How to Hug a Goat & other thoughts of holding tight to traditions September 2023 All Things Italy

September 10, 2023 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Dear friends, 

First, a welcome to the newcomers to All Things Italy. I’m glad to have you on board for this monthly dose of what’s on my mind and in my heart, usually related to Italy.  

When I began this newsletter a few years back, I gave it the subtitle, “and a little bit more.” I wanted to give myself leeway for tangents related to areas of interest outside Italy (intentional communities, utopian/dystopian literature, memoir and biography, and women writers). How many of us have one-track minds? But advice on newsletter writing is to stay close to topic, so I try to provide at least one insight each month related to Italy. I’ve been contemplating a spin off into a new newsletter topic, but for now, that’s merely a foggy thought. 

Last month I promised more commentary on David Marker’s documentary Zampogna: The Soul of Southern Italy. What is a zampogna, you may ask? As the photo below suggests, the answer is bagpipes, Italian style. Thanks to an online chat on the tarantella dance, which I witnessed during the Saint Agata festival last February in Sicily, a musical friend who had honeymooned on the Italian island sent me the link to Marker’s YouTube video. (The documentary features the tarantella in its final scenes.)

I promptly dove into Marker’s production and wrote a few lines about it in the August newsletter. After that, I heard from one of you (you know who you are!) who watched it and responded. Recently, I refreshed my thoughts by watching it again. Perhaps a few of you will tune in to YouTube and tell me what you think of Marker’s interviews and perspective after reading what follows. As always, I love to hear from you! And, I always respond. 

What struck me about the production and prompted my title, “How to Hug a Goat,” were two threads I trace here. Neither thread is unique to Italy, although Marker’s presentation of personal histories and musical performances prompted them. One is humans’ connection to the natural world, and the other is holding tight to traditions.  

Marker went to Sicily in search of his family heritage but found much more than the closeness of family. He opens the documentary with his voice over, “the family is the glue of southern Italian culture.” But his panoramic shots with goats, sheep, fruit trees, and family capture an “agrarian and pastoral life” which he also amplifies as central. The documentary also reveals, as the title states, what he learned about the zampogna’s role in this culture. He absorbed the music these instruments exude, even learning to play. And he watched how the zampogne are made—cut out of olive wood, sometimes by hand, and sometimes by lathe. Marker learned how and why some people choose to play them—usually taught by a family member or another villager–in order to be a part of this folk tradition but always driven by passion.  

As I rewatched the documentary, I was struck again by the initial image which arrested me and prompted my title here—what appears at a quick glance to be a man hugging a goat. The vision is a bit shocking to urban dwellers and non-bagpipe players (like me).

But as I absorbed the scenes and learned about the tradition, the connection between man and goat, or, more accurately, man, goat, and instrument became much clearer to me. And I do mean “man” here—all the players in the video are men, and it’s the women who dance the tarantella. The gender roles are obvious, as we see instrument and animal tending in the hands of men, and food prep and table service in those of women.  

These zampogne were originally the instruments of shepherds, the men of mountain villages who lived among the herds and flocks. They spent long hours with them on the hillsides. The bags are made from the hides of goats, salt cured and dried, and turned inside out. The same hills are dotted with olive groves, whose fruit provides oil for dressing and preserving food. What better wood for making the instrument’s pipes?  

The instruments make a distinct sound. Even when the music has an upbeat tempo, they still exude a mournful wailing that recalls pain of injury, loss of love, loneliness. My friend who responded last month described the music (I’m paraphrasing) as painful, to the point of hurting the ears. A “cry,” Marker calls it, and I agree. 

I imagine a shepherd, lonely on the hills, with ample time to make music. And then also, the joyous celebrations the same instrument makes when the shepherd rejoins family and friends in the village. Marker’s video helps my imagination, as I watch and listen to his conversations with a man named Principe, in Calabria. Three things—music, family, and animals—are the most important in his life, Principe explains. He walks across the broad, gentle, golden hills with his sheep, calling his goats by name, discussing his life with the animals. Later, he sings as his son Andrea plays, lyrics which seem extemporaneous. To me, a non-Calabrian, I distinguish no words—merely sounds expressing emotion.  

You’ve heard the saying “a man and his dog?” I’m thinking “a man and his goat” works as well here. The connection of man to animal—the proximity that might make some think of inappropriate relationships—seems “natural.” In our culture of extreme pet-loving, I think most of us understand.  

This relationship sent me back to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Marble Faun (1860). The title of his fourth and last novel refers to the statue Hawthorne saw in Rome’s Capitoline Museum, a second-century copy of an earlier Greek sculpture. The faun, half-goat, half-man, embodied everything Hawthorne thought problematic about Italians he witnessed in the 1850s. They did not do enough to repress what Hawthorne, a somewhat prudish Protestant, considered their lower natures. That part of humans that made them like other animals, their desires of the flesh, Hawthorne saw as manifest in the faun sculpture. Hawthorne projected this dualism upon the novel’s character Donatello. And he believed Donatello’s unrepressed behaviors drew of centuries of the Italian culture’s existence.  

The Roman faun followed the tradition of the Greek satyr Pan, seen here with Daphne in a sculpture in Rome’s Palazzo Altemps.

Hawthorne’s novel is not his best—it’s my least favorite—but it does provide one nineteenth-century US writer’s views of Italy in the 1850s. (The writer lived in Italy for about 18 months in 1858-59, spending time primarily in Florence and Rome). His negative depiction of this culture is almost the exact opposite of David Marker’s. As Marker asked Sicilians and Calabrians about their playing of the zampogne, he tapped into desires to hang onto these traditions of pastoral life—a proximity to the land. “Sta finendo,” it’s ending, Principe lamented to Marker. His sons have other work, other ways to spend their time than tending animals.  

Marker concludes his documentary with the zampogna festival, an annual tradition in San Gregorio Magno, a hilltop village in Calabria. The successes of the festival are a marker for him that desires to hang on to tradition are alive and well. 

Scene of the Zampogna Festival, from Fabio Pitisci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

To me, however, the documentary illustrates another point—the inevitability of change.  Early in the video, Marker shows how Alfio Sciacca, a zampogne maker and musician from Adrano, Sicily, also considers himself a poet. Sciacca, his brother, and other men of the village gather in the piazza every evening to share stories and, this particular evening, they demonstrate another Sicilian tradition. Marker labels it “poetic oratory.”

A literature professor, I immediately think of this tradition going back to the epics of Homer and Virgil, recited orally, in cultures where the storyteller was celebrated. As the men recite from memory–poems they’ve written to their mothers, poems they’ve learned about the island, and even a dramatic duet about the cause of poverty in the south after World War II–I see what they say. I sense their lamentation. They mourn this lost art. It’s dying. The young have no passion for it. Indeed, when Marker asks the teens gathered in the same piazza whether they can recite some poetry about Sicily, they are at a loss.  

And yet, the entire scene, with a couple of dozen men gathered in the piazza, made me think of hip-hop and rap. The men lacked any agile movements to the beat, but the Sicilian recitations reverberate with the same rhythmic intensity. The lyrics are as bald and colloquial. Sure, I had to close my eyes to the men’s clothing—the church attire of my grandfathers, neatly pressed button-up shirts with collars, trousers with pleats, dark shoes. The tradition of creativity and expression about love and loss links the poetry to contemporary music. The men’s recitations represent a moment in time.  

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. . . . Its thin current slides away.”
Henry David Thoreau

As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. . . . Its thin current slides away.” Stuck at one small slice within it, we lose perspective of the inevitability of change in the larger swath. The couple of dozen young people, collected in the same space in Adrano, unable to recite Sicilian poetry, will have their own recall of past traditions fifty years from now.  

Indeed, I see the inevitable changes as I consider the video. Marker’s filming began in 2008, just before I lived in Sicily for five months, and it captures that period in time. There are no cell phones in his shots. There’s no reference to the Internet in his script. I know both existed in Sicily then, but they are so much more pervasive now. More visibly, I see changes in clothing. One, two, and three decades ago, when I first experienced southern Italy, I saw older men dressed like those gathered and reciting poetry in the piazza. But on my visits this year and last, I have seen very few. Italians and their traditions are changing.  

But isn’t everything? Why do some of us hang on to the tomatoes two-days-too-old, or the ten-year-old tub of something in our freezer? What is it about letting go that can be so tough? (If you’re interested, read another reflection I wrote on the challenges of change here.) 

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Racconti Romani: Change in Rome

For some views of change and tradition by another US writer focused on Italy, I highly recommend a title I mentioned last month: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Racconti Romani, or Roman Stories. I’ve almost finished making my way through the short stories in Italian. The English version is due out next month. Lahiri in this collection once again gives us tales that take us beyond the expected, with characters who refuse any single stereotype. They surprise us with their behaviors, and she engages us with her detailed settings and plot twists. The characters range from educated, upper-class writers and artists to working-class teens on scooters. A mixture of expats, immigrants, and Romans enliven the city and its surroundings.

Love, loss, connection, isolation, joy, pain—the emotions of the stories tap into the typical that connect with many readers. The stories unroll, however, in ways that I rarely expected. (Only once, a few paragraphs before a tale’s end, did I predict its conclusion). This collection is a perfect antidote for anyone who believes only in an idyllic Italy. And it is an eye opener for any non-Italian who thinks that life on the peninsula as an expat would be perfect. Call it dystopian? Perhaps. It might also be called carefully-crafted, poignantly realistic fiction.  

Connected to my rambling thoughts of holding tight to tradition, consider a scene from Lahiri’s story, “La Processione”–“The Procession.” The words in quotation marks are my translation. Those without quotation marks are my summaries and additions. (You can see the excerpt in Italian below.)

A non-Italian woman has returned to Rome for the first time in thirty years. Then, she was a student. Now, she’s on holiday with her husband, who has never been there. She’s scheduled their visit so that they can witness a local saint’s festival, an annual event which she remembers vividly. As they head to the piazza to get a perfect place for participating in the day’s festivities, the husband asks, “Do you think it will be as it was thirty years ago?”

The wife responds with certainty. “I’m sure it will be. The fruit vendor told me that it has never changed, and that he has watched it every year since he was one. He’s never missed even one.”  

The husband replies, “I don’t think there’s a thing that’s I have done since the first year of my life.” 

The confident wife: “Here things always happen the same way.” 

Lahiri’s dialogue, of course, is a set up for the festival not going down the same way as it did thirty years ago.  

No spoilers here. I’ll add only that Lahiri’s entire collection is about the inevitability of change. If her characters don’t always realize it, we as readers should.  

Just for fun, here’s a video from part of the procession of the Saint Agata festival in Catania, Sicily, which I witnessed in February 2023. I also saw it in 2009. Has it changed, or is my memory distorted?

We may want to hold onto those goats, or the objects and events (like festivals) which symbolize them. But in the end, as the 11-year-old documentary on zampogne and Lahiri’s fiction show us, we are all changing, even as the customs and cultures around us do.  

I hope as we move through the next month, we can recognize change for what it is and carefully choose which traditions and dreams we hold onto and why. 

In the next issue, I’ll be sharing a bit from an essay published recently on another US woman’s dreams and work in Italy, related to humans in relationship with nature. 

Until then, keep dreaming and reading of Italy, as it works for you. 


Engaging Italy Updates 

If you’ve not yet ordered a copy for yourself or asked your library to buy a copy, Engaging Italy is 50% off through September 15. E-book, hardcover, or paper. You have a few more days to use the coupon code LABORDAY23 at check out! Here’s the link to purchase through the sale on the SUNY Press website.

Trips & Talks

Just before Labor Day I communicated with three friends about their respective upcoming trips to Italy. What fun for me! Please don’t hesitate to reach out, should you have questions about your potential travel. I know it’s possible to get all kinds of questions answered online. But I also know that sometimes it helps to work through your thoughts with someone you know. I’m happy to be of help, as much as I am able. 

Also, remember that if you’re part of a group looking for speakers, one of my research topics may be of interest to you. (See more on my website). We can discuss a presentation for 2024 or, possibly, sometime this fall.

Finally, if you enjoy reading All Things Italy each month, please share the link with friends. I appreciate it!

Etta Madden