“Caltagirone (…) The tuffaceous scenery of the town unfolds, full of houses and palazzi, punctuated by the hundred bell towers of the churches, the piers of the convents, the seminary, the prison, the College, the spire and mass of the Matrice”.
Consolo’s description tells of this inland strip of Sicily, very ancient, situated on the Erei, in a panoramic position between the Gela plain and that of Catania, flourishing on the clay gullies in its settlements that date back to the Palaeolithic period.
The people of Caltagirone were already producing terracotta ten centuries before Christ; a beautiful 5th-century Attic krater, preserved in the Regional Museum of Ceramics, depicts the scene of a potter at the potter’s wheel.
The town was given new vigour by the Arabs, starting with the name Qal’ at al Gharùn, which means “Rock of the Jars”, referring to the working of clay. The Caltagirone artisans drew the raw material for their work from the clay quarries and firewood from the nearby Bosco di Santo Pietro, establishing themselves as the island’s most important producers of ceramics. The decorations seem to recall the sumptuous art of Sicilian textiles and embroidery.
The 15th–17th centuries are considered the golden age of the “City of Ceramics”, which was enriched with churches, institutes, colleges and convents. With the Jesuits came the university, where lessons in law, philosophy and medicine were given, as well as a hospital that was among the best on the island.
The catastrophic earthquake of 1693 razed it to the ground along with other towns in the Val di Noto. With the reconstruction, ceramic art also flourished under new artistic directions. The kilns produced vases with relief and painted decorations, holy water stoups, washbasins, altar frontals, statuettes, architectural decorations for church façades, bell towers and houses, and tiles with large designs.
In the early 19th century, the flourishing activity of the figurinai began: Giacomo Bongiovanni depicted on clay the faces and gestures of commoners, peasants, shepherds, musicians and brigands, often used in characteristic nativity scenes, literally sewing very thin layers of terracotta onto naked figurines. Almost unconsciously, Bongiovanni followed the same themes and subjects that so interested the verist writers Verga and Capuana in literature.
The city has many attractions that draw the eye to every corner: the splendid Giardini Pubblici (public gardens), the architecture of the civil and noble buildings. In the heart of the historic centre is the large central square, once called Malfitania, with two large, elegant buildings at its centre, the former Palazzo Senatorio and former Teatro Garibaldi, now Galleria Sturzo, and the former Monte di Pietà.
There are many noble buildings all around, including Palazzo Crescimanno d’Albafiorita, where Ferdinand of Bourbon and his wife were hosted during a visit to the city in the early 18th century; Palazzo Libertini di San Marco, with the beautiful internal staircase that housed the bishop’s seat when it first opened; the scenic church of the Jesuit College and the Cathedral of San Giuliano, of Norman origin, with a magnificent Art Nouveau façade and its high bell tower. Then the 17th-century seat of the Court of the Captain of Justice, opposite the majestic municipal building, the first residence of the Interlandi Princes of Bellaprima. Among others, the Guttadauro di Reburdone and Maggiore di Santa Barbara palaces, along Via San Bonaventura, as well as the residences of Emanuele Taranto and Bonaventura Secusio, who contributed so much to the history of the town, together with Don Luigi Sturzo and Silvio Milazzo. A little further on, the church of San Bonaventura with its trompe l’oeil frescoed ceilings.
It is almost impossible to list all the churches and convents that once existed in Caltagirone; its narrow streets are incredible, here called carruggi, as in Genoa, an everlasting reminder of the colony of Ligurians who settled in the town and who, together with the Catalan, Amalfi and Jewish families, influenced its architectural and artistic history. Just think of the Flemish panel by Vrancke van der Stockt, now in the Diocesan Museum, and the many sacred furnishings, paintings and frescoes in the churches. But the reason why the city is particularly famous is to be found in the phantasmagoria of colours and glazing of its ceramics that flourish everywhere, in the alleys, main streets and corners of the city.
And again, the beauty of the staircase, with its 142 steps, represents the history of ceramics over the last ten centuries and takes us almost to the top of the hill, to enjoy a spectacular view. Up there, in the ancient fortified district, once surrounded by walls to guard the medieval area, we find the ancient Matrice dedicated to Santa Maria del Monte, from which the staircase takes its name.
In May, the Scalinata becomes a parade of flowers in honour of the Madonna; at the end of July, it is illuminated with arabesques of coloured tiles for the traditional feast of the patron saint San Giacomo, inaugurated by a procession of horses, carriages and liveried minions, and then illuminated again on the nights of Ferragosto.
Caltagirone has a rich culinary tradition of typical sweet treats, linked to the various traditional festivals, such as cuddureddi, biscuits made with honey, almonds or cooked wine, and the ancient bread and egg baskets and chickpea cubaita, true Baroque architecture.
The town is not far from other famous sites such as the Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina and Morgantina, to the north-west, and the late Baroque and Renaissance towns of Vizzini,Licodia Eubea, Mineo, Militello Val di Catania and the unique town of Grammichele with its splendid hexagonal square where time is marked by the monumental sundial near Ragusa and Comiso Airport.