Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean off the southwestern tip of Italy’s ‘boot’ is well known for it’s brightly painted ceramic wares. You can find nearly anything you can think of made in ceramic including vases, jugs, plates, bowls, olive oil bottles, but NOT… butter dishes. I broke my Cinque Terre butter dish earlier this year and have been on the hunt for one every trip to Italy since then. I’ve, sadly, had no luck, but I did find some amazing pieces while we traveled through the villages of Northwest Sicily. In addition to the typical pieces of pottery that one would find in ceramics stores, we came across three items that popped up every time we turned around. Intrigued by the meanings of these items, I thought I’d share their beautiful stories with you.
Meaning three pointed end or peak in Greek, Trinacria is the name the Greeks had for Sicily when they originally held control of the island. The symbol with the same name is found all around the island from the Sicilian flag to signs to ceramic wall decorations. The Trinacria consists of three main parts: Medusa’s head, three legs bent into a triangle, and three stalks of wheat. Medusa’s head symbolizes Athena, the guardian of the island (in history the gorgon was slayed by Persius and her head placed on Athena’s shield). The wheat symbolizes the fertile lands of the island which served as the granary for the Roman Empire during its peak. And finally, the most odd part of the tricornia, the three legs, symbolize the beautiful coasts of the island. It is said that the when sea goers caught sight of Sicily’s cliffs, it left them as breathless as would “beautiful as women’s legs.”
It’s definitely a symbol that isn’t for everyone’s decor, but if you want a true symbol of the island to remember your trip by, I’d suggest getting one of these.
Testa di Moro
The testa di moro, or Moor’s head, is one of the most interesting types of ceramics I’ve ever seen. The ceramic heads of both a male and female are adorned with turban like headwear, fruit, flowers and crowns and they are used as vases or planters. I spent most of my time in Sicily in equal parts marveling at the creativity and craftsmanship it takes to make these amazing heads and being dumbfounded as to why one would want a head, or two, in their house. It wasn’t until my last day in Sicily that a nice gentleman at a souvenir ceramic shop asked me if I knew what the heads were and what they meant. I said, no I can’t imagine what they are so he kindly explained their history. (One of) the stories goes like this…
In the eleventh century, the Moors ruled the island of Sicily . Legend has it that a young girl who lived in Palermo spent most of her time watering and caring for plants on her balcony. One day, from this balcony she caught sight of a Moor with whom she immediately fell in love. Upon seeing this fair maiden, the Moor also fell in love.
After a passionate love affair, the maiden learns that the Moor is to return to his home country where he has a wife and children. In a lot of rage the maiden cuts off the Moor’s head. She then uses the head to plant basil on her balcony, thus keeping her lover with her forever. It is then said that her neighbors thought it was such a beautiful decoration that they created their own ceramic heads to use as planters.
So there you have it, an extremely dark legend that Sicilians have embraced to this day. Should you determine you need one of your own to bring home, you won’t be hard pressed to find a ceramic Moor’s head of your own as they are virtually everywhere, at least in the North West where we stayed.
The pigna or pinecone was my absolute favorite ceramic item I found in Sicily. From the first ceramics store we entered, I saw them and thought they were cute. I bought a jug though because I wasn’t really sure what the weird tree-like statue thing was. It wasn’t until about the third ceramics store that I realized that this wasn’t just one store’s ‘thing’ but it was a trend throughout villages across the Sicilian north west. When in Erice I bought my first pinecone (do you see where this is going), a gorgeous mustard yellow one with blue yellow and green filigree on the base. I loved the intricacy of this one as opposed to some others that were solid colors so I had to have it.
After I bought my first pinecone I started to see them everywhere and I’m not talking about just in souvenir ceramic shops. They are EVERYWHERE. As statues, on stairway banisters, at restaurants, in stores that don’t sell ceramics… everywhere. Realizing that they were so prolific I knew that they must have great meaning to the people of Sicily, so I asked my hostess at our guesthouse. This is what she told me:
The pinecone as a symbol of good fortune fertility isn’t anything new and has been around for centuries, but it’s not seen as often in the western world. For Sicilians though, who are very adept at creating amazing ceramics, the ceramic pinecone is still quite popular. This popularity is also bolstered of course by the tourist who goes to Sicily and wants to bring some something beautiful and meaningful so they buy a pinecone (or three). These ceramic pinecones are great gifts for, a newly married couple, housewarming or even to a new business to wish them prosperity.
Right now, I think my pinecones are some of my favorite souvenirs I’ve bought on a trip in a long time. What are your favorite souvenirs to bring home?