Sicilian Folk Art

La Musicista Del Viale Veneto  24”x 36” Oil on Canvas. 2016

Playing musical instruments for leisure in public has typically been a pastime of men. Cassar distinctly remembers from his childhood a woman he would often see who played a guitar in the main piazza of the town of Floridia, where he grew up. As a boy he found this surprising, because Italian cultural biases tend to dictate which instruments are played by men and which by women.

Women typically play the flute or violin, while the trombone, trumpet, drums, and guitar are reserved for men. The piano, cello, and tambourine are considered appropriate for both.”
Sadly, music-making for its own sake is a dying art in Italy.  “Tourists who visit Italy do not realize this, because street musicians target tourist areas.

Nowadays you don’t hear musicians playing in the streets in most towns in southern Italy, unless a parade or religious festivity is going on. Throughout much of the country, there is now silence where there were once music and melody.”

U Puparu "The Basket Weaver" 19”x 27” Oil on Canvas. 2016

Basket weaving is a local, artisanal tradition found throughout Italy that is fast becoming a remnant of its own past. As cheaper, competitive plastics dominate the market, Italians do not spend the extra Euro on durable, light, and sturdy baskets made out of plants like myrtle wood, olive, willow, bamboo, and local reeds.

Baskets are woven into decorative patterns using dark branches like almond and olive twigs. The baskets painted in this scene are the kind sturdy enough to carry a farmer’s produce, including oranges, lemons, and olives. 

Other baskets are woven around glass jugs, making them easier to carry and protect the glass from breakage. Such baskets can be seen in other paintings by Cassar, including “Lemon Picking” and “Il Puparo”.

Il Pizzaiolo. The Pizza maker. Oil on canvas. 2016

The "Pizza" literally meaning "something put together - a thing - a cluster of ingredients" dates back to the Roman times. Romans had brick ovens that made plain pizzas without the tomato sauce. Once tomatoes where brought to italy that is when the peasants added sauce to the pizza and therefor made pizza as we know it today. Italy in known for many things like pasta, parmesan cheese, and vine, however it is mostly known for pizza. Pizza is the worlds most eaten dish, and when one talks of pizza people know the origin is Italy. The one aspect about pizza that is lost or not spoken of is the pizza maker. Non much credit goes to these skilled craftsmen.

Andreà Cassar

Andreà’s oil paintings comprise a unique collection of Italian folk scenes, depicting mostly labor-intensive practices like farming, and leisure scenes of people playing in the streets. Traditions specific to the Siracusa region, like the Lemon Picking - where men pick lemons and eat them to help with hunger - are also part of the collection.

While all of Andreà’s works are noteworthy as stand-alone pieces, they are best appreciated when viewed together, as a series. Through a series of 12 oil on canvas paintings, Andreà captured everyday life from his childhood from family photos. Through his art, we get a glance of what the Sicilian culture and lifestyle was like between the 1990s and early 21st century - the period during which he was in Italy.

There are a few main differences between Carmelo and Andreà's oil paintings. Andreà likes to paint with vivid colors and he zooms in on the most important aspect of a picture painting beyond the edge of the canvas, while Carmelo's paintings are calmer in the palette and paints within the canvas edges.

Nonna Pippa and I  24”x 20” Oil on Canvas. 2016

Tomatoes have been an Italian poor man’s food since they were first brought to the peninsula from South America in the 16th century. Since then tomatoes, much like garlic and olive oil, have been synonymous with the Italian kitchen. Housewives from low income families in southern Italy used to buy basics such as butter, milk, deli and other meats from local grocery stores. Other staples like bread, even soap, were made in the home. Homegrown tomatoes were an affordable staple easily turned into less perishable products, such as sun dried tomatoes, sauces, and tomato paste. (Writings from the late 18th century give the first recorded evidence of tomato sauces and preserved pastes.)

Nonna Pippa and I is inspired by a photograph Cassar found that shows him as a young boy in Sicily, watching his maternal grandmother Sebastiana (commonly referred to as “Pippa”) on her terrace making tomato paste. “Nonna Pippa would start by making a puréed sauce. Then she would spread it out on large, rectangular, Sicilian-styled pizza pans and let the water evaporate under the hot sun. On a good weekend, she would get about seven liters (30 cups) of paste.”

The Accordion Player  18”x 24” Oil on Canvas. 2016

The accordion, or fisarmonica, is a musical instrument that has been popular in Italian folk music since the latter part of the 19th century. Its cheerful sound and ease of use and transportation was an ideal instrument to adopt in opposition to the elitist and costly music of previous eras. The most noticeable are bright red. There are about two dozen accordion manufacturers today in Italy, most being located in the city of Castelfidardo.

Cassar vividly remembers musicians, young and old, playing the accordion in the town square of his hometown Floridia. Traditional songs like the Tarantella, Ciuri Ciuri, and Mamma Son Tanto Felice were played along with other Italian classics. Accordionists are not as noticeable throughout Italy today. 

They now typically play only for special occasions or for tourism, which helps to keep alive the romantic aspects of Italian folk life and music, even if for profit.

“Nowadays you don’t hear musicians playing in the streets in most towns in southern Italy, unless a parade or religious festivity is going on. Throughout much of the country, there is now silence where there were once music and melody.”

Il Puparo (The Puppet Maker) 18”x 24” Oil on Wood. 2016

Puppetry, and puppet making, is a localized tradition in Italy. Sicilian marionettes range in size depending upon the locality:  Examples from Catania are nearly twice the size of those used in Palermo, and the tradition of Naples uses marionettes that are a meter tall.

The modern tradition that can still be seen in Sicily originated in the early 19th century, but the roots of the Opera dei Pupi (lit. “puppet opera”) stretch back to at least the 15th century. Puppetry was a popular form of entertainment throughout medieval Europe for all classes of people. The earliest performances probably involved local history and folklore. 

Il Puparo (The Puppet Maker) shows an Italian craftsman assembling one of his puppets. Cassar fondly recalls class trips to local puppet shows in

Siracusa, near his hometown in Sicily. “I remember watching puppet makers build puppets in their shops. A familiar creation was the knight, as many Opera dei Pupi put on shows about a knight that falls in love with a fair-haired maiden, fighting for her love, and marrying happily ever after.”

The Tomato Seller   18”x 22” Oil on Canvas. 2016

No one knows for certain how tomatoes made their way to Europe from South America in the 16th century. The first record of tomatoes in Italy dates to October 31, 1548, when the house steward of Cosimo de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, wrote to the Medici private secretary informing him that the basket of tomatoes sent from the grand duke’s Florentine estate at Torre del Gallo “had arrived safely.”

Although tomatoes were initially mere garden and table decoration, their ability to mutate and create new and different varieties helped contribute to their success and spread throughout the peninsula. It was not until the late 17th or 18th centuries that tomatoes were incorporated into local cuisine. (The earliest discovered cookbook with tomato recipes was published in Naples in 1692.)

Cassar recalls numerous family gatherings, where his grandmother “Nonna Pippa” would make various dishes using plum tomatoes, ideal for sauces and pastes. “At times, for a special treat, she would make her favorite sauce and incorporate a few dozen cherry tomatoes, to sweeten it naturally. Whenever I visit, she still sends me to the market to purchase them.”

Woman Picking Almonds  18”x 24” Oil on Wood. 2016

Almond trees grow naturally in Italy, as do olive trees. Picking almonds is a labor-intensive and tedious process, dating back to ancient Roman times. Southern Italy accounts for the largest share of Italian farmland. Poor people who do not own land and want to make money sometimes pick fruits such as olives, carobs, almonds, and prickly pears that grow on state-owned land, and sell them to town merchants or sell directly in local markets for a profit. 

Because almond picking does not require heavy lifting, children and women are given the task to gather and pick the almonds. Men then come around to each tree and collect the 30 kg burlap sacks at the end of the day. 

This oil painting was inspired by Cassar’s childhood memory of picking almonds with his cousins and a photograph of Cassar late mother, who is shown taking a break from almond picking by resting on burlap sacks filled with almonds.

U Pescareggio Beatrice 19”x 27” Oil on Canvas. 2016

Seafood is an integral part of the Sicilian cuisine, and fishing remains a fundamental economic resource for Sicily. Catches include sardines, anchovies, swordfish, tuna, squid, octopus, and shrimp.

U Pescareggio Beatrice is Sicilian for “The Fishing Boat Beatrice” (Il Peschereccio Beatrice in Italian), and is inspired by Cassar’s uncle Alessandro, who makes a living as a fisherman off the coast of Portopalo di Capo Passero in southeastern Sicily. 

At the age of 20, Alessandro decided to become a fisherman. After years of hard work he was able to afford his own vessel, which he named La Beatrice, from the Latin meaning “she who makes happy”

The risky job and the sturdy boat has brought healthy foods and wealth for Alessandro’s family.

Lemon Pickers  30”x 40” Oil on Canvas - 2016

Landowners with an abundance of farmland can usually afford to pay workers a minimum wage to hand-pick the wide variety of citrus fruits grown in Sicily, such as lemons and oranges. Southern Italians typically hire within their networks, employing relatives and friends who are too often, unfortunately, searching for work. 

Lemon Picking is inspired by Cassar’s family’s merchant history:  After “the war,” as World War II is still referred to in Italy, Cassar’s mother’s family became merchants, opening mini-stores and produce markets that sold locally grown items, including lemons.  

This oil painting shows workers taking a lunch break from picking lemons in the Fall, peeling and eating them. Sicilians believe that eating a lemon before a big meal shrinks the stomach. When food was scarce, workers would eat a lemon to diminish their cravings for more substantial meals.

Old Man and His Donkeys  19”x 27” Oil on Canvas. 2016

Donkeys are said to be a symbol of Italy’s impoverished past. Foreigners find a bit of Old World romance in Italians’ use of donkeys, but the underlying truth behind the animals depicted in this bright and colorful painting is the hardship, poverty, and struggles of the lower classes. 

Today, shepherds and other country folk that barely make enough money to sustain a family cannot afford automobiles and the expenses that come with them, like insurance and gasoline. 

Donkeys are hard-working animals that require little maintenance and feed off the land, and are nature’s alternative. A young, male donkey costs about €200, lasting a farmer nearly 15 years. Donkeys are still used today to carry goods from farms to nearby towns and cities, as well as bred for their meat and milk. 

Cassar paints the tradition of using donkeys as a vehicle by poor farmers to illustrate that even in Italy - the world’s 8th largest economy - poverty is still abundant, even growing.