The Teste di Moro: A Sicilian Legend
The Moor’s Heads which are emblematic of Sicilian culture
The Teste di Moro, the Moor’s Heads, are hand-painted ornamental ceramic vases which depict the faces of a man and a woman. Emblematic of Sicilian culture and art, they are not the result of a surprising creative flair of a Sicilian craftsman. Instead they are the fruit of a legend propagated over the centuries. Behind the Moor’s Heads, also known as Graste in Sicilian, lies a love story of passion, betrayal and jealousy which culminates in revenge.
The symbol of ceramics are the Moorheads, head-shaped vases depicting the facial expressions of an ancient Arab with a moustache, turban and decorative jewellery, often combined with another vase with the features of a young woman. This famous symbol represents our island throughout the world and holds an interesting secret; the story from which the colours and shapes are born colours and shapes are born of love, jealousy and revenge.
The Tale of a Passionate Love Affair
Let’s travel back in time to the year 1000, the time when the Arabs dominated Sicily. We are in Palermo, in the Arab quarter Al Hàlisah, an area now known as La Kalsa. Here lives a beautiful girl, who is used to looking out from her balcony while tending her plants. One day a Moor notices her and he is so awestruck by her that he wants to prove his love for her. He does so with deep promises and gushing passionate outbursts of love, enamouring the young damsel.
The beautiful girl reciprocates his love, unaware that the young man was hiding a secret. He would soon return to the East and be reunited there with his family, with his wife and children. The young Sicilian, her pride wounded and pierced by what she had believed could be the great love of her life, plans a cruel revenge. Because the young man’s face had affected her deeply, she decided that he should remain at her side forever.
So one night, while the young man is sleeping, she kills him and cuts off his head. She turns it into a pot in which she then plants some basil. Basil is a plant linked to divine symbolism and has always been associated with sacredness: hence the name, the Teste di Moro, the Moor’s Head. Inside that pot the basil flourishes, thanks to the bitter tears that the girl has shed. The beauty of the plant makes it the envy of all the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, who have some terracotta pots made in the same shape made by artisans. This part of the legend ends here, but the legacy of the terracotta pots has lasted forever.
The Alternative Tale of the Teste di Moro
There is also a second version of this Sicilian legend that explains why they are made in pairs. In this case, the Sicilian maiden protagonist of the story is of noble origins and has embarked on a clandestine affair with a young Arab. The love is soon discovered and the two are beheaded by her family, who did not approve of the love affair. Their heads were put on display as a warning against illicit unions. The heads of both were turned into vases and placed on a balcony so that everyone could know the shame of that love, such that they would know what not to do.
The Literary Version of the Teste di Moro
Some believe the origin of the story has its roots in literature. In the story of ‘Lisabetta da Messina’ as told by Filomena in Giornata IV, novella 5 del Decamerone di Boccaccio. Lisabetta secretly loved Lorenzo, a boy from Pisa. When her family found out, her brothers killed the boy and buried him in the countryside.
Lisabetta then had a visit from Lorenzo in a dream that revealed the burial place to her. She dug up the corpse and cut off its head, took it home and hid it in a pot in which she had planted basil. Lisabetta shed all her tears over the vase, so that the basil flourished. Yet once again the brothers realised what had happened, stole the vase and made it disappear for good, leaving Lisabetta weeping in despair over her love.
by Raffaella Lo Iacono and Will Scott