Let’s discover something more about another Sicilian tradition. Carvings, colors, peculiar scenes are part of one of the most beloved symbols of the Island of light, the Sicilian cart: let’s talk about it!
The Sicilian cart is a symbol of Sicily: how and what
It is impossible to forget the feeling of pleasant amazement that strikes us when we see these artworks for the first time. It was created as a simple means of transport to go through dusty roads, then it was turned into it a ‘butterfly’. What a transformation! Why is the Sicilian cart a symbol of Sicily? What made it so unique in beauty and useful as a tool for cultural development?
First of all, I want to say that the essential elements of any cart – platform, sides and wheels – are all there! But decorations, carvings and paintings make a huge difference! Often there is not an inch that does not illustrate moments that represents the history of this island, epic or religious scenes, these details make the carts very precious, we can define them as itinerant masterpieces. The shapes also change more or less in the provinces of the island… I will only point out the most marked differences.
In the Palermo area, it has trapezoidal sides, a yellow tint and mainly geometric decorations. The chivalric and religious characters have only some essential shades and a two-dimensional perspective. In the Catania area, on the contrary, the banks are rectangular, the background color is red, and the decorations are very complex and refined. The characters have three-dimensionality, and the chiaroscuro effects are marked.
To create a cart was not easy and above all, it needed craftsmen with different specializations. So, they needed a carver for all the wooden parts, a blacksmith for the iron elements, a cartwright to assemble all the parts. After that, it was essential both the painter’s expertise to paint everything and the decorator to create the decorations that harness the horse in the same colors and subjects of the cart.
A bit of history to learn more about the Sicilian cart…
Maybe you don’t know that the Sicilian cart, that is a symbol of Sicily, hasn’t always existed! To find out why is perhaps easier than you can imagine. In fact, after the fall of the Roman Empire, no one looked after the viability of the Island of light! Until the end of 1700, the streets were so bad that that no two-wheeled vehicle could use them. Indeed, instead of the roads there were the so-called ‘trazzere’, they were some discontinuous paths in the fields used by military troops and transhumant flocks. For many centuries, people used to travel by sea or, if they didn’t have to carry anything very bulky, on the back of a mule.
In 1778 the Sicilian parliament invested to rebuild the roads, so in the early 1800s the cart became pretty popular. Pulled by a horse, either a mule or a donkey, the cart was used at the beginning to carry some wood and agricultural products such as wheat, legumes, citrus fruits, almonds, wine. Sometimes, during holidays, it became a means of transport for the whole family for a sort of daytrip out! In the second half of the 20th century, due to the spread of motor vehicles, ‘u carrettu’ lost its original function, of course. But certainly, nowadays the Sicilian cart is a symbol of Sicily!
Three unexpected ‘souls’ of this Sicilian symbol: here they are!
Many people say that thank to the historical, literary, religious and chivalric episodes that decorate it, the Sicilian cart is actually a sort of itinerant illustrated book. So, from village to village, it was seen by old people and children, and it was a way to pass on stories and legends. So the Sicilian cart is a symbol of Sicily but also a way to educate and protect traditions and beliefs of this island.
There is something more to know: in addition to the protective function to save wood and metal parts, the painting had on a superstitious function too. For the Sicilians, in fact, the saints and the paladins depicted in the paintings had the power to ward off bad luck. You will not believe it but it is true: in addition to be a sort of amulet, paintings could be considered a sort of billboard! Come on, think about how they catch the attention and the interest of potential buyers of the goods. So, the richer the cart, the richer the cartwright. This is the reason why, in the past, the cart became a way to show off their own status symbol.
The Sicilian cart is a symbol of Sicily: music, literature, art and fashion
The Sicilian cart is strictly connected to the legendary role of the cartwright. They used to travel alone for hours and hours during hot days and cold nights … melancholy makes you want to sing. And in fact the cartwrights used to sing … the experts say that these songs directly derive from the so-called ‘plan’, that is the lamentations of the Provençal troubadours. Often the cartwrights used to meet each other in the warehouses, places to rest and drink, where real competitions used to come about. Here is a tidbit: the most popular were the songs about real or wished girlfriends … love affairs … as usual, you will say … and this time you are right. Finally, the winner was chosen, he was the one who became famous, respected and popular: basically, it was a talent show ante litteram!
The Sicilian cart is a symbol of Sicily also in many successful literary works such as many Giovanni Verga’s stories from Vita dei Campi. And in fact, how can we forget the rich cartwright Alfio who challenges Turiddu to a duel for the love of the beautiful Lola in Cavalleria Rusticana? And the several references from Il Gattopardo by Tomasi di Lampedusa and some others we can read in some recent novel like the ones of Inspector Montalbano by Andrea Camilleri!
Furthermore, the influences of the Sicilian cart are evident in both art and fashion. The painter Renato Guttuso used this kind of decorations for all his artwork as well as many other perhaps less known but interesting painters. But also modern jewels, antique ex-votos, peculiar furniture, unusual cars…and T-shirts, flat caps, bags, dresses. By the way, the famous brand Dolce & Gabbana was inspired by the style of the carts for their fashion collection 2016 dedicated to Sicily!
Some curiosities to learn more about the Sicilian cart…
In addition to the religious and popular stories, the most requested tales were undoubtedly the adventures of the paladins. In short, stories based on medieval chivalric bibliographic sources and Italian Renaissance poems with Crusaders and Moors. We find them even in the puppet theater called Opera dei Pupi, that in 2001 UNESCO included in the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Are you interested in seeing so many of them and appreciating their artistic and historical characteristics? There are several Sicilian cart museums. Meanwhile, I point out these but keep up to date on the various online sites: Gullotti Museum of the Sicilian cart in Bronte in the province of Catania, Regional Museum of Terrasini in the province of Palermo.
Nowadays, of course they do not circulate in the streets, but you can admire them during events such as parades, exhibitions, public parties and folkloric ceremonies. For example, if you are in Trecastagni in May for the Feast of Saints Alfio, Filafelfo and Cirino: all the spectacular carts will be gathered in the square in front of the Sanctuary of these three saints!
Let’s meet the painter Roberto Caputo
I have already told you that many artisans are needed to create a Sicilian cart. But the painter is the one who makes each cart unique and makes it stand out the most. To find out more, it was a pleasure to meet the artist Mr. Roberto Caputo. He has been working for years in Barrafranca in the province of Enna and is very skilled in decorating Sicilian carts with epic and religious scenes.
His love for the typical pictorial style of the cart can be noticed even in his other handcrafted productions such as bags, tables, chairs and jewels. He won several awards and many artworks have been purchased and brought to the USA. In any case, he is still a humble and nice person. When you come into his workshop, you can breathe the air filled of colors and creativity.
To meet him helped me get into the right spirit to write this article and understand why the Sicilian cart is a symbol of Sicily. Thank you so much, Roberto! Here is a tidbit: if you want to know more, visit his Facebook page Facebook Laboratorio Artistico Roberto Caputo. And if you are in the surroundings, contact him… maybe he will show you in his workshop!
Why is the Sicilian cart a symbol of Sicily? I promised you to satisfy your curiosity…that’s it! Certainly, all Sicilians really love it and are proud of this symbol. Did you get curious about this topic? Let Sicily surprise you, discover the tailormade itineraries by Dimensione Sicilia, or choose your next trips among the ones by Sicilian Secrets!
See you soon!
Translated by Gaia Guarino