Caltagirone’s Multi-Hued Heritage of Majolica Pottery Took Shape Over Centuries
Winding our way through the foothills of the Erei mountains in Sicily’s southeast, my husband Tom and I faced a pleasant pause in our travels. Amid a patch-work quilt of sun-bleached fields, a riot of clanging and chiming announced a large herd of goats that appeared on the crest of a hill ahead of us. Prompted by two swarthy herders waiving switches, the oncoming wave of animals soon engulfed the rural road, then nonchalantly parted, trotted past our vehicle, and vanished around a bend.
We were on our way to the mountaintop town of Caltagirone, the ceramics capital of a region renowned for this ancient art form. The origin of its name is Arabic and refers to the Byzantine castle at the Erei foothills. From there the precise interpretation is the subject of colorful debate. One translation refers to the bountiful supply of wild boar once on the site, another could mean “belonging to Gela,” a nearby settlement that was one of Sicily’s first. A third meaning is “castle of the genies,” and, yet another, “castle of the Genoese.”
Based on known history, the last translation seems to have the most currency. An island of natural abundance strategically situated at the confluence of three Mediterranean seas, Sicily was a frequently conquered prize of ancient warring tribes hungry to expand their power and commerce. From prehistory through the Medieval and Renaissance periods, the island was ruled by the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Spanish and Bourbons. The Genoese occupied the namesake castle in 1040, shortly before the moniker “Caltagirone” made its first recorded appearance.
As we approached the sprawling town draped over the shoulders of a high hilltop, the silhouette of the skyline called to mind a charcoal etching. The buildings resembled a series of inky smudges against a slate sky. Once we began to walk Caltagirone’s ancient streets, lined with crumbling structures in sepia tones, it seemed like we had stepped back in time, into a faded photograph of days gone by. But then we began to see glimmers out of the corner of our eyes, and realized that the gray surface of seemingly every bridge and building was dappled with bright decorative ceramics.
Out of a history of warfare, disease and natural disasters, Caltagirone’s multi-hued heritage of majolica pottery took shape. Derived from the Greek keramos, meaning potter’s clay, Sicilian ceramics had their humble beginning well before the island’s colonizers sailed across the Ionian Sea. More than three millennia ago, its earliest inhabitants, the Sicani, baked and utilized clay vessels, now known as terra cotta in Italian, to store honey and other bounty yielded from the land. The term majorica refers to the advancement in the craft of glazing the stoneware, introduced by the Moors.
A Brief History of Ceramics Tradition from Curator of Caltagirone’s Museo della Ceramica
“Caltagirone has a millenary history. It’s a tradition that has never been broken. It all began when man lived from agriculture and needed to keep his products in containers,” said Francesca Geraci, curator of the town’s Museo della Ceramica. The museum is a monument to the history of the craft, featuring pieces created as far back as 2000 B.C. and unearthed locally over the years. Housed in a stunning baroque building that was formerly a theatre, its façade is graced with ceramics in bright colors of green, yellow and blue. Today’s image depicts the street on which the museum is located.
“The Greeks, around 1000 B.C., took with them to Sicily the use of the tornio,” Geraci explained. “An example of this new Greek influence is a piece exhibited at the museum, with red figures. It represents a pottery maker at work, assisted by goddess Athena, a demonstration that this work was very important.”
The plague and a major flood in the 13th and 14th centuries proved major setbacks for the community. Caltagirone later saw an influx of ceramic craftsmen from nearby Gela, when a Barbary pirate invasion there sent its population packing.
In the mid-14th century, the Catalonese of Spain, who had settled on Sicily’s west coast during the Dark Ages, sought refuge in Caltagirone from the invading Romans. The pottery then began to reflect Spanish ceramic techniques and aesthetics, particularly the use of Moorish details and deep blue tiles.
“The tradition and the commercial contacts with other people and other cultures gave new technical influence to the pottery,” Geraci continued. “The domination of the Arabs in Sicily in A.D. 827 with their forms, decorations and new technique gave the pottery a new look. Each culture gave something of his own technique, improving the result of the pottery, resulting in what we today call maiolica, the final product.”
Continued expansion of Caltagirone and its ceramic trade were later fueled by the Renaissance. The canatari, as the potters’ district was known, was active around the clock, kilns fired 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In the 1500s and 1600s, Caltagirone spilled from the mountaintop to the plains below. Public works projects ensued, including the construction of churches and more churches.
In 1693, much of Caltagirone was decimated by a devastating earthquake. The architects who designed the reconstruction made extensive use of local ceramics, creating an enthusiastic evolution in the craft. A new color palette was introduced of coppery green and purple-ish manganese, as well as golden yellows. Decorative details to palaces, municipal buildings and churches were now not only painted but molded in relief, a departure from convention to that point.
Stairway of St. Mary on the Mount: Connecting Old & New with Ceramics
One of the most significant undertakings in the 17th century was the creation of the stairway of St. Mary on the Mount in 1606. An urban renewal initiative and a radical idea of its own at the time, this marvel of 142 lava steps was erected to join a large part of the old city with the new. Restored after destruction in World War II, the stairs were then adorned with Majorca tiles, no two of which are alike. The patterns, ranging from Moorish to baroque, were designed by the more than 100 workshops in Caltagirone at that time.
Ceramics “laboratories” still abound in Caltagirone, in which artist proprietors and technicians daily work their magic, throwing and spinning clay, glazing and oven-firing the pieces, and hand-painting in delicate strokes their trademark patterns. The laboratories sell their wares on site but also supply ceramic shops throughout Sicily and beyond.
Granting Tom a reprieve from my pottery shopping, I left him at an al fresco café and returned to Silva Ceramica, which had earlier been closed for the two-hour lunch/siesta break. Off the main thoroughfare of Piazza Umberto, I went through a Roman archway to an open-air courtyard where two young women worked, one molding clay as it revolved on a wheel, the other intent on tiles on a table in front of her, paintbrush in hand.
Inside, three cluttered showrooms displayed a variety of works. Elaborate votive shrines hung on the walls, depicting a legion of angels, saints, and other religious figures. Stacks of individual tiles were heaped on the floor, with decorative designs of varying origin and hues and historic scenes from centuries ago—sea battles, forest hunts, and courtly wooing.
Shelves supported urns in traditional Caltagirone forms—one depicted the head of a dark-skinned mustachioed man wearing a turban headdress and huge hoop earrings, and another represented a blonde, bejeweled woman adorned with a tiara. And, of course, there was an assortment of the omnipresent La Trinacria, which can be seen throughout the region—a winged face, from which three legs, each bent at the knee, protrude.
I was given a tutorial on the symbol by Linda Farano, who with her brother Carlo runs the busy shop Ceramiche dell Artigianto Siciliano. She told me that La Trinacria is Greek in origin—meaning triangle, as the island is shaped—and still a proud symbol of Sicily today.
“The legs form a map of Sicily—at its corners, the cities of Messina, Syracusa, and Palermo,” Linda explained. “The face, it is Medusa—who means Athena, the Patron Goddess of the island. The wings, freedom.”
Linda went on to tell me that the head urns are the stuff of Caltagirone legend. The male figure is a Saracen—a term used during the Crusades for Muslims. The woman is said to be his married Norman lover, whose nobleman husband beheaded both of them after discovering their affair. Out of a turbulent time of cultural clashes, a Sicilian story of ill-fated passion lives on in ceramic form more than a thousand years later, just one colorful manifestation of Caltagirone’s colorful history as a ceramics legend.
Header Photo: Gerry Zambonini, Creative Commons