by Barbara Palladino
“Moor heads” or “teste di moro” are colorful, ceramic vases that represent the face of a man and a woman, with a solemn crown. A quite common feature of terraces and gardens in big and small towns in Sicily, they are made by skilled local craftspeople and have spread across Italy over time. The most famous ones are from Caltagirone, a center of excellence for fine ceramics.
Despite their popularity, few people know these precious vases have a long history that intertwines with legend. Some say that around the 11th century, in Palermo’s Arab quarters – then known as Al-Halisah (that is, “the elected one”, “the pure one”), and now as La Kalsa – there was a beautiful, shy girl who kept to herself and loved taking care of the flowers on her balcony. A dashing Moor man, passing by her home, feel desperately in love with her. She fell in love with him as well, but unfortunately he had not told her he had a wife and children in the Orient, where he would soon return.
When the girl found out the truth, she was so furious and hurt by the humiliation that she waited for the man to fall asleep and decapitated him, so he could never leave. She put the head on her terrace, turning it into a vase and planting a seed of basil in it. The herb – its name deriving from the Greek “basilikos”, meaning “the king’s plant” – grew strong, watered by the girl’s tears every day. Neighbors were impressed by its delicious scent, and created their own terracotta vases resembling a man’s head. From then on, “Moor heads” spread all around Sicily, as a symbol of eternal love and of how two souls can be together forever, while never meeting again.