The Evolution of a Great Sicilian Tradition, Shaped by Sculptor Maurizio Lo Castro
Updated: Apr 26
Anyone who has visited the Italian island of Sicily cannot fail to have noticed the intriguing, brightly coloured ceramic heads which peer down from balconies, adorn rooftops and guard the gardens of houses, shops and restaurants.
These teste di moro - Moor's Heads - have a long and fascinating history and are now firmly embedded in the traditions and future of Sicilian ceramic art.
The story begins sometime after the Moors had invaded Sicily, around 1100AD, in the ancient Arabic quarter of the city of Palermo. This rectangular area, nowadays called Kalsa (a name derived from the old Arabic Al-Khalesa meaning 'the chosen') was then the administrative centre of Palermo containing government buildings, a mosque, baths but no shops or markets. The important district was protected by a stone wall and entry to the zone was gained by four gates, one on each side.
The compact walled quarter also contained the fine houses of the nobility which had balconies rather than the large gardens typical of the countryside villas. During this period, young women were not permitted to go out alone, so a balcony acted a safe area and provided a certain element of freedom.
Legend has it that a local young single woman, blessed with flowing dark hair and beautiful sea-blue eyes filled her days looking after the flowers and plants on her balcony. A rich and handsome Moorish merchant became enchanted by her striking looks and eventually came to declare his love for her. The young maiden could not resist his charms and soon enough, surrendered to his amorous advances completely. She was horrified to later discover that he was already married and would be returning to his wife and children in his homeland. Broken-hearted and embarrassed, the distraught young woman plotted her revenge. In a fit of anger, she cut off his head while he lay asleep to prevent him from ever leaving her!
The next day, she fashioned a plant pot out of his severed head and planted basil - a herb symbolising loyalty and love - to display on her balcony. The plant flourished abundantly and provoked her envious neighbours to desire the same decoration. They commissioned terracotta pots in the shape of heads in the hope of replicating her gardening success.
The Moorish invasion of Sicily had brought with it new ideas, skills and techniques which naturally merged with the existing local traditions. Ceramic production across the island increased as new workshops were set up across the island. Bright, new colours and techniques soon followed. Thus, the once fairly dull 'head' pots soon began to be decorated with ever more colourful and intricate designs as their owners tried to out-do each other.
The original plain colour of the ceramic heads has an officially recognised shade of brown with the hexadecimal code of 754909 and is used widely for achieving exact colour matching for tanned leather, make-up, paint, tiles etc.
This testa di moro colour can also be seen used in an heraldic setting in the coat of arms of Pope Benedict XVI, which features a Moor's head based on an earlier 'Flag of the Four Moors' or Alcoraz Cross from 1536...
In modern days, master craftsmen have taken pride in their nascent ceramic art form and the teste di moro have become valuable and prized sculptures to collect and even sold as souvenirs to tourists who have fallen under the spell of Sicily's rich history and cultural legends.
The heads now often come in pairs, a male and female head representing a marriage or couple that never was, and they are often 'crowned' with local fruits such as ficus d'inde or citrus to signify wealth and nobility.
The rivalry between individual studios and ceramic creating regions has resulted in a healthy competition between the famous Caltagirone workshops south of Catania, those of Monreale near Palermo, Sciacca in the west, and the town of Santo Stefano di Camastra on the north coast near Cefalù. Artisans are found in all points of the compass creating hand-made marvels with which to tempt the tourists...
We enter the new millennium and discover Maurizio Lo Castro, an artist local to the famous tourist mecca of Taormina, a well-to-do resort town on the East coast of Sicily which has been key to the success of the popularity of the teste di moro with overseas visitors. Lo Castro has elevated simple ceramics in to a higher art form which is attracting the attention of collectors worldwide.
Taking up the threads of the legends and traditions of the teste, Lo Castro has moved the story along into contemporary times. Incorporating themes of Greek mythology, astrology and other folkloric fantasties with a twist, his first interpretation of the heads from 2014 have a Pop Baroque feel to them...
In a shift away from the tin oxide Maiolica / Majolica colours of the typical Sicilian heads, Lo Castro adopted a bright palette with neon pop hues combined with silvery embellishments for this collection.
Another key advancement mastered by Lo Castro is to use porcelain rather than the local terracotta traditionally used. This stronger base material facilitates the very fine details achieved in works such as these examples (below).
In 2017, the genre took another bold leap forward with the conception of the '2nd Skin' series by Lo Castro. This collection explores very contemporary - but timeless - themes such as religious freedoms, sexual taboos, secrets, lies and fantasies, much like the original teste di moro.
These new works would not be out of place in the most avant-garde setting, and yet they retain the key elements of an art form born in the 11th century, full of mystery, intrigue and secrets yet to be told.
The 2nd Skin pieces border on the worlds of fashion and design and originate from a broader research on mutations both physical and costume, themes of eroticism, camouflage, roles and conventions. The unique pieces explore the different aspects of dimorphism and perception.
These 'masks' are like second skins that amplify feelings and perceptions, giving the wearer a new identity and liberating roles and identities assumed or bestowed at birth.
More than merely decorative, the 2nd Skin series also manifests physical expression to socio-political commentary on current affairs by the artist.
And into the future we go... resistance is futile.
For available work by Maurizio Lo Castro, visit the full catalogue here.