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My Life as a Street Painter in Florence, Italy Paperback – September 9, 2011
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
About the Author
Kelly Borsheim is an American sculptor who creates stone and bronze figures. Michelangelo’s sculpture lured her to Italy originally, but she returned again and again for inspiration and a deeper understanding of classical art. Little did she know that her future would bring her to her knees recreating Renaissance masterpieces in the streets of Florence. Kelly was also chained up in a protest against the taxation of street artists, the subject of a story in an Italian newspaper, and shared the joys of chalk with children visiting from all over the world. “My Life as a Street Painter in Florence, Italy” is a visual journey (including over 330 images) of one artist’s discovery of an art form that dates back to the 16th century.
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The madonnari work mainly in chalk and pastel. The art form “is believed to have started in the Mediterranean region. It can be found in Italy sometime in the 16th century and began as devotional drawings outside of churches and directly on the streets. The subject was typically the Madonna, hence the name of these artists.”
Today in Florence, the madonnari on Via Calimala mainly draw copies of artworks by old masters such as Botticelli, Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, and of course, Michelangelo.
Borsheim began street painting in Florence in 2007. “The group had 28 artists when I joined, but only three squares in which they were permitted to draw… Claudio organized a rotation schedule in a way such that the same artist was able to draw in a different square each time his shift came up. The system was fair and worked well, considering the abundant number of artists.” In addition to the native Italians, her colleagues come from a variety of countries, including Ireland, Japan, and Korea.
“Madonnari tend to work from 9:30 or 10:00 a.m. until midnight to complete one large street painting… Because one cannot paint on a wet surface, each artist was responsible for washing his own work at the end of the day, typically midnight. In the morning, the driver of the street sweeper could pass over the work and the square would be somewhat clean and dry by the time the next artist arrived.”
“The question that street painters probably receive the most often is: How can you create such beauty only to have it destroyed shortly thereafter?” As a sculptor, she works with stone and bronze—it doesn’t get more permanent than that. “However, what I discovered for myself is that there is a certain freedom in knowing in advance that the work will not last. Without the pressure of having to create a masterpiece, my brain shifts into a sort of ‘play’ mode that allows for experimentation. And that leads to learning.”
The book explains some challenges experienced in the life of a street painter. “I paid the permit fee for every Monday, late February through June, 2008. Unfortunately, that spring, many of my paintings were never finished. It rained almost every single Monday for months.” Another challenge is how to improvise. “I began to run out of flesh tones while painting the male figure of Bouguereau’s ‘The Abduction of Psyche’… Zecchi and all the other art supply stores were closed by that hour, so I did the best I could with the pigments I had left.”
The book also explains how the madonnari protested changes to the permit system, including a steep increase in fees. Ultimately, city hall decided not to issue any permits. However, they continued to create street art within the rules of ‘manifestazione’ (demonstration) under the Italian Constitution. “This meant, though, that we could only draw ONE artwork per day, although it could legally be slightly larger than our previously defined dimensions… I first resisted this situation because I like working alone… But I came to enjoy working with others. Drawing side by side with another improves your quality time together and I got to know several of my colleagues better than I would have if I had simply been working in a neighboring square.”
Borsheim also documents side trips to street painting festivals in Nocera Superiore, a small town in the mountains north of Italy’s famous Amalfi coast, and Grazie di Curatone, south of Verona.
The book includes 330 color photos of finished street drawings, works in progress, parades and festivals, as well as other sights in Italy.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book.
In my own travels, I have watched street artists, buskers, classical musicians and many types of performers who make the streetscapes of my favorite cities an exciting place to walk. But, this is the first book I have read by a street painter on her motivation and experience. And, what makes this book special is that it tells most of its story through photographs taken by the author. The visual impact of the book is its strength. The author captures the street life that goes on around the horizontal art. The viewers, street performers, parades, festivals, rain, interference by the authorities, allocation of space, visits by her friends, difficulty of working in the rain, the challenges of the different street surfaces (our author being a sculptor comments with authority the science of street surfaces vis a vis applied chalks). I know that I will return to the images again and again because they share a personal experience. The author is not afraid to share her inmost thoughts with the reader while sticking to her main subject - street painting and painters. Her book also benefits from her interest in learning about the renaissance artists of Italy and she share her research and feelings about the artists with the reader. Her writing style is more conversational like you are talking over a cup of coffee.
Perhaps this book will energize your own dream. Perhaps, if you are a street painter, the lessons learned in this book will make your next outing more enjoyable.
Arrivederci e lettura felice,
I met Kelly some years ago when she was still in Texas, preparing to start this grand adventure. We have kept in touch thanks to frequent emails with news about her projects: oils, pastels, bronze, marble & stone sculptures. When she returned briefly to Austin in September I was fascinated to see first-hand a sampling of her paintings and other works: engrossing content and quality technique are riveting.
I wonder at the reasons one reviewer rates only 4, of 5 possible stars; the review gives no hint what is lacking -- perhaps the brevity of the texts? the limited scope which only skims the surface of her talents? Personally, I find it amazing that she has produced this enjoyable book at the same time as she continues to create, produce and relate.