Sicilian Folk Art

Carmelo Rizza

Carmelo Rizza (1933 – 2009)
Architect, Painter, Sculptor

Born into a poor family in Floridia, Italy in 1933, Carmelo Rizza was a painter and sculptor known amongst his peers in Sicily as detto Baio (lit. “stallion” in Sicilian, but better translated as a well-respected and charismatic leader in the community). Rizza is recognized in the Italian art world for his portrayals of everyday life in rural, peasant Italy in subtle oils on canvas. His sought-after paintings simultaneously convey the romantic and harsh aspects of the lives of common men and women, as he adequately captured contemporary life in southern Italy in the latter half of the 20th century.

Due to economic hardship, Carmelo's father, Santo, needed all 6 of his children to drop out of school after the third grade. This left Carmelo with no formal education beyond learning how to read, perform basic math, and received very little instruction in history. Carmelo and his brothers helped their father with his trades, namely sculpting and construction building.  Santo was a wood sculptor, making primarily cornice and ceiling medallions for the interiors of Italian homes.

By the mid-20th century, however, this craft was diminishing, as the use of machines began to replace hand-made works. As a result, Santo shifted to construction and building. Although he practiced drafting, sculpting, and painting since age 13, Carmelo, too, turned to construction and building in order to make an income that could sustain a family. But throughout his teenage years and young adulthood, he worked hard and built up his knowledge of the arts, including painting and sculpting.

In 1955 Carmelo married. He wanted to give his wife, Giueseppina, the dream house poor people only dream about. He saved up some money, and eventually purchased a piece of land in Floridia, just 1 kilometer from the town’s historic Piazza del popolo. He never lost interest in art, and strove to maintain his passion while working in construction. Being the director of a construction company had its benefits: Carmelo applied his creative skills, and would use any construction materials left over after a building project was completed. He made personal renditions to each and every detail in his and his wife’s two-story home. Their modest yet comfortable house became a live-in-museum: A plaster-carved rose banister and red marble staircase, Greek and Roman columns with rose carved capitals, sculpted entryways above doorframes, a one meter by three meters 3-dimensional rendition of Titian’s Venus carved and sculpted into his home art studio, a two-foot diameter 3-D carved relief of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, painted ceilings of angles flying over clouds, a panoramic mural of 1970s rural Floridia in the kitchen.

Carmelo was a true patrician of Sicilian customs and ways of life, and while building his home, his hand could not sit still. He dedicated any time he could spare to oil painting. Between 1975 and 2009 he created over 700 paintings; some commissioned, some personal. His favorite genre was what he experienced personally and what he knew best: Sicilian every-day, folk life. He painted subtle themes like fishermen and boats along Siciliy’s coastline, farmers, and family gatherings, to the dramatic, such as Floridia’s unique festival known as L’ascenzione (“The Ascension”), where men on horses race through the main road of Floridia to imitate relaying the Good News of Easter, that Jesus has risen.

Simultaneously, self-taught and without a high-school or college education, Carmelo became a leading construction director in Sicily, having designed the tallest residential mid-level sky rise on the island in the 1960s.

In 2009, at the age of 76, Carmelo passed away in his home in Floridia. He is survived by his wife, two of his three children, and six grandchildren. His eldest grandchild is the graphic designer, painter, and sculptor Andreà Cassar.