s peers drew the same each day, Bozo distinguished himself by focusing on something new—a method he said paid off. “The best thing’s to keep changing your picture, because when they see you drawing they’ll stop and watch you,” he explained.
Screevers were also memorialized in the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins, occur Edwardian-era England. In the song “Chim Chim Cheree,” Bert, the twinkly-eyed chimney sweep played by Dick van Dyke, boasts about his side hustle Today I’m a screever, and as you are able to see
A screever’s an artist of’ighest degree
And it’s all me own work from me own memory
Bert is notably less concerned than Bozo about making a living—although the same can’t be said about his hat. “No remuneration do I ask of you,” he sings, “But me cap will be glad of a copper or two.”
As VanLear explains, many European street artists fought in World Wars I and II, which meant that the practice of professional sidewalk chalk drawing faded for a great the main 20th century. Then, in 1972, the Italian village of Grazie di Curtatone made a decision to host an international street-painting competition to honor the real history of madonnari. Your competitors, known as Incontro Nazionale dei Madonnari, was a great success, attracting a huge selection of European artists and helping revive curiosity about sidewalk painting.
Roughly 10 years later, its profile got a further boost from Wenner, who would become the founder of 3D street art—a technique that uses tricks of perspective to produce pavement drawings appear to soar from the sidewalk or sink into it. Wenner was studying classical art in Italy in the 1980s and started drawing on pavement as a means to create money. He eventually made his way to Grazie’s festival, where he took first place four years in a row, then brought his enthusiasm for street painting back once again to the US, launching an annual festival—the very first in the country—in his hometown of Santa Barbara, California, in 1986.
By the time Asphalt Renaissance was published in 2011, the US was home to between 50 and 100 street-painting festivals each year. Europe has additionally experienced a street-painting festival boom, with events in such varied locales as the Netherlands, Germany, France, England, and Serbia; you will find options in Australia, Canada, and Mexico, too. So should you encounter some kids smeared with chalk dust this summer, tell them to help keep at it. There’s a future in sidewalk chalk yet.