For three months I explored Italy through the lens of a camera. It was my first time being ‘on assignment’ as a photographer. I lived on organic farms from Sicily to Piedmont (and in between!) to learn about the Italians’ love for their land.
I specifically photographed honeybees and beekeepers. Despite being stung too many times to count, I tasted the freshest food picked from the vine, sampled regional honeys, and delved into my ancestral roots.
The voyage was an eye-opening and liberating crusade into the lives of strangers who welcomed me into their homes. I was hosted in cities that breathe modern Italian life and culture, as well as remote farmlands that embrace tradition and hard work.
Italy is an enchanting nation and by exploring 14 of Italy’s 20 regions, the trip was an immersive plunge into a culture rich with passion, vitality, history, and pride.
Here are 3 things I learned after 3 months in Italy:
1) Where food actually comes from.
Before the trip, I didn’t know where pomegranates came from. I will never forget the October afternoon in Sicily when my new friends (the nieces of a beekeeper) took me to their backyard and let me pick a succulent pomegranate off of a tree.
Did you know this was is a chestnut? Well I did not. But I learned when I was in Cinque Terre.
I learned how a rabbit is prepared for an five course lunch in Florence.
At an organic farm, I harvested chickpeas.
(This involved sticking my bare hands into a giant bag of dried hay and finding various parts of shelled dry chickpea pods. Then, using my thumbnail, opening each dried pod. Then I would place said chickpea in a tiny jar that seemed to never fill up, but rather mock me and my futile attempts to fill it.)
2) How to Enjoy Honey.
I’ve always known how to eat honey.
Despite being a beekeeper, I never fell in love with the sticky stuff. I was always the quirky beekeeper who couldn’t be bothered with gushing over exotic honeys. I’d choose chocolate any day.
It wasn’t until being hosted by Italian farmers that I learned how to truly enjoy the luscious, sweet decadence that is raw honey.
Honey was one of my few breakfast options. In Italy, there isn’t such thing as colazione, breakfast, as we know it in America. The morning ‘meal’ consisted of a strong espresso and maybe (emphasis on maybe) a small croissant known as a cornetto. Since I was living with beekeepers, honey was always at my disposal, and became a staple in my diet.
(By the way, this lack of breakfast in Italy is rectified by long, multi-course lunches of pastas, cheese spreads, meats, wine, and fruits which span multiple hours.)
Each honey has a different taste, based on the nectar from nearby flowers. Most common is Miele Millefiori, which translates to Wildfower honey.
Miele Acacia is from the flowering Acacia plant (left.) Barrels filled with bright yellow Sunflower honey from Bologna. This honey was voted best honey in Italy, and I was given a jar of it as a gift! (Right). I sampled orange blossom honey from Sicily.
In a small village town in Abruzzo, I sampled honeys from a real life honey bar, deciding that clementine is among my favorites.
I have a new appreciation for the wide honey spectrum that ranges from light buttercup into dark molasses in color.
3) You didn’t need to meet your ancestors to feel close to them.
I never met Constantino or Giovanna Ricciardi, but their epic story of emigration seeped down through word-of-mouth during legendary family storytelling. These people were my great grandparents, and I traveled with a xeroxed photo of them in my suitcase.
At humble ages, the two of them immigrated from Sicily to New York on October 14, 1913. When I arrived to their hometown in 2013, it was the exact 100 year anniversary of their departure!
Alone, with all of my bags, and without knowing a single person, I showed up to their hometown without a place to sleep that night. I hardly knew a word of Italian.
The remote village is called Piraino and lies majestically atop a mountain, overlooking the Tyrrhenian sea.
Once there, I retrieved my great grandparent’s birth and marriage certificates.
In a string of serendipitous events, I slept in a church, later finding out that it was the exact church they said their marriage vows in over a century ago.
I strolled the same streets they walked upon, shaped my mouth to speak the Sicilian dialect they spoke, gazed on the same horizon they looked at every day.
The truth is you needn’t have met your ancestors to feel their presence. Their deaths, years before my birth, are not barriers that limit my understanding of my Sicilian heritage.
It is a matter of an open mind to sift through artifacts and information, using family folklore and vague documents to create your own narrative of your past. Piece together invisible parts to make up your ancestor’s identities. And thus, finding yours.
Renée Ricciardi is a Boston based artist. She received her Bachelors of Fine Arts in Photography from the Massachusetts College of Art. Renée is currently working on a personal assignment photographing apiaries, beekeepers, and organic food in cities across Italy.