UPDATE! April 3rd, 2019: National Geographic has published this story here.
Bari is a small city located on Southern Italy’s Adriatic Coast. The first time I visited was in 2009, I was there to help my friend Antonio Piccirilli on a shoot for his fashion collection. During our short stay I started to realize what Antonio had been trying to tell me since I’d met him: there is something special about Bari. It’s not a quirky little village. Nearly 325,000 people call it home. And, at first glance, there is nothing in particular that stands out as unusual about the place. But I quickly realized that if you looked close enough, it is an oasis for unexpected characters. Even now, after working on this project for the last several years, the best way I can describe it is this: the people we photographed were unique to this place. There was something in the movement of the city. The people of Bari seemed to carry themselves in way that I’ve never seen before or since.
SOCIETA’ ANONIMA is a collaboration between Art Director Antonio Piccirilli and myself – the interviews and captions of each character were made by Giulia Barcaro.
Antonio Cerino has never been able to hear and he can only speak a few words. He was born in 1966 with a condition called spastic paraplegia, at a time when there were no schools or support networks for people like him. Despite this, Cerino is a local idol. He spends all day wondering Bari’s streets. Everyone stops to chat with him, and he answers with a big smile and monosyllabic utterance. ‘Cerino’ means matchstick. Even if some people think he slightly resembles one, what looks like a nickname is his actual surname. Cerino is the most obsessive supporter of Bari's football team and always has a VIP seat reserved for the game. He is also known for his elegant sense of style. Every day, he dresses impeccably with bright ties, jackets with pocket squares and cufflinks. His government disability allowance was cut for more than year due to a bureaucratic error.
Adelaide's job involves keeping secrets - especially the secrets of married men who meet her at night, under the arches of Bari’s train station. Adelaide is not her real name, either. She started her night job (she has a day job, too) about 25 years ago. Adelaide claims the be the first fair trade, gender fluid prostitute in a deeply Catholic city like Bari - a pioneer in her field. The key to her work, she explains, is to be a good psychologist. She has no shortage of clients.
Giuseppe Abbatescianni is known around town as Pino. After losing his job a few years ago he lived in a tent for an entire winter. He refuses to live in a government shelter “full of lunatics and moribunds”, he says. So he built himself this hut at the entrance of Bari’s beach called Pane e Pomodoro, ‘Bread and Tomato’. He stole some wood from a local construction site, then he got hold of some stone bases from the beach umbrellas, which he recycled as door steps. He then modified his chair, cutting the back legs, to hold his diabetes-influenced weight. He calls his hut “House of Dignity” and painted its slogan in big letters, so that both passing drivers and sunbathers can read it. He demands ‘city income support’, a service of his own creation. He wrote to both the Pope and the UN about his case. Although all his demands have been rejected, he is unconcerned by the numerous eviction notes delivered from the local administration. He does not have a letter box.
Mariellina Lorusso Cipparoli is the 97-year-old daughter of an Italian coffee tycoon. When she was young, she would drive through Puglia’s farmland to look for rare collectables. When asked what her favorite piece was, she answered that unfortunately she will never be able to have it, because it is located in Bari’s cemetery. He was a housekeeper who risked his life to protect young Mariellina in a dangerous situation. “He was a unique piece”, she said. At 92, she completed a collection of 400 horses that she keeps in the salon of her palace. She has never ridden one.
Pinuccio is the only man in the South of Italy who knows how to drive a steam locomotive. The Italian government has hired him to teach a handful of railroad engineers, so this precious knowledge isn’t lost. He drove one for nearly two decades, and when he was alone on the track, the engine pumping behind him, he cried for joy. He is convinced that true love is knowing all the mechanisms of your loved one. Once they dismantled an engine to observe its components, but found an empty container to which they could not attribute any function. Pinuccio eventually discovered that the box was carved into the engine for smuggling during wartime.
Rinaldo used to be a floor polisher, but when ceramics invaded the paving market, his job became obsolete. Now he sings in Via Sparano, Bari’s main shopping district, hoping to collect some coins. He used to supplement his meager income by fishing for octopus. Unfortunately, he no longer owns a car, so he can’t make it to the sea. He lives with his mother in the old city, and they both survive off her pension. Rinaldo hopes she won’t die before his own retirement age: he still has six years to go. Although he often forgets lyrics, he isn’t convinced by most of the famous singers that made it big; he thinks that the business is distorted. Most of Bari’s citizens don’t share their wealth with Rinaldo, “yet they do have money to give” - he says. He recently checked the going rate of Octopus at the fishmonger, it has almost doubled.
Andrea claims to serve more than a thousand espressos every morning. Everyone calls him Andrestein, because he looks like Einstein. He wears a different bow tie every day; his collection hangs on the bar’s walls. His bar is famous and has won several awards for the best coffee. Being a successful barman is very simple, he says. A barista has to do three things: have a good coffee blend, place the cup gently on the plate with no noise, and when he says ‘good morning’ he really has to mean it.
Maria began working as a tailor more than seventy years ago, and since then she has always carried dozens of needles on her dress - she sleeps with them on, and she didn’t bother taking them off even while breastfeeding her children. None of her children ever got pricked, she says proudly. Her shop has the same decor it had in the 60’s: at some point she bought a new sewing machine that ended up in the attic immediately - the old one is still her favorite. At nearly 90, she still can put a thread through a needle eye in one shot. She works on a table by her shop window. She says she cannot understand why people throw away shoes and shirts that could easily be mended.
Peppino Prudente started his career as the delivery man of Bari’s oldest public oven, a huge furnace hidden in a basement of the old city. Before domestic ovens became an integral part of kitchens, local housewives would entrust Peppino with their raw lasagna, meat pasticcio or pasta al forno. Peppino pushes the dishes deep into the oven with a 10-foot long spade, and bakes them with the fire of olive tree logs. Then he puts an oven mitt on top of his head, and loads up to four fuming baking trays on top of the mitt. Peppino lacks fear and cycles at full speed: once under the customers windows, he announces his arrival with his characteristic shout ‘Ué, Ohp!’ (waaay up!), a call that he also uses to warn pedestrians that are in his way. Peppino has never dropped a single tray of lasagna.
Professor Vittorio Marzi breeds 350 varieties of roses in the backyard of Bari’s 19th century villa ‘La Rocca’. The garden receives some funding from Bari University, but it is mostly supported by private donation. Every true Renaissance garden should please one’s sense of sight, sound and smell. For this reason, he keeps chirping birds in an aviary and water gushing in the mansion’s fountains. Professor de Marzi is president of the prestigious Georgofili Academy, an society consecrated in 1753 to protect plants and trees with the help of science. Most rose varieties are named after beautiful women such as Liz Taylor, Princess Diana, Cleopatra, and Maria Callas. He never married and devoted his life to roses instead.
Pina Belli D’Elia, an art historian, curator and university professor, grew up in the North of Italy and moved to Bari in the 1960’s. She likes to say that she married her husband and Puglia’s artistic heritage all in one lot. She became the director of Bari’s ancient art Museum; despite all the bureaucratic reticence, she turned it into one of the most acclaimed art collections of the South. She remembers breastfeeding and clearing the museum basement at same time. Unfortunately, she says, most locals never entered the museum- not even the day of its inauguration. When her husband passed away, she added his surname just after hers. She says it echoes beautifully.
Domenico is the projectionist of the legendary Armenise cinema in Bari. When he started working nearly 60 years ago, people used to smoke throughout Ben Hur, while others would carry in baking trays of lasagna and riso patate e cozze, a local delicacy made of rice, potato and mussels. Domenico remembers accidentally swapping the third act with the second film reel. The flabbergasted audience turned toward his cabin and shouted ‘Domenico, C’ Sta Fasc’!’ local dialect for ‘Domenico, what the hell are you doing!’. When digital hard drives replaced the film reels, Domenico had no nostalgia: it meant less weight to carry up the stairs. This picture was taken in the final days of the Armenise cinema. A wrecking ball reduced it to rubble three months later to make space for a block of apartments. Domenico now stores all the old film reels in his house.
Before teaching Latin and Italian Literature at Bari’s secondary schools, Angelo Ulivieri was a proud member of the Italian Goliardic Society. Goliards were university students organized in fictitious regiments. They dedicated time to pay elaborate pranks on academia, the Italian church, the political elite, and to each other, too. Angelo remembers those times as the happiest of his life. When 1968 turned students into political activists, Angelo chose the far right. Order and discipline are, for him, the best tools for culture. Today, he is saddened by the lack of intellectual stamina of younger generations. His role models are Nietzsche, D’Annunzio, Oscar Wilde and Macchiavelli – ‘the most intelligent Italian of all’. Like D’Annunzio- the renowned poet and adventurer under fascist Italy- Angelo believes that literature should trigger action, and not catalyze dust on bookshelves. In his youth, he tried to put his motto to practice: he devoured Latin classics, he volunteered in the 1966 Flood of Florence to rescue books and people, and he pranked his lascivious friends with two septuagenarian prostitutes.
Rosanna is the daughter of Elisabetta Iusco De Liso, known as Betta, Bari’s first fashion stylist. In 1936, despite Bari’s patriarchal nature, her mother Betta opened a clothing boutique on a unpaved side road. Betta became the local Coco Chanel, and turned the little shop into a mecca for all the well dressed women of the region. As soon as she would update her shop window display, the news would spread through town like wildfire, and her taste would be copied by most of Puglia’s competing boutiques. With 5 children and a surprised husband, Betta became the bread winner of her family- and of many poor families she helped in secret. Even today, Rosanna gets stopped in the street by strangers that thank her for her mother’s support. Rosanna writes poems about her mother, and explains that she feels her guidance even now that she is gone. When Betta first started, in 1936, the bank’s clerk hesitated to open an account in her name, assuming she was disposing of her husband’s money. A few years later, her husband would be known as ‘Mr Betta’.
Andrea is the Orthodox priest of Saint Nicholas church in Bari. While the ground floor is occupied by the Catholic church, the crypt is reserved for Orthodox rituals. Saint Nicholas is an important figure for both religious doctrines. In the 11th century, Saint Nicholas’ skeletal remains were taken from Arab dominated Myra and carried overseas by sailors from Bari. Today, thousands of Orthodox Pilgrims flow inside the crypt, almost unnoticed from the Catholic upper level. It is said that in Myra the relics of Saint Nicholas exude a clear watery liquid which smells like rose water, called manna (or myrrh), which is believed to be miraculous. After the relics were brought to Bari, they continued to sweat the miraculous water, much to the happiness of the new owners. Today, Andrea says, the crypt attracts both pilgrims and important donations from Russian tycoons.
Nobody knows exactly what Carlo Terrevoli does - or even is. He is known as Mago Rex (Wizard), because he moves his wrists in the same way one would expect a wizard to gesticulate. He spends his days between Via Sparano, Bari’s fashion hub, and his favorite local café. While in his youth he trained as a railroad man (he derailed a train, too) he now introduces himself as a professional exhibitionist, gigolo, actor, tap dancer, fashion stylist and politician. He started as a self-proclaimed city councilman- it was a little annoying, he says, as when you are not elected you are not paid, either, and people are not very thankful. He suspects that he could be asked to become a lifetime senator, but he is not sure he will accept, as he would have to move to Rome. Mago Rex quotes Kafka and Proust every other sentence: he has, he says, an uncontrollable love for life. It is literally impossible to shut him up. He kept talking while taking this picture and even after we said our goodbyes and started walking away.
Isabella opened this little independent bookstore 40 years ago, when few women ran their own business. It was her uncle, a writer, who convinced her that she could do whatever she wanted. She has resisted the attempts of her landlord to turn her corner shop into a parking lot. She reads about 30 books a month and smokes dozens of cigarettes a day. Indifferent to the latest trends, she orders only the books she likes, and she also allows customers to read for hours on her two armchairs. A couple of students finished their entire dissertations in this shop. Next year when her lease is finally up, the shop will be turned into an indoor parking garage. Isabella thinks she will spend more time in front of her bathroom window, smoking, because from there she can overlook the sea.
Tommaso Di Carne has been repairing bicycles for 70 years. He started as a 6-year-old apprentice, and he still has the tools that his mentor gave him. He is also a cyclist, and used to compete professionally; every Sunday he still gets on his bike, sometimes for several hours, under the hot Italian sun. All of his family, including his wife, have passed away; they left him behind, he says. Tommaso likes to think about the happy times when there were no cars on Bari’s streets. When Tommaso was 5 years old his parents lifted him on to an adult bike - his feet could not touch the ground, and he said that it felt like riding a war horse. He remembers falling three times, and finally on the 4th time, turning towards his mother, who waived at him from increasing distance.
Jahir was born somewhere in the maze of cobblestones of Bari Vecchia, the old city. As a street kid, he was raised by the local priest, who also helped him find a job at the hospital. He is famous for his bad temper and searing passion for football: he changes the subject to Bari’s football team every chance he gets. When he was young, the old city was the hotbed of Bari’s crime. Now Jahir passively stares at tourists strolling those same roads. He says that if he had all the money in the world, he would fix the cobblestones on the old city’s sidewalks- as he has noticed several elderly neighbors struggling to walk around them.
Since 1950, on her front porch, Maria has cooked and sold a local delicacy made of fried polenta called Sgagliozza. The demand was higher before the age of fast food - but she still averages at least 40 Sgagliozze per day, totaling nearly a million so far. She has a fierce personality: it is better not to mess with her. She only speaks the local dialect. She has been knighted by the President of the Republic for her career; as she likes to say, she received a higher honor than even Silvio Berlusconi. She sells seven Sgagliozze for just €1.25 ($1.40) and she has been repeatedly advised to raise the price. Maria always gives an emphatic ‘no’, saying simply: ‘it would not be fair’.
Vito Alfieri Fontana used to work for the family business, a factory that produces land mines. One day, he received a package in the mail with a single shoe inside of it. He decided to quit his job. Now he’s chief engineer for an NGO that clears land mines. He has spent the last 15 years between Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan, and comes home to Bari only twice a year. He has watched his children grow up on his computer screen: God bless Skype, he says. In the Balkans, Vito has cleared scores of unexploded bombs belonging to NATO: he explains that planes tend to release them before flying back to base, lighter and safer. A land mine clearing squad has a precise hierarchy: the chief engineer is also the one has to do the digging, the most dangerous part. Once a mine is discovered, Vito has to choose whether they should blow it on the spot or transport it somewhere safe. It is a decision that makes your heart race, he says. At the job interview during his career change, he was asked why he feels qualified to dig out land mines. Simple, I used to build them, he said. He was hired on the spot.
Miah migrated from Bari to Bangladesh, and he is a professional wizard. He rides his bike all over Bari, with his magic container welded behind the saddle. He stops in piazzas and in front of ice cream parlors to perform his magic. He’s refined some of his tricks adding a touch of local dialect: his most popular number features passers-by, who he summons to give a soft rope a blatant erection. Although his name is Miah, everyone calls him by his most famous spell: “Cho Cho”. With his proceeds he supports his son, who is studying finance in London.
Alessandro Laterza is the heir of Laterza books, a prestigious family run publishing house and bookstore, founded in 1901. According to Alessandro, Bari’s citizens consider Laterza to be a kind of indestructible monument: they expect it will be a permanent and fearless fixture in publishing, but they don’t buy its books. Only when Laterza was nearly sold to a foreign investor, did the city raise money in its defense. Today the shop has been reduced in size to make space for a major fashion brand, but it’s still there. Despite numerous recommendations, Alessandro would never move Laterza elsewhere, because he does not want to deprive his business of its roots. His entire family is involved in the publishing house, and they speak about nothing else. Unlike other families, on Christmas day nobody is allowed to talk about books, nor to give them as a present.
Lilli and Geppi de Liso founded ‘de Liso Graphic Studio’ in the flourishing Bari of 1968. They redesigned some of the city’s most iconic features, such as the logo of Petruzzelli theatre. They also taught young designers at the local university. 35 years ago, one senior graphic designer warned young Geppi to leave Bari in order to give his career the space it deserved. Geppi didn’t leave and he regrets it deeply. He decided to stay close to his mother and family, while trying to pierce the conservative southern environment with his designs. He has his special admirers, though: when Geppi’s 5-year-old son was asked to describe his fathers’ job, he stated proudly: “My Dad makes metaphors.”
Since he was six years old, Nicola has awaken before dawn and sailed off into the pitch black sea - at first with oars, now with an engine. When the sun rises, Nicola is already underwater picking sea urchins, and he does not wear gloves – the urchin’s thorns carry an allergenic substance that make his hands swollen all day long. He does not feel any pain, but his hands are perpetually swollen and he does not wear a wedding ring. He sells his catch on Bari's pier and displays them in the local beer’s containers. All the men in his family spent most of their lives at sea: Nicola’s wife says that if she could cook him, she wouldn’t need to add any salt.
Mario Mancini is a talented theater actor. His father was an ‘ebanista’, a carpenter who specializes in woodworking with ebony. Mario was the youngest of ten children, and he sleeps in the same bed in which he was conceived. The overall furniture hasn’t changed either. The entire family slept in this single room. Despite his passion for theater at a young age, his father didn’t encourage his love for the stage. Once, when Mario let his hair grow to play Hamlet, his father cut it short as a warning. He still keeps the same pair of scissors on his desk. In addition to his sheer acting talent, Mario is also gifted with a refined sense of humor. Over his embellished ebony desk, he points out what’s on display: those scissors, some ancient books, a precious religious effigy and a puppet of a masturbating monkey with flashing red eyes.
Franco Sifanno is the owner of Marnarid, a candy shop that opened in 1895. The furnishings are still original: the cashier is nothing but a giant drawer, where the banknotes float freely. His father used to work here as a shop boy, before buying the business. Franco was literally raised among sweets - he remembers napping on the sacks of sugarcane, and not being tall enough to gaze above the counter. Marnarid, which produces a popular liquor, is one of the few artisan shops that survive in the old city.
Porzia Petrone is the founder of a prestigious school that teaches the methods of making Bari's traditional orecchiette pasta. The school was a huge success, and she was asked to cook for the Puglia governor's electoral campaign. Porzia is a political activist. Her brother Benedetto was killed by a fascist gang in 1973, when he was 18 years old. A road is named after her brother and Porzia never ceased to advocate anti-fascism. Aside from politics, she has a fascination for African Maasai Tribes and she collects their artifacts, together with ceramic dolls and local religious icons. Porzia is also a healer - she receives frequent patients. She heals every kind of disease by pronouncing a traditional magic spell. The formula was whispered in her ear by Porzia’s grandmother from her deathbed. When her time comes, she will pass it on the same way.
Vito Guerra’s day job is a house painter and decorator. In his free time he’s a talented street performer, and the supposed heir of a legendary Italian comedian known as Piripicchio. His band members consist of his sons and nephews. With paint stained hands, he performs his comedy throughout southern villages to the amazement of the locals: and he often performs in hospices and boroughs with a high crime rate. He is not Piripicchio for the money: his vaudeville theater is rooted in the street and entry is free of charge. He does it, he says, because people need to laugh.
Piero Di Cio’ was a popular local DJ in the 1980’s. Now he lives with his mother in a historic palace in the center of Bari. He spends most of his days at his local bar, drinking and smoking. Piero remembers Bari in the 1980's with deep nostalgia. Great clubs, great music, great drugs, - he says with great longing. For him, people in the 1980’s were more classy, and more importantly, they still knew how to have fun.
Guerino Dabbicco, 37, is the unofficial guard of Bari’s town hall. Strictly speaking, he is unemployed: yet he designed an occupation that cannot be found on any list of jobs. Guerino spends his days in front of the Mayor’s door, collecting complimentary event tickets. The free passes were intended to be given to public officials that often cannot attend. Guerino sells the tickets to strangers, undersells them to friends, and gives them away to beautiful women. Money is scarce, and Guerino is genuinely worried. He comes from a very poor family that lives in the old city, and they struggle to get by. Despite his worries for the future, Guerino is proud of his self employment: he says it is better than becoming a criminal, as many of his childhood friends have already done.
Claudio Ceglie is the projectionist of ABC, a small independent cinema located a stone’s throw away from the seashore. He is also the cinema’s ticket seller, the concession vendor and the security guard. The golden years of Italian movie theaters are over, and many have had to shut their doors: yet, ABC cinema’s 99 seats survive the epidemic thanks to its quirky program tailored for niche cinema lovers. When the local mistral wind blows, one can hear a gentle hum creeping through the cinema’s ventilation grids.
Professor Vittorio Delfino Pesce is a multi-decorated anthropologist and anatomic pathologist. He was the first to decipher the secrets of the Altamura Man, a 130,000 year old homo sapiens fossil. He also famously challenged the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, much to the joy of the powerful local clergy. Professor Delfino Pesce does not like to throw l equipment away: he still owns a functioning 1978 Apple II computer. Undeterred by lucrative career options abroad, Professor Delfino Pesce chose to remain in Italy. Today, when he advises his university students on their next career step, he urges them to emigrate as fast as they can. Due to a knee condition, he cannot walk, so he carts himself around the lab in his wheeled office chair. His surname translates to “Dolphin Fish” which is- the professor is quick to point out - a zoological oxymoron, since dolphins are mammals.
While her husband is serving a prison sentence, Angela Ladisa waits at home with her fat dog named Luna, ‘Moon’. She lives in one of Bari’s most lively neighborhoods - the so called ‘Far West’ - that has been plagued by organized crime. Although her uncle and nephew died in a drive-by, her children have regular jobs, she says proudly. Angela keeps three business cards on her fridge: the lawyer, the ambulance service, and the flower shop for funerals. She had her husband’s name tattooed in Chinese characters on her arm, but she recently developed doubts about the spelling. She has another tattoo on her back: a giant hushing Geisha. She says it reminds her that if one lacks the balls to talk, it is always better to shut up. Once her husband completes his prison time, the judge ordered them to relocate to another city. When she told her neighbors, they started crying. Here everyone is tough, she says, but we all love each other to death.
Sabino Loconte is Bari’s cemetery caretaker. He took over the job from his mother when she passed away - he was seven years old. The cemetery staff is like a family to him. He likes to repeat that Bari’s cemetery is nothing short of a masterpiece. Sabino loves life, he’s a tenacious dancer and card player: when he is not with his wife on their orchard, he joins friends for card tournaments in town. He is well known for his expression ‘vé mo va’, and he pronounces it at the end of every sentence. His phone’s ringtone is a loud ambulance siren. Somebody told him it is not very elegant, but Sabino finds it funny.
Rupen Timurian is a descendant of the Armenian exiles that docked in Bari in the 1920s, under the help of the Jewish Italian Prime Minister Luzzatti and of Hrand Nazariantz, the Ottoman Poet. Nazariantz died in poverty and his body was thrown in a mass grave in Bari’s cemetery. On his deathbed, Rupen’s father Diran told him that the Poet’s body could found in the family chapel, in the space that was reserved for himself. Rupen’s father had rescued the poet’s body in secret, and kept it hidden for nearly 40 years. Rupen grew up in Bari and started knitting rugs in his father’s factory and shop when he was 8 years old: only women and children have fingers that are thin enough to do it. An Armenian carpet takes at list two years to be weaved. Some require a decade. Rupen likes to say that one should hang a carpet on the wall to be admired, and leave the floor as it is.
Simone is a sculptor who sleeps in a giant walk-in freezer located in his self-made landfill. He collects abandoned objects and turns them into a maze of giant welded artworks. He shares his kingdom with Penguin, a deadly Rottweiler that walks like a penguin, and an Iguana called Totò that he feeds pasta and lasagna. Simone fears neither thief nor policeman, and likes to say that after God and the Pope he is the most powerful man on earth. His current project involves turning a boat into a giant swing. His primary school diploma hangs proudly hung on the only empty wall of his container.
After falling in love with a young doctor she met on holiday, Froukjie Van der Harst moved from The Netherlands to Canosa di Puglia, a little village about an hour’s drive from Bari, in the 1960s. She was the only woman to shop for vegetables in the village square, populated only by men. She had to learn how to shout in the local dialect: she wouldn’t learn Italian until 14 years later, when she moved to Bari. She now runs an English class for Bari’s elders. Many of them have kids that emigrated abroad, and married there. They’re thankful to Froukjie, as they can finally exchange a few words with their young grandchildren at Christmas. She does not miss Holland: every time she goes back, she finds everything has changed for the worst. Luckily, she says, here in Italy things remain pretty much the same. She once told off a Bari resident who threw an empty pack of cigarettes on the sidewalk, suggesting he should be more proud of his city. Instead of getting defensive, he picked them up and said: ‘God bless Holland’.