By Siiri Gilness
When I was growing up, my Italian grandmother frequently hosted big, family meals at her home. One unique item that always appeared on grandma’s dining room table was a ceramic pitcher in the shape of a rooster, ornately painted with brightly colored patterns. Grandma always filled the pitcher with milk or lemonade or some such beverage to serve with the meal. The pitcher was designed so that when you tipped it to serve, the beverage poured straight through the rooster’s beak. As children, my brother and cousins and I referred to it as “the barfing chicken.”
I later learned that my grandma’s “barfing chicken” was actually a notable piece of handcrafted Italian artwork. In fact, rooster pitchers are well-known throughout Italy as part of a centuries-old tradition with a historical background.
The legend behind the Italian rooster pitcher dates back to the early Renaissance period when one of Italy’s most powerful families, the Medicis, were nearly assassinated one night in their sleep. As the would-be assassins approached the Medicis’ land, the crowing of roosters awoke the family and alerted their guards to the approaching danger.
To honor the roosters’ role in saving their lives, the Medici family commissioned local artisans to craft ceramic rooster replicas to be used as pitchers for serving wine. The pitchers were gifted to citizens throughout the village as symbols of good luck, and thus began a tradition.
Authentic ceramic rooster pitchers are still created and sold today. The finest available are those crafted in the central Italian city of Deruta, which is world-famous for its ceramics works and has a history of ceramics mastery dating back to the Middle Ages. Each pitcher made in Deruta is painted by hand, so no two are ever completely identical. The pitchers are still considered symbols of good luck and good fortune, and they are often given as housewarming gifts or wedding gifts.
My grandma is gone now, and our big, family meals have become fewer and further between as the years pass, but we still gather together when we can. And grandma’s iconic rooster pitcher, or “the barfing chicken” as we still like to call it, is always on the table.
Art Matters is a weekly column sponsored by Leach Theatre, a division of Student Affairs, on the campus of Missouri S&T, and produced by Emily Brickler, Managing Director of the theatre and ten-year veteran teacher with a Masters of Art in Teaching from Webster University.