Caltagirone is a small ‘citta’ (city, town) almost dead centre in the middle of Sicily sitting on the top of a rugged hilltop as so many historical towns in Sicily and Italy do. This was originally to protect themselves in the past from the many conquerors over the centuries that raided towns in Sicily. So what’s so special about it then?
Well, it is known for all the ceramic artisans that reside and work in the town. The ceramics from this town are well known and famous in all parts of Sicily. So the town is full of shops and workshops where local artisans craft their ceramic wares of tiles, tables, pots, trees, plates and so on.
And that’s one reason to visit there, but there is more….Caltagirone is also well known for producing a particular type of ceramic with a fascinating legend or myth behind it! That is what makes it special and interesting.
All around Sicily in shops and window displays you will see painted heads of men and women adorned with crowns and regional fare such as grapes and cactus. When I first heard about these heads or ‘testas’ from a local historian she called them ‘Testa di Saraceni’ (head of the Saracens). They are also known as ‘Testa di Moro’ (head of the Moroccan) or ‘Testa di Turchi’ (Head of the Turk).
There are several versions of the legend that surround these unique and special ceramic testas (heads):
The first legend goes that there was a Sicilian noble woman who fell in love with a younger Saracen or Moorish man of royal blood when he came to Sicily. He led her to believe that he would make a life with her, then she discovered he had a wife and child back in his home country and was lying to her. She was a woman scorned and acted accordingly by pre-meditating his murder. That night when he was asleep she killed him and cut off his head so that he would be with her forever. She kept his head and turned it into a vase like object in her garden and planted basil in it, which grew beautifully because she tended the plant with great love every day.
According to another version of the legend, there was a Sicilian girl of noble origins who was in a clandestine relationship with a young Arab, but this impossible love was soon discovered and the dishonorable act punished with the beheading of both young lovers. The shame of this love was proclaimed by the affixing of both heads (turned into vases for the occasion) on a balcony in the piazza for passers-by to see. This would thus have been an active warning to others about forbidden passions. For this reason the ‘testas’ are often made in pairs or ‘coppia’ (couples), in memory and in honour of the two murdered lovers.
The testas range in size from tiny salt and pepper shakers which cost a few Euro, to around 40cm high, some even adorned with real gold, for hundreds of Euro each. The thing to note is that the ceramic artisans all have distinct and different faces and adornments for the testas in a particular style that become their artistic signature. It is fun to wander from shop to shop until you find the face, eyes or decorations that strike you and make you want to take them home with you.
Last year on our Sicily Tour I bought my first testa in Siracusa. I searched all over Sicily until I walked in to this lovely old gentleman’s shop and the moment I saw the testa, I knew he was the one I wanted – a bit like the women in the story! You just fall in love with them and have to have them. He has pride of place on my table and is admired and adored by all that come to visit. People ring me to find out where they can buy them!
So, Caltagirone is well worth the two hour drive inland to what feels like the middle of nowhere. It has a picturesque piazza that is adorned by this huge staircase decorated with ceramic tiles up to the top of the citta where you get a spectacular view of the hilltop town. The locals love and chat and are very friendly. It even has a Michelin Star restaurant!
So want to see Caltagirone? Check out our Sicily tour which we run each year. For us, its a stop in on the the way to Agrigento and Siracuse. Or just do a day tour to Caltagirone whilst you are in Sicily!