...perhaps a precursor of the painted Sicilian Carretto, one of the most beautiful of all folk crafted technologies in all of Italy. Their bright primary colors (yellow, blue, red, green) celebrate the sun, the sea, lemons, the glowing lava from Mount Etna, the richness of green olive and grape leaves and the passions in the Sicilian soul. The carts contain remnants of Christianity, paganism, war, passion, nature, opera and mysticism... influences that illustrate the various cultures that have left their mark on Sicily: the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, The Turks, the Bourbons, Arabs, Normans and Spanish. The battles of Charlemagne and his Paladin Knights remain the most popular theme for decoration. It's a colorful culture, indeed...
Some insist that after the decline of the Roman Empire the roads in Sicily were left to ruin and fell apart, not allowing small horse, mule or donkey carts to be used on roads between towns and villages--until the "early 1800s" when de Nervo wrote about them and drew attention to them. Just as Columbus "discovered" America--it was always there, with Native Americans before Europeans even knew about it. It's the same with these carts... more than likely, they were in Sicily for many hundreds or even thousands of years.
Wherever you go in Italy, it's amazing to see how ancient donkey paths have been lovingly and beautifully maintained over the course of history. They are still used on a daily basis--a necessity, since most of the towns throughout Italy are up on rugged hilltops, with many homes clinging to the side of cliffs. These paths link house to village and vilalge to towns, and are definitely wide enough for donkey carts. Even though Carretto are pulled mostly by horses or large mules nowadays, if you look carefully at the two wooden shafts that the horses are attached to, you will notice in most cases (especially with vintage carts) they are mounted to the horse in an upward angle. This is because the carts were originally designed for use with donkeys--a much shorter animal more suited to the switchbacks common on donkey paths.
There might have been gaps in the use of Carretti during history, but they didn't disappeared when the Roman Empire did... they just continued to evolve, as most technologies do. Depictions of ancient Roman carts bear a striking similarity to modern Sicilian carts. As to the history of their being decorated in such a distinctive, colorful style... well, that's something else to investigate...
De Nervo told of the cart's horses headbands, dressed up with leather plaques, gilded nails colorful feathered plumes in Sicily's colors... red and yellow. 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 loads such as grain, lemons, wood, vegetables, almonds, grapes, wine, and people--these were called Carretto del Lavoro (work carts). There were also for festive occasions such as weddings and parades called Carretto de Gara. The Carretto was used in the same way the three-wheeled treruote (Ape) gas powered vehicle is used throughout Italy today on farms and in towns as delivery vehicles.
Many types of artisans take part in creating these works of art: coach builders (carrozzieri), wheelwrights (artigiano di ruote), carpenters (carradori), carvers (intagliatori - they use walnut or beech), blacksmiths (maniscalco), leather craftsman (pellettiere) and to finish it off, the decorator (decoratore) and painter (pittore). Fir is used for the cargo trunk area, beech wood for the other parts and ash for the wheels. The blacksmith makes all the metal parts, including the wheel rims and rings to hitch the horses. The pellettiere creates the amazingly decorative harnesses with feathers, colorful wool, silk bows and fringes, mirrors, ribbons, and metal studs. With all these artisans and varied skills, it would typically take three months to complete a cart.
Cart accessories often include a hanging rope net mounted just under the cart to hold food, wine, water and feed bucket for the animal. A chain for a dog, a basket, a lamp hanging on the front side (a sort of headlight), and an umbrella for protection from sun or rain complete the outfitting of the cart.
Two museums are dedicated to preserving the memory of the Sicilian cart tradition exist: The Museo del Carretto Siciliano in Terrasini, in the province of Palermo, and The Museo Gullatti in Bronte, in the province of Catania. Nowadays the carts can be admired in museums and during folklore events.
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