|Sicilian Donkey Cart|
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|
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.