Strolling through the Sicilian roads, it is not hard be mesmerised by the “Teste di Moro” (literally Moors Heads), also known as “Graste” in Sicilian dialect. Those heads are a thousands years old tradition which enrich and colour up the balconies of this exquisite part of the world. These classical artworks, result of a thorough artisan dedication, are not an invention of fantasy but are supposedly coming from an old legend: characters of this terrible tale being a young Moor and a beautiful Sicilian girl.
Thel Moor and the Revengeful Girl
According to the legend, around the 11th century in the midst of the Moor occupation in Sicily, in the Arab district “Al Hàlisah” (which means pure/chosen) today called Kalsa, a beautiful girl was spending her days in her quiet home while looking after the plants in her balcony.
Below: the fountain in Piazza Pretoria in Palermo. Pic by Effems shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0
From the high of her balcony, a Moor guy spotted her. Overwhelmed by the passion, the young man could not help but declare his love and the woman, surprised by his pledge of love, returned the feeling to the daring suitor.
Yet, the man, whom remorseless surrendered to the sweetest demonstrations of love was concealing something:
A woman and sons were awaiting him in the far East where he was about to return to
The young girl, devastated once she realised that the man who she loved was not only a liar but also about to leave her, was consumed with wrath and chose to take the road to revenge. She pondered over it, waiting to catch the moment that he would have been in his higher vulnerability. That way she could have returned the unmerciful unfairness she had experienced by his own hand.
During the night, while the young man was in a deep sleep, unaware of what it was awaiting him, the beautiful girl hit him to death. The Moor that had loved her so much but that was about to abandon her, now, would have never left her anymore. The face of that man, dear to her, was supposed to remain there by her side. Without a second thought, she beheaded the Moor and laid a few shoots of basil inside of it, as if it was some kind of vase.
Below: anthropomorphic handmade vase, Testa di Moro ceramic-made from Caltagirone, Sicily. Artist Agatino Caruso. Pic shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0
The choice of planting basil “inside” of him was due to the fact that this scented plant (from the Greek “Basileus i.e. king), there is always been an aura of sanctity. This way, beside the terrible gesture itself, she was deep in her heart believing to keep on looking after her beloved man.
At last she placed his head on her balcony, devoting her attention to the plant that was vigorously growing in him. The neighbours, jealous of this intense basil smell that was pervading the street, decided to get themselves as well some terracotta vases reproducing the Moor’s Head that they had glimpsed in the girl’s terrace.
Today, each Testa di Moro has a crown on, symbol purposely placed on it so that the sad tale about the beautiful Sicilian girl and the cheating Moor can be remembered throughout the years.
The beheaded Lovers
According to another version of the legend, the Sicilian girl was of noble origin. As soon as the family discovered about the clandestine affair between the young girl and her Arab man, the two disonouring lovers got punished with their own decapitation.
The shame of such a relationship was heralded by affixing their heads on a balcony, which in that occasion got transmuted into vases. The slaughter was displayed there as a warning for those who would have though of surrendering to unconvenient passions. For such a reason the Teste di Moro would be created in pairs, honouring the two lovers were tragically murdered because of their feelings for the other.
The legend explains the origin of the precious Moors Heads, also known as Turks Head (in Sicilian the word Turk is generally used to refer to people of colour of all ethnic groups). During the several centuries the Palermitan artisans, as well as the others in the rest of the island, have mastered and continued this ancient traditions adorning many Sicilian balconies to this very day.
The Moors of Caltagirone
One of the sites that is particularly known for such a production is Caltagirone, core of the high quality production in this region. This art has become over the years one of the main crafts especially because of the various domination it went through. The Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, Genoveses and Normans have all lead to the development of the refined art of pottery and its current rich tradition.
An example of how the charm of Sicilian culture has inspired other kinds of art can be seen in Dolce & Gabbana’s fashion: the work of this famous fashion maison has been intensively and repeatedly affected by the artistic essence of this creations, so strictly linked to the Sicilian territory in all its multifaceted styles, constant homage to the antique Sicily full of unattainable beauties.