The Last Judgment, created for the visit of Pope Giovanni IIAndrea Bottoli Anamorphismkids at workchulksEach year, just outside the urban centre of Mantua, during the month of August, one of the most traditional events of the area takes place. In the square of Grazie di Curtatone church, many artists gather to create temporary religious paintings on the ground. Called “Madonnari”, a specific type of artist that, for their methods, could resemble some street artists we are used to seeing in many cities, but their historical origins are much more antique and date back to the byzantine period.

Everything began in 1973, with the teacher Gilberto Boschesi and the press agent Maria Grazia Fringuellini, whose desire to set a challenge during the Assumption day was welcomed by the organizers of the Fair. The success was unexpectedly great, indeed many foreign cities copied this event and channels like ABC and National Geographic dedicated specific documentaries to it. Even the visit of Pope Giovanni II in 1991 witnessed the importance it reached throughout the years. It’s not by a chance if in other countries these types of events are called Italian street painting. Another important factor concerns the creation of social cohesion, because some older artists came from tough life experiences and used to live almost as outcasts. Nowadays the artists attempting the Fair are more than 200 and it has become close to a folkloristic party. Indeed rather than a painting, each work represents a performance placed between theater and a show, where the aim of the creator is to involve people coming across in tricky ways. This featuring includes the artists themselves, as a part of them declare to be older than they really are or even simulate fake physical problems, in order to gain a spot in peoples’ hearts.



There are specific rules on the materials used by Madonnari during the challenge. For their work they are allowed to use pastels, chalks, charcoal, tempera and rocks coming from the local lake of Garda. This is due to the temporary nature of the composition and to respect the traditional way of expression used throughout the centuries.

There are 800 types of recipes for the creation of pastels, which are divided into vegetable and animal.

Actually, to draw they have to create a base, composed of the following elements:

  • Dirt 85%
  • Sand 5%
  • Cotton waste of grass and wood 10%
  • Amount of water to knead and smoothThere is no limit regarding the technique employed, but there are some established rules when it comes to creating the ruddiness and the volume of the subjects.
  • Colors must be lied down from the darkest to the lightest, the use of a grid to sketch the borders of the subjects. Sometimes we can see portrayals created with the sfumato technique, or the hatching technique in order to create a chiaroscuro effect.

Among the competitors, only a few of them are professional Madonnari provided the difficulties to live only with this activity and there is a further difference that has been created through the years, with todays’ Madonnari and old school Madonnari.



Another interesting consequence is the creation of a school where kids can learn to draw like a modern Madonnaro. This is meant to keep such traditions alive and make new generations aware of artistic values.

The teaching is articulated in theoretical and practical lessons held by the highest representatives Madonnari of our times. Study of the colors, experiments and observation of ancient masters are key factors, intended to be an inspiration to find one’s own personal expression within this type of art. It may seem a bit strange to set up a local museum for this temporary art, but it represents, along with the photos and the documentaries crossing through the decades, the only source to admire this intangible heritage, whose volume grows each year thanks to new acquisitions.

At its 43rd edition, it’s definitely a must if you are planning to visit Mantua, no doubt.


Suggested video:

Festival official website:




Noberto Pagliari, Madonnari “in piazza”: “gessetti” a Grazie di Curtatone, pp. 23-25, 51,53 67-71, Editoriali Sometti, Mantova 2009.
Images courtesy of Noberto Pagliari, Madonnari “in piazza”: “gessetti” a Grazie di Curtatone, Editoriali Sometti, Mantova 2009.
Mantua and Sabbioneta – Italy

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