I Madonnari

by Scott London

The I Madonnari Festival at Santa Barbara's Old Mission : Photo by Scott London

I Madonnari was the name given to street painters in 16th- and 17th-century Italy, itinerant artists who traveled from town to town and city to city rendering images of the Madonna on sidewalks and in public squares. Like street musicians, the “Madonna painters” supported themselves by small donations—usually coins thrown to them by appreciative passers-by and festival-goers. Using chalks and handmade pastels, the artists sometimes created works of remarkable majesty and scale. But the art was always ephemeral, vanishing with the first rain.

Today, the tradition of street painting lives on in cities across Europe and in a growing number of communities in North America. 2013 marked the 27th anniversary of the I Madonnari Festival in Santa Barbara, California. When it started in 1987, it was the only street painting event of its kind in the United States. Today, the three-day event, held each Memorial Day weekend in the plaza in front of Santa Barbara’s historic mission, draws crowds of 25,000 or more from around the world. The art ranges from small chalk drawings by local artists to large-scale street murals by nationally recognized street painters. There is also a special chalk-drawing area for young artists.

The I Madonnari Festival at Santa Barbara's Old Mission : Photo by Scott London

I Madonnari is a fundraiser for the Children’s Creative Project, an innovative program that provides visual and performing arts education to public schools in and around Santa Barbara. At a time when arts education has been all but eliminated from school budgets, entrepreneurial communities have to take matters into their own hands. The I Madonnari Festival represents one of the more successful such initiatives—a community-building effort aimed at both making art and ensuring its survival in the local school system.

The 2013 festival just wrapped up. Yesterday, as the artists were putting the finishing touches on their work, a wild fire broke out in the mountains behind Santa Barbara. The skies filled with smoke and ash, partially obscuring the sun, as seen in the image above. For more of my photos from the event, you’ll find a collection here.