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#59 Messina’s Giants
Sicily is famous for its ceramics, designed in the classic Maiolica glazed style with various types and patterns.
Ceramic art in Sicily dates back to the ancient Greek period of the island's history, with techniques developed by innovations by Arab domination. Later, the Spanish school of the eighteenth century gave them new vibrant colours and styles.
Today Sicily has three different famous ceramic-producing cities, including Santo Stefano di Camastra (ME), Caltagirone (CT) and Sciacca (AG), each with its unique style.
The most original pieces of ceramic design that stimulate the most interest from visitors are the Moorish head designs, which consist of pairs of pots, cups or jars that depict a fair-skinned woman and a man with distinctly North African features.
Most foreigners are perplexed by this extravagant couple, often the centrepiece of many exquisitely groomed balconies and gardens all over the island.
Behind this couple is an intriguing mix of mythology and Sicilian history. Theirs is a love story akin to Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde, with a surprisingly gruesome twist in a mixture of violence and folly. Their story takes us back to the end of the Arab period in Sicilian history from 831 to 1091, when the island was known as the Emirate of Sicily ( إِمَارَةُ صِقِلِّيَة).
The original folktale comes from Palermo and tells of a Saracen merchant who falls in love with a beautiful local girl. They start a passionate love affair until the girl discovers her lover has a wife and children waiting for him in his homeland. In a fit of jealousy and rage, she murders him in his sleep, cutting off his head so her lover would stay with her forever. The girl uses the head as a vase to grow a beautiful basil plant. Others who saw her flourishing plant forged colourful clay head pots to recreate the bountiful fertility.
A more romantic version of the Moorish heads tale comes to us from Messina. Every Summer, as part of the elaborate mid-August celebrations dedicated to Messina's patron, the Virgin Mary. The pagan founders of the city are also featured alongside the religious procession.
For Ferragosto, the gigantic eight-meter tall papier-mâché statues of Mata and Grifone riding on horseback are displayed in front of the Town Hall in the centre of Messina.
The statue's celebrations date back to 1723 and reenact the arrival of Roger the First of Sicily to Messina after the island was liberated from Arab domination in 1071. Roger, I was a Norman nobleman, he became the first count of Sicily, and his descendants continued to rule Sicily until 1194.
In 1547, archaeological excavations outside of Palermo first unearthed the remains of mini elephants and hippos that roamed prehistoric Sicily. The giant skulls led to the widespread belief that giants founded Sicily. The elephant craniums were also taken as proof the Cyclops from Homer's Odyssey inhabited Sicily. The skull's peculiar shape and the single hole at the centre seemed to confirm that the animal in question had a single eye.
Many Sicilian academics believe Messina's Mata and Grifone are manifestations of ancient nature gods. The pale-skinned Mata is a version of the ancient Greek myth of Persephone, the daughter of the goddess of nature, Demeter. Persephone was kidnapped by the underworld god Hades, ruler of the ancient afterlife, who had secretly agreed with Zeus to make her his wife.
The tale told at Messina is a love story with a staunchly Catholic flavour and no bloodshed. Mata was the daughter of a Messinese nobleman who caught the eye of Grifone, a general in the invading army. Grifone had just led the army that conquered the city of Messina. Pledging his undying love for Mata, he asked for her hand in marriage, which was granted with the understanding that Grifone would convert to Catholicism, which he did. Then the two went on to become rulers of ancient Messina.
The most famous version of the gruesome Moorish heads story is in the Decameron as retold by Boccaccio. The story is set directly in Messina. The main protagonist is Lisabetta or Isabella, an orphaned noble girl who her three brothers jealously guard.
Isabella falls in love with Lorenzo, a local boy of modest means. Their love affair goes on in secret until the three brothers discover Lisabetta is leaving to meet her lover and decide to end the relationship to avoid tarnishing the family's good name. The brothers lead Lorenzo out of the city and murder him, hiding his body in a shallow grave and, on their return home, tell their sister Lorenzo quietly left on business.
When her lover is absent for too long, Lisabetta becomes worried. One night, Lorenzo appears to Lisabetta in a dream, telling her he was killed by her brothers and where they buried his body.
Determined to find Lorenzo, she obtains permission from her brothers to go on a trip to the countryside with her female servant. She finds Lorenzo's body and, unable to give her lover the burial he deserves and insane with grief, cuts off Lorenzo's head, bringing it away with her.
At home, she hides the head in a vase and plants some basil—the plant blossoms, watered by Lisabetta's tears. Isabella's behaviour alarms the neighbours and her brothers who eventually discover Lorenzo's head. They get rid of the evidence of their crime, leave Messina and flee to Naples, leaving behind a distraught Isabella to die of a broken heart.
In 1849 the sad tale of Isabella of Messina was revived by British artist Everett Millais who created his first painting in the romantic Pre-Raphaelite style. The canvas of Lorenzo and Isabella is filled with hidden messages and subtle phallic symbols which have intrigued art lovers for generations.
Another imminent Pre Raphaelite artist Edward Coley Burne Jones, painted a portrait of Isabelle and the Pot of Basil in 1867. This interpretation of Isabelle depicts the emotional moment the girl weeps over her basil plant towards the end of the story. The Coley Burne Jones masterpiece draws on ancient mythology, recalling elements of traditional folklore. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans believed Basil was associated with hatred, and according to folk beliefs, the plant had to be sown with swearing and ranting. The ancient Egyptians used the herb in embalming, making it a symbol of mourning.
Romantic poet John Keats used the story as the inspiration behind his poem Isabella, or the Pot of Basil. In the hands of Keats, the tale became a love story corrupted by the pride and greed of Isabella's brothers, who treated her like an object.
Keat's version is set in Florence; the poem is filled with profoundly violent imagery before and after the murder. Keats quotes the Greek myth of Perseus, who killed Medusa, the gorgon serpent-headed monster at the centre of the Trinacria, an ancient symbol still used to represent Sicily today.
There is always a story behind every work of art; Sicily takes this aphorism to an extreme with its history filled with violence, tragedy, and loss. The baroque ceramic Moorish heads are the artistic expression of the island's rich yet dark mythology.
I hate to be long-winded, so I will stop here for now.
I'll keep trying to write something here as often as I can.
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