A soon-to-be lost art?

Florences historic madonnari protest

Editorial Staff
March 20, 2008

The city may soon lose one of its most precious forms of religious art. Itinerant street painters are up in arms over Palazzo Vecchio's failure to renew the municipal authorization in 2008 allowing them to decorate the pavement with sacred images on via Calimala, located between Piazza della Repubblica and the Ponte Vecchio. Upon hearing the news, spokesman for the International Madonnari Association, Claudio Sgobino, chained himself on March 10 to the Biancone fountain in Piazza della Signoria in protest. He has also vowed to go on a hunger strike until city officials reinstate the concession authorizing the permanent ‘occupation of public space' for Florence's historic madonnari.


For centuries, madonnari were itinerant folk artists who used crude materials like charcoal and chalk to depict sacred images and icons, usually the Virgin Mary, during religious festivals and holy days throughout Italy. The modern madonnari now ‘paint' in chalk on the city's stone streets, often producing striking copies of masterworks, many of which are religious in theme.


Sgobino is also protesting the exponential rise in the cost of temporary permits in 2008. Until December 2007, the pavement artists paid 303 euro yearly to ply their trade. As of January 1, 2008, the city administration began issuing only temporary permits, valid until March 31, 2008 and costing 695 euro. Thus, the madonnari must pay 225 percent more for a short-term permit to ply their craft.


Giovanni Varrasi and Domenico Valentino of the local Green party have sent an official request to the city mayor, Leonardo Domenici, demanding the reasons behind the denied authorization and cost increase in licensing.   


The Florentine spoke to Claudio Sgobino, head of the International Madonnari Association to learn more about the situation. The Florence native explained that madonnari belonging to the association have been exercising this ancient art form in Florence since 1993 without fail or friction-until now.


Through the association, scores of Italian and international street painters have painted in the three spaces allocated for them along via Calimala for a reasonable fee. Because all of the street painters who are members of the association are ‘practising madonnari' whose only source of income is painting, they now risk not being able to make a livelihood.


The city might bypass altogether the association, which aids and organizes the itinerant street painters who travel to the city. Sgobino has caught word that city hall may issue costlier yearly permits to individual madonnari from March 31 and onward. There has also been talk of creating a public competition to fill the spots available.


‘The madonnari who come to Florence for three days every year would never apply for a public competition that would force them to stay due to the costs they would have to incur for permits and other such things. That is not what being a madonnaro is; we are against the academy and galleries; we are instead self-taught and need to practice our art freely and spontaneously'.


Sgobino further noted that the art of the madonnari was born with the one of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance, Giotto di Bondone: ‘The first madonnaro par excellence was Giotto, and Giotto did not come from any school or academy. Only when Cimabue saw him drawing on stone with coloured chalk, did Giotto begin any sort of official schooling. He was a true madonnaro, one who uses his own instinct, culture and sentiment to spontaneously create ephemeral artworks. In realty, the madonnaro is the beginning, the embryo of art, someone who gives free reign to their artistic ability'.


Sgobino's biggest grievance, however, is Palazzo Vecchio's failure to voice its intentions or seek dialogue with the association. A self-ascribed ‘defender of this ancient art form' in Florence, Sgobino says he will continue to fight the city administration for ‘limiting the creation of art and freedom of artists' in the city

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