TRAPANI, CITY OF CORALS
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a notable production of works by experienced masters flourished in Trapani. They applied coral to gold and to copper and created precious jewels and valuable objects both for liturgical and household use.
The history of Trapani coral however has its origins much before and as early as the twelfth century, that famous Arab traveler, Muhammad Idrisi, noted the exquisite quality of the red material. The discovery of reefs between 1416 and 1418 in the sea of Trapani and in 1439 around San Vito Lo Capo, led to the immigration of religious Jewish families, originally from the Maghreb, who contributed to the processing and commercialization of the coral in the various markets in Italy. After the expulsions of the Jews in 1492/3, some converts remained and their sons continued the work.
In Chapters of the believer’s privileges of 1418 it was recorded that for many years, they used to mine coral in the sea of Trapani. Coral fishermen plied the seas in search of reefs, with their ligudelli, i.e. boats equipped for dredging, with a big wooden “St. Andrew’s cross” with equal length outstretched arms, weighed down with boulders, to which they tied mesh wire for the purpose of collecting the coral.
When between 1530 and 1535, new reefs were discovered in Tabarca, there was a notable increase in the artisanship of Trapani coral: from the creation of balls and small items they progressed gradually to the production of works of increasingly high artistic value, which reached its heyday in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The workmanship of the coral was reserved for mastercraftsmen and their assistant coral carvers. The first task was cleaning by removing the orange patina with iron scrapers and on grinding stones, they then cut with pliers and shaped with files and millstone then broke the coral into small pieces or balls which were pierced with a small spindle, to be made into necklaces, bracelets and rosaries. The sculptor’s task was to chisel the larger branches to create small engraved sculptures and cameo jewellery of high artistic value.
In the hands of talented Trapani expert artisans, coral, which since ancient times was considered to possess therapeutic and apotropaic (warding off evil) virtues, was turned into real works of art often destined for important people, e.g. the ‘lost’ Mountain of Coral sent in 1570 to King Philip II of Spain by the Viceroy of Sicily, or to the sick-bed of the Madonna of Trapani, or a donation to Vittorio Amedeo of Savoy for his coronation which took place in Palermo in 1713, now exhibited in the Museo Interdisciplinare Regional “Agostino Pepoli” of Trapani.
The oldest technique for applying the pods, quotation marks, dots and coral tabs on pierced copper, is known asretroincastro, this entailed fixing small items of coral on the back with a special glue made of pitch, wax and cloth, and then to cover over (always the back) with another copper plate, often decorated with incisions and indentations. The surfaces of objects were entirely filled with coral, repeating an old practice taken from Arab-Islamic decorative “carpets”.
At the end of the seventeenth century Trapani experts changed technique using thin wire and pins to stitch: a simpler technique but less secure because the coral come off the copper more easily. The small elements from simple coral beads, toggles and commas became sought after acanthus leaves, sinuous spirals, curled floral and vegetable motifs, corresponding to the late Baroque and Rococo styles. They also enriched the typology of objects: appeared at celebrations, on cribs, cars and luxurious creations often inspired by the works of architects.
A worthy special mention in the art of Trapani coral is Brother Matthew Bavera, a Franciscan lay brother, who created in 1633 the extraordinary hanging lamp, now preserved in the Pepoli Museum in Trapani where one will also find a unique crucifix, made of a single piece of coral, which is also traditionally attributed to him.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the raw materials in the Mediterranean had declined significantly bringing about a decline of the various types of handicraft and of the art form even in Trapani.
To renew interest in the 1980s, there was a greatly impressive international exhibition of the art of coral in Sicily, held at the Pepoli Museum in 1986, which exhibited beautiful masterpieces from collections of both national and foreign museums. Young masters since then have re-launched the craft and with much fanfare “reopened” shops in the city, creating with traditional techniques sophisticated jewelry, nativity scenes, sculptures and valuable objects.