On this occasion, we will try to guide you through the wonders of the red gold of the Mediterranean Sea, Sicilian coral.
Extremely rare and precious, the Corallium Rubrium of the Mediterranean has such peculiar characteristics compared to the varieties found all over the world that it can truly be considered unique. Nowadays, it is mostly used to make jewelry and precious accessories, extraordinary pieces created by skilled artisans, keepers of a mysterious energy, a call for something deep and beautiful whose power we cannot really explain, but that inevitably attracts us.
Let's journey through the most curious facts and anecdotes about this fascinating material, once considered to be the perfect synthesis between the animal, vegetal, and mineral world.
Coral of Sciacca being worked by a local artisan - source ilsole24ore.com
1. Welcome to Neverland, in search of the coral of Sciacca
The coral of Sciacca is without a doubt among the most precious and refined qualities. In fact, this variety has such unique features that it should count as its own category. Telling the story of the origin of the coral of Sciacca is like jumping in a good old adventure, with a treasure hunt and even an elusive "Neverland" popping up.Have you ever heard of the Ferdinandea Island? If not, no surprise there, the island hasn't actually existed in almost two centuries (that's precisely why it's called "Neverland"). It is (or was) a volcanic island whose short existence dates back to 1831, when it emerged off the coast of Sciacca. For about a year, Frenchmen, Englishmen, and Bourbons fought in vain to decide who was its rightful owner, until the island, in spite of all their geopolitical strategies, thought it best to plunge again under the water, where it stays up to this day.
In 1875, in the very same area where we know the island is found, a group of fishermen discovered an unexpected underwater treasure: three coral reefs, rich with a unique kind of coral. This coral developed in fact under truly unusual circumstances, being close to volcanic material, resulting in the most peculiar features: it's smaller than the ordinary red coral and has incredibly multifaceted nuances of colour it goes from red to salmon, from orange to yellow, with brownish stains which are proof of its volcanic origin.
2. From Sciacca to Trapani, to meet the oldest coral of them all
If Sciacca's coral is the most famous, Trapani's variety is undoubtedly the most ancient Sicilian coral of which we have knowledge. It was mentioned for the first time by the well known Arab geographer Al Idrisi in the XII century, and its production flourished staring from the XIV century. All the richest and most illustrious clients from all Europe would ask the skilled maestri corallai (coral masters) to make all sorts of objects: jewels, richly decorated boxes, religious items, and even luxurious nativities (you can see an example below).
Nativity made with coral, golden silver, copper, and golden bronze, from a Sicilian workshop in Trapani, XVIII century.
The savage exploitation of this resource throughout the centuries has however - as in the case of Sciacca - deeply affected the coral reefs and, to this day, Trapani's coral has essentially run out.
3. «The leafe and bough became both hard and tough». Myth and legend behind the origin of Sicilian coral
According to legend, the coral originated when Medusa's head - cut off by Perseus - was plunged into seawater. The blood, touching the seaweed, petrified it, making it red.
There's an extract from Ovidio's Metamorphoses that describes the episode:
He washed his victorious hands. And lest the Snakie heade
With lying on the gravell hard should catch some harme, he spred
Soft leaves and certaine tender twigs that in the water grew,
And laid Medusas head thereon: the twigs yet being new
And quicke and full of juicie pith full lightly to them drew
The nature of this monstrous head. For both the leafe and bough
Full straungely at the touch thereof became both hard and tough.
The Sea nymphes tride this wondrous fact in divers other roddes
And were full glad to see the chaunge, bicause there was no oddes
Of leaves or twigs or of the seedes new shaken from the coddes.
For still like nature ever since is in our Corall founde:
That looke how soone it toucheth Ayre it waxeth hard and sounde,
And that which under water was a sticke, above is stone.
Ovidio, Metamorphoses, Book IV (verse translation by Arthur Golding - 1567)
A fascinating tale that would explain why the coral is seen as the ideal meeting point between different worlds.
4. Coral and blood, a connection made of magic, superstition and popular belief.
Pala di Brera, Piero della Francesca - detail with the coral necklace worn by Baby Jesus
The nature of the coral itself - and its connection with the animal, vegetal, and mineral world - has always given it an aura of mystery, almost magic, making it a symbol deeply rooted in popular traditions.
The identification between coral and blood is particularly strong, and its appearance must have played a central role in this sense: with its branched out shape and its intense red color, coral looks very much like blood vessels.
The association with blood - and its superstitious meaning - is present in a number of different cultures: in the Roman world for instance, the coral had an apotropaic value, and was used as a lucky charm against evil in general, often given to children as a protection.
His function against all evil forces remained strong within Christianity, where coral was seen as a symbol of Baby Jesus' blood. We can find it in many representations from the Middle Ages or the Renaissance: Baby Jesus is often painted wearing a necklace made of coral, indicating his human nature.
5. Not just red gold. Sicilian coral is also black and glows (!) when touched
The discovery of black coral (the scientific term would be Savalia lucifica)certainly stands out among the most recent findings. Extremely rare (to the point where it was believed to be found only in some areas of the Pacific Ocean), its most peculiar trait is its bioluminescent nature: under particular external stimulations (like the human touch for instance) - it glows and becomes fluorescent.
Below, you can watch a short video that shows the discovery of this unique coral and its peculiar properties. It was filmed by ISPRA ( (Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale - Superior Institute for the Protection and Environmental Research) off the coast of Capo San Vito (Trapani's area).
Bonus. "La corallina". Let's go back to the story of the Ferdinandea Island. The short poem "La corallina" was written in Sicilian by Vincenzo Licata, a poet from Sciacca, and describes the very moment the "treasure" was discovered by the three fishermen. In short, according to the popular tale, the Captain Bettu Ammareddu was out in the sea with two of his companions, Bettu Occhidilampa and Peppe Muschidda. At some point, the captain lost the small chain that had been given him by his sweetheart Tina, and he therefore jumped into the water to get it back, discovering thus the coral reefs.
Here's the poem (in the original Sicilian):Vosi assummari pi pighiari ciatu,
cu ddu tisoru di lu nostru mari.
E a bordu chi l’avianu p’annigatu,
quann’è chi si lu vittiru affacciari
gridaru tutti:”Si misi a cavaddu!
Bettu Ammareddu truvau lu curaddu!
Ci fu na festa in tutta la marina,
e la notizia si spargiu luntana.
S’armau la nova varca curallina,
la Sciacchitana e la Napulitana;
Turri di Grecu fici la Regina,
chi si jinchiu la varca sana-sana;
ma la midagghia di la bedda Tina
Ristau ‘n-funnu a la Sicca Sciacchitana.
Vincenzo Licata, “La corallina”
Bonus plus. A forest of corals. Among the most recent findings in the Mediterranean Sea, a special mention goes to the discovery of a true forest of corals in the depth of the waters surrounding the Eolie Islands. This coral, extremely varied in appearance and colour, lives side by side with an equally varied marine life, whose relevance on a scientific level has probably only just been barely scratched. This is one of the reasons that the Oceana expedition (author of the discovery) asked to turn the whole marine area surrounding the Eolie Islands into a protected park of some sort, to be able to best protect its precious life forms.
Cover picture - Consorzio Corallo Sciacca