What is folk life?

Folk life, or folk culture, can be defined as traditions practiced and passed along by word of mouth, imitation, or observation over time and space within family, social, religious, and ethnic groups. The components of everyday life that unify such groups include art, music, history, tales and other stories, food, and religion. Everyone, and every group, has folklore.

Why is it important?

In school we are taught about great leaders, brilliant thinkers, national heroes, and unscrupulous villains; wars, macroeconomic forces, political institutions, and other major moments in human history, like ground-breaking discoveries and inventions.

However, most people throughout history do not fall into the groups and categories we learn and read about in history books. Most people, the “folk”, are everyday laborers, merchants, farmers, blue and white-collared professionals, and members of their local community. The achievements of most of us are not singular, our lives not necessarily astounding and spectacular. Collectively, though, we each form part of unique groups and cultures, and influence traditions.

To study history without studying the life of the folk - the life of “the people” - is to get an incomplete picture of our own existence, experiences, and collective wisdom. brings “the life of the folk” - the life of the common man and woman - to you through the artwork of Italian artists and craftsmen.

What is Folk Art, and is it the same as Folk Life?

Folk art is art specific to a particular culture, usually produced by peasants or other laboring trades people. In contrast to fine art, folk art is primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic. Folk art is characterized by what may be called a naïve style, in which traditional rules of proportion and perspective are not employed. It takes upon many different mediums across different cultures, from metal work sculpture, to carvings, paintings, and pottery and ceramics.

The art of Carmelo Rizza and Andreà Cassar is not folk art, however. It is fine art, through which they capture folk life. Scenes like lemon picking, as depicted in Cassar’s painting of the same name, demonstrates the “life of the folk.” Similarly, Carmelo’s painting Pescando a Lago Varano (“Fishing at the Varano River”) does the same.

Cassar’s large oil painting Carrettu Sicilianu (Il Carretto Siciliano in Italian), “The Sicilian Carriage”, shows one of the best-known forms of Sicilian folk art:  the ornate, colorful style of horse- or donkey-drawn cart native to Sicily. The oil painting itself is fine art, and it illustrates Sicilian folk life. The traditional art applied to carts and carriages, native to Sicily, however, is folk art. To use an example from another culture, think about Russian matryoshka dolls - those sets of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another. They are an example of Russian folk art. (An oil painting of a craftsman making dolls in his workshop is not folk art, but fine art, depicting an aspect of Russian folk life.) 

Carmelo Rizza’s and Andreà Cassar’s works are important, because contemporary folk life is hardly documented through the arts. Young Italian painters nowadays produce political-inspired pieces, or other modern works of art. Pottery used to depict scenes and tales from local history and lore, but is now much more modern, painted with solid colors. Ceiling medallions - the signature sculptures of Santo Rizza - are machine made, rather than hand-crafted particular to individual families’ tastes and traditions.

About Sicily and Sicilian Folk Life

Sicily has a rich, unique heritage, infused by cultures including but not limited to ancient Greek and Roman. The island was conquered time and again by surrounding empires, now long gone, that were associated with modern-day countries like Spain, Morocco, France, Italy, and Turkey. Sicily’s capital city, Palermo, is one of the most architecturally diverse due to the heavy Arab influence and history. Arab architecture stands side-by-side with Italian Baroque and ancient Roman and Greek features, displaying the city’s multilayered past.



Just a few hours southeast of Palermo is Siracusa (“Syracuse” in English), home of the ancient Greek Archimedes. Siracusa was built by the Greeks and is one of the oldest and continually-inhabited cities in the Mediterranean. Having been conquered by the Romans, contemporary Siracusa has the best of both ancient empires, with numerous ancient Greek and Roman temples and fountains preserved, juxtaposed with Renaissance buildings and Baroque architecture.

Sicilian life is still, to this day, based on Roman Catholic morals, and strong family ties and networks, with an “all for one and one for all” mentality. Considered one of the less economically prosperous regions of Italy, Sicilians are resourceful and do not throw away many objects, making it a culture of collectors. Sicilians take a lot of pride in their crafts and trades, whether one is an artist, a cook, a farmer, or a merchant. Regardless of their trade, Sicilians seem to become experts at their trade, simply because they spend their entire lives - often generation after generation - at it.

Family tradition and tradecraft used to be a leading factor in what young men would pursue professionally as they matured. Women back in Carmelo’s youthful days became housewives, cleaning ladies, or cooks, while the boys would become butchers, farmers, metal workers, construction workers, drivers, etc. Arranged marriages were common until the 1960s. Families were started young; women would stay at home to take care of the house, and men would work to earn a living.

Due to poor economic conditions, children working with their parents at a relatively young age was not unheard of, as girls would help at home their mothers, and boys their fathers. Not until [what year?] were Sicilian school children required to complete high-school. Unfortunately, children being pulled from school to stay at home and help their parents “make ends meet” has lead to a cycle of economic deprivation that is not in line with Italy’s status as the world’s 8th largest economy.

With emerging technologies and better education mandated by law, younger generations are better equipped to compete for white-collared jobs. In turn, this makes pursing traditional trades and becoming sculptors, painters, and potters less attractive, as these skills are not in high demand and traditional craftsmanship now competes within a global marketplace dominated by countries as far away as China, Tawian, and India. Another downside to the reduction in young generations pursuing the arts is that stylistic differences between families is lost. 

Sicilian Folk Art