Updated: Mar 4
What is Sicily famous for? Would you be surprised if I told you ceramics? When you hear of Sicily, most people’s thoughts conjure images of Mount Etna rising up into the clouds, plates piled high with delicious Italian food, picturesque clifftop villages, and crystal clear Mediterranean waters on its rocky shores. However, Sicily is known throughout Italy for its expertly painted ceramics and terra cotta pottery.
Recently I have found myself being drawn to the colorful glazed ceramics that are proudly shown in shop windows, used as centerpieces in restaurants, and displayed as decorations in people’s homes and on their balconies. The most prominent of these are the colorful pine cones and the ornately painted heads with crowns. To me, the crowned heads looked more Arabic or North African in style, rather than what I thought of as being “Italian”. I was curious to learn the stories behind the colorful Sicilian ceramics. But most of all, I wanted to know where I could get some of these fabulous pieces of art for myself!
After doing some research I learned that the ceramic heads are typically thought of as either Moorish or Arabic, and were born from a love story. There are multiple versions of this story, most of which take a sinister turn and end in tragedy. The first version of the legends tells of a beautiful girl in Palermo, who catches the eye of a Moorish merchant passing below her balcony as she tends to her plants. They immediately fall in love and begin a passionate affair. The affair ends when the girl discovers that her new love has a wife and family in his homeland, in response to which she cuts off his head while he is sleeping and uses it as a pot to grow a beautiful basil plant.
A second version comes from the city of Messina. This version tells the story of Isabella, a beautiful orphaned girl of noble blood, who falls in love with a local boy named Lorenzo. Lorenzo is not wealthy enough to earn the approval of Isabella’s brothers, who have charge over her. Isabella and Lorenzo have a secret affair, until the brothers find out and lure Lorenzo out of the city to murder him. When Isabella learns of the fate of her lover, she finds his body, cuts off his head, and brings it home, where she puts it in, you guessed it, a pot where she grows a beautiful basil plant. Kind of makes you question whether you want to continue eating basil, doesn’t it?
A different, less violent version of the story stems from the time during the Arabic rule of Sicily. According to this legend, Grifone, a general from the invading army, falls for Mata, a beautiful Sicilian girl in Messina. After pledging his undying love for her, and agreeing to convert to Catholicism, they get married and rule Messina together. This version seems a bit more realistic, although not nearly as exciting and mysterious as the other murderous tales!
There are other stories, based in mythology, that involve different versions of a light skinned goddess of nature being kidnapped by the dark god Hades. These have connections to other stories from Greek mythology that involve contrasting elements of light and dark, day and night, or summer and winter. Regardless of the origin of the legend, the crowned heads are pretty cool, and would definitely make a good conversation piece!
Now for the story behind the pine cones. I have seen pine cones in different shapes, sizes and colors all over Sicily. They adorn pillars at the entrances to homes, are hung on windows and balconies, and are used as home decor. You would probably have a hard time finding a Sicilian home that does not have a pine cone of some variety.
The pine cone, being a fruit generated by an evergreen, produces both male and female parts, and is thus able to continually regenerate on its own. Due to the pine cone's regenerative ability, it is thought to represent eternity and the life force in the universe. For Sicilians, it also symbolizes fruitfulness, prosperity and good luck. Pine cones are traditionally given as gifts to people who have just moved into a new home, gotten married, or had a baby. I never would have thought to use a pine cone as a decoration, but after reading the meaning behind it I admit I became slightly obsessed with getting one.
After learning the stories behind the famous Sicilian ceramics, I began my search for where to find them. The search led me to a town up the hills of central Sicily named Caltagirone. The more I read, the more I wanted to go there. With ceramic making traditions dating back to prehistoric times, Caltagirone is the epicenter of Sicilian ceramics. Even the name of the town itself has a connection to pottery, believed to have derived from the Arabic word Qal ‘at al Gharùn, which means “Castle of Jars”.
In addition, the town boasts a massive stone stairway that is decorated with square tiles underneath every step! I’m learning to love all these tiny hilltop towns with hundreds and hundreds of steps. Or at least I’m hoping that all the stair climbing will offset the countless numbers of pastries I am indulging in. Mama mia!
On a slightly chilly and rainy Sunday morning, we headed off on our ceramics expedition. Off into the Sicilian countryside, the only sights we passed were olive groves, citrus farms, and the ever present prickly pear cactus. This area is a strange combination of being slightly desolate, while beautiful at the same time. I think it’s the rawness of it, the feeling of still being a bit wild and untamed. The simplicity of life here is like taking a long, slow breath and feeling the freshness of nature soak into your bones.
We arrived in Caltagirone and immediately found a wonderful place to park, at the Piazza San Francesco D'Assisi. We quickly paid with the the EasyPark app, and off we went to find some ceramics!
Now, when I said Caltagirone was the epicenter of Sicilian ceramics, I wasn’t kidding. There are more ceramics shops here than you could possibly visit all in one day. They are filled with intricately painted tiles, vases, pitchers, bowls, platters, cups, saucers, dishes, sinks, tables, and countless other decorative pieces! There are a few shops that feel a bit touristy, the larger ones that have hundreds of items on display. But I loved the smaller shops where the artist is the person you talk to when you walk in. Many of these small shops double as the studios where artists create their work! The best advice I can give is to just wander through the streets and go inside any shop that calls to you.
Here is the general plan we followed. The parking area at Piazza San Francesco D'Assisi is just before a bridge named Ponte San Francesco. The bridge has fantastic views of the lower part of the city, and is lined with gorgeous ceramic tiles and murals.
Instead of crossing the bridge, we turned left down the main street and walked towards the Museo Regionale della Ceramica. There’s also a public garden near the museum that we thought would be nice to explore. The section of road between the bridge and the gardens is lined with the most amazing shops on both sides of the street. You name an art medium, they’ve got it… ceramics, paintings, pottery, and wood carving, just to name a few! We found several stores here that we absolutely adored, and I bought my very own ceramic pine cone, which I am in love with by the way.
Just as we arrived at the garden, the light rain we had started out with turned a bit nasty, so we ducked into a coffee bar. When I say coffee bar, I’m talking about a tiny space with a glass case of pastries, two places to stand at the bar, and one tiny table for two. As is the norm for us now, the only other people in the bar were local, and after they all gave us a long stare, we just smiled and said “buongiorno!” In response to which they all smiled back and the owner answered with “Prego!”
We pointed to what looked good and I ended up with a little slice of heaven they call Raviola with Ricotta. A fried pastry with ricotta cream inside and sugar sprinkled on the outside. How is it possible that I’ve gone my whole life without eating one of these deep fried, cream filled pockets of deliciousness?? They also come in a flaky, baked form, but I prefer the fried. If you ever find yourself in Caltagirone, take a quick break from your ceramics shopping and find a coffee bar that has these!
Due to the rain, we decided to save the garden and museum for another day. I’ll have to come back and update the post after that happens. I have no problem whatsoever going back, as there are many more ceramics shops I need to visit!
Once the rain let up a bit, I was set on finding the famous Staircase of Santa Maria del Monte, so we headed back up the street in the direction we had come from. We crossed the Ponte San Francesco and walked up and around the corner to the right and came upon a beautiful piazza with side streets meandering off in all directions. The Basilica Cattedrale di San Giuliano on the left, with its bell tower, was quite breathtaking; and while I didn’t come here to see churches I was dying to go take a peek inside. Sadly, we weren’t able to go in, as it was riposo time and we were in a small town.
Riposo (rest) in Sicily is a widely observed and honored tradition that I am fully in favor of. I mean, who doesn’t love a 3 hour lunch/nap time? We have learned that if we are visiting a small town we need to wake up early and get going, because many places will close down from approximately 1:00 to 4:00 in the afternoon, sometimes extending as long as 12:30 - 4:30. This can be slightly confusing, as many places close for the day at 4:00. I’ve discovered that shops who open back up in the evening tend to take a slightly longer riposo, where government offices or businesses that close for the day at 4:00 or 5:00 will usually have a shorter break. To read about the other important lessons I’ve learned while living in Sicily, see here! But I digress. Let’s get back to the steps.
Across the square from the Cathedral of Saint Julien, and around the corner to the left, the stairway came in to view. La Scala di Santa Maria del Monte. Just as beautiful as I had imagined, and just as tall. 142 steps, to be exact. A few short blocks more and we began the climb.
As you climb, there will be more ceramics shops luring you in, even down the little side streets off the stairs. Look for signs telling you the view from the top is well worth the climb! This area is packed with shops, cafes, and restaurants. You can literally spend all day here shopping and eating. When you get tired, stop for a coffee, a cocktail, or some Sicilian street food, and then get back in the game!
The trek up the stairs is a fantastic experience all on its own. A look at the underside of each step reveals painted tiles of varying design and style. Although the stairs were built in the early 1600’s, the painted tiles weren't installed until the 1950’s.
Ceramics aren't the only art form you'll find here. There are also quite a few tiled murals laid into the sides of some of the buildings. A visit here should be slow-paced, as we found ourselves constantly distracted by the artistry all around us. If you stop on your way up the stairs every so often, more and more of the city below will be visible. Our favorite view was about half way up because you can see several bell towers and cathedral domes in the distance.
The view from the top is absolutely spectacular, with the full view of the stairs and city below. One of the best parts about getting to the top of the stairs was the double stairway that leads up to the street above. There are painted tiles on every column, and a tiled mural in the center that is stunning! Another beautiful church sits up here as well, but we had trouble figuring whether we could go inside or not. We will have to add this to our list of places to explore on our next visit. I think I foresee a “Churches of Caltagirone” post in my future!
As I waked up the double stairway, I noticed a faded mural depicting the famous Moorish crowned heads painted on the building on the left side. Being a sucker for cool street art, I went over to investigate, and hit the jackpot! The street that goes off to the left is a hidden gem of urban art that turned out to be a delightfully surprising detour on our ceramics hunting journey.
The further I walked down the street, the more art I found. The street art fairy had been here for sure…on the sides of houses in the streets and alleyways, above doorways, on garage doors, around windows, and even on the street itself!
This trip turned out to be a surprising celebration of color and artistry in so many different forms. Art is everywhere, you just have to look around you!
After coming back down the stairs, we wandered among the side streets, each one a treasure trove of ceramics shops and artisan stores. I loved Caltagirone for so many reasons. It just has a cool, artsy vibe that makes you feel good. The upper part of the city that features the shops and stairway is small enough for you to walk around and explore at your own pace without feeling like you have to rush. We loved discovering all the beauty this little mountain town was hiding!