Updated: Mar 4, 2021
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.