The Sicilian cart (carretto siciliano) is an ornate, colorful horse- or donkey-drawn cart and it is certainly the most characteristic and well-known object of Sicilian folklore. Born as a means of labour and transportation, over time it went on to be transformed into a real work of art, as well as a vehicle of cultural transmission. Know all over the world, it has originated in Sicily around the 19th century and was once used both for transporting goods of all kinds and for festive occasions, such as weddings and parades.
The tradition of Sicilian cart has ancient origins and has evolved over time in different forms depending on the area in which it is produced. In fact, there are several styles and types of Sicilian cart: the Palermo, Catania or Trapani style, and the Victoria style.
Sicilian Cart’s history: from means of transport to work of art
The Sicilian cart’s tradition, despite the differences that the cart takes from city to city, has a common origin, and it is linked to rural life. With the fall of Roman Empire, the road network in Sicily lives a long period of decadence. Only in the early 19th century there is evidence of carts made with very high wheels, to be able to overcome the obstacles offered by the “trazzere“, roads made by large natural-bottom trails, with steep climbs and sharp bends, subject to landslides and full of ditches.
This is when the use of Sicilian cart began to spread throughout the island and soon became the main means of transport for the Sicilians that dealt with working the land or the transport of goods.
Despite its small dimensions, the cart was very complicated to realize and needed the work of different craftsmen: carpenters and carvers made the wooden parts, a blacksmith (u firraru) dealt with the wrought iron elements, finally, the painters had the task of decorating all the surfaces of the cart that housed decorations, figures and scenes.
Over time the cart becomes a real handicraft product, a colourful book of stories and a means of transmission of Sicilian folklore. The colourful decorations covered various subjects, not only allegorical figures or abstract paintings but also knightly or religious scenes: from the sacred images of the Virgin Mary or the Saints, to episodes of romances, from folk epic scenes of everyday life to historical events.
In these folkloric masterpieces predominate red, yellow and green, colours reminding the Sicilian sun and sea, the lava of the volcano Etna and of lemons and oranges. The more important the owner of the cart was, the more elaborate the ornaments were. They had the important function of protecting the wood and were also used to catch the attention of passers-by, especially for carts with a commercial role.
The Sicilian cart today
The use of cart for transportation declined in the second half of the twentieth century, with the increasing popularity of motor vehicles, but, as we shall see, it continues to work its charms on popular sensibility and tourists. Today it is above all an object of craftsmanship and one of the most popular symbols of the island’s culture and folklore (Sicilian folklore and culture). Currently, carts are used on several occasions and can often be admired at public festivals. Very interesting to see is the feast of Saint Alfio in Trecastagni (Catania), when beautiful Sicilian carts depart during the night from Catania and other surrounding areas to reach the main square of Trecastagni at dawn.
Museums of Sicilian Carts: places worth visiting
For those interested in deepening the history and tradition of the Sicilian cart, we recommend a visit to museums dedicated to this extraordinary craft. The Gullotti Museum in Bronte (Catania) is entirely dedicated to Sicilian carts to know and appreciate one of the clearest examples of the quality and talent reached by Sicilian workers, who were able to transform a means of transport into a popular work of art without equals.
The Renato Guttuso Museum in Bagheria (Palermo), dedicated to the Sicilian artist, also hosts an interesting ethnographic section in which several ancient Sicilian carts are exposed, and where the different painting techniques of the cart that inspired Guttuso at a young age are examined.