Before talking about sicilian ceramics let’s say that “ceramic” is a term that comes from ancient Greek. In fact, “Kéramos” means “clay”.
The art of pottery processing is one of the noblest arts of man, as well as one of the oldest: just think that the oldest ceramic finds in the world have been found in China and were dated around 14500 BC.
Siclian ceramic from its origins until today
The art of Sicilian ceramics is in particular one of the most important ever for the quality of its production, and therefore appreciated all over the world. We have the first evidence of the manufacture of ceramic in Sicily as early as the Neolithic period, and in particular the finds found inside the Grotta dell’Uzzo in the Trapani area testify the first presence of ceramics in Sicily as early as 8000 years ago. Some vases were found here, while amphorae and glasses were found in other settlements in the province of Syracuse.
The manufacturing of ceramic in Sicily has been enriched over the centuries by the experiences of the peoples who have settled over time. Not only the Phoenicians and the Greeks, but also the Arabs, the Carthaginians, the Byzantines and the Normans have left their imprint, which was acquired and handed down over time by the skilled Sicilian ceramists, infusing in the final product that today we can all admire a style that it is actually unique in the world and easily distinguishable both for the quality of the workmanship and for the aesthetic result.
The Greeks and the innovative techniques for working with ceramics
The first attempts of the Greeks to colonize Sicily took place already during the eighth century BC. It is precisely this domination that gives to the production of ceramics by the Sicilian craftsmen important introductions to the techniques used up to that moment, both as regards processing and as regards decoration and finishing.
Probably it is precisely during the period in which Sicily was colonized by the Greeks that the art of working with ceramics in Sicily experienced a exponential growth, a phenomenon that did not take place during the Byzantine and Roman dominations, only to regain value during the Arab period.
The Arabs and the lead glazing technique
The Arabs in fact introduced in Sicily a new terracotta processing technique which they in turn acquired in Persia and Egypt. This technique, which today we call “lead glazing”, requires that a particular mixture of substances be sprinkled on the entire ceramic body. This mixture then vitrifies during the cooking phase thanks to the silicon, which once reached high temperatures is able to merge with the other substances present in the mixture, giving the sicilian ceramic its typical color, as well as the characteristic of becoming even more resistant to impact, more compact and waterproof.
From the Spanish to the 19th century: new colors, new techniques
During the Spanish domination in Sicily, which began in 1516, the ceramic processing in Sicily recorded the introduction of new processing techniques and colors. In fact, they began to notice the productions that included, alongside the traditional green, manganese and yellow colors, also the introduction of blue, a hitherto absent hue in the early 1600s.
It is the Italian Renaissance style that influences the production of sicilian artistic ceramics in this period, and the Sicilian masters are inspired by the majolica of Venice.
At the same time in this period became establishedin Sicily the Palermo production, which is characterized by the typical necks of the oval vases, which are wider at the top and with a rounder belly. A few years later, and precisely at the beginning of the 1700s, it is the small town of Caltagirone that comes to the fore for its beautiful proposal of ceramics that stand out from the entire Sicilian production.
Here are produced braziers, amphorae, lamps, owl-shaped vases, saplings, the famous sicilian ceramic pine cones, ceramic furnishings to decorate terraces and outdoor environments, human faces and tiles. About a century later, we reached around ‘800, the figure of the ceramist specialized in modeling certain terracotta figures expands more and more.
The production of this period gives life to lamps that depict human faces but also statuettes depicting the protagonists of the nativity scene, the ancient Sicilian crafts, customs and social conditions of the time, real objects of art that still enrich our houses and represent creative and always appreciated gift ideas.
The production of Sicilian ceramics should not be confused with that of porcelain. In fact, the difference between ceramic and porcelain lies in the type of mix, temperature required for production and cooking times. So we are talking about two different products.
The ceramic production town in Sicily
In Sicily different ceramic schools have established themselves, each with its own typical way of decorating and coloring products, so as to make them easily distinguishable from one production center to another. In particular, the most famous schools are those of Santo Stefano di Camastra, Caltagirone and Sciacca.
The ceramic production in Santo Stefano di Camastra
The sicilian ceramic of Santo Stefano di Camastra is among the best known and appreciated of the handicraft production in Sicily. Originally, therefore around the 18th century, the earthenware was pressed inside wooden boxes of 22 cm in length. Once dried, these “bricks” were cooked in special wood-fired ovens, taking care that they did not touch each other during the cooking phases, which lasted about 20 hours. Subsequently the pieces were cooled for 48 hours to be subsequently decorated by means of special molds, and subsequently perforated and colored.
Only this process required a considerable labor and manpower of several workers, to the point of involving a large part of the town. In fact, there were those who had the task of digging the clay, those of pressing the terracotta inside the boxes, those who specialized in positioning the bricks inside the wooden ovens and those who instead had the task of doing so that the fire guaranteed a constant temperature from the beginning to the end of cooking. There were also women who took care of transporting the bricks to the surrounding shops or to the train station. Ultimately came into play the masters, who had the task of modeling, coloring and finishing the worked clay thus making it ready for sale.
Only in the 19th century this type of production become industrial in the town of Santo Stefano di Camastra. In this way, the laboratories have been able to increase production and enrich both the possibilities for customization and the variety of colors to choose from, giving life to those excellent artisan products that today we all know and appreciate.
Caltagirone, the capital of pottery in Sicily
The production of sicilian ceramics in Caltagirone dates back to the times of the Arab domination, at least as we know it today since at the museum of ceramics in Caltagirone there are finds that date back to prehistoric times.
This type of processing also experienced a flourishing period during the Greek domination, with the latter introducing the use of the lathe during ceramic production. Precisely in this period, the production of ceramics in Caltagirone began to acquire new techniques that gave to the products a characteristic Oriental appeal and a visual impact that still makes them easily distinguishable today. One of the most famous techniques is certainly the lead glazing, which represented a real turning point for all the craftsmen of the island.
Not even the terrible earthquake of 1693, which affected the Val di Noto, have been able to destroy this art. Although in fact the city was destroyed, and with it many products of great quality, the art of working with ceramics soon resumed its way through the streets of Caltagirone and its master craftsmen who were able in a short time to bring local production back to its former levels.
Today Caltagirone is considered in all respects as “the city of ceramics” and its school is increasingly enriched by the creation of objects that face new market niches. No longer then exclusively sicilian ceramic objects aimed at enhancing the interiors of the house or terraces and balconies, but also jewels, watches, tiles, the famous sicilian ceramic Moorish heads and the sicilian pine cones, which are known because they bring luck to the houses in which they are placed.
The ceramic production in Sciacca
The art of craftsmanship of ceramics in Sciacca is inextricably intertwined with the production of sicilian ceramic majolica. Since the early 1300s, in fact, the local kilns gave birth to splendid glazed artefacts, some of which can still be admired inside the noble palaces of Gela and Agrigento.
The origin of Sciacca’s ceramic art dates back to the sixth millennium BC, and still retains its shapes and colors. The ceramic artisans of Sciacca are famous for their skill in working the raw material and in giving it characteristics that make each piece easily distinguishable.
Among the artisan workshops of Sciacca it is possible to choose between many products that include not only furnishing ceramics, but also tableware, sicilian puppets (pupi), tiles, bowls and various dishes, outdoor decorations with the classic colors ranging from blue to green , from yellow to orange with turquoise hues as tradition has for centuries.
The prestige of Sciacca’s artisanal sicilian ceramics has returned to vogue in recent years, finding a growing interest from users for these real small masterpieces of art, and today this sector represents a large part of the economy of the town thanks also to the important exports both within Italy and abroad.
Typical Sicilian ceramics
The typical Sicilian ceramics are perfect to complete and enrich the furnishing of any type of ambience, be it domestic or commercial, be it indoor or outdoor , as well as a perfect gift idea able to combine art, creativity, originality. In particular, among the most famous typical Sicilian ceramics we mention the Moorish heads , the sicilian ceramic pine cones, the serving dishes and those with a diameter greater than 50 cm, dessert plates, cups and bowls, sets of coffee or milk cups with saucer, trays, salad bowls, tea cups, “picciotti in love”, prickly pears, gift ideas for Christmas such as siclian ceramic plates, decorated panettone, Christmas trees, Christmas balls and cribs.
Among the ideas to enrich and decorate outdoor environments, there are splendid tables of all shapes and sizes, chairs and benches, lamps, vases and saucers and even beautiful barbecues. There are also airtight jars to host, for example, spices or cookies, cone shaped glasses, oil cruet and salt cellars, oven dishes, ladle holders, salt and pepper holders, sugar bowls, divided party tray, mugs for water and wine, teapot infuser, pizza plates , fish platters and beautiful rectangular cutting boards.
Therefore, you are spoiled for choice for unique pieces perfect to enrich any type of ambience or make those who receive them happy. When you buy Sicilian ceramics it should be borne in mind that comparing two pieces of the same type it is possible that they are not perfectly identical in shape, finish or decorations. That is normal because you have to consider that these are not industrial products, but manufactured goods made entirely by hand and therefore absolutely unique. The most important artisan workshops also allow you to customize products by adding details, writings or other types of customizations on request. In addition, these products can be safely washed in the dishwasher, as they are absolutely resistant.
Sicilian ceramic heads story
The typical Moorish head planter represent one of the most refined sicilian art works, so famous as to have become one of the most representative symbols of this region. The Moorish heads, also known as “sicilian ceramic heads”, have been enriching the balconies and outdoor areas of this beautiful land for hundreds of years. They can decorate not only the balconies but also the living rooms, and for this reason they represent one of the most desired sicilian souvenirs by tourists on holiday in Sicily. They are not the result of an artistic fantasy, but have a much more ancient and profound origin, which goes to bind to a picturesque legend whose protagonists are a beautiful sicilian girl and a young Moor.
The legend that concerns them is set in Palermo and not many people know it. It narrates that approximately in the year 1100 , period in which there was the arab domination on the island, in the ancient district of the Kalsa in Palermo lived a beautiful girl, who spent her days dedicating to the care of the house and the plants that enriched his balcony. One day a young Moor passed by and noticed her while she was busy watering her plants, and instantly fell in love with her. Taken by this strong feeling he did not hesitate to enter the house to openly declare all his love to her. The girl, who was amazed by that determination and the feeling that the young man said he felt for her, returned his love but as soon as she found out that the young Moor would soon return to the East, where his wife and his sons were waiting for him, she took advantage of the darkness of the night and killed him while he slept.
The girl cut off his head and made it into a vase, in which she planted basil. Finally she exposed the head planter outside his balcony so that the man could somehow stay with her forever. Thanks to the tears that the girl poured daily into the head planter, the basil grew luxuriantly, however, causing a feeling of envy towards the other inhabitants of the square, who decided to make other terracotta vases built with the shape of Moor head.
Sicilian ceramic pine cone: history and meaning
The sicilian ceramic pine cone is one of the best known and wanted objects by tourists in the artisan workshops in Sicily. The ceramic pine cone is a truly ancient symbol, and throughout history it has repeatedly been present in various societies of the past. In the past the pine cone was a symbol of immortality and eternity, considering that it is a fruit that comes from an evergreen tree. This is the reason why we find the sicilian ceramic pine cone as a decorative object even inside churches and cemeteries. In Sicily, anyway, the ceramic pine cone is one of the most sought after and at the same time symbolic souvenirs of the island that brings a message of prosperity and luck with it.
Although not related to a particular legend, this handicraft object is closely linked to the theme of prosperity and fertility, probably because of its seeds or its ovoid shape. It is known, in fact, that in ancient times young couples decorated the bedrooms adding pine cones as a sign of good luck, so that they could have a large family. In addition, the pine cone also symbolizes the spirit of survival and resistance, thanks to its resin and the hardness of the tree wood, which is the reason in ancient times the sicilian ceramic pine cones were given and placed on the front door of each house as a wish for luck for those who lived there. Today the Sicilian ceramic pine cone is particularly present in homes thanks to a renewed interest in the art of ceramics, and we place these pine cones inside the houses, on the terraces, on the balconies and in the gates. Many people personally buy a ceramic pine cone and store it inside their apartment, or they give it to the newlyweds, to those who just had a baby or those who moved to a new apartment, as a wish for prosperity, health and luck.
Sicily is today the most important ceramic manufacturing centerin the world, with the cities of Caltagirone, Santo Stefano di Camastra and Monreale which are real excellences in the sector.
The paste used to make the sicilian majolica requires the presence of two fundamental elements: limestone and clayey marl, which are mixed in the right quantities in order to obtain a compound called “biscuit” (“biscotto” in italian). This compound is modeled and dried exactly as it happens for other types of ceramics. At the end of the drying procedure, the compound that will give life to the majolica is put into the oven to undergo a first cooking cycle called “biscottatura”. Inside the same oven there may be pieces of different sizes, formats and thicknesses, so it depends exclusively on the skill of the craftsman the fact that all the pieces will obtain optimal cooking. After the baking phase of the biscuit there is the glazing one, which can be made by dipping, sprinkling or insufflation. Finally, in order to give the enamel greater brilliance, it is covered with a particular varnish which, in the casting phase, returns a glass effect called “crystalline”.