Montenero Val Cocchiara, Italy
by John Caserta, as told to Amy Standen
JOHN CASERTA won a Fulbright to spend
a year in the small village in southern Italy in which his
father was born. From August 2004 through August 2005 he
interviewed village residents, took photographs and video,
and gathered images from family collections. This portfolio
was taken in the winter during a rare gathering to slaughter
a local pig.
Montenero Val Cocchiara is a town of 500 people located east
of Rome in the Appenine mountains. It’s a small town,
a collection of families. The town is shrinking, and with it,
its traditions. My dad’s from there, so we’re part
of the system, but we’re ones who emigrated, so that’s
already an asterisk on our name. This is a region of Italy
that’s considered backwards and it’s a town that’s
considered especially backwards. There are a lot of elements
of things gone wrong in Montenero—it’s a region
of corruption and so people were suspicious of me, there with
my cameras. It took about six to nine months for people to
really understand that I was collecting a time capsule of the
There’s a heartbeat that actually
decreases, and you can hear the breathing. Even after the
blood is gone, there’s still a bit of life left, and
some motion...Over the course of the next few hours, the
pig becomes completely utilitarian.
Nicola, the man with the beard, is an intelligent, well-read
man. He’d been out of town and worked in restaurants—he
sort of has that guru quality. He believed my reasons for wanting
to photograph and understand the pig slaughter. He was much
more talkative than others I approached, not so suspicious.
He’s one of the few people in Montenero who will take
a walk with their wife in the countryside and love it. For
most of them, nature is a tool, not something they love.
stables were in the village and people would keep their pig
under their house, so that every piece of land could be used
for agriculture. Eventually, sanitation laws stepped in and
the government imposed incentives to build stables outside
of town. Nowadays, it’s illegal to slaughter
pigs in this traditional way. Pigs are supposed to be sent
to a government-sanctioned butcher. There are signs around
saying “You’re not allowed to kill pigs.” But
it’s expensive to send the pigs to a butcher, and people
say that the meat doesn’t taste as good.
For a while,
there was some embarrassment about being too much of a villager,
not being able to afford people to do things for you. But that’s
changing. The people who are killing their pigs are happy and
proud that they know how to do it. It’s not a sign of
poverty, as it was in the 80’s
and 90’s; it has now become a point of pride.
kill in the descent of the moon—la mancanza—and
pretty much only on the weekends. Most everyone told me that
this was the tradition that had been handed down to them, and
if you only have one pig you don’t want to ignore it.
So a couple weekends in the winter, you start hearing the squeals.
It was really cold that day; it was below freezing. I remember
my fingers were as cold as they could be. I had two cameras,
still and video, I was trying to do it all. I felt like I had
to push through physical discomfort.
The pig is led out onto
the snow, where its throat is cut open, and then it bleeds
to death. Then, they take the intestines and various other
parts out of the animal and set them aside. They let the carcass
hang like this for two days. All the blood drips out and, since
it’s freezing outside, the meat
cools and dries out.
I used both the still and video cameras
that day, and what’s
really different between the two versions is how in the video
you see the blood coming out in pulses. There’s a heartbeat
that actually decreases, and you can hear the breathing. Even
after the blood is gone, there’s still a bit of life
left, and some motion. Soon it is inert, the lack of life apparent.
When I watch the video, it is breathtaking to see the life
come out of the animal, but it was less so at the time.
the course of the next few hours, the pig becomes completely
utilitarian. I think that’s most apparent when the pig
is opened up—maybe it’s that physical opening of
the animal that marks its transition from animal to meat. That’s
when the real transition for me began. Eventually, some women
came in to remove parts of the body that they didn’t
want. That’s when it was really clear.
About six months
after they killed the pig, I ate some of it in the form of
sausage. I don’t think it was cured, I
think it was cooked. It was really good. Nicola said it took
almost a year get that sausage in my hand—the raising
of the pig, the killing of the pig, the making of the sausage.
To most American perspectives, that cycle is almost unimaginable.
Caserta is a Providence-based artist specializing in data
visualization, new media design, and landscape photography.
He was the Fulbright Fellow in the Arts to Italy from 2004
to 2005. He is an adjunct faculty member in the graphic design
department at the Rhode Island School of Design and runs
the Small Books Project, an experimental book-making cooperative.
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Zero.