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 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 just a pastime that connects us not just to memories of our smaller selves, but to a rich historical tradition that goes completely back again to 16th-century Italy.
While people have now been using chalk to generate pictures since age cavemen, the Italian traveling artists known as madonnari appear to possess been among the first 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 an edge over another beggars who proliferated in the plazas and market areas around cathedrals, especially on feast days. Many of them decided to create art , and charcoal from braziers became their first drawing implement. These were rewarded due to 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 popular early 16th-century liturgical artist Raphael. These were dubbed Madonnari, painters of the Madonna.
Since the 2011 book Asphalt Renaissance, compiled by the road 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 town up to World War II. Screevers were less closely connected with 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 author 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 young 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 out from the railings.”) Orwell suggests Bozo had ample competition among London street artists: “In those days there clearly was a screever almost every twenty-five yards along the Embankment.” But whereas a lot of Bozo’s peers drew the same thing each and every day, Bozo distinguished himself by focusing on something new—a strategy he said paid off. “The very 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, set in 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 same can’t be said about his hat. “No remuneration do I ask of you,” he sings, “But me cap would 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 decided to host an international street-painting competition to honor the annals of madonnari. Your competition, known as Incontro Nazionale dei Madonnari, was a great success, attracting hundreds of European artists and assisting to revive curiosity about sidewalk painting.
Roughly a decade later, its profile got a further boost from Wenner, who’d become the founder of 3D street art—a technique that uses tricks of perspective to create pavement drawings seem 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 an easy way to produce money. He eventually made his solution to Grazie’s festival, where he took first place four years in a row, then brought his enthusiasm for street painting back 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 in addition has experienced a street-painting festival boom, with events in such varied locales while the Netherlands, Germany, France, England, and Serbia; you can find options in Australia, Canada, and Mexico, too. So in case you encounter some kids smeared with chalk dust this summer, let them know to help keep at it. There’s a future in sidewalk chalk yet.
Looking for a fun project for the kids? This faux stained glass window project is a fun way to dress up your windows, and easy to remove using Washable Finger Paint.During quarantine I was looking for a fun way to entertain my kids. I had seen multiple people using this concept on concrete with sidewalk chalk so I gave it a try on our windows using washable finger paint that we had on hand. Tape off your pattern The first step is to tape off your pattern. I used basic painter’s tape…