Sicily is famous for its ceramics, designed in the classic Maiolica glazed style with delicate baroque patterns. The most original pieces and those who stimulate the most interest from visitors are the Moorish head designs, which consist of pairs of pots, cups or jars which depict a fair-skinned woman and a man with distinctly North African features.
Most foreigners are perplexed by this extravagant couple, which is often impressive features of many exquisitely groomed balconies and gardens all over the island.
Behind this couple, there is an intriguing mix of mythology and Sicilian history.
Theirs is a love story akin to Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde, with a surprisingly gruesome mixture of violence and folly. The story takes us back to the end of the Arab period in Sicilian history, from 831 to 1091, when the island was known as the Emirate of Sicily (Arabic: إِمَارَةُ صِقِلِّيَة).
This intriguing tale has been reinterpreted through the ages. At its heart, the two central characters have inspired many artists throughout the centuries.
The original folktale comes from Palermo and tells of a Saracen merchant who falls in love with a beautiful local girl. They start a passionate love affair until the girl discovers her lover has a wife and children waiting for him in his homeland. In a fit of jealousy and rage, she murders him in his sleep, cutting off his head so that her lover will stay with her forever. The girl uses the head as a vase to grow a beautiful basil plant. Others who saw her flourishing plant forged themselves colourful clay head pots to recreate the bountiful fertility.
A more romantic version of the Moorish heads tale comes to us from Messina. Every summer, as part of the elaborate mid-August celebrations dedicated to Messina’s patron, the Virgin Mary, the pagan founders of the city are also featured in the religious procession.
The gigantic eight-meter tall papier-mâché statues of Mata and Grifone riding on horseback have been proudly displayed in front of Messina’s town hall every summer since 1723. Their procession through the city during the mid-august celebrations reenacts the arrival of Roger the first of Sicily to Messina after the island was finally liberated from the Arab domination in 1071.
Roger, I was a Norman nobleman who became the first count of Sicily, and his descendants continued to rule Sicily until 1194.
In 1547, when archaeological excavations outside of Palermo first unearthed the remains of mini elephants and hippos which used to roam prehistoric Sicily, this discovery led to the widespread belief that giants founded Sicily. The elephant skulls were also proof that the Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey existed. The elephant skull’s peculiar shape and a typical single hole at the centre confirmed that the animal in question had a single eye.
Many Sicilian academics believe Messina’s Mata and Grifone are manifestations of ancient nature gods. The pale-skinned Mata reinterpreted the ancient Greek myth of Persephone, who was the daughter of the goddess of nature, Demeter. Persephone was kidnapped by the underworld god Hades, ruler of the ancient afterlife.
The tale told at Messina is a love story with a staunchly Catholic flavour and no bloodshed. Mata was the daughter of a Messinese nobleman who caught the eye of Grifone, a general in the invading army who had just conquered Messina.
Pledging his undying love for Mata, he asked for her hand in marriage, which Mata’s father granted to him with the understanding that Grifone would convert to Catholicism, which he did. Then the two went on to become rulers of ancient Messina.
Probably the most famous version of the gruesome Moorish heads story is the one retold by Boccaccio in the Renaissance short stories from his Decameron. Boccaccio sets the story directly in Messina, and the main protagonist is Lisabetta or Isabella, an orphaned noble girl whose three brothers jealously guard.
Isabella falls honestly and spontaneously in love with Lorenzo, a local boy of modest means. Their love affair goes on in secret until the three brothers discover Lisabetta leaving to meet her lover and decide to end the relationship to avoid tarnishing the good name of the family.
The brothers lead Lorenzo out of the city and murder him, hiding his body in a shallow grave and, on their return home, tell their sister Lorenzo quietly left on business.
But when her lover is absent for too long, Lisabetta becomes desperate with worry. One night Lorenzo appears to Lisabetta in a dream, telling her he was killed by her brothers and where his body is buried.
Determined to find Lorenzo, she obtains permission from her brothers to go on a trip to the countryside with her female servant. She finds Lorenzo’s body and cannot give her lover the burial he deserves, and insane with grief, she cuts off Lorenzo’s head. She hides the head in a vase and plants some basil in it at home—the plant blossoms, watered by Lisabetta’s tears.
Isabella’s behaviour alarms the neighbours, and her brothers discover Lorenzo’s head. They get rid of the evidence of their crime, leave Messina and flee to Naples, leaving behind a distraught Isabella to die of a broken heart.
In 1849 the sad tale of Isabella of Messina was revived by British artist Everett Millais who created the first painting in the romantic Pre Raphaelite style. The canvas of Lorenzo and Isabella is filled with hidden messages and subtle phallic symbols which have intrigued art lovers for generations.
Another imminent Pre Raphaelite artist Edward Coley Burne Jones painted a portrait of Isabelle and the pot of basil in 1867. This interpretation of Isabelle depicts the emotional moment the girl weeps over her basil plant towards the end of the story.
The Coley Burne Jones masterpiece draws on ancient mythology, recalling elements of traditional folklore. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans believed basil was associated with hatred, and according to folk beliefs, the plant had to be sown with swearing and ranting. The ancient Egyptians used the herb in the embalming process, making it a symbol of mourning.
Romantic poet John Keats used the story to inspire his poem Isabella, or the Pot of Basil. In the hands of the highly idealistic romantic Keats, the tale became a love story corrupted by the pride and greed of Isabella’s brothers, who treated her like an object.
The Romantic version is set in Florence; the poem is filled with profoundly violent imagery before and after the murder. Keats quotes the Greek myth of Perseus, who killed Medusa, the gorgon serpent-headed monster, which is at the centre of the Trinacria, an ancient symbol still used to represent Sicily today.
There is always a story behind every work of art; Sicily takes this aphorism to an extreme with its history filled with violence, tragedy, and loss.
The baroque ceramic Moorish heads are the artistic expression of the island’s rich yet dark mythology.