The Sicilian cart is one of the most famous and emblematic symbols of the island. Originally developed as a means of transportation, nowadays the cart should be regarded as a bona fide work of art.
The carts are also a testimony to the rural and peasant culture of Trinacria: they symbolize a working-class tradition. Different models exist from various styles: carts from Palermo, Catania or even Trapani.
In this article we will explore everything you need to know about this historical Sicilian symbol!
History of the Sicilian cart
The cart originated as the main means of transportation and work in rural areas. Used by peasants throughout Sicily from the 19th century onward, the cart was gradually abandoned towards the second half of the 20th century for it had become an obsolete means of transport, due to the increasing motorization that was revolutionizing all of society, including the countryside. Made of different types of wood, this vehicle was often decorated and frescoed: for this very reason, today it is considered one of the major symbols of Sicilian folklore.
Until the 19th century, most of Sicily’s transportation took place by boat: the roads were mostly in a disastrous condition and traveling along them proved quite difficult, sometimes downright impossible. The cart began to spread when the road situation improved, becoming the most popular means of transport used by most Sicilians. Pulled by a single animal, such as a mule, the cart was practical and functional for work in the countryside but also for transporting goods, such as oil, stacks of wood, and barrels of wine. Carts were also used to move from town to town or to the more remote areas of the Island.
Despite its modest origin and small size, carts were, and still are, remarkably complex to build, reason why several skilled workers were needed.
Structure of the Sicilian cart
The cart includes the “fonnu di cascia”, that is, the loading platform, which is prolonged both at the front and at the rear by two “tavulàzzi”. On the latter, two “masciddari”, from the Sicilian “mascidda”, meaning “jaw”, are attached to them in parallel: the “masciddari” are the fixed sides of the cart. Then there is the “puttèddu”, the rear hatch, whose function was to facilitate loading and unloading.
Each “masciddaru” is in turn divided into two equal squares, these being the panes in which frescoes or scenes were painted. In the “putteddu” there is a larger square between two smaller ones. The pieces are divided by a vertical segment that joins the panels to the “cascia fonnu”: six wooden ones called “barrùni” equally divided between “masciddari” and “putteddu”, two metal ones called “centuni”, which are present only on the “masciddari”.
This entire section surmounts the cart’s load-bearing group, called the “traìno”, which includes the rods and the “cascia di fusu”. This last piece is itself made up of a section of carved wood and surmounted by a metal arabesque. In less prestigious patrunàli-style carts, the “cascia di fusu” is replaced by crossbows.
The keys, two pieces of wood, one front and one rear, are mounted between the rods under the “tavulazzi”. The former is a simple curved rod, while the latter consists of a carved bas-relief representing a scene, usually of a chivalric nature, more or less rich and detailed.
Each of the two wheels consists of 12 spokes defined in Sicilian “iammòzzi” (from iammi, “legs”) that join the hub to the rim, often enriched by carvings with dense parallel sections (impòsti) or even carved subjects such as flowers, eagles, sirens, or paladin heads.
Decorations on Sicilian carts
The carts are all richly decorated, so much so that today some are considered true works of art. At that time, however, the decorations were not just for embellishment: varnishes and paintings served mainly to protect the wood in order to ensure the longest journeys possible. In addition to this function, decorations were also considered apotropaic. Thus, the scenes depicted were made to ward off bad luck and ensure health and prosperity for the driver of the cart. In addition, the bright and gaudy colors also served as “advertisements” for peddlers who used the carts to sell their own goods.
Everything from simple geometric figures to complex and detailed scenes depicting biblical episodes, chivalric exploits, or mythological tales could be reproduced on the carts.
Different styles of carts
The carts take on different characteristics and styles depending on the area in which they are crafted.
In the Palermo area, for example, this means of transportation has mostly trapezoidal sides and a yellow background tint. The decorations are almost always geometric. The themes depicted in plaques portray scenes with a chivalrous or religious background, made in red, green, yellow and blue. Shading is absent or reduced to the essentials, while perspective is two-dimensional. In the Palermo area, crossbows are often preferred to “cascia di fusu”.
In the Catanese, the sides are rectangular. The background color is red and recalls volcanic lava from Mount Etna. The carvings and decorations are more refined and more detailed. The colors are much brighter, shades and chiaroscuros enrich the cart. The paintings, especially in more modern productions, are made with a preference for three-dimensional perspective.
Vittoria style has a structure very similar to that of the Catanese cart: the background color is always red but prefers shades with a darker chromatic gradation. The paintings are characterized by sharp strokes, simpler than the more refined and detailed reproductions of the typical Catanese style. Finally, there is also the Trapanese style, which, however, has not reached the same levels of notoriety as the Palermo and Catania styles.
Sicilian carts today
No longer used as a means of transportation, carts have become a symbol of Sicilian peasant folklore. Miniature carts are often purchased as souvenirs from the island, it is not uncommon to find street vendors in major Sicilian cities selling their wares using brightly decorated carts.
Represented and depicted in art as well, there are museums dedicated precisely to Sicilian carts, especially in the provinces of Palermo and Catania.