While the true origins of ceramic are oft debated and still unknown, we can say with certainty that the traditional maiolica style of ceramics is a style born in Sicily that is now renowned the world over.
An Old Tradition
Ceramics appeared for the first time in Sicily in the 6th century B.C. At this time ceramic pieces were used for functional reasons and appeared in simple shapes that only later acquired decoration and quality, losing impurities and imperfections along the way. From the 3rd to the 2nd centuries B.C. settlers in Sicily from central Europe combined their technical knowledge with the natives' abilities when it came to ceramic production to create a new breed of Sicilian product.
It must also be noted that Sicily’s ceramics have always been heavily influenced by the Oriental style of glazed ceramics, a look originally imported to the area by the Arabs.
The most prolific centers for the production of ceramic works were founded in the following towns: Palermo, Sciacca, Siracusa and Agrigento. The Gela was the ceramic style most in demand. In the 18th century, Palermo was also the most important center for the tiles and furniture for villas. It is in this period that the so-called "third fire" technique, imported from Naples, was put into use.
At the beginning of the 20th century the phase of industrial production was inaugurated thanks to the success of the Liberty style and floral patterns. It was at this time that Sicilian maiolica became known the world over.
Nowadays, the most famous and renowned production is carried out in the towns of Sciacca, Santo Stefano di Camastra, Caltagirone and Palermo. Ceramic apprentices are spread all over the island, keeping the old traditions alive.
The Evolution of Images
Sicilian ceramic work was first based on the production of earthenware, which was decorated for daily use. Later these ceramics were mainly used as containers for medicines or spices. The ceramic work was later decorated with beautiful images and everyday scenes in order to make the vessels more alluring. The most common themes and subjects represented on Sicilian ceramic work include engravings and figures of Saints, and the images of famous and well-known men, whose virtues and vices were outlined.
Over the course of the time ceramic craftsmen, known as cannatari, improved the tradition but kept to the most used colors: yellow, green, blue and turquoise.
Caltagirone's Museum of Ceramics
A history of most of Sicily’s ceramic production can be seen in the Museum of Caltagirone, the second best ceramic museum in Italy after the one at Faenza.
Caltagirone's museum exhibits about 2,500 pieces of art, which allows the visitor to have an overview of the history and production of ceramics from the 4th century B.C.
Today Sicilian maiolica can be considered as a bridge between the past, present and future of ceramics. The maiolica or majolica is witness to and the result of local history enriched with the skills of settlers, the needs of everyday Sicilians, and the taste of the area for traditional and beautiful objects.