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Caltagirone, in the province of Catania, is a city of some 39,000 inhabitants.
The via Roma, the city thoroughfare, bisects the town into two units, running up to the well-known stairway of S. Maria del Monte. It is lined with some of the city’s most interesting buildings, many with majolica decorations. Near its start, on the left, begins the elegant balustraded enclosure of the Villa Comunale (public garden) and the Teatrino (housing the Ceramics Museum).
Villa Comunale – It is a beautiful garden designed by the architect Basile at the half of the 19th century modelled on the English gardens. The edge with via Roma is marked by an ornamented balustrade topped with vases with disturbingly devilish faces alternated with bright green pine-cones and majolica light stands. The garden is threaded by a series of shaded pathways which open out into secluded spaces ornamented by ceramic sculptures, figures and fountains. The most impressive open area is graced with a delightful bandstand decorated with Moorish-looking elements and glazed panels of majolica.
Museo della Ceramica – Housed within the Teatrino, a 1700’s building decorated with majolica, the Ceramics Museum traces the history of the local ceramic industry from the Prehistory to the early 1900’s. The diffusion and importance of moulded clay is exemplified by an elegant Krater of the 5th century BC bearing a potter working at his wheel being watched by a young apprentice. The 17th century is notably represented, with albarello drug jars painted in shades of yellow, blue and green, amphorae and vases with medallions depicting religious or profane subjects.
Furhter along via Roma, on the right hand side, is the splendid balcony of Casa Ventimiglia, named after the local artist responsible for its maiolica decoration, supported on richly decorated brackets bearing masks and gargoyles. Past the Tondo Vecchio, a curved stone and brick building, sits (on the right) the imposing façade of the church of S. Francesco d’Assisi and, beyond it, the majolica bridge, also named after St. Francis, which carries the road into the very heart of the town.
Beyond the little church of Sant’Agata, the seat of the ceramicists’ confraternity, stands an austere prison built under the Bourbon rule.
Carcere Borbonico – The Bourbon Prison is an imposing square sandstone building recently restored. It was built at the end of the 1700’s by Sicilian architect Natale Bonajuto and used as a prison for about a century. It now houses a small city museum that allows access to its ponderous interior.
Museo Civico – The Town Museum hosts, on the second floor, a permanent exhibition of contemporary majolica works. One room harbours the gilt wood and silver litter of San Giacomo that continued to be used in processions on 25 July until 1966. Note the caryatids’ delicate facial features. The third room is dedicated to the Vaccaros, two generations of painters active during the 19th century. Mario Vaccaro’s Little Girl Praying is especially evocative. The first floor accomodates an art-gallery displaying works by Sicilian artists.
Piazza Umberto I - The most prominent building facing onto the square is the Duomo di San Giuliano, a great Baroque edifice that has been extensively refurbished over the years, notably the replacement of its whole front in the early 1900’s. This comes into view from the steps below Santa Maria del Monte, at the foot of which, on the left, stands the Palazzo Senatorio with the courtyard Corte Capitaniale, a fine specimen of early civic building by one of the Gaginis in 1601. To the right, a stairway leads up to the Chiesa del Gesù, containing the precious Deposition by Filippo Paladini (third chapel on the left). Behind the building rise the church of S. Chiara, with its elegant façade attributed to Rosario Gagliardi (18th century), and, beyond this, the early 1900’s Officina Elettrica whose façade was designed by Ernesto Basile.
Return to Piazza Umberto I.
Scala di S. Maria del Monte - This long flight of steps connects the old (at the top) city, the seat of the religious authority, and the new one, where most public offices are located. On either side of this axis lie the two old quarters of San Giorgio and San Giacomo, characterized by narrow streets and concealing fine, mostly religious, buildings. The 142 stair treads are complemented by highly decorative multi-colored maiolica tile uprights bearing various combinations of geometric and organic designs inspired by the animal kingdom, echoing moorish, norman, spanish, baroque or some other more contemporary influence. Once a year the stairway is brought to life by a multitude of flickering little colored candles which pick out a kalediscope of ever changing patterns: swirls, volutes, plant tendrils, female figures and the recurring emblem of the town, an eagle emblazoned with a crossed shield. This fabulous spectacle – when thousands of little candles wrapped in red, yellow or green paper are placed on the steps and lit – takes place on the nights of San Giacomo, 24 and 25 July. At the top of the stairway, sits the Mother Church of Santa Maria del Monte, the former headquarter of the religious authority. Its high altar is graced with a 1200’s painting on panel of the Madonna di Conadimini.
San Giorgio and San Giacomo quarters – At the foot of the stairway begins, to right, via Luigi Sturzo, lined with some beautiful buildings, among which are the Palazzo della Magnolia (no. 74) ornamented with an opulent terracotta decoration by Enrico Vella. Just beyond it are the 1800’s churches of S. Domenico and SS. Salvatore, the latter containing the mausoleum of politician Don Luigi Sturzo and a Virgin with the Child by Antonello Gagini. At the end of the street stands the church of San Giorgio dating from between the 11th and 13th centuries. It conserves the panel painting of the Mystery of the Trinity, attributed to the Flemish artist Roger van der Weyden.
On the left side of the stairway, begins via Vittorio Emanuele, leading to the Basilica of S. Giacomo, the patron saint of Caltagirone, preserving a silver casket by Gagini, containing the relics of the titular saint.
ON THE EDGE OF TOWN
A stroll through the typical back streets of the old quarters on the periphery of town will reveal various unexpected surprises, like the neo-Gothic façade of the church of San Pietro (in the district of the same name), complete with majolica decoration.
Chiesa dei Cappuccini – Located on the Eastern edge of the city, the church contains a lovely altarpiece by Filippo Paladino, portraying the Virgin Hodegetria being carried on the shoulders of Basilian monks. On the left side of the nave, is a Deposition by Fra’ Semplice da Verona. Next to the church stands an art-gallery displaying paintings ranging in date from the 16th century to the present day. From here, there is access to a crypt where is an unusual crib re-enacting different scenes from the life of Christ; one after the other, the tableaux are illuminated and provided with a short commentary.
Caltagirone, city of ceramics – The reason behind it all rests in the inexhaustible deposits of clay occurring in the area. The ease with which this raw material can be extracted has underpinned the success of the terracotta potteries, in manufacturing tableware especially, for distribution throughout the region. Local shapes gave way to Greek influences (as trade increased). This soon became one of the town’s main activities. The production improved becoming more efficient and more precise and the wheel was introduced (by the Cretans in about 1000 BC). The critical turning point, however, was the arrival of the Arabians in the 9th century, for, with them, practices were changed irrevocably. They introduced Eastern designs and also glazing techniques that rendered objects impermeable to water. The art became more sophisticated as exquisite geometric patterning and stylised decoration were modelled on plants and animals. Blue, green and yellow were the predominant colours. The Arabian contribution to the city culture is honored in the name of the town, that according to the most intriguing hypothesis, might be derived from the Moorish for “castle” or “fortress of vases”.
Tastes and demands remarkably changed under the Spanish. The painted decoration was predominantly monochrome (blue or brown) and comprised organic designs or coat of arms of some noble family or religious order. The city entered a period of prosperity thanks to the new industries in the area. The honey production became particularly important, and honey-makers soon became the potters’ most assiduous customers. The “quartaro” (deriving from “quartara”, an amphorae with a capacity of 1,25 litres), a new figure of ceramics artisan, appeared, supplementing the old “cannataro” (deriving from the word “cannata” meaning jug). Organizing themselves into confraternities, they opened their workshops in a large area south of the town, within the city walls.
Besides ceramic tables and kitchenware, Caltagirone established itself for the making of tiles and ornamental plaques for domes and floors, church and palazzi façades. Among the greatest artists between the 16th and the 18th century were the Gagini brothers and Natale Bonajuti. In the 17th century decorative medallions filled with figurative vignettes of effigies of saints (typical in products from all over Sicily) became popular; a century later, moulded relief was applied to vases with elaborate volutes and polychrome decoration.
The 19th century saw a period of decline, arrested only in part by the production of figurines, often used in Nativity cribs. In the second half of the century, this form of art reached new heights of excellence in the hands of such masters as Dongiovanni and Vaccaro.
The visitors of Caltagirone cannot fail to notice the outward signs of a thriving industry now synonymous with the name of the place: brightly painted ceramics not only fill shop windows with a profusion of vases, plates and other household goods, they also decorate bridges, balustrades, frontages and balconies. This bears witness to an art which, here, is as old as the origins of the town itself.
Where to buy
Glazed earthenware is offered for sale by endless numbers of shops in the town centre and on either side of the Scala di Santa Maria del Monte. For an overview of what is produced locally, seek out the Mostra Mercato on Via Vittorio Emanuele, displaying representative examples of work by some of the town’s craftsmen.
WHERE TO EAT
By the steps leading up the Scala of Santa Maria del Monte, on the right, is the La Scala restaurant. This occupies a fine 18th century building which has rooms on the ground floor where spring water still flows, the equivalent of running water at the time when it was built.