BeanScene Magazine

Colourful carretti

From the April 2014 issue.
Colourful carretti

Carved with precision and elaborately decorated, the Sicilian cart is one of Sicily’s most recognisable icons.

Originally developed as a practical way of moving goods from one place to another by horse, donkey or mule, the Sicilian cart quickly morphed into a working and moving piece of art.

The carretto siciliano, or carrettu sicilianu as it is known in the local Sicilian dialect, was introduced to Sicily by the Ancient Greeks. It became popular during the 19th century, following the development of Sicily’s first proper roads.

By the 1920s, handcrafted Sicilian carts could be found all over the island of Sicily. Bursting with colour and imagination, the Sicilian cart is firmly intertwined into the region’s past and folklore. The extravagant artwork adorning these Sicilian carts tell stories relating to history, culture and religion.

Why these carts were originally transformed into pieces of art is not known for certain. Some say the depicted images were used to explain parts of Sicily’s history for those unable to read. Others believe it was simply a means of decoration, allowing creators to add a personal touch.

Traditionally made of wood, with several metal components, the Sicilian cart has two large wheels. Both the cart itself and the wheels are typically built by artisan craftsmen and decorated by wood carvers and painters. 

The type of wood used was often dependent on the type of products needing to be carried.

Once the wood was selected, it was expertly carved, before being painted with bright colours – predominantly red, yellow, blue and green.

The choice of colours are often a telltale sign of where in Sicily the cart was produced. For example, shades of red and green were popular in eastern Sicily as they represent nature; while in the west, red and yellow were more prevalent, symbolising war and loss. And throughout all of Sicily, the colour blue was used to symbolise religion.

The overall style and shape of Sicilian carts also differs between different areas of Sicily. For instance, those produced in  Palermo are more square in shape than those made elsewhere in Sicily.

Nowadays, only a small number of Sicilian cart producers remain. Because these carts are still made entirely by hand, according to tradition, their production is quite a lengthy and laborious process.

As motorised vehicles became more commonplace, particularly during the 1950s, the Sicilian cart was gradually replaced by cars and trucks as a means of transporting goods.

But in some parts of Sicily, artisan craftsmen continue to keep this much loved and celebrated tradition alive by producing Sicilian carts in the typical old-fashioned way. Often, the skilful trade is passed down from father to son.

It is still possible to see traditional Italian carts throughout Sicily. But instead of being used to carry goods, they now make regular appearances during festive celebrations or to the delight of onlookers in many of Sicily’s tourist centres, accompanied by music and fanfare.

They are now typically drawn by horses, which are also elaborately decorated with bells, decorative feather headwear and extravagant pieces adorning their backs.

Step inside any souvenir shop in Sicily and chances are you’ll find miniature replicas of these celebrated Sicilian icons.

There is even a museum in the town of Terrasini in the Palermo province called Museo del Carretto Siciliano, which is dedicated to the craft.

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