Sometimes religious themes, like the Flight into Egypt or Moses amongst the Bullrushes, are used. We also saw everyday views of the market, the wine-shop, hunting or scenes celebrating the purchase of a new cart. A caption is usually lettered under each picture and the artist signs his work.
Amongst the more unusual that we came across were a series of panels illustrating events during the Sino-Japanese war. We speculated on what strange chance perhaps took a Sicilian so far afield and inspired him to want a record of the events. Less unexpectedly we found another series of panels showing Mussolini’s Ethiopian campaign. But modern subjects of any sort are very rare indeed.
Stylized leaves and flowers or geometric designs pattern the spokes of the wheels and the shafts. Even the inside of the cart is usually covered by geometric designs in harsh primary colours, with a yellow sun or Trinacria, the three-legged sun-disc symbol of Sicily, as a centre-piece. Many of the carts are springless and formerly all of them were. The body of the cart rests directly on the shafts which are bolted to the axle. Along the back, underneath the body, is the ‘key-board’, with slots cut into each side of it. The ends of the shafts rest in these slots and so are kept in alignment. Because of its essential function this key-board is usually carved as well as painted with the highlight of the story illustrated on the side panels of the body.
Undoubtedly the most important carving is done on the axle-casing, which is the piece of wood enclosing the iron axle. Very often it is a carving of the Madonna or the Holy Family or St George. Because of its position it is seldom seen unless the cart is tipped up; it is not there, of course, just for ornament, but is expected to give protection to the axle. The casing is usually made of strong walnut wood found only along the coast and therefore more expensive than other woods. It is also cut so that the grain of the wood runs horizontally, to give it strength. The whittling away of the wood on either side of the carving, which is centrally placed and usually projects above the line of the casing itself, entails wastage of the valuable wood.
There is some controversy about the length of time apartments Rome have been used in Italy. In the museum in Palermo there is a small toy cart which dates from the Greek colonization of Sicily. Perhaps the cart has a very long history indeed, but because it is made of wood no examples of great age seem to have survived. The late Signor Antonio Daneu of Palermo, a most knowledgeable authority on all Sicilian folk arts, had a wonderful collection of old pieces of cart dating back to the beginning of the last century.
He believed that carts were not used in Sicily until shortly before 1800 simply because the roads were not good enough for them before that date.