Sicilian ceramic heads with a gruesome past

If I were to play word association linking Sicily with souvenirs, the immediate follow-on would be “heads”.  Glazed ceramic heads of a (Moorish) man and a (Sicilian) woman are as everywhere as everywhere means when you’re exaggerating an otherwise valid generalisation.

Unsurprisingly, there is a story behind the heads and, equally unsurprisingly, there are variations to the story, all of which, is it unimaginative to say, are overall improbable, so I will tell the tale according to my interpretation of the most “likely” version.

Once upon a time in the 1100s, while Sicily was ruled by Arabs, a beautiful young Sicilian woman in the Arabic quarter of Palermo, Kalsa, would water and care for the colourful flowers on her balcony.  A Moorish* man walked under her balcony every day, fell in love with her and started wooing her.  She soon succumbed to his charms and their love blossomed.  They became lovers and all was going very well indeed.  Until she discovered he had a wife and children in his home country that he needed to return to.  On the night before he was to leave to return to his homeland and, more pertinently, his wife, his devastated Sicilian lover devised a plan to keep him for herself.  Obviously, that entailed beheading him as he slept and using his head as a plant pot for her balcony.  She grew basil plants (symbolising hatred, love and/or mourning depending on which ancient meaning you prefer to adopt and perhaps what kind of person you are) in her unique pot and watered them daily with her plentiful tears.  Over the following days and weeks, these basil plants flourished and became the envy of all, so people started making plant pots in the shape and size of the Moor’s head, hoping to recreate the fertile conditions of the grieving (murderous?!) young woman’s basil pot.

I feel there are a lot of unanswered questions within this story, not least how a head can be used as a plant pot without looking like a butchered head, but my questions, I can see, would ruin the magic, and anyway I actually really like the pots.

Moors invaded Sicily from north Africa in the 11th Century, set up ceramics workshops around Sicily and taught Sicilians to make ceramics using techniques originating in the 9th century Middle East, or so says the most repeated version of the ceramics history of Sicily.  Where I get further bogged down in inconsistency is with the distinctive Sicilian ceramic style being called Maiolica (Majolica in English, referring to the Italian word for Majorca, which was the headquarters of trade between Spain and Italy at the pertinent time and where the style of ceramics was incorrectly believed to originate).  Majolica refers to earthenware clay that is fired, then basically made into a white canvas with a particular glaze, traditionally lead with tin.  The opaque white is then painted or stained and given a second firing.  The specific white glaze, the interaction of tin with paint and that there are two rounds of firing make Majolica distinctive for its depth of colour.  If this is at all incorrect, I apologise, but there is no consistent definition of Majolica along with how the Sicilian style of ceramics originated.

If you have a look at Dolce & Gabbana’s website, you will see prints and designs that are very much in keeping with those of the Moor heads, teste di Moro, and Sicilian design.  Dolce is from Sicily and it is apparent that a lot of D&G’s distinctive bright colours and patterns originate in Sicily.  Even the Moor heads have featured on their website and there is a shop in Ortigia, Terracotta Ceramiche Di Caltagirone, where Dolce and Gabbana have made purchases and surely been inspired, Caltagirone being the Sicilian town whose ceramics are most desirable.

Since the days of covetable Moorish heads for optimal basil growing conditions, the male and female heads, united forever in their ceramic form, are now most often seen in pretty much every souvenir and ceramic shop and in restaurants, hotels, shops and grand balconies and gardens all over Sicily.

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(*Moors being Muslim nomads of Spanish, Arabic, North African and/or Berber descent; even that is a shaky definition but perhaps explains the different colours and facial features of the Moor’s head pots)