The goal, upon returning to the endlessly fascinating island of Sicily, was to see firsthand a Sicilian cart. On my first full day there, this mission was accomplished. It was on the breathtaking hillside town of Erice. Having roamed its warren of narrow stone streets, enjoyed a lunchtime pizza, and not coincidentally purchased a number of souvenir toy carts for friends and family back home, I wandered into a quiet botanical garden. It sat on the edge of the mountain with its own amazing views of the Tyrrhenian Sea to one side, and miles of pastoral landscape to the other. A Norman-era castle sits astride the mountain edge; its walls provides tourists with vista photo-ops as it protects them from the steep drop-off. The castle was built on the site of the Greeks’ Temple of Venus, which had been pilfered and moved to Rome by the Romans in an effort to sway her favor and seize momentum against Carthage. And before that there was a temple to the fertility goddess Potnia, belonging to the Elymians, Greek Sicily’s west coast predecessors.
As I approached the castle I saw in front of its high wall a man, an accordion, a horse…and a cart. A carretto – heck, let’s go with the Sicilian pronunciation and call it a carrettu. It was a multicolored, multi-paneled wooden trailer attached to the horse, and its panels featured various medieval battle scenes. It looked, as most carretti (plural) do, almost like an ancient comic book was plastered onto it. It was clearly for show, as the man played accordion and sang for euros next to it.
I tried asking him some questions about it, but the gentleman was preoccupied with entertaining tourists and had little to say. When I asked him to take my picture in front of his cart, he put a Sicilian-style cap on my head that I’m embarrassed to say was emblazoned with an image and logo from The Godfather. He whistled the theme song as he snapped some photos. A bit disappointed, I gave him a euro for his troubles, realizing this, and not cart history, was his livelihood. Nevertheless, I’d gotten some closeups of my own.
I had been to Sicily once before but had never seen nor heard of these mysterious objects until I read John Keahey’s travelogue Seeking Sicily. In it, he describes the carretti, and one is pictured in black and white. A Google image search brought them roaring to life for me. It was but a week or two later when I saw a large model of a Sicilian cart on display in an Italian grocery store in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. It could be bought for a price of several hundred dollars, I was told. The hell with that, I said to myself. I’ll go back to Sicily and see the real thing.
Of course, carts had been in use on the island since at least Greek times, but it was in the 19th century that the carretti, with their uniquely flamboyant designs, came into wide use. As vehicles they were employed to transport agricultural products across difficult roads. As works of art, they might depict anything from peaceful saints to violent Crusades. Their construction was the result of specialized labor, as different tradesmen worked on the wood parts (walnut, beech, and ash), ironwork, assembly, and painting. The evocative artwork extended beyond the cart’s walls and onto the wheels, their spokes, all the way down to the axle. Even the horses were draped with elaborate finery and their heads adorned with bright, colorful plumes. The carretti were obviously attempting religious or historical storytelling in addition to transporting goods, but they simultaneously were wheeled exercises in peacocking, like a low rider with Daytons and hydraulics.
Today most carts appear as curiosities or decorative pieces, and the number of artisans with knowledge of the craft of cart making has dwindled to a handful. Toy souvenirs can be found in gift shops all over the island, but the carts themselves are becoming endangered species. (Sicily has two museums dedicated to preserving their history.) On my trip I would encounter one other cart, parked horseless outside a gelateria in Catania. It sat forlornly on busy Via Plebescito, its shafts pointed down toward the gutter as cars and scooters whizzed by indifferently. Perhaps in its day it had been affixed to a mighty beast, which pulled its payload of lemons or eggplants from one dusty hamlet to another. Whatever it might have been through, it had survived, and like all carretti it still had a story to tell.