The Traditional Sicilian Cart
Updated: Oct 21, 2019
One of the most recognizable symbols of Sicilian folklore, the Sicilian cart (or carretto siciliano in Italian and carrettu sicilianu in Sicilian). It is an ornate, colorful horse- or donkey-drawn cart that originated in the early 19th century in Sicily to transport goods.
The Sicilian cart, just like every working tool, is closely related to the historical and economic history of the island.
The history of the Sicilian cart goes back to the early nineteenth century. The bourbon government in 1830 opened big roads for communication for military reasons. Those were enlarged natural tracks with very steep hills and road elbows, with holes and subjected to landslides. That is why the Sicilian cart was created: with very high wheels it was able to overcome the obstacles on those roads. Horses were mostly used in the city and flat plains, while donkeys or mules were more often used in rough terrain for hauling heavy loads. Carts were used for hauling miscellaneous light loads, such as produce, wood, wine, and people, called “Carretto del Lavoro” (cart for work) and also carts for festive occasions such as weddings and parades called “Carretto de Gara’. The Carretto is like the ‘taxi’ or ‘truck’ of today.
Different craftsmen are involved in the construction of a carretto, each with his own task. The first stage is the work of the ‘carradore’, the person who builds the cart, carves the decorations and prepares the wheels. Then there is the blacksmith, who forges the metal parts. Finally, the painter adds color and liveliness to the cart, through intricate geometric designs and scenes depicting chivalrous, mythological, historical or novel-esque gestures.
The colorful decorations cover various subjects , from the sacred images of the Virgin Mary or the Saints , to episodes of romances, from folk epic, scenes of everyday life to historical events. These wonderful examples of popular culture of the Island can be admired especially during folk festivals. The feast of S. Alfio, in Trecastagni (Catania) is one of the best known.
These scenes also served the purpose of conveying historical information to those who were illiterate. The colors of Sicily's flag, yellow and red, feature prominently on the carts. The animals pulling the carts are often elaborately adorned as well.
With the advent of motorization in the Sicilian countryside in the mid-20th century, the use of the carretto became obsolete; today, it is considered an art object, carefully crafted and often used to decorate interior spaces and as artistic jewelry .