Graduation poster, photographed in Padua, March 2008
You’d be hard pressed to find tangible evidence of graphic design back in, say, the thirteenth century (though evidence of creative productivity
is an unarguable Medieval conceit) but back in the day when a Crusade was, well, a crusade, it turns out that the University of Padua initiated a custom that has prevailed to the present day — a custom which boasts, as it turns out, a very prominent design component.
While the University itself was founded in 1222, the actual ritual of the graduation ceremony didn't actually take hold
until the sixteenth century, and was initially conceived of as a rather
serious event. Students wore dark robes, performed their recitations
from a scroll of paper (il papiro
) and in due time, soberly made their entrance to
adult life. Three hundred years or so later, students had
evolved as a species into a more galvanized group — a community of peers, whose rebellious fervor led them to gradually shift their allegiances from the
Socratic to, well, the sarcastic. And today, those once-traditional readings
of sonnets have grown into a public performance
incorporating humor, humiliation — and no shortage of posters.Graduation poster, photographed in Padua, March 2008
Unlike the formal, end-of-year graduation ceremonies common to American schools, finishing your degree in Padua can occur pretty much any time of the year. Upon the conclusion of a presentation to the faculty, the student shakes some hands, signs some papers, and is greeted by an assembled group of well-wishers. In the early days, a chain was placed outside the school steps: the student hopped over it, signaling a proper entry into the real world. Customs have since evolved to include the wearing of minimal clothing (loosely acknowledged as a formal protest against bourgeois values) and a public reading from a il papiro
which is considerably more, shall we say, personal
And there's singing! To an um-pah-pah
melody, the words "Dottore! Dottore!" can be heard resounding in the streets of Padua, while the recent graduate, dressed in a sort of makeshift toga, reads out loud to a throng of friends and family who pray the newly-minted grad will screw up — whereupon said Dottore
is doused with champagne and raw eggs. Il Papiro
, combined with an extreme (and typically obscene) caricature — having been rendered as a giant poster — is subsequently taped onto the wall for all to see.
Photograph by Beccabrian, October 2005
Discretion, with regard to our younger readers, obliges me to share the less offensive language — and graphic images — but suffice it to say, the variety is extraordinary and many of the caricatures quite remarkable. The custom itself conflates a kind of Baroque ritual with the rebellious, acting-out, that more typically characterizes the modern-day graduate. And the genesis of the poster — from the scroll with sonnets, to the broadside with inflammatory prose; from the devotional script to the outsider-art-esque display type; and finally, the caricature itself, a public portrait of supreme comic humiliation — offer an overlooked, but to my mind fascinating mini-chapter in design history. In short, the posters themselves are so bad, they're good. Which is probably what makes them so captivating — and suggests, arguably, why they endure.