The sight of kids drawing on the pavement with sidewalk chalk is practically guaranteed to induce an attack of nostalgia. As summertime traditions go, getting down on the floor to let one’s artistic imagination run wild is right up there with running through sprinklers and setting up lemonade stands. But what adults trapped in reveries about the long, lazy days of childhood might not realize is that sidewalk chalk art is 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 been using chalk to generate pictures since age cavemen, the Italian traveling artists known as madonnari appear to have been among the initial practitioners of street art. Robin VanLear, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s director of community arts, explains in a post on the museum’s website
In 16th-century Italy various beggars, primarily amputees, began looking for a bonus over one other beggars who proliferated in the plazas and market areas around cathedrals, especially on feast days. A number of them decided to produce 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, in particular those by the favorite early 16th-century liturgical artist Raphael. These were dubbed Madonnari, painters of the Madonna.
Since the 2011 book Asphalt Renaissance, written by the street artist Kurt Wenner along with B. Hansen and M. Hospodar, explains, madonnari realized they may 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, known as “screevers,” emerged in Victorian London and remained a fixture of the city up until World War II. Screevers were less closely related to religious subject material, but like the madonnari, they made a managing their ephemeral art.
In George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, an autobiographical book about poverty published in 1933, the writer 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 heard 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: “During those times there is a screever virtually every twenty-five yards over the Embankment.” But whereas a lot of Bozo’s peers drew the same each day, Bozo distinguished himself by working on something new—a method that he said paid off. “The best thing’s to help keep changing your picture, because when they help 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 building a living—though the same can not 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 annals of madonnari. Your competition, known as Incontro Nazionale dei Madonnari, was a good success, attracting countless European artists and assisting to revive curiosity about sidewalk painting.
Roughly ten years later, its profile got an additional boost from Wenner, who’d become the founder of 3D street art—a technique that uses tricks of perspective to create 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 make money. He eventually made his method 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 initial 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 also experienced a street-painting festival boom, with events such varied locales while the Netherlands, Germany, France, England, and Serbia; you can find options in Australia, Canada, and Mexico, too. So should you encounter some kids smeared with chalk dust come july 1st, inform them to help keep at it. There’s a future in sidewalk chalk yet.