Ceramics

A Sicilian woman’s revenge

by Rebecca Bricker on November 2, 2014

She looked down at me from a balcony in the mystical village of Taormina, Sicily, where the steamy volcanic vapor from Mount Etna casts a spell.

The maiden was lovely – her skin creamy white, which accentuated her dark brows and luscious sun-kissed lips. Her golden earrings dangled from beneath a silky shroud that covered her head, revealing only cascading green braids and a few lemons tucked improbably behind her ears.

I was captivated by her – and later, by her story.

These lovely maidens of Sicily are ever-present on this island. They perch on terrace railings and in souvenir-shop windows. They often have a male counterpart – a white-face prince, usually with a dark mustache, who often wears a crown.

But the main character in this maiden’s story is not the fair prince, but a dark, exotic Moor.

The Moors were the wealthy conquerors of Sicily when this story takes place, about 1,100 years ago in the Arab quarter of Palermo. According to legend, a rich Moor merchant saw a beautiful young Sicilian woman tending her balcony garden one day. He fell in love with her and wormed his way into her heart and her bed. Deflowered and dishonored, the young maiden soon discovered the Moor planned to return to his country to be with his wife and children. On their last night together, she waited until he slept, then sneaked into the kitchen and returned to their bed with a butcher knife. She cut off his head and put it on her balcony. She planted basil seeds in the skull and soon her lush basil plant was the envy of every woman in the neighborhood.

Local ceramists knew a good thing when they saw it and started making terracotta Moor’s head vases – known as Teste di Moro. (Not to be confused with another body part that she could have chopped off.)

Despite the macabre details of this legend, I decided that a Sicilian maiden’s head vase would be the perfect souvenir. It took me awhile to find her. She was smiling from a shop window in the Sicilian town of Siracusa, next to her fair prince – they were a matching set, but priced to sell separately. Even though the shopkeeper offered me a discount on the pair, I didn’t have room in my luggage for them both. So I bought the maiden and a little prince to keep her company.

But just the other day, after I filled her with water and a lovely bouquet of my own terrace-grown roses, I saw that she was sitting in a puddle – of her own tears? Oh dear. I might have to return to Siracusa to get her mate, if superglue doesn’t staunch the flow.

But meantime, I’m keeping her on my balcony as friendly warning – to the Romeos and rogues of Florence. 😉