The legend of Sicilian Moor’s Head

Sicilian ceramics in the markets of Catania and Taormina and the masterpieces of Caltagirone 

You probably know that every Italian region has its own ceramic capital. The art of working terracotta has characterized the Italic people since its origins, whether they were Greek, Roman, Etruscan or Arab. Caltagirone is the Sicilian capital of ceramics, that is the place where historically the work of the best craftsmen of the island has been concentrated, who have produced and exported their works of art throughout Sicily, then in Italy and in the world It’s also famous for its simplest decorative floor and wall tiles.

With terracotta a good craftsman can obtain any shape and any decorative motif, usually the most particular ones then become the symbols of entire territories. During our walking tours and street food tours in Catania and Taormina, you will often come across shops and boutiques that exhibit Caltagirone’s masterpieces for sale. But often you just need to simply look at the balconies or at the entrance to houses, shops and restaurants to admire examples of terracotta decorations.

In Sicily the symbol of ornamental ceramics is the so-called Moor’s head, a sort of vase exactly in the shape of a head that depicts the physiognomy of an ancient Arab complete with a mustache, turban and decorative jewelry, often combined with another vase with the features of a young woman. 

But why exactly this shape and this decoration?

Insideat Moor-s-Head-300x300 The legend of Sicilian Moor’s Head Outsideat the Blog

What the Sicilian Moor’s Heads represent 

The legends are different, albeit similar, and refer to betrayal, jealousy and murder. What do you think, Insideater friends? Is this article too macabre? Come on, don’t worry, the history of this land is also nourished by legends and sad love stories. Our advice for you is to continue.

Well, legend has it that around the year 1100 during the Arab domination of Sicily a young woman from the Arab quarter Al Hàlisah in Palermo, now called Kalsa, fell in love with an Arab who was in the city during a trip and was reciprocated. Their love story went on for some time, until the man decided to confess that he already had a wife and children in the East and that shortly thereafter he would have to leave to return to them. Blinded by her anger and jealousy, the girl killed the man at night, cutting off his head and using it as a pot to plant basil. To make the story even more macabre, the legend tells a very curious detail, it seems that in that “vase” the basil grew extremely luxuriant and that the neighbors were very intrigued by the luck of the young woman, so much so that they soon began to be produced by the craftsmen of the vases in the shape of a Moor’s head (i.e. an Arabic head), to be used on balconies for ornamental plants.

There is a variant of this legend, perhaps even sadder, which recounts that the love story between the two was clandestine and that her family, once they learned of their relationship, killed both of them, beheading them. No basil, no flowers, no madness, just vases in memory of a lost love.ù

Some believe this second version of the story to be the literary origin of the legend: the story of Lisabetta of Messina narrated by Filomena in the 4th Day, novella 5 of Boccaccio’s Decameron. Lisabetta secretly loved Lorenzo, a boy from Pisa. When her family found out, her brothers killed the boy and buried him in the countryside. Lisabetta, however, was visited in her dream by Lorenzo who revealed the place of his burial. She dug up the corpse and severed its head, took it home and hid it in a pot she had planted some basil in. Lisabetta shed all her tears on that vase and on her head, so much so that the basil grew luxuriant. But once again the brothers realized what had happened, stole the vase and made it disappear for good, leaving Lisabetta desperate to cry for her beloved.

Insideater friends, the story is sad and ends here. But if you want to see these masterpieces in person and maybe admire up close or buy some examples of Sicilian ceramics, our itinerant tour through the streets of Catania or the one through the streets of Taormina will be perfect for you. If you want to know more about these legends and maybe let the locals tell you about them in detail, come with us and our guides. Your curiosity will be satisfied, so the strange legend of the Moor and his jealous and murderous lover will continue to live; or, if you are more romantic, the story of Lisabetta and Lorenzo, the lost lovers, will relive in your minds

Before you meet us in Sicily, you can follow us on Instagram or on our YouTube channel to discover many typical products and recipes in which to enhance their flavors.

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