“A picture is a poem without words.” -Horace
A revolution has been brewing for almost a decade on the Piazza Navona, one of the most famous and historic squares in Europe. Millions arrive to see Bernini’s magnificent Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (The Fountain of 4 Rivers) and to stroll along the road, hoping to acquire an original picture of a Roman scene painted and signed by the artist in front of them. Now the tensions are high: real artist are pitted against counterfeit ones.
“Art is not a thing, it is a way.”- Elbert Hubbard
I can’t intelligently speak to the political or economic ramifications of the most recent decree approved by the City of Rome to regulate painters and street artists on the piazza. What I can say with certainty is that I believe society is obligated to defend those among us who have the ability to suspend reality and, with a brush in hand, transfer it onto a canvas to make a thing more beautiful – to make l’arte. George Bernard Shaw said it best when he wrote,“Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”
In 2005, the Mayor and Council approved a ban prohibiting any type of commercial activity in the center of Piazza Navona. It was declared that permits would no longer be issued to paint in the city. Then came a resolution to govern the artistic profession, but nothing came of it. Nearly 6 years later the absence of rules means anyone (real artists and fakers) can enter and do what they want. The result has been a dilution of creativity and a strengthening of chaos and clutter. The legitimate are at a disadvantage to the counterfeiters who defraud tourists by peddling reproductions passed-off as originals. But why should the artists, some of whom have been on the Piazza since the 1960s, pay the price for the City’s failure to control those who bring urban decay to this beautiful place? Why should the people who have promoted all that is good about the Eternal City and have contributed to its charm and mystique now be threatened with displacement? Leonardo is turning in his grave!
“No heirloom of humankind captures the past as do art and language.” – Theodore Bikel
What is at stake on the Piazza Navona is the keepsake of a city. Art has defined Italy since the renaissance and just like the oxygen in our atmosphere, civilization and Rome need it to survive.
Photographs by Toni DeBella and Massimilliano Balletti
Paintings by Massimilliano Balletti