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Does the Sicilian cart still exist?

Of course it does, and it’s more alive than ever! Cinebro Carrettieri, the shop where tradition and business meet

Written by Monica Landro

The Sicilian cart is perhaps the image that best represents Sicily in the world.  Its sunny colors, detailed and nostalgic decorations retain a timeless charm that has allowed it to cross not only the dirt roads of a distant past but the centuries since it was originally a functional work tool, closely linked to the economic and cultural history of the island and today it is a real folkloristic icon, sought after by the market and therefore an element of commercial business.

But is there really still someone who makes Sicilian carts?
Yes, there is. Obviously, we can only find in Sicily these corners of a past that look out every day in the present

There is a place, in Ragusa Ibla, perfectly set at the foot of a small building that was built after the earthquake of 1693 and which became a workshop in the second half of the 19th century. 

Since then, this workshop has remained unchanged, it has not undergone any modernization. A shop without shiny and expensive floors, indeed, without tiles at all. Even on the ground there are wood chips almost everywhere, obvious planing waste. One of those ateliers where on the walls, not plastered, you find everything hanging: from Sicilian puppets, to pieces of cart decorations. There are terracotta amphorae, ceramic objects, typical of the Sicilian tradition and many jars of colored paintings and then paintings with portraits that have colors yellowed by time, those colors that crystallize the shot in moments that really take us back in time. And you can still find hanging wooden wheels of different sizes and work tools, and then the “holy cards”, lots of them! Those rectangular pocket cards engraved with the image of the Saint or the Madonna. 

An enchanted place where 2023 seems not to have arrived.

Instead, we will find out that it has reached us!

We are talking about Cinnabar Carrettieri by Damiano Rotella and Biagio Castilletti. Perhaps they are the last artisans who dedicate themselves to painting and restoring Sicilian carts. It seems that there are no books, handouts or websites where you can study to learn this profession. It is an art that has always been handed down orally, from master to student.

When we enter, we find Biagio. Damiano is out on an errand.

So is there really anyone who knows how to build a cart, who knows how to embroider a horse harness?
Yes, we do! We continue to carry on this profession which is precisely the art of the Sicilian cart with construction, decoration and even sculpture.

Let’s start from the beginning, the construction: what are the parts of the cart called?
There are the wheels, the spindle box, which is considered the soul of the cart and consists of a carved wooden part and another in wrought iron and is right under the cart where the axle is set. Then there are the rods, where the horse is attached and above the rods there is the crate with the two side rails and the rear hatch.  A very important piece is the rear key, that is, a carved wooden crossbar that often depicts saints, knights or even characters of the people because

the Sicilian cart, in addition to being a means of transport of goods and people, told stories, myths, legends…

Let’s get to the stories and myths, then. Once the cart is built, do you paint it?
Of course, the repertoire of the cart painter is very vast because the entire history of humanity has been represented on the cart, so not only epic-chivalric themes but also historical, legendary, mythological, theatrical ones such as La Bohème, La Cavalleria Rusticana, Rigoletto, La Traviata. And then again literary ones such as the Three Musketeers, the war in Africa… 

Does it happen that a client asks you to paint something personal, related to their family?
Let’s say that we tend to stick to the classic themes. Someone would like something that belongs to their family but at most we limit ourselves to making a half-bust; However, we keep to originality. 

Can Sicilian carts have different styles?
The cart exists all over the island but there are two completely different styles. One represents the style of north-western Sicily, the Palermo style: the predominant color is yellow and the decorations abound in geometries so it takes us back to the Arab world. The style of south-eastern Sicily, on the other hand, is that of Catania: the background is red and the decorations are typically baroque.  There are other carts that can also be blue, burgundy, gray… They are now very rarely seen. These were carts called “alla patronale”, and the name derives from the landowners who wanted to buy them. 

This is in history. But today, who buys a Sicilian cart and why?
Today the cart is evidently no longer used to transport goods, there are trucks for that, but there are still the children, the grandchildren of the carters who want to carry on the tradition and family pride. They still have the cart and use it at folk festivals, parades, weddings and special events… It can really be an element of business, today, as well as tradition.

Do foreign customers also come to buy the cart?
Yes, but very rarely because the one who gives value to the cart, the one who really perceives its essence is the Sicilian, but it happens that foreigners have come. Recently we restored a cart for an American customer who had a chain of restaurants: he wanted to put it as a centerpiece on a 20 meter long table… Americans do things great!! A cart as a centerpiece! We shipped it to America. It also happens to sell individual pieces of the cart, such as the sides, the keys that end up in villas in the North, abroad and that constitute a part of furniture in sumptuous environments. 

In this shop there are not only Sicilian carts: what else do you do?
This workshop is unique not only because it is evocative and original but because those who at the time were wheelwrights, that is, those who built the cart, were not painters and those who were painters were not blacksmiths, those who were blacksmiths were not saddlers, that is, they were all completely different trades. Today we have been able to concentrate five workers in a single shop so we do everything in the cart, including the harnesses of the horses that are rigorously embroidered in silk, filigree, gold and silver and the plumes with pheasant and capon feathers. 

How did your passion for such a unique job come about?
When we were boys we were apprentices in the workshop of Domenico Di Mauro, a distinguished master and reference for cart painting. We worked and learned the notions that would allow us to achieve professionalism.  Today, in our workshop, with our work, we make sure that people rediscover the cart, that they do not forget it

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We are committed to spreading the art of the cart, so that no one can say that “the Sicilian cart no longer exists”.

You are in Ragusa Ibla: beautiful but really far from the heart of Europe. How do people get here…
Today we help each other a lot with social media, but it is also true that thanks to collaborations with companies, the art of the Sicilian cart has become national-popular, it has not remained a very narrow niche as it used to be. We received orders for 150 ceramic Christmas balls, painted with Sicilian decorations, from Switzerland.

So yes to the care of tradition but also to business!
For 8 years now we have been painting art appliances signed for Dolce and Gabbana and Smeg, we make tin boxes for panettone and doves.  We collaborate with the Anthea Gioielli brand, for which we take care of the line of Sicilian bags and accessories. It happens that our shop is used as a photographic set. One of the photos was also used as a print in the bags of the Dolce and Gabbana stores.

Even the photographer Steve Mc Curry, famous for the shot “Afghan Girl” has passed through here… How did he get there?
He was in the area and one day his staff came to eat nearby and the boys, intrigued by the colors of the shop, took some photos with their mobile phones and sent them to him.After 10 minutes Mc Curry rushed here and wanted to take some shots.Not satisfied, then, he returned and took hundreds of shots. One of these is the one with the 500, a car that we painted 7 years ago for a museum in Messina and today this photo has become famous and he often brings it to his exhibitions: he called it Fiat Bambino.

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