Many of you have strolled along the beautiful Epcot promenade, traveling through pavilions that depict the many countries of World Showcase. It is a delightful way to immerse yourself in the cultures of so many distant lands without ever getting on an airplane. And you might have paused at the brightly painted Tutto Italia dessert cart and indulged in one of the scrumptious offerings of tiramisu, cannoli and other tasty bites.
But I doubt many of you realized at the time you were gazing at an authentic “carretto Siciliano,” or Sicilian donkey cart. Nothing represents Sicily’s culture more vividly than the exquisitely carved and painted cart. When the first roads were created in Sicily in the early 19th century, so began the colorful history of the Sicilian donkey cart, which were used to transport people, produce, wine and virtually anything else that needed transporting.
The carts were marvels of engineering and art, generally consisting of some 60 parts, all handcrafted by cartwrights, woodworkers, painters, ironsmiths and other skilled artisans. The creators passionately carved and painted elaborate scenes from history, often celebrating the exploits of Charlemagne’s knights or depicting scenes from famous operas like I Pagliacci.
Arguably, some of the most acclaimed cart painters of the last century are the Ducato Brothers of Bagheria, near Palermo. Three years ago, at age 80, Giuseppe Ducato was quoted as having painted the cart that now sits in Epcot. Ducato and his son are among the few artisans still producing this dying art. The art and craft of cart building has diminished greatly, beginning during the 1950s when motorized vehicles became abundant and eventually replaced the donkey cart as a means of transportation. Today, they can often be seen in local parades and celebrations.
Each cart had to be built to the size specifications of the donkey (or sometimes, horse) that was going to pull it, hence a reference to the old saying: “Don’t put the cart before the horse.”