Pottery and Ceramics of Sicily

Maiolica is Italian tin-glazed pottery made in dazzling colours. New methods for making varied colours of glazes were initially brought to Sicily by the Arabs of North Africa in medieval times, and the art of making Maiolica then spread from Sicily throughout Italy during the Renaissance. Sicilian terracotta pottery dates back to Classical times, but the sophisticated Persian glazing techniques were introduced by the Arabs in the 9th century. Nowadays the art has shrunk back down again and Sicily is by far the most vibrant and active centre for Maiolica or Majolica production. It is made with a passion in towns throughout Sicily, but today the best ceramic workshops are found in Santo Stefano di Camastra on the north coast and in Caltagirone, southwest of Catania. Santo Stefano di Camastra produces a range of ceramics, but the authentic ware has a rustic look, often with fish motifs.

Caltagirone ceramics have instantly recognizable animal and floral motifs in dark blue and copper green with splashes of yellow but besides the style and techniques adopted by the first inhabitants of Caltagirone were deeply influenced and modified by the many dominations which took turns in this part of Sicily. First the Romans, then the Greeks, the Arabs, the Spanish and the Normans, each culture provided new elements of creativity and technical experience to the local ceramic production, making it one of the most distinctive in Italy.

Ceramic is everywhere in Caltagirone, strictly combined with architectural works: in ancient and modern buildings, churches, monuments, parks and squares. The main landmark of the city is the 142-step monumental Staircase of Santa Maria del Monte, built from 1608 in the old part of the town. The peculiarity is that each step is decorated with different hand-decorated ceramics, using styles and figures derived from the millennial tradition of pottery making. Once a year, on and around the day of the city’s patron saint, (St. James, 25 July), the staircase is illuminated with candles of different colours arranged in order to reconstruct an artistic drawing of several tens of meters.

Nowadays, besides the traditional and lively production of pottery, both functional and decorative, Caltagirone is also famous for the ceramic whistles and the Presepi, nativity scenes made with terracotta or ceramic characters and accessories, which carefully revive the daily life of simple people over the centuries.

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