The history of the ‘giara’, the Sicilian vase you can use in any occasion

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Since ancient times, this sort of large vase has been used to contain liquids. However, its uses and construction materials have diversified throughout history

The Sicilian writer Luigi Pirandello made it famous in a theatrical drama, but in Sicily the giara (or giarra) had already existed for many centuries. In fact, its history begins during the period of Arab domination, so much so that the etymology of this word can be traced back to this language. Later on, Sicily became a huge producer of the giara in the Middle Ages and spread the use of this curious term. It first arrived in the Italian maritime cities and then in the main European ports (see the English jar).

Therefore, since its origins, the jar has represented a very precise concept: it was a big vase created to contain a liquid. Its uses and construction materials, however, have diversified throughout history. If we want to describe it, we could say it is a terracotta pot with a wide neck at the base and narrow at the tip, consisting of a cylindrical tank with water to be distributed in homes. It also indicated the prisms of asbestos or cement that served as a water reserve in the homes of many Sicilian inhabitants.

In the XIX century, according to what reported in Navarra, “ice cream makers put dense ice creams” in there, which testifies to the multifaceted use of the giara in everyday life. In the famous drama La Giara by Pirandello, instead, the vase becomes the new and unexpected house of Zi’ Dima, the inventor of a miraculous putty: he gets trapped inside the big container and has no intention of coming out of it. First of all, because the tapered neck of the jar makes it difficult and, second, because this would make him avoid giving a refund to the owner Don Lollò, in the event that the container should be torn to pieces while he comes out.

And there’s more. In popular beliefs, in addition to being considered a place of quiet isolation, the giara was also the protagonist of many Sicilian idioms. A giarra senza coddu (a giara without a nack), for example, was a metaphor indicating a short, large person almost without a neck. On the other hand, the popular expression Purtari a giarri a Santu Stefanu di Camastra means bringing the vases to Samo – i.e. in a completely useless place.

Nowadays the giara is still used in rural areas or in inland villages, preserving the popular and linguistic charm of its long history.

Translated by Eva Luna Mascolino

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