The sight of kids drawing on the pavement with sidewalk chalk is practically guaranteed to induce a session of nostalgia. As summertime traditions go, getting down on the ground to let one’s artistic imagination run wild is right up there with running through sprinklers and creating 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 a rich historical tradition that goes completely back to 16th-century Italy.
While people have already been using chalk to generate pictures since the age of cavemen, the Italian traveling artists known as madonnari appear to own 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 trying to find a bonus over another 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 due to their efforts with coins thrown down by pilgrims visiting the cathedrals. Ultimately the more artistic beggars began copying portraits of the Madonna, specifically those by the popular early 16th-century liturgical artist Raphael. These were dubbed Madonnari, painters of the Madonna.
Whilst the 2011 book Asphalt Renaissance, written by the street artist Kurt Wenner along with B. Hansen and M. Hospodar, explains, madonnari realized they might maximize their earnings by working as traveling artists, moving between towns based on 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 material, but like the madonnari, they made a coping 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 young child got its head stuck in the railings of Chelsea Bridge,” Bozo said. “Well, I found out about it, and my cartoon was on the pavement before they’d got the child’s head out of the railings.”) Orwell suggests Bozo had ample competition among London street artists: “During those times there is a screever nearly every twenty-five yards along the Embankment.” But whereas many of Bozo’s peers drew the same each day, Bozo distinguished himself by taking care of something new—a technique he said paid off. “The most effective thing’s to help keep changing your picture, because once 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—although same can not be said about his hat. “No remuneration do I ask of you,” he sings, “But me cap could 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 part of the 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 history of madonnari. The competition, known as Incontro Nazionale dei Madonnari, was a great success, attracting countless European artists and helping to revive fascination with 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 make 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 a way to create money. He eventually made his solution to Grazie’s festival, where he took first place three years in a line, then brought his enthusiasm for street painting back once again to the US, launching an annual festival—the 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 such varied locales whilst the Netherlands, Germany, France, England, and Serbia; there are options in Australia, Canada, and Mexico, too. So should you encounter some kids smeared with chalk dust this summer, let them know to help keep at it. There exists a future in sidewalk chalk yet.
# Relapse until a few weeks ago when we decided to do the chalk challenge on the sidewalk. What's funny is that it took us ages to take the tape off, dye every section, use every piece of chalk we had, and then TWO SECONDS so the rain washes everything away! . . I have a feeling that one day we will look back on this quarantine period and it will only be a memory (like this chalk art on the sidewalk). It feels like getting through, but maybe we have a lot of BEAUTIFUL memos