The sight of kids drawing on the pavement with sidewalk chalk is practically guaranteed to induce a bout 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 creating lemonade stands. But what adults caught up in reveries about the long, lazy days of childhood may not realize is that sidewalk chalk art is 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 been using chalk to create pictures since the age of 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 an edge over one other beggars who proliferated in the plazas and market areas around cathedrals, especially on feast days. A number of them decided to generate art , and charcoal from braziers became their first drawing implement. They certainly 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, particularly those by the favorite early 16th-century liturgical artist Raphael. They certainly were dubbed Madonnari, painters of the Madonna.
As the 2011 book Asphalt Renaissance, written by the street artist Kurt Wenner alongside B. Hansen and M. Hospodar, explains, madonnari realized they might 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 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 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: “At that time there clearly was a screever almost every twenty-five yards along the Embankment.” But whereas many of Bozo’s peers drew the same thing every day, Bozo distinguished himself by working on something new—a technique that he said paid off. “The most effective thing’s to help keep changing your picture, because if they help you drawing they’ll stop and watch you,” he explained.
Screevers were also memorialized in the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins, emerge 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 can 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 cannot 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 good 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 annals of madonnari. The competition, known as Incontro Nazionale dei Madonnari, was a good success, attracting countless European artists and helping revive fascination with sidewalk painting.
Roughly a decade later, its profile got another boost from Wenner, who would become the founder of 3D street art—a technique that uses tricks of perspective to produce 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 make money. He eventually made his way to Grazie’s festival, where he took first place 36 months 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 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 early july, inform them to keep at it. There’s a future in sidewalk chalk yet.