Thursday, January 31, 2013

Sicilian Wheels

Sicilian Donkey Cart
Sicilian Wheels
travel memoir
by Greg Larson
“What is this?” I asked as we strolled through the hotel grounds near Mt. Etna in Sicily. A large wooden cart with detailed carvings lay under a shade tree along the path.
“It looks like some type of donkey cart,” said Gretta, my wife.
I gasped at the carved detail, the painted panels, and the deteriorating condition of the weathered cart. “Whatever it is, I can’t believe it’s exposed to the weather.  This should be in a museum.  It’s so old, and the detail is unbelievable!” I exclaimed.
“Look at the carvings and hand-painted pictures,” said Gretta.
Intricate carvings and paintings
“Was this built for kings and queens?” I asked. “This looks like something you would see on Antiques Roadshow. I can’t imagine what it is worth. I pointed to the painted panels, “Look at the medieval battle scenes.”
The cart's resting place
Questions swelled inside of me.  What was the significance of the carved symbols and painted scenes? How many times had these wheels turned their circumference, making revolutions on the dusty Sicilian hillsides?  Why was the antique exposed to the harsh Sicilian climate? I touched the sun-bleached wooden frame which seemed like the relic bones of someone’s livelihood, and stared at the patina of the fading paint.
Gretta and I discovered the donkey cart while strolling along the paths through the green shady grounds of Villa Paradiso dell’Etna which is located at the base of Mt. Etna in northeast Sicily. A paradise it was to us, after spending several days in June of 2012 on a bike tour, experiencing the hot sun and the twisting, turning roads that rose and fell over the hills of eastern Sicily.  The three-acre walled estate was built as a resort in the late 1920s as a spot for tourists and artists to view Etna and experience the cool breezes at the base of the volcano.
Entry to Villa Paradiso dell'Etna

Front steps

The cart continued to reveal intricate details of carved spokes on the wheels, and multiple painted panels and carvings on the box and side panels.  Some strange metal ornamentation had been welded to the axle frame.  Although mostly hidden from view, the metal trinkets on curved tracery gave an artistic flourish to the undercarriage.

Metal trinkets near the axle
We asked our tour guide about the cart, and he explained they were used by everyday merchants for transporting goods throughout Sicily.  They have become an enduring symbol of the region, a slice of history about the hard-scrabble lives of the Sicilians.  The decaying cart is akin to the rusted model-T pick-up trucks which rest beneath elm trees in rural America.  Some of the carts have been saved in museums or used only in pageants or parades, but thousands have been left as outdoor relics to remind the Sicilians of their pride of ownership and their ability to overcome daily hardships. 
Antique details exposed to the weather
Cart-making and painting has quickly become a lost art, but when carts were the mode of transportation, the cart-makers flourished.  Carts of varying quality were available for centuries to carry the goods of Sicilian society, such as grain, wine, lumber, and fish.  A cart owner’s social status was quickly determined by a glance at the detail on their cart, just as we look at the differences in American cars today.  Cadillac or Chevy?  Ford or Chrysler? 
Today, only a handful of people continue the trade of cart making and cart painting.  In the book, Seeking Sicily, one of the last cart painters, Franco Bertolino, bemoans the fact that when he quits painting as his grandfather taught him, the art will be lost.  He said that some fine-art graduates have begun to do some cart painting, but the style and colors are not the same as those created by the old tradesmen.  

Details of a lost art
I'm back at home, sipping American coffee and reviewing the photographs of the cart.  I see a poignant symbol on the grounds of Villa Paradiso, where countless Sicilian wedding receptions have taken place.  It is a reminder of the island’s history to the new couples, a symbol which shows the strength and pride of the Sicilians as they went about their daily lives.
A man, a donkey, and a cart . . . all that was needed to conduct business on the Mediterranean Isle. 



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  2. Dear Greg,
    This was a wonderful blog. My grandfather, Francesco Arezzi was one of the artisans that painted the scenes on the carrettos in Sicily. He was a master craftsman. I have a metal sculpture that was a part of the mechanics and was meticulously sculpted, in my possession, fortunately it made its way to America.
    Unfortunately, the carts were not well preserved and the artists, like my grandfather were not given the recognition they deserved. In Fascist Italy, it was just another job.
    I have written a novel about that era inspired by true events. You may view a trailer of the book at

    Thank you for sharing this story with us.
    Marianna Randazzo
    Author of Given Away, a Sicilian Upbringing

  3. Marianna,
    I had chills watching the trailer on your novel. The chimes speak volumes. I intend to read your book. My wife and I have traveled throughout Italy, including a bike tour across Italy. We fell in love with Sicily. The people have a spirit that keeps them going through a lot of tough times.

  4. Thank you Greg, I believe it was that spirit that made my family succeed in America.
    Please let me know aht you think of the book.
    It is available on Amazon:
    Warm Regards,

  5. In the late 1960's I spotted the axel of a Sicilian cart in an antique store in Scottsdale.
    I "carted it home " (excuse the pun) and had the four corners electrified and it hung in
    my wonderful territorial style home in Tucson, AZ until I moved out in 2003. I had to
    downsize. The new owner didn't want it....which in my mind told me they didn't deserve it!
    It is very beautiful, NOT weathered, as your photos show...some of the faces were re-dated
    after 1945 but the axel is definitely from...early 1900's? I have a couple of photos and am
    about to sell it....will e-mail jpgs if someone is hung from 4 chain from ceiling.
    I think the chain is still attached...I came on line out of curiosity and look what I found!
    If interested, even if it's just for the jpgs...let me know susan