The 15th of August is the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven.
It’s commonly called ferragosto in Italy and it’s a national holiday during which the weather can be relied upon to be hot. Seriously hot.
In the province of Mantova, there is a special fair to celebrate ferragosto.
The action takes place around a centuries old shrine called Santuario della Beata Vergine Maria delle Grazie.
On the feast day, the faithful can attend Mass at the Grazie church.
The hungry, which may or may not include the faithful, can get their fix of cotechino (boiled pork sausage) or porchetta (roast pork) – the traditional foods of the feast day – at one of the many food stalls or restaurants at the fair.
The other big crowd-puller is the chalk art. This is what draws me in.
On the evening of 14 August, dozens of artists from all over the world, but predominantly from the local area, set about transforming the square in front of the shrine into a mosaic of religious-themed chalk drawings. They have 24 hours to finish their pavement paintings.
The Madonnari – the chalk artists – are allowed to recreate versions of other artists’ works OR they can create something original. The idea is to produce an image that ties in with the feast day.
In previous years I’ve been to the fair during the day, under the scorching sun. As a fair-skinned, freckled person who prefers to shun the sun, this doesn’t usually work out very well for me.
One of the artists at this year’s fair was a student of mine. (Student of English, not of art.) She said to me: “Come at night! It’s cooler and the atmosphere is more relaxed.”
So this year, at night we went.
By night, the chalk drawings are still works in progress. Faces slowly emerge out of the asphalt and you can see how different artists tackle their work: Some get stuck in right away, while others take their time. (I can relate to both ways of working.)
What struck me most was how physically uncomfortable it must be to paint the pavement with chalk: squatting, crouching, sprawling – the artists have an unyielding and stubborn canvas to work on.
I stopped to talk to my student, hoping I wasn’t disturbing her. She said she was having difficulty concentrating with so many onlookers passing by, casting moving shadows over her neatly marked out patch of pavement.
I wished her good luck and moved on, taking my shadow with me.
My student did not receive a prize this year. There are three prize divisions. An Australian artist won in the third semplice prize division while the top honour of Maestro Madonnaro went to a local artist for the chalk drawing below.
Splendid work, no?
Naturally those of us who know my student were disappointed for her.
But the rest of this August tradition lived up to expectations.