It cannot be denied that there is indeed something fascinating - even mystical - in the creation of a ceramic object: it's a process that involves all four natural elements, water, earth, air and fire, as if it were nature itself deciding to give us its very best, by creating beauty with the perfect balance of all its "ingredients".
We know this very well in Sicily, and we find this ancient knowledge in our ceramic production. Between tradition and innovation, classic pieces and futuristic sculptures, historical contaminations and modern influences, it is by no means an exaggeration to define Sicilian ceramics as a fundamental part of this land's identity, recognised and appreciated all over the world.
Between native inspirations and foreign contaminations
Like everything that makes up the multifaceted face of the island, ceramic is also the result of a myriad of different influences. The name itself, "ceramic", comes from the Greek kéramos which simply means "clay". This noble art however, is much older than the Greeks, and has its roots in Eastern and African culture, specifically Japan and the Sahara.
Sicilian ceramics as we know it today is the child of the strong influence of Arab domination, present on the island starting from the ninth century (827): they introduced the so-called "tin-glazing", a technique consisting in adding a mixture (whose fundamental element is silicon) which "vitrifies" when cooked. In addition to giving the typical “glossy” patina to the ceramic that we all know well, this technique makes the objects waterproof. (On the right: two examples of polychrome glazed basins, of Sicilian production, X-XI century, source: www.regione.sicilia.it).
This fundamental contribution from a "technical" point was then joined by new figurative languages directly inspired by Islamic patterns and decorations (squiggles, floral patterns, etc.), still used in current decorations.
It's important to remember that indigenous production never completely disappeared, but continued over the centuries and gradually mixed with different cultural influences. That's precisely what gives Sicilian ceramics its peculiar and immediately recognisable features: the ability to integrate artistic styles and influences with pre-existing local traditions, giving life to that creative contamination that we know to mark practically every aspect of our history.
Caltagirone, the city symbol of Sicilian ceramics
If you know something about Sicilian ceramics, then the first city that came to your mind was Caltagirone. And indeed, the very origin of the name already gives us an idea of its relevance in this sense: the Arabic Qal'at al Ghiran, which means “Rocca dei Vasi”, testament to a production that began even before the Arab conquest.
However, most of the artifacts were lost following the famous earthquake in 1693, which destroyed and redesigned a large area in south-eastern Sicily. There are still traces of earlier works, and we can find them in private collections all over the world. Ceramics then flourished from the 1700s onwards, thanks to the work of the cannatari (the traditional artisans of Calatina ceramics), adding new patterns and decorations, growing the prestige they still hold today. The city is also home to the National Museum of Ceramics, one of the most important in Italy.
Caltagirone ceramics are famous for their bright colors and typical Baroque decorations, but also for the traditional and easily recognisable shapes and subjects: think of the scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte(the famous huge staircase), a true symbol of the city, entirely decorated with ceramic tiles of the most disparate styles, depicting all the various influences of Sicilian (and Calatina) ceramics. (On the left, the staircase during a flower festival and with the candles for the feast of San Giacomo, and a detail of the decorations on the steps - source www.barbarapicci.com, www.guidasicilia.it is www.paesionline.it)
In addition to Caltagirone, today the main centres of Sicilian ceramics are Santo Stefano di Camastra, Burgio, Patti is Sciacca. The production is very varied and diversified: vases and containers of different shapes and styles, the famous Moorish Heads (here our article, if you'd like to know more), pine cones, plates, holy water stoups, figures from the nativity scene... the list is potentially endless, an "art" as refined and widespread as ceramics can be found in all aspects of everyday life, in common objects as well as in real works of art.
On Putia.eu, Sicilian ceramics find some excellent expressions, describing their attempt to reinterpret tradition:
- Don Corleone objects, with its bright colours and geometric shapes, which mix different influences (Picasso, De Simone, Frida Kahlo) together with the artist's own inspiration;
- Folk Lavastone, which combines the production of ceramics, reinvented in after "pop" fashion, with the use of another typical Sicilian material, lava stone (if you'd like to know more, here you'll find our article), reinterpreted with geometric shapes and intense colours;
- Improntabarre, based in Caltagirone, but with a clear intention to distance itself from its tradition (or rather, to transform it into something totally new). It re-proposes a minimal style in both shapes and colours, without however giving up on telling something about the very same tradition where it comes from;
- Freaklab, artistic lab founded by the talented artist from Palermo Antonio Sunseri who, working with terracotta and majolica, explores the world of the grotesque, giving life to “monstrous” figures that inexorably attract our eyes.
Before you leave, still a couple of curious facts:
- In ancient times, ceramics production was closely connected to the spread of pharmacies (or apothecaries). That's because pharmacies manufactured and distributed various ointments and medicaments, which needed small bottles, flasks or terracotta containers, which were then produced in large numbers.
Lucerne (traditional oil lamps) are one of the most traditional pieces of Sicilian ceramics, particularly in Caltagirone. At first they were simple circular trays with a spout at the edge. In the Middle Ages, a support was added to this tray which allowed it to hold the flame very high. The appearance of these oil lamps has remained virtually unchanged throughout the western part of Sicily (Palermo, Sciacca, Trapani), while it has undergone significant changes in the eastern area, starting from Caltagirone. From the 1700s onwards, the repertoire of "figurines" began to spread (first depicting mostly ladies and matrons): these figures were often used to represent social categories, arts and crafts, and in general the colourful popular life of the time. The artisans of Calatina ceramics used them as a pretext to mock real people (on the right you can see an example - source www.sicilylifestyle.com).