IN PICTURES: Up one’s street: Five Italian towns with painted murals

From walls depicting shepherd revolts in Sardinia, epics of Saint Francis in Umbria, painted archways in Emilia Romagna or racing cyclists in Lombardy, there's plenty of art in some of Italy's lesser-known streets.

IN PICTURES: Up one's street: Five Italian towns with painted murals
A mural depicting Italian unification in Mugnano, Umbria. Photo: Alex Macbeth.

It's the land of Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and Michelangelo. Yet beyond the walls of Italy's majestic galleries in cities like Rome, Florence and Venice lie art labyrinths that blend into the exterior facades of several historic towns. 

Once upon a time, art was confined to canvasses, church frescos and the palaces of the rich and powerful. But since the 1950s, several Italian towns have embraced art on their streets, making a name for themselves as open air galleries hosting dozens of painted murals. 

Here are five Italian towns where art blossoms besides architecture and tradition.

1) Orgosolo (Sardinia) 

Nestled high into the sinuous mountains near the east coast of Sardinia, Orgosolo is the most edgy of Italy's painted towns. 

In the late 1960s, an Italian anarchist movement gave birth to street art activity in the town, painting stories of the local farmers' battles against a brutal feudal system on the walls of the historic centre. Today, the city is a gallery of liberation murals, protest pieces, peace motifs and a visual history of Sardinian struggles against foreign occupation.

A shepherd is depicted raising his fist and weapon in protest on a mural in Orgosolo. Photo: Alex Macbeth. 

In the village once home to famous bandits, the local shopkeepers welcome tourists into their stores singing Sardinian folk tales. Some 15 miles south of the town of Nuoro, the landscape of Orgosolo was made famous by Nobel laureate Deledda's novel Doves and Hawks.

Political murals on the walls of Orgosolo. Photo: Alex Macbeth.

Orgosolo. Photo: Alex Macbeth.

READ ALSO: Sandal in the Mediterranean: Why you should visit Sardinia


2) Dozza (Emilia Romagna)

Since the 1960s, Dozza hosts the Painted Walls Biennale (the next one is in 2019) and the village near Bologna is a celebration of the hundreds of artists who over time have made its walls famous.

The village of less than 6,000 inhabitants hosts some of the best street art in Italy and has become a haven for art lovers who flock to see archways, windows, facades and doors coated in surrealism, magic realism and local folktales.

The village of Dozza. File photo: maxdonati79/Depositphotos3) 

Another mural in Dozza. File photo: maxdonati79/Depositphotos3) 



3) Mugnano (Umbria)

This tiny village on the edges of Italy's third largest lake, Lake Trasimeno, began to embrace art on its streets' walls when local painter Benito Biselli invited artist friends to paint Mugnano's first eight public murals in 1983.

A mural depicting St Francis of Assisi in Mugnano, Umbria. Photo: Alex Macbeth. 

Since then dozens of other artists have continued the tradition. Mugnano's walls bear testimony to local history but also a global outlook. One mural depicts the local Christian saint St Francis of Assisi; another pays homage to a grain protest by farmers against Mussolini's grain quotas. Yet another celebrates Italy's unification in 1861. 

A mural depicting Italian unification. Photo: Alex Macbeth. 

Other murals in Mugnano depict religious figures, lake views and family life, as well as ideological themes.

'Memories of the Past.' Mugnano. Photo: Alex Macbeth. 

Artists from all over the world, including Japan, Sweden and Argentina, have made the town's historical centre an off the beaten track art gem in the last 35 years. 

READ ALSO: Brittany's capital revives forgotten heritage: Italian mosaics

4) Arcumeggia (Lombardy)

In the 1950s, the local community and tourism board in this mountain village below the south shore of Lake Maggiore in Lombardy decided to invite artists to paint its streets. They couldn't have expected that six decades later tourists would still flock to its walls to witness the outcome.





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The art in Arcumeggia's streets, a hub for curious art aficionados, celebrates local, national and international traditions, from religious motifs to murals that engage with Italy's history of migration. Even the EU gets a mention. 

5) Braccano

The inhabitants just about outnumber the murals in this tiny village near Monte San Vicino in the region of Le Marche. In 2001, students from a local art school began painting murals in the town. Since then approximately 60 murals have found a home on the quaint village's walls, with international artists constantly adding to the outdoor catalogue. 

Many of the murals depict nature and rural life blending seamlessly into the local architecture. 





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Wolves, trees and the moon adorn the exterior walls of houses in Braccano. Other facades in the village display local wines, music and mosaics. 

READ MORE: Rome mural shows Italy's political rivals kissing


African-born director’s new vision for Berlin cultural magnet

One of the rare African-born figures to head a German cultural institution, Bonaventure Ndikung is aiming to highlight post-colonial multiculturalism at a Berlin arts centre with its roots in Western hegemony.

African-born director's new vision for Berlin cultural magnet

The “Haus der Kulturen der Welt” (House of World Cultures), or HKW, was built by the Americans in 1956 during the Cold War for propaganda purposes, at a time when Germany was still divided.

New director Ndikung said it had been located “strategically” so that people on the other side of the Berlin Wall, in the then-communist East, could see it.

This was “representing freedom” but “from the Western perspective”, the 46-year-old told AFP.

Now Ndikung, born in Cameroon before coming to study in Germany 26 years ago, wants to transform it into a place filled with “different cultures of the world”.

The centre, by the river Spree, is known locally as the “pregnant oyster” due to its sweeping, curved roof. It does not have its own collections but is home to exhibition rooms and a 1,000-seat auditorium.

It reopened in June after renovations, and Ndikung’s first project “Quilombismo” fits in with his aims of expanding the centre’s offerings.

The exhibition takes its name from the Brazilian term “Quilombo”, referring to the communities formed in the 17th century by African slaves, who fled to remote parts of the South American country.

Throughout the summer, there will also be performances, concerts, films, discussions and an exhibition of contemporary art from post-colonial societies across Africa, the Americas, Asia and Oceania.

‘Rethink the space’

“We have been trying to… rethink the space. We invited artists to paint walls… even the floor,” Ndikung said.

And part of the “Quilombismo” exhibition can be found glued to the floor -African braids laced together, a symbol of liberation for black people, which was created by Zimbabwean artist Nontsikelelo Mutiti.

According to Ndikung, African slaves on plantations sometimes plaited their hair in certain ways as a kind of coded message to those seeking to escape, showing them which direction to head.

READ ALSO: Germany hands back looted artefacts to Nigeria

His quest for aestheticism is reflected in his appearance: with a colourful suit and headgear, as well as huge rings on his fingers, he rarely goes unnoticed.

During his interview with AFP, Ndikung was wearing a green scarf and cap, a blue-ish jacket and big, sky-blue shoes.

With a doctorate in medical biology, he used to work as an engineer before devoting himself to art.

In 2010, he founded the Savvy Gallery in Berlin, bringing together art from the West and elsewhere, and in 2017 was one of the curators of Documenta, a prestigious contemporary art event in the German city of Kassel.

Convinced of the belief that history “has been written by a particular type of people, mostly white and men,” Ndikung has had all the rooms in the HKW renamed after women.

These are figures who have “done something important in the advancement of the world” but were “erased” from history, he added. Among them is Frenchwoman Paulette Nardal, born in Martinique in 1896.

She helped inspire the creation of the “negritude” movement, which aimed to develop black literary consciousness, and was the first black woman to study at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Reassessing history

Ndikung’s appointment at the HKW comes as awareness grows in Germany about its colonial past, which has long been overshadowed by the atrocities committed during the era of Adolf Hitler’s Nazis.

Berlin has in recent years started returning looted objects to African countries which it occupied in the early 20th century — Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Namibia and Cameroon.

“It’s long overdue,” said Ndikung.

He was born in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, into an anglophone family.

The country is majority francophone but also home to an anglophone minority and has faced deadly unrest in English-speaking areas, where armed insurgents are fighting to establish an independent homeland.

One of his dreams is to open a museum in Cameroon “bringing together historical and contemporary objects” from different countries, he said.

He would love to locate it in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s restive Northwest region.

“But there is a war in Bamenda, so I can’t,” he says.