History of a Sicilian icon: the carretto
The Sicilian cart (or carretto siciliano in Italian and carrettu sicilianu in Sicilian) is an ornate, colorful style of horse or donkey-drawn cart native to the island of Sicily, in Italy. The cart has always been the symbol of Sicily and its traditions.
The Sicilian cart, just like every working tool, is closely related to the historical and economic history of the island. The most ancient form of cart is called “stràscinu” or “stràula”, a primitive cart without wheels (like a sled) that is still in use for the transportation of haycocks in the inner areas of Sicily.
The history of the Sicilian cart goes back to the early nineteenth century. The bourbon government in 1830 opened big roads for communication for military reasons. Those were enlarged natural tracks with very steep hills and road elbows, with holes and subjected to landslides. That is why the Sicilian cart was created: with very high wheels it was able to overcome the obstacles on those roads.
Horses were mostly used in the city and flat plains, while donkeys or mules were more often used in rough terrain for hauling heavy loads. Carts were used for hauling miscellaneous light loads, such as produce, wood, wine, and people, called “Carretto del Lavoro” (cart for work) and also carts for festive occasions such as weddings and parades called “Carretto de Gara’. The Carretto is like the ‘taxi’ or ‘truck’ of today.
Different types of cart
In different areas of the Island it is possible to distinguish between 4 basic types of cart: palermitano (mostly popular in the province of Palermo), castelvetranese, trapanese (province of Trapani), catanese (province of Catania).
In the side frames you can distinguish between five kinds of figures: figures from the Bible or about Saints’ lives, historical-knightly figures, legendary-fairy, musical (from grand operas) or realistic figures (i.e.: hunting scenes).
How a cart is built
Making a Sicilian cart required a very good organization of the work that needed to be done, it involved different groups of artisans with various specializations. The first three groups are: carradori (carpenters), carrozzieri (a sort of mechanics) and intagliatori (wood carvers).
Carradori and carrozzieri choose the various wood pieces for the preparation and the shape of the product: fir for the trunk, beech wood for the other parts and ash for the wheels.
Intagliatore rounds sharp edges and embellishes them with figures, he carves the faces of the rods, transforms the pegs on the sides into women’s heads, he carves the wedges and the ledges of the trunk. Then it comes the fabbro (blacksmith) who takes care of the main board and the metal parts of the grill underneath the said board. These pieces are all very much elaborated as well as the wheel rims and the rings that grip the horse to the rods.
Now it is the time for the decoratore (decorator) and the pittore (painter). The former decorates with geometric figures the surface of the trunk, the latter proceeds to gild the cart (two layers) and then paints the sides and all the spots that he can reach.
All the characters represented are close-ups, the prospective is elementary so the images are bi-dimensional, the color has no shading nor shades, it remains bright conferring a beautiful visual effect to the whole cart. The seventh artisan to work on the cart is the fonditore (caster) that prepares two conical metal trunks that need to be positioned in the hubs of the wheels using a special alloy that allows a small movement producing the characteristic sound without which the cart has no value. The customers in the past were very demanding, before buying the carts they made sure they had been double tested: for the musicality of the sound produced by the journal boxes, and for the good quality of the wood.
The eighth and final artisan is the pellettiere (leather goods maker) for the trapping, the feather, colorful wool and silk bows and fringes, small mirrors, ribbons, plates and studs, etc.
Other accessories of the cart are: a rope net on the front to store food, wine, water bottle and the bucket to feed the animal, a leather belt, a straw basket, a lamp hanging from the front side of the trunk to light the way, a chain for the dog and an umbrella to protect from sun and rain.
The cart in the modern times Nowadays the carts can be admired in museums and during folkloristic events. The Museo del Carretto Siciliano, in Terrasini, in the province of Palermo, is a museum dedicated to the carts.
In the old times entire families lived with this activity in the town of Palermo. Building a cart took on average three months. The cost for production was quite high considering the different types of wood, and the number of workers employed.
In the wheels, in the trunk there are the colors of the Sicilian sun, the sulfur, the oranges and lemons, the sky and the sea, the lava from the Etna and prickly pears. It also represents a summary of the Mediterranean civilizations that migrated to the island: colors of Arabia, Turkish-Byzantine arabesques, Greek costumes, Spanish ciancianas.
The Sicilian cart is the symbol of the artisan’s creativity that, although being anonymous, expresses the creative soul of his people. The cart represents the most characteristic handicraft of Sicily not only because it is the most typical product of the island but also because eight different groups of artisans cooperate to its creation.
In modern-day Sicily, the tradition also continues in different modern versions of the carretto: small, three-wheeled motorized vehicles (called lapa), vespino and colorful fiats. They are painted in the traditional way!
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