One of the best-known symbols of Sicilian folk iconography, the cart was created as a means of transport that responded to practical needs, but went on to be transformed into a vehicle for cultural transmission. Sculpture and painting were applied its various constituent parts to represent moments from the island’s history, or from epic stories or popular religion, creating valuable constructions that were genuine traveling works of art.
The Sicilian cart is closely linked to the history of the island, but is hasn’t always existed, not least because the deterioration of the road network after the fall of the Roman Empire made two-wheeled vehicles almost unusable. It was only at the beginning of the nineteenth century that the cart began to be widespread, as prior to then all trade and transport were generally carried out by sea. From that moment on the horse-drawn cart began to be used to transport wood and agricultural products, such as sacks of grain, legumes, citrus fruits, almonds and wine barrels. Its use for transportation declined in the second half of the twentieth century, however, with the increasing popularity of motor vehicles, but, as we shall see, it continues to work its charms on popular sensibility and tourists.
The cart may be rather diminutive in size but because of its complexity, with the various parts encoded in a precise manner in terms of their shape, structure and decoration, it required a large number of craftsmen skills. Creation of a cart necessitated a complex organisation of tasks and involved different specialisations. It is the product of several trades: a carver create all the wooden parts (using various types of wood, such as walnut or beech), a blacksmith take care of wrought iron elements, a “carradore” (carter) assemble the various parts and a painter decorate all the surfaces that could be painted (the parts that best lent themselves to this are the cart’s walls, where it is possible to depict entire scenes).
The painting on the carts has its own precise style: all the characters represented in the scene are placed in the foreground, with an elementary, stylised and simple perspective. The figures are generally two-dimensional and the colours typically very bright, without shading or nuance. With their concentrated creativity and meticulous techniques, attention to detail is the watchword of the artistic woodcarvers and decorators when facing the challenge of carving and then decorating all the sides of the cart. As such, even a purely mechanical part like the wheel become an enchanting work of art. The wood is even sculpted into battle scenes highlighted by the many bright colours.
Over the years the cart has lost its original purpose of transporting goods and has taken on a symbolic value as part of folklore, becoming the relic of a now endangered set of customs and traditions. Today it is above all an object of craftsmanship and one of the symbols of the island’s popular culture. Currently the carts are used for events and special occasions, and can often be admired at public festivals.
Although it is much rarer now, the knowledge of these artisans has not disappeared as it was closely guarded and handed down over time, from father to son. It is rich and complex skill, kept alive by a tradition of craft families.
A couple of them, has based a workshop in Ragusa Ibla: Biagio Castilletti and Damiano Rotella are craftsmen who are keeping century-old crafts alive. They have been operating from their small shop in the Ragusana country side making magnificent cart, paintings and terracotta pieces for several years, with immense patience and dedication, fully respecting Sicilian tradition in the colors, forms, themes and the instruments used. Their astounding work renews traditions and has caught the attention of luxury Italian brands like Dolce & Gabbana, who they collaborated with on a refrigerator that was recently awarded at the Salone del Mobile in Milan.