History of Sicily Revealed in Ceramics and Folk Art
The history of Sicily is defined by its traditional arts. Among the most beloved are ceramics and Carretto Siciliano, which are painted horse carts. Both of artisanal crafts are known for their innovative designs and vibrant colors. The masterful artistry that distinguishes Sicilian pottery evolved from a fusion of myriad cultures drawn to Sicily by its strategic location and fertile landscape. The largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily served as both a power base and a granary for numerous civilizations from the Elymians who arrived from Asia Minor in 1200 B.C., to the sea-faring Phoenicians, and then the Greeks, Romans, Normans and Spanish. Each wave of dynasties contributed to both the technical and expressive prowess & poetry of Sicilian ceramics.
This cultural fusion is in evidence in every nook and cranny of the mountaintop town of Erice in the northwest corner of Sicily. Monte Erice rises steeply from the sea to a height of 2,500 feet, towering over the western coast of Sicily. Today it’s home to a magical Medieval commune preserved in time. For many millennia, its summit was a sanctuary for a series of people who sought refuge from a succession of invading powers battling for supremacy over the region. The site, named after Aphrodite’s son, was a place of worship for a succession of fertility cults, from which the Castello di Venere gets its name. This stunning 12th century Norman castle is reached via meandering cobblestoned streets, studded with numerous Medieval churches, including the magnificent 17th century Chiesa San Di Martino.
On the narrow streets that cross Erice is also Maison Altieri, a supplier of beautiful Sicilian ceramics. The Maison Altieri was founded in 1882 by Don Luigi Altieri, who continued the company of his father-in-law founded by Don Ignazio Luparello in 1830. The company offered porcelain, glassware, silverware, art pottery and other decorative items for the home. Today, Ignazio and Cesare Altieri, the great-grandchildren of Don Ignazio Luparello, are co-owners of the company; Ignazio is also the artistic director. The Maison Altieri has received one of the greatest honors of the Italian State: the title of “Commendatore” of the State of Italy.
I had the privilege of getting an education on the history of Sicily firsthand from Ignazio, whose life and career are the embodiment of Sicilian culture. In this lively and in-depth interview, meet Ignazio and allow him to share his insights on how Sicily’s traditions are intertwined. I know you’ll enjoy these lessons on not only Sicilian ceramics, but also on the history of Sicily, the Stile Liberty movement, and the Sicilian traditions of Carretto Siciliano and Tonnarotti.
A Short History on Sicilian Ceramics
Meg: The term “ceramics” covers a range of production methods. As an expert in Sicilian ceramics, can you explain what those are and what the difference is?
Ignazio: The word ceramic comes from the Greek ‘Keramos’ which means clay or material for potters. Ceramic can be divided into three categories: terracotta that is what is obtained after the first heating of clay, that happens at 980°, and then is ready to be decorated before being heated again at 1200°; vitreous ceramic, that has a light decoration, simple and popular; when the vitreous ceramic is used to produce art objects with fine decorations or with reproductions of antique decorations and is plunged in a usually white stanniferous enamel, it then becomes a majolica.
It was during the Greek period (5th Century B.C.), that the art of decorating the ceramic for artistic or domestic purposes arrived from Crete. Sicily has always had good clay caves, that is the base for Sicilian ceramics and majolica. During the three centuries of Arab domination, terracotta became vitreous ceramic thanks to some Muslims from Persia that was also present in Cordoba and Sevilla (Spain). In the 17th Century, the production grew with the creation of flooring and vases until today were many and various objects are made out of ceramic. Ceramics was also used to produce highly decorated vases for pharmacies, pottery for domestic use and furnishing objects.
The Beginning of Maison Altieri
Meg: I’d love to hear how Maison Altieri got its start.
Ignazio: The first company was founded in Agrigento in 1830 by my great grandfather Ignazio Luparello. The family had a big shop in the city center of Agrigento where porcelains, crystals, silverware, perfumes, furs, hats and other elegant stuff were sold.
Porcelains and crystal ware were imported by European countries. Sicily had great relations with England, Austria and France. Their Kings and aristocracies used to spending winters on the Italian island since the 1700s, to profit of the mild climate. The Royals of Holland, the German Kaiser, Zar Nicholas I and the Emperor Joseph of Austria, came various times and that brought to a growth of the relations. Sicily exported the ‘petrol’ used in those times in all Europe, sulfur. Moreover, it exported fine wine, Marsala. These relations were born thanks to all the journeys that Luigi Altieri did. Every two years he used to go to the Universal Exhibition, such as the one in Paris in 1900 and in Sevilla.
Maison Altieri established itself among the pre-eminent Italian companies for the sale of Sicilian ceramics and majolica. It was one of the most important shops in the province and among one of the most famous in the Kingdom of Two Sicilies.
Kingdom of Two Sicilies & Birth of Bourgeoisie
Meg: What was the Kingdom of Two Sicilies?
Ignazio: Before 1861, when Italy became the unified country as it is today, the country was divided into many kingdoms, which had their institutions and their government. A large part of southern Italy, including the modern regions of Campania, Abruzzo, Molise, Sicily, Puglia and Basilicata, was under the Bourbon house. The kingdom had a dynasty of five Kings: Carlo Borbone Farnese, son of the King of Spagna Felipe V, founder of the Bourbon Royal Family of the Two Sicilies. Then followed Ferdinand I who unified the Kingdom of Sicily with in the Kingdom of Naples. Then Francesco I, Ferdinando II, and until the conquest by the conqueror Garibaldi, King Francesco II, was 1861 The capital was Naples, but for a time it was transferred to Palermo. The Kingdom ended when Garibaldi landed in Sicily and began the process that a year later led to the creation of the Kingdom of Italy. Garibaldi was an Italian patriot and soldier but a guerrilla fighter in South America who, through his conquest of Sicily and Naples with his guerrilla war of red shirts, contributed to the achievement of Italian unification by destroying the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
Meg: So, Maison Altieri has evolved as Sicily has.
Ignazio: Yes. In the 17th and 18th centuries, noble families had their own palaces where the floors were decorated with hand-painted ceramics. These tiles were very expensive. During the second half of the 19th century, Ignazio’s son-in-law Luigi Altieri, my grandfather, recognized that the birth of the bourgeoisie had created a surge of new buildings being constructed, which required cheaper flooring compared to hand-painted bricks and slower production.
The History of Sicily | Bourgeoisie
In 1882, Luigi increased and expanded the company. He opened the “Cantieri Luigi Altieri” factory in a huge space under the Palazzo Altieri in Agrigento to produce ceramics and flooring bricks made with hydraulic pressure.
Meg: What led to the birth of the bourgeoisie in Sicily?
Ignazio: The bourgeoisie was born during the first half of the 17th century, during the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies under the Bourbon family. The bourgeoisie were largely industrialists and entrepreneurs. The South was already industrialized with big shipyards in Palermo and Castellammare di Stabia near Naples but also smelters in Calabria. In Palermo, there were ceramic industries managed by the Florio family who were shipowners. They had 99 merchant ships and almost 19,000 workers. In Naples, there were also other industries and in Capodimonte, there was a porcelain industry. All these factories and activities were administered by an enlightened and operational bourgeoisie. Also, the first railway on the Italian territory was the Napoli-Portici opened in 1839.
Stile Liberty in Sicilian Culture
Meg: Were there any particular design movements that influenced the history of Sicily and its ceramics?
Ignazio: In the early 20th Century, in Sicily, there was an explosion of the Liberty or Déco styles that were promoted the Palermo architect Ernesto Basile. He designed some patterns in this style related to the new houses. Even today, many houses in Sicily preserve these floors thanks to the quality of the Portland cement imported from the United States, with great intuition by its founder.
The Liberty style was born in England from a vision of Sir Arthur Lesenby Liberty, that gave his name to the style. He imposed a design with flowers and spirals that differed from the stylistic ‘heaviness’ of the Victorian Age. In France, it was called Art Nouveau and later Art Déco. Two main artists embraced this style during the Impressionist period: one was René Lalique with his sandblasted and acid etched glasses, plus jewelry with animals on it, mainly butterflies; the other was Emile Gallé that created multicolored vases in glass paste but also furniture that is now kept in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. In Germany and in Austria the style was called Jugendstil (Young style) and the best-known artists were Gustav Klimt for painting and Michael Thonet for furniture. In Spain, Antonì Gaudì, the architect of the Sagrada Familia and various houses in Barcelona, was the lead figure of the Modernismo.
In Sicily there were two interpretations of Liberty. In Catania, the style was contaminated by the eclecticism of neoclassical buildings, but also by buildings that dated back to the Arab Period and the Medieval Ages. In Palermo, the design featured more flowers and it was purer thanks to Ernesto Basile that worked for the Florio family. He designed for them ceramics and furniture, as well as the Villa Igiea and the Teatro Massimo.
Allied Invasion of Sicily during World War II
Meg: Were there any other influences in the history of Sicily that had an effect on Maison Altieri?
Ignazio: The morning of 12th July 1943, Agrigento had just woken up in a typical Sicilian heat, after the celebration for San Calogero. Nobody would have imagined that in a few moments the most terrible catastrophe in the history of Sicily was going to happen. Around 8:05 a.m., a group of US bombers created a cross in the sky over the inhabited area and dropped a huge number of bombs. It was not the first time that Agrigento suffered a raid. Though the first three years of the Second World War were less felt in Agrigento as the air strikes were mainly in the area around Sciacca and Porto Empedocle, the closer we got to the Allied invasion of Sicily, the more Agrigento sadly became the stage of air raids. Only the first day of bombing registered 160 victims.
Unfortunately, “Cantieri Luigi Altieri” and the upper part of the palace were bombed during the war. They were near the 76th Station of the Infantry, so a zone that had to be bombed. After the July 12th bombing, my grandfather Ignazio Altieri decided not to rebuild the factory. Modern years led to the use of industrially-produced tiles, bricks and marble bricks. Another era had passed, that of cement and of the Liberty style.
A New Generation of Leadership for Maison Altieri & Move to Erice
Meg: What came next for Maison Altieri?
Ignazio: In the 1950s Maison Altieri passed to my father Luigi Altieri who built on the foundation established by great grandfather Ignazio Luparello by expanding commercial relations with large English porcelain factories, glassworkers from Austria and France; it also maintained century-long relationships with Sicilian and Italian silver factories.
In the 1970s, my father died at age 49. I was only 17 and my two brothers Cesare and Mario were 12 and seven years old. I had wanted to pursue a diplomatic career and had pursued classical studies and was enrolled to study Law and Political Science at the University of Palermo, but I became the head of the household and had to take ownership of the Company thus starting my career in the family business.
Family Ties to History of Sicily
Cesare and I continued the business and expanded it in 1982 with the opening of a shop in Erice to celebrate the company’s first hundred years. Erice is a central place for learning about the history of Sicily and Sicilian tourism, an ancient village that dates back to the time of the Elimi, one of the three populations that inhabited Sicily since the 7th century BC.
My brother Cesare became the pharmacist of Erice and he is also the owner of the Maison Altieri. I am the Artistic Director, as I am an art enthusiast and an expert in the craft of the ceramic and of the majolica having gained fifty years of experience in the production. I design most of the collections which are offered annually to an international clientele thanks to the location in Erice. Because of my work ethic, at 37 years of age, I was awarded with the honor of Commander of the Italian Republic, in the same way, that my father was; my grand-father and my great-grand father were bestowed with this honor by the Italian monarchy prior to the unification of Italy.
Sicilian Ceramics & Tonnarotti
Meg: Can you describe one of the designs you came up with based on the history of Sicily and Sicilian tradition?
Ignazio: I was inspired by an idea for a decoration by a brick panel from the 17th century exhibited at the Pepoli Museum of Trapani. The panel showed the Gulf of Trapani—its name comes from Greek and means “sickle” because its shape looks like the tool used to reap wheat. On the brick the Egadi Islands are visible in the distance and there was also a scene of the traditional tuna fishing, with the tuna appearing to be dancing on the water. From this panel I got the idea of paying tribute to the Sicilian tradition of tuna fishing that created the canning industry in Trapani in the 19th century.
The rich decoration of the design is completed with branches of olives and lemon trees and garlands of woven leaves. The pattern is used strictly for plates and not other kinds of ceramics. This pattern is developed with the most refined technique known internationally as “faïence”. The set of dishes that Maison Altieri produces with this decoration is the most prestigious of the collection.
The red tuna of the Mediterranean is universally recognized as one of the best tunas, however fishing for it has been forbidden for a number of years because the fish were nearing extinction. The old Sicilian tradition of harvesting migrating tuna called la mattanza, occurred every year from the beginning of May until the end of June. The ancient technique involved a series of ‘tunnels’ or tonnara made up of high nets secured with big iron anchors. This created a path where the female tunas entered followed by the male tuna into what is known as camera della morte or ‘the death chamber’. Then the tuna fishers called tonnarotti–sometimes there are as many as 200–pull up the nets with the tunas, then harpoon them and throw them on the big ships. All these actions together are called armare una tonnara, literally ‘to equip tuna-fishing nets”.
Maison Altieri Sicilian ceramics homage to tuna fishing tradition. Photos: Ignazio Altieri.
Sicilian Ceramics | Carretto Siciliano as Design Inspiration
Meg: Can you explain how another Sicilian tradition inspired you?
Ignazio: An image first transforms into an idea and then slowly takes shape in my mind and then, after some time, it becomes a project, a sketch, then a test, finally a completed realization…
Some years ago, I found myself in Taormina in July. I went there for work and not for leisure or for love escapes. As I was going to my appointment, I passed Porta Catania, a historic arched gate to the city, and heard a tinkling of bells, the noise of hooves on the pavement and finally more clearly the classic sound, of the rotating and metallic rings of the wheels of a carriage, or in that case, that of a cart. It was a parade of Sicilian carts led by mules with bells with bows and plumage of red, yellow and green that towered from their manes. I stopped and watched them passing in a parade with coachmen adorned with flat caps, mustaches, handlebars and brushes, and velvet jackets over white shirts adorned with great pompoms and bow ties.
The Two Sicilies
The image of a past Sicily was born immediately, of the time after the Senate of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in Palermo in 1778 decided to build roads over the whole Island to facilitate internal trade routes that, until then, were accessible only by sea. There were no real roads, except for the so-called trazzere made for the passage of troops, the transhumance of the cattle and the circulation of goods that were 118ft wide (18 canes wide and two palms as measured by the system of that time).
The trazzere became the Regie Trazzere, meaning that these roads were commissioned by the Royal Family of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies to create particular routes connecting the big cities on the coasts with the small villages and centers in the interior part of the island. Before then, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Sicilian roads were completely abandoned to a destiny of deterioration. The 18th century German writer & stateman Johann W. von Goethe wrote about this in his travel diary while traveling through the island in 1787.
With the construction of well-made roads, an adequate means of transport was born, that could be travelled to transport foodstuffs, grains and straws. Carts were pulled by mules, donkeys or harnesses, and rarely by horses, as they were considered a more noble animal not a towing one. Soon, even the humblest category of carts soon became almost a status symbol.
Painted Carts Part of History of Sicily
The construction of the carts was complicated because of the various parts necessary to make up the whole. Different types of craftsmen took part in the production, and each had his own expertise, depending if they were to create a structural or decorative element of the cart. For example, the blacksmith forged the metallic parts, the carpenter created the wooden sections, the sculptor carved the panes with mythological or political figures and scenes such as with Napoleon or Garibald and then the cart-master or carradore put everything together.
Carretto Siciliano exhibit at the Regional Museum in Terrasini. Photos: Meg Pier.
The Sicilian wagon is not like those in other parts of Italy, like those with small wheels or with a long body one like the Neapolitans, or with very large wheels and high espaliers mainly towed by oxen. The Sicilian has to be slimmer, more suitable for a fast transport of a fairly light load, as well as for rapid transports and to make steep climbs up to the villages often perched on hilly heights and mountain slopes that, would be more difficult to reach with big and heavy vehicles.
The first types of carts were very simple and not colored. Two distinct models have evolved, the result of two different schools during the history of Sicily: Palermo and Catania, culturally against each other, have produced two similar but not the same carts. The first, given that Palermo is on the Tyrrhenian Sea, those wagons were made straight, rectangular with vertical sides. The one in Catania was made in the shape of a trapezoid wider at the back, and at the front, the sides had a slight inclination to open upwards. The Catania version of the wagon was inspired by the Ionian Sea, so it had a smaller shape.
Exchanging Sicilian Traditions
Months went by and winter came. In the evening, the time of day that I prefer, ideas came–as if memory slowed down and made me “re-watch” the days passed when I planned good intentions; but those, as we all know, often disappear with the first light of dawn. It takes time to retrieve them and implement them, and it was one of those beginning-of-winter evenings that I thought again of the Sicilian carts.
Sometime before I had written a memo on San Calogero, celebrated in Agrigento during the month of July, and I had seen photos of huge colored scaffoldings that looked like theatre sceneries or curtains painted like those Sicilian carts on which pumpkin seeds, various salted seeds, toasted nuts were put as a pyramid and sold on the streets. Medallions with effigies of paladins and damsels completed scenes together with horses and knights in arms; some spaces were painted in white and black squares, or red and white, or green and blue as if they were multi-color crosswords. A colorful, colorful, fantastic and evocative world. I thought the time had come to bring full circle an exchange of Sicilian traditions.
No Two Carts Are The Same
When the custom of the carts came into being, the decorators took cues from the Sicilian ceramics of the 18th Century. Now, I wanted to return to our majolica with ethnographic quid that graphically involved geometries as in the colorful scrolls. These elements had been borrowed by the decorative art of Sicilian carts for over two hundred years. I implemented it, as always it should be done when trying to get an idea, did some historical research on the history of Sicily to help my idea take shape, but rather than photos on the internet, I decided to visit a cart museum near Palermo, in Terrasini where I found some very beautiful ones.
With my faithful Moleskine with a black cover, I took notes, made sketches and, above all, recorded the colors and color combinations that might create atypical shades for ceramics–but are very customary in the pictorial art of the Sicilian carts. After several attempts, wax drawings with watercolor crayons, the first pieces with this new design were introduced. The first samples were discreetly mixed with other colored decorative pieces, to see if they got the attention of clients–Italians, Europeans, Americans or Orientals. The response from the sale of the first pieces was, as they say now, a transversal indication that went beyond the latitudes and longitudes of the place of origin of the piece–meaning that everyone liked them! After the first five pieces were taken, it seemed like a good sign. Maybe you won’t believe it, and it might seem like a joke, but those very first “test” pieces were bought by an Italian, an American, a Japanese and an Australian! Those first pieces were literally divided around the world! Those who bought them do not know that they have pieces like prime numbers at home … they are the only ones and unique!
Sicilian Ceramics One of Many Sicilian Traditions
Meg: What is the role of “tradition” in Sicilian culture?
Ignazio: Your question pleases me. Besides having a millennial history, the Sicilians have a great respect for it. Families hand down their furniture, their books with accounts of their possessions, and even the list of the names of the servants who have accompanied their lives over the centuries. I know the name of my grandmother’s waiters and that of my great-grandfather Onofrio from almost a hundred years ago … and the names of my peasant ancestors two hundred years ago in the Neapolitan lands of my Mother’s family.
So, I answer your question with a smile on my face. Many Americans who visit Maison Altieri are surprised that I speak of my paternal great-grandfather as if he were still alive today. I can easily talk about my Altieri ancestors going back to the end of 1600.
Among my ancestors there was my mother’s great-great-grandmother Donna Cesarina (for whom my brother Cesare is named); Baroness Adinolfi and Contessa di Vajro, friend of Regina S.M. Maria Sofia of Bavaria (Sister of the Empress Sissi of Austria) and Queen of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
Ignazio’s Family History of Sicily
So how is it that many historic Sicilian families are connected with their heritage going back so many centuries? We grow with the transmission of tradition. I know how to cook all the dishes in the history of my two families. For the holidays me and my 25-year-old nephew cook the Easter lunches, Christmas, New Year’s and birthday celebration, with the help of servants.
The menu is always the same, I have all the family recipe books. We don’t drink whiskey or cognac but champagne because we can produce it at home according to our recipes. We drink our liqueurs that now I make myself every year. We make jams at home with our own fruit.
In my house, there are paintings of my ancestors. In some families, women have embroidery pieces and sweets with secret recipes that are handed down from mother to daughter. In my case, I also have my family name which as a male, you don’t lose.
“Sicilians Are Honest and Good People”
Sicily is a land where traditions are handed down, culture is much more widespread than in the north. When we had our Kingdom there were in the 800’s 7,500 university students. In the south, there was much more nobility than in the whole north and a very rich nobility. You have certainly been to Palermo and you have seen how many huge buildings for just one family.
I have told you these things to make you understand that Sicilians are honest and good people. Culture and traditions are so strong because we remember our ancestors every day and before we make a decision or behave in a certain way, we wonder what our ancestors would have done before us. Our surnames are handed down for better or for worse. Therefore a descendant cannot offend the memory and the consideration that his own family has been given by the ancestors.
Consider this: I have friends my age whose grandchildren are the age of my grandchildren. On balance, we have been friends for three hundred years–the grandparents with the grandparents, the great-grandparents with the great-grandparents, and so on. It may seem strange but in Sicily, it is so. Perhaps this is the charm of this magical land.