Cittacotte – a tiny workshop reproducing Palermo in terracotta miniatures …

14 July, 2010

I was recently asked by a visiting friend, as we made our way through a once grand, but now sadly neglected, piazza in the historic centre, why I had chosen to live in Palermo; what it was, in particular, about the city that appealed to me.  I answered as best I could, but I knew at the time that the answer I was giving was inadequate.  I talked about the fascination of exploring the city’s past: whereas in other places I often feel alienated from the past because it’s been beautified, turned into a show-piece, here I’m constantly being drawn into the past.  And that is important, but its only part of the city’s appeal.  Being able to shop in markets and small shops, where people know what they are selling and are willing to talk, is a real source of pleasure.  I also get great pleasure from visiting the small workshops that exist in the historical centre, where artisans and craftsmen work away quietly to produce goods – often, but not always, traditional goods – that they sell direct to their customers.  You can chat to them, watch them work, see how their products are made – and you can make a purchase, usually for not a lot of money.  In a world of mass production, where profit is God, these little workshops are oases in the desert.   

One of my favourites is Cittacotte, a tiny space, little more than a small room opening onto Palermo’s oldest street, Corso Vittorio Emmanuele.  Here Vincenzo (Enzo for short) Vizzari, a former architect, has been working since 1993 to produce scale terracotta miniatures of Palermo’s buildings and monuments – the Norman Palace, the old city gates, the Porta Nuova and the Porta Felice, the church of S. Francesco and many more.  He also makes miniatures of less important buildings such as the little houses you find in the laneways that wind their way through the old centre .   The models are unpainted terracotta, intricate, but at the same time simple, and beautifully made.  As soon as you talk to Enzo Vizzari, you realise that he is both passionate about what he does and extremely focused.

On completing his training as an architect in Palermo, Vizzari worked for six years with an architectural practice in Cefalu’, an old fishing village that is now a fashionable resort, east of Palermo.  Even while he was a student, he had begun making terracotta miniatures as a hobby; later, when  he began to feel dissatisfied and disillusioned with the world of architecture, he decided to transform his hobby into a full-time activity.  He has done it most successfully.  His customers now include collectors, connoisseurs and tourists from all over the world, and his works are given as gifts to visiting dignitaries by the City of Palermo. 

When you visit Cittacotte, you are likely to find Enzo sitting quietly at his desk, working away on one of his pieces.  He works alone and with great concentration, but he welcomes visitors into his little shop with great warmth and a quiet dignity.  This, I thought recently as I left Cittacotte, is the dignity of the true craftsman, the dignity, perhaps, of self-chosen labour – a dignity that is hard to find in the world of mass production and high commerce.      

Vizzari’s works are true miniature copies in scale 1:350 or 1:180, exact in every detail.  The preparatory phase involves making a clay prototype, which, for a piece of medium difficulty  usually takes about six hours; for more complicated pieces it can take much longer.  It is then left to dry for several days.  A plaster of Paris mould is then made from the prototype, using photographic and metric surveys to allow for shrinkage.   Each terracotta piece that is made from the mould, and the numbers are limited, is then put into the kiln.  A small piece is fired for about 10 hours, larger pieces take longer.  The product that emerges is then finished by hand and waxed and polished so as to heighten the contrasts of light and shade in the detail of the natural terracotta material.  The end result is a little handcrafted masterpiece.

Little workshops like Cittacotte are an essential part of Palermo’s historic centre and a source of great pleasure to those who come into contact with them.    People like Enzo Vittorio , working with dedication and concentration, are making a difference.

4 Responses to “Cittacotte – a tiny workshop reproducing Palermo in terracotta miniatures …”

  1. CateM Says:

    A few years ago I bought miniature replicas of the Porta Felice gates and a couple of miniature palm trees from Cittacotte. Your post has made me love them even more!

    I liked you comment about the dignity of the true craftsman. It reminded me of the man in the lighthouse you wrote about a little while ago.

    • kateludlow Says:

      I think the Cittacotte miniatures, and the man who makes them, really are something special. I’m glad you are enjoying the ones you bought. Each year, in July for the festival at S. Rosalia and at Christmas time, Enzo makes a special window decoration in terracotta and his friends celebrate the unveiling of the window with a little street party. I noticed as I passed this morning that this year’s S. Rosalia window is on display – a disc like the sun, with a surface decoration of Cittacotte building designs, is held aloft by a pink-rose garlanded S. Rosalia.

  2. Sally F Says:

    This makes me want to see Enzo’s work – and maybe even own a piece – especially as it is ceramic. One more reason to make my way to Palermo again…

    • kateludlow Says:

      The reasons are mounting up! It would be interesting for you to go and see Enzo – and I think you’d also be interested in the ceramics from the town of Burgio – I went to see the recently opened ceramics museum there, but haven’t yet written a post about it.

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