The shepherding life of the city of Atina, the Val di Comino and beyond has fascinated me for years.
I first visited the town, in the Apennines, in the summer of 2016 on an art residency curated by artist Rekha Sameer, and since then have returned every summer to run residencies in Atina with the sculptor Chris Simpson. But it was in 2017 that my art became more deeply involved in an appreciation of the pastoral roots of the people.
It began by a desire to draw the local animals. I love drawing animated creatures, animals from life. And I wanted to visit a working farm. I went with the butcher Luigi Cuccini to his mountain farm up on the hills. I met his brothers and their large flock of sheep, so different in appearance to the English sheep, with their longer legs and longer noses. I sketched them, fast as I could in the barn where they were temporarily housed, batting away the flies. One of the sheep had a blue collar, the queen sheep, who was allowed to live longer because she was the sheep who led the others, who knew the paths, was the shorefooted matriarch who guided the sheep to the right pastures when they were wandering the mountains, grazing.
I met the shepherd Livio, who had worked with sheep all his life. He squatted by the wall with his pipe, smoking, a man who lived all his life outdoors. What need had he of chairs? He showed me where he took the sheep, up on the mountain gesturing to the paths they would take. With the photographer Susana Sanroman I created a video honouring his work, a little light humorous song and dance, celebrating the pagan rituals of Summer, with wild flowers, white dresses and a musical routine.
Livio, Livio, Livio, Livio
With his sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep
He goes up the mountain
He goes down the mountain
With his pipe in his hand he surveys all the land
At the climax of the dance, Susana and I waved our bouquets, threw them in the air. Unfortunately I am quite clumsy and mine landed smack in the middle of Susana’s face. And she’s allergic to a lot of plants! It’s a good job I like comedy in my work.
The video shows the pet animals that his family continued to have while Livio was alive so he would feel at home. Two sheep, who quite frankly, ran away and seemed nervous, and a delightful pet goat called Stella, a clever little thing. I drew them all but was quite entranced with Stella. There were a few chickens too, but it was the goat who was the star of the family menagerie.
Livio was the father-in-law of my friend Orazio, the father of friends Marco and Orazio’s wife Leda, He has sadly died since the video was made but he will always be remembered with respect and fondness.
Since that summer I have sought out other cultural aspects of the shepherding past and present of Atina on subsequent visits. My friend Veronica Shimanovskaya has also developed a long term interest in the pastoral culture of the area and created a stunning video in which a small flock of sheep owned by the Scorsese family wore felt blankets cut in different shapes. Her art video presents a small meditation on sheep’s recognition of colour and flocking behaviour. And a major side interest has become the bagpipe music of the area, the zampogna, traditionally played by shepherds, and even made by them too on top of the mountains.
In previous years I went to the Museum of Zampogna in the neighbouring town of Villa Latina but as it is a small museum that is rarely open, apart from during the bagpipe festival which I never have been lucky enough to attend, This year our friend Ornella negotiated on our behalf and we had it opened specially for us. Not only that but we were treated with a small demonstration on zampogna and on ciaramella/bifera, the chanter that accompanies the zampogna. Villa Latina is a new town but one which has been involved with the zampogna for many years. The museum’s new building does split the community, with its radical modern style, but we were impressed by the way it stood out with its urban modernity in the centre of the agricultural hollow. It was as if it had landed from another planet.
We walked across fields and small roads to the nearby workshop where maker Marini creates zampogna. It’s a beautiful carefully organised space, with lathe and woodworking tools, displaying his latest works made to traditional patterns. Is there such a demand for this instrument? Well yes. The zampogna is very much requested due to the rise of interest in traditional music of the local region and also because of its religious significance. When the shepherds were visited by angels who told them of Jesus’s birth in nearby Bethlehem, they heard the angels singing, their beautiful melodies. Importantly, heavenly creatures have no need to draw breath. They do not need to pause in their phrases. The bagpipe, by being played via a bag beneath the arm where the air is held before being expelled down the chanters, mimics that ability to sing continuously. It is said that the melodies of the zampogna are learned from that initial encounter of the shepherds with the angels.Because of this association with the stories of the nativity, the zampogna and the songs of the natale are performed at Christmas, and during December the players are in demand not only locally but throughout south Italy by many devout Christians. On this visit the maker was not present as he was working elsewhere on zampogna business.
Luckily for me, a few days later the maker had returned and I revisited the workshop. Although my attempt to play the zampogna was pretty unsuccessful I bought myself a ciaramella or bifera which I am very pleased to own. It’s main length is made of the hard olive wood, and the bell is cherry, which is a little softer and vibrates a little more. It has a double reed. And when I play it, my dog howls.
Another interesting aspect of shepherding life in the area is the traditional costume. There are sandals which have criss-cross straps made of leather, with an upturned toes. And strong elements of local dress including a distinctive hat and cloak. In these costumes, shepherds would visit house to house, go through the streets playing the zampogna and singing the songs of the natale. Women generally have not played zampogna but this is changing and there are female singers of the folk songs.
I look forward to enjoying more of the new bands in which young people are playing zampogna and mixing it with electric and electronic sound-making. Perhaps I’ll even get to mix and match some music myself with my vintage keyboard collection, being the proud owner of an original Marini bifera.