In the hilltop city of Ragusa, one of the Baroque jewels of southeastern Sicily, two artisans are keeping a Sicilian tradition alive through grit, passion and storytelling. Damiano Rotella and Biagio Castiletti are the artisans behind Cinabro Carretti, an evocative workshop where they showcase and share their know-how about Carretti Siciliani, or Sicily’s painted carts.
These brightly painted, horse-drawn carts are unique not only for their function, but for their aesthetic. Widely used on the island between the 1800s to mid 1900s, the cart is an integral part of Sicilian folklore and iconography. “The same way that monuments and buildings tell the story of our humanity, the Carretto Siciliano tells the story of Sicily,” says Damiano. “It’s an art form that we need to preserve as testament to what once existed, the way we used to live.”
Damiano and Biagio have been producing and painting these carts for 40 years collectively and feel called to promote their know-how and tradition. “We’re proud of our craft because it’s something that was passed down to us orally. Producing Sicilian Carts isn’t something you learn at school, from a book or online. It’s something that you learn from a maestro by training in his workshop,” explains Damiano.
100 years ago, the cart owner was a worldly businessman. Traveling for work was dangerous, but prestigious, so the cart was a status symbol that demonstrated the cart owner’s professionalism and financial success. The more intricate the paintings, the more the businessman had invested in a talented craftsman. “The cart was also a source of pride for the painter, who could demonstrate his talents to the world beyond his town,” says Damiano.
Like dialects and traditions, the style of each cart varied widely between artists and between towns. But what they had in common was thematic: the carts were painted with stories of heroes or religious figures who conveyed the ideals of chivalry, honor, faith and justice. Orlando Furioso, a Christian knight with an unrequited love for princess Angelica, makes a frequent appearance on the carts as well as in Sicily’s puppet tradition. The carts would be drawn by horses or donkeys similarly outfitted with vibrant details.
Today, the Carretto Siciliano is only used for weddings or folk festivals, though Damiano and Biagio continue to produce them. “As artisans, it’s our job to help preserve and communicate the tradition,” says Damiano. “We invite visitors to tour our bottega, we travel to other workshops to share knowledge, and we go to schools to tell children about our craft. With bright colors and shapes, the carts are a visceral experience that grab your attention – so they’re a great storytelling tool for children.”
In fact, it was a brightly colored Fiat 500 that caught my eye in Ragusa years ago and lured me into Cinabro Carretti’s workshop to learn about this trade. Famed photographer Steve McCurry, too, photographed the artisans at work during one of his trips to the island. Even Dolce & Gabbana, the Italian fashion house that bills itself as a cultural ambassador for Sicily, sought out Damiano and Biagio for a collaboration with Smeg on their “Sicily is my Love” line of kitchen appliances. “From toasters and citrus juicers to mixers and refrigerators, we treated each object as if it were a cart – filling in every empty space with a design,” says Damiano. And they have also designed tins for Fiasconaro’s artisanal panettoni.
“We do this work for passion, because we love the Sicilian cart – we love these colors and this art form. We’re always looking for creative ways to share our heritage with the world,” he adds.
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