Italy's Unexpected Art Gallery

Another postcard from a friend in Florence, this time about graffiti!  I wish someone would paint a graffiti version of me . . . Are you artistic?  Drop me a line and send me my graffiti self!  


One of the first things I noticed upon my arrival to Florence, Italy was the enormous amount of graffiti throughout the city. It covers everything: apartment buildings, banks, trains, and mail boxes. It's like an epidemic. Seeing all of this surprised me, for the Florence I had pictured was that of postcards, full of Renaissance cathedrals, the beautiful Arno River, and well-kept gardens with artfully trimmed hedges and elaborate fountains. Florence is, after all, the birthplace of the Renaissance, and it is renowned for having one of world's best collections of fine art. My expectations of these specific views were definitely met. All these famous historic images were just as they are in pictures, colossal and breathtaking. But what I had imagined in the rest of the city didn't match what I actually encountered. Instead of pristine perfection, I found spray paint.

It occurred to me a few days after first seeing all these works in the streets that the word "graffiti" really sounds Italian, especially if you heavily emphasize that second syllable and roll the r. "Graf-FI-ti." After this epiphany, a little research taught me that the origin of the word actually does stem from the `Italian "graffiato" which means "scratched." The term "graffiti" itself was apparently first used in 1851 to describe etchings found in the ruins of Pompeii.

After one week in Florence I took a day trip out to Pisa to see the famous Leaning Tower. But right outside the train station I was faced with a different monument. The entire side of an enormous building was brightly painted with colorful silhouettes. As I approached, I learned that it was no ordinary mural, but “Tuttomondo,” the final work of the famous artist Keith Haring. Now perhaps this painting is not technically graffiti. But this mural is unique in that it was not actually commissioned by any local government or museum. The story told is that upon a visit to Pisa, Haring loved the town and wanted to paint a mural as a gift to the locals, to inspire and send a positive message. He drew it by hand, and the citizens of Pisa helped him finish it. Hearing this story, seeing the painting in person, and remembering the Italian origin of "graffiti" really affirmed to me that street art has a place, especially in the country of Italy.

So this is how I decided Florence’s rampant graffiti didn’t bother me, and though someone might be offended by what appears to be uncontrolled vandalism, graffiti seems to fit right in in the city of art, and gives it a richness and reality that otherwise might be robbed by the tourism industry.

Graffiti is communal. You don't have to stand in a four-hour line to see it, like many famous galleries. And while these famous museums are usually worth the wait, it's nice that graffiti can turn an ordinary walk to the supermarket into an exhibition of color and creativity. One elementary school I've seen here has an entire wall brightly spray painted with silly comics. One public post box inspires thoughts with simply sprayed out black letters: "Do you even know what you want?" Observing all these diverse depictions, I don't see graffiti artists simply as people with no respect for public property. And it's important to note that I haven't seen spray paint on any building with historic significance or any statue. There seems to be an inherent reverence for the masters of the past.  I do see, though, a country still as in love with art as it was during the Renaissance. Although they now have no Medici-family patrons to inspire portraits or religious memorials, the citizens of Florence have found a new, mesmerizing way to express their love of visual magnificence and to inspire.


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