Madonnari Arts Festival in Little Italy reimagines classic Italian art

By SARAH Y. KIM | September 12, 2019

b5-madonnari
courtesy of Sarah Y. Kim

Pasta is my go-to comfort food. So when a friend suggested this past Saturday that we treat ourselves to dinner in Little Italy, I agreed. It had been a long first week back, and I’d spent too much time on campus. There was also a festival that she wanted to go to, which sounded nice, but I didn’t really know what that was about. 

The pasta was good. But the festival, to my surprise, was definitely the highlight of the night. I went there thinking we would take a few minutes to check it out; maybe we’d simply pass through. In the end, however, we spent over a good half hour there before we went to grab dinner. 

What we’d come to see was apparently the annual Madonnari Arts Festival, a three-day event that showcases massive, exquisite chalk paintings on the streets of Little Italy. Last year a rainstorm interfered with part of the festival, forcing artists to cover their artwork with plastic sheets. This past weekend we were lucky; we had clear blue skies and a bit of breeze — a welcome break from the sweltering wet heat from the past few days. 

According to the festival’s website, the event is rooted in Italian tradition dating back to the 16th century. I madonnari was the term then for artists who wandered from festival to festival, showcasing their art during holidays and at outdoor festivals. Similarly, the Madonnari Arts Festival brings together artists from around the globe. These included artists from Italy like Flavio Coppola, Matteo Appignani, Tiberio Mazzocchi and Andrea Starinieri. Other artists included Mexican painters Carlos Alberto GH and Lissette Aguirre Hinojosa and Wisconsin-based Julia Jilek. There were also local artists like Michael William Kirby, who was born in Baltimore and has apparently worked in more cities than any living artist on the entire globe (a grand total of over 200) and Baltimore-based artist KC Linn, who integrates her contemporary visual innovations with more traditional elements.

Those who know me best know that I have a weird obsession with Italian Renaissance art. I can spend hours staring at a Botticelli or Lippi or da Vinci. There’s just something so mesmerizing about these paintings of white people! Their skin is perfect, the women are gorgeous and they all kind of look the same and ridiculously serene — sometimes a little stoned. 

There were plenty of paintings of these ethereal-looking white girls, some with noticeable revisions. One of my favorites was a painting that looked like a variation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine (the woman held a unicorn instead of a weasel and had a backdrop of what looked like a harbor behind her). There was also Mary Magdalene as Melancholy by Artemisia Gentileschi (yay women artists!), da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, a Madonna and Child painting whose artist I can’t remember and a somewhat more abstract version of Mona Lisa on the cover of Baltimore Magazine.

The festival had more than these Italian Renaissance paintings, however. There was a painting of football quarterback Colin Kaepernick and soccer player Megan Rapinoe side by side and portraits of prominent African American figures: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Johnson. There were also fictional characters: Pennywise, Emma Watson as Belle, Princess Zelda. The portraits, three-dimensional, rich with detail and popping with color, were all densely packed together. 

I loved the diversity of the festival and the way it wove together reimaginings of classical paintings with contemporary and revolutionary figures. 

Artscape — which I’ve been to twice — is a big deal in Baltimore. But I feel that the Madonnari Festival was the most visually engaging outdoor arts festival I’ve been to in this city. 

One of the great joys of the festival was that a lot of the paintings were incomplete when we got there. That meant we had the exciting opportunity to watch the artists finish them live: They crouched by the paintings, etching and shaking cans of what looked like spray paint. Beside every other painting or so was a huge box of chalk. I’d never seen so many different colors of chalk in one set. 

Aside from the paintings was a small selection of vendors. They sold paintings, colorful beaded jewelry and photographs of Italy. One vendor was dedicated entirely to dog leashes. Couples and families lounged on outdoor seating, sipping wine and listening to live musicians.

Unfortunately we did not get to hear opera singers Natalie Conte and Colin Johnson, who apparently went in and out of the restaurants performing Saturday night.  

Given that we only spent a couple of hours in Little Italy, I can only imagine how much more we’d have seen if we’d spent more of our Saturday there and dropped by Friday and Sunday. 

I would have loved to be there on each day to see the progression of some of these paintings throughout the festival. We missed a lot of performers, including several jazz quartets and the Eric Byrd Trio. 

Little Italy is not the easiest part of Baltimore to get to for free (my friend and I Ubered there). Restaurants in the area can also be a little bit expensive. But if you plan accordingly or take a few friends, it’s definitely worth going to. 

The festival is visually sumptuous and easy to navigate. And best of all, it’s free. 

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