Sicilian Maiolica Ceramics from Caltagirone and Taormina

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.

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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 some stand out, such as Santo Stefano di Camastro and Caltagirone. There are many different styles, distinguished by their colour-schemes, the type of objects made and the motifs painted on the pottery.

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I went to Taormina recently and was introduced to a particular shop (OK, dragged there through the streets) by a friend who told me I absolutely MUST see this particular ceramics shop. I wasn’t complaining. I am not sure which of the two of us is more potty about these magnificent pots.

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Luckily I had safely installed hubby and our son with another friend in a coffee shop nearby, which meant I had the chance to look around and make a small sneaky purchase without being harassed. Hubby is still enforcing The Great Economy Drive.

This is the shop owner holding a Moorish head which my friend bought. Her husband doesn’t seem to be on an economy drive at all at the moment. Lucky her.

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The very nice lady in the shop gave me permission to photograph every plate, pot, vase, sculpture and Moorish head in the entire place. Which I duly did.

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She told me they stock work by about a hundred different artists – when you look along a row of Moorish heads on a shelf, for example, it is clear in an instant that they are made in radically differing styles. These were the ones I fell in love with at first sight.

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The shop contained every type of object you could possibly think of making out of ceramics. Here is a pedestal sink and a selection of table tops in various sizes. The pine cones in various colours around the sink are traditionally used to top gateposts, as are the Moorish heads.

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I would love to know who or what that creature below onΒ the right represents. He is vaguely like a Sphinx, but he looks so upset, poor little thing. The lady’s head below him, with three legs and no arms, is called a Trinacria and is the symbol of Sicily. It derives from the triangular shape of Sicily.

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From the shop doorway, we could see this Moorish head in a turban, mounted high on a gatepost with a plant growing in it, as they are supposed to be.

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Moorish heads, also called Saracen heads, are typical of Caltagirone, which is near Taormina and which was the first centre of majolica production established by the North Africans in Sicily. The shop stocked them in all sizes, ranging from larger than a real human head down to as small as an egg cup.

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Majolica ceramics are so much a part of the culture in Sicily that you see shop signs and walls like this everywhere. I photographed this example in Taormina.

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I also snapped this majolica satellite dish in Taormina. Aren’t these Sicilians inventive?

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The shop I photographed for this post is called Il Girasole and it has its own website with hundreds of photographs. The artists they work with also make anything you want, to order. You can have a dinner service made with your name or portrait all over it, you could get a complete set of tiles with a landscape on them to decorate your kitchen. The more you look at this wonderful art, the more you realize your house needs completely redecorating!

They ship all over the world and, if you bear in mind these items are all hand made, one-off pieces of art, their prices are extremely modest. So modest, I may even have a chance of convincing hubby to let me buy just one more thing!

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29 thoughts on “Sicilian Maiolica Ceramics from Caltagirone and Taormina

  1. Beautiful photos and I think you might have a good business idea with the majolica satellite dish. That is the first decorated satellite dish I have ever seen and I’m certain more people would buy painted and/or decorated dishes if they were available.

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  2. I go weak at the knees when I see ceramics in Sicily. I’ve been to that place at Taormina but my favourite place is Santo Stefano di Camastra, a whole town filled with ceramic shops! I have bought countless wedding/engagement gifts simply because each is an original piece. I’ve even lugged heavy hand luggage all the way to Australia to share this beautiful art form with my friends and family.

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    1. Ha ha! A free extra leg sounds handy.
      They have the same symbol in the Isle of Mann but with no face in the middle. Apparently they don’t do BOGOF offers with heads. πŸ™‚
      Oh, now I have to go and look this up, or it will bug me at night!
      According to Wikipedia the Manx symbol is called The triskele or Triskelion and it dates from the 13th century, which is later than the Sicilian Trinacria. Many sources say the Manx one was copied from the Sicilian one, and in 1885 John Newton wrote that the Manx triskelion originated when the Pope offered the throne of Sicily to Edmund, son of King Henry III of England.
      I do know the Norman kings of Britain created a lot of ties with the Norman Kings of Sicily through intermarriage, cultural contacts etc, so I guess the connection is somewhere there.

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  3. Loved our day together and dragging you to ceramic shops, V. Though you scooped me at my favorite shop. LOL. I have so many of these heads it’s beginning to look like an executioners antechamber around here — but I just cannot resist. I wish I could keep them outside like the Italian’s do, but the weather doesn’t want to cooperate.

    As far as the satellite dish, I believe it’s a paint job on a normal one, not really ceramic, but what a great and lovely job they did. Every year I see it, I always want to redo my own.

    Big hugs to you and family.

    XO

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    1. “executioners antechamber” …. ha ha! I’ll offer a welcomeing home to any spares you decide to throw out!!! πŸ˜‰
      I suppose a suped-up ordinary satellite dish would be easier than a ceramic one. Maybe I should jazz up my own one then?
      I loved being dragged to that fabulous ceramics shop. I made hubby take me Santo Stefano di Camastro on Saturday, and of course bought some things even though he firmly instructed me not to!

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      1. Well, sweetie, if you want the, you’re going to have to come all the way over here to get them! LOL. Maybe that’s one way of getting you to visit me. What did you buy at Santo Stefano’s?

        XO

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      2. I just bought a tile! But a beautiful one, of course. πŸ™‚
        I had a lovely wooden-framed tile as a rest for my teapot, which sadly landed on my husband’s head and smashed. Poor tile, poor hubby!
        So I was pleased to find a replacement that looks even nicer than the original one.

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  4. Hi there! My name is Susan and I live in Denver, Colorado. Just this past September I was lucky to be in Sicily celebrating a friend’s 60th birthday. While there, we visited Caltagirone and purchased a beautiful pair of ceramic pine cones that we intended to install on the fence-posts of my house. Unfortunately while we were in Catania, we stopped in traffic, and the back door of our car was pulled open by two young men on motorcycles. They grabbed the canvas bag in the back seat and took off. We were shocked! We’ve traveled everywhere in Italy and have never had a bad experience. The good news was that the only things in the bag were three half-filled water bottles, and my newly purchased ceramic pine cones from Caltagirone. (They’d been carefully placed there because we were worried they might be broken in the trunk with our luggage). Yes…it could have been worse, they were not expensive, but we felt violated nonetheless. Now I’m having an awful time trying to replace them. Do you have any suggestions of who might be able to sell and ship me a replacement?

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    1. What an awful story! I’m so sorry to hear you had that awful experience in Catania. (Of course my husband would say “What do you expect from the Catanesi?” …. in Palermo, they don’t like people from Catania!!!)

      Well, quite a few ceramic shops have websites.
      The one I photographed for this post as a site, which is here:
      http://www.manago.it/Default.aspx#&panel1-1

      and here’s their pine cone section
      http://www.manago.it/Le-Ceramiche-Siciliane.aspx?Cat2=43

      I hope they have what you want!
      They do shipping worldwide.

      If you type “ceramiche Siciliane” into Google, various other shops’ websites come up too.
      Happy shopping!

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  5. Susan, you will be able to find what you want at Manago’s Girasole shop — I’ve been purchasing from them for years and have never had a single problem. If you don’t see what you want, and can send a photo, or a diagram, they will make it for you to order.

    Good Luck!

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  6. Veronica, when I saw this article I read it out of casual curiosity, saying to myself “Let me see how this compares to my own favourite shop”. I could NOT believe it when I realised from the photos that you were, indeed, writing about my all-time favourite shop!! A conclusion reached after years of scouring Taormina to choose the best maioliche with a long-suffering husband in tow (they don’t understand a thing, do they?).

    A agree that this shop really offers the best selection and an excellent ordering service as we’ve commissioned some very breakable items which arrived intact. Still I should mention that most of their stock is actually made in Caltagirone which offers much higher quality than Santo Stefano di Calmastro.

    In Caltagirone I discovered one workshop that I think offers the best quality/value I have ever come across – Mario Di Liberto Ceramiche di Caltagirone http://www.ceramiwchediliberto.com/ There are a few others as good as this family of artists, but they are MUCH more expensive.

    Their lamps in particular are in a class of their own, check them out: http://www.ceramichediliberto.com/lampade
    http://www.ceramichediliberto.com/k2603809-lampada-da-tavolo

    I look forward to hearing more from you, especially since I also survived an Italian mother-in-law! πŸ™‚

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    1. Oh wow, what a coincidence!
      And thank you for the other top tips regarding shops and Caltagirone…. I will HAVE to make Hubby take me there next time. πŸ˜€. He won’t understand but he’ll have to go on trust πŸ˜‰

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