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Una Vita: Italy’s History Through the Eyes of Its Elderly

In July 2011, Alberto Pepe and Veronica Olivotto traveled across Italy to collect photographs and stories from the few remaining inhabitants of small rural towns along the Apennine Mountains.

The two drove for two weeks, from Piedmont to Apulia, intentionally avoiding big cities, highways, and popular itineraries, taking backroads and country lanes, visiting towns that are rarely, if ever, included in tourist guidebooks.

In these towns they came across the elderly of Italy. They met ordinary people with extraordinary life stories. Stories of suffering and longing, daring and thriving.

From that experience comes “Una Vita,” (A Life) a collection of stories and photographs that is a tribute to these elderly Italians’ lives and memories and, in a way, to Italy itself.

Pierluigi - Bocchignano (Rieti), Lazio (http://unavitaphoto.com/)

“The initial approach wasn’t always easy,” says 32-year-old Alberto, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Astrophysics and at the Institute for Quantitative Social Sciene of Harvard University. “Since we were interested in a specific age group, we found the “recruitment” phase to be hard. Asking an elderly their age isn’t the best way to start a conversation.”

Nevertheless, Alberto and Veronica managed to collect some 40 stories from 75-year-olds in several Italian regions — each story equipped with its own set of photographs. The wide variety of stories collected reflects the long voyage the two longtime friends undertook last summer. Starting in Grignasco, in the northern region of Piedmont, Alberto and Veronica made their way down the Appenine Mountains, driving through several regions and ending up in San Pietro in Bevagna, in the Taranto province.

Michelina and Rocco - Trevico (Avellino) Campania (http://unavitaphoto.com)

Michelina and Rocco - Trevico (Avellino) Campania (http://unavitaphoto.com)

The idea behind the project is to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification with a tribute to Italians who have lived for exactly half of the country’s life.

“The project is both in analogic and digital,” says Veronica, referring to the photographic aspect of the project. An Urban Researcher at the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Veronica, has been shooting pictures since the age of 19. “Mixing the two photographic formats challenges the notion that analogic and digital must always be separate. They can actually co-exist, and this project demonstrates that.”

The “Una Vita” project used a Canon 7D, with a 50mm lens, and a Mamiya 456, medium format.

Cosimina - Manduria (Taranto) Apulia (http://unavitaphoto.com)

Veronica, 28, has been working on photographic projects since 2008, although “Una Vita” has a special meaning for her.

“I never had the chance to talk as an adult with any of my grandparents,” she says. “They, too, were extraordinary persons, with lives full of traumatic events and fleeting joys. Although I spent time with some of them, I was never able to ask them the right questions, either because I was too small or because we lived far apart. In a way, this project has redeemed me.”

Elio and Luciano - Livorno, Tuscany (http://unavitaphoto.com)

Both Alberto and Veronica, who have known each other for ten years, live away from Italy.

“I haven’t been living in Italy for 13 years,” says Alberto, who left his hometown of Manduria, in Apulia, and moved to London at the age of 19 to study astrophysics. For the past year and a half, he has been living and working in Cambridge, MA. “The fact that we live abroad has probably prompted us to go on this trip, which was first of all a journey of discovery,” he says. “We visited parts of Italy we had never seen before.”

Veronica left Italy at age 22, right after having earned the bachelor’s degree in Tourism and Local Community at the University of Milan-Bicocca.

The stories and photographs of “Una Vita” can be viewed on the project’s official page: http://unavitaphoto.com.

Dido - Porto Recanati (Macerata) Marche (http://unavitaphoto.com)

About the project’s authors:

Alberto Pepe is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Astrophysics and at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science of Harvard University. He is an information scientist interested in the study of socio–technical systems: networks of people, artifacts, data and ideas. He recently obtained a Ph.D. in Information Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles with a dissertation on scientific collaboration networks. Prior to starting his Ph.D., Alberto worked in the Information Technology Department of CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland and in the Scientific Visualization Department of CINECA, the Italian Scientific Consortium, based at the University of Bologna. Alberto holds a M.Sc. in Computer Science and a B.Sc. in Astrophysics, both from University College London, U.K. Alberto was born and raised in the wine–making town of Manduria, in Puglia, Southern Italy. More about Alberto and his projects can be found on his website: http://albertopepe.com/.

Veronica Olivotto is an Urban Researcher at the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies at Erasmus University Rotterdam, she currently works in the International Projects Team and spends her working hours acquiring new business, drafting project proposals, and dealing with project partners. She is also preparing a research proposal investigating institutional networks forming around the assessment of climate change adaptation options. She holds a M.Sc in Urban Development and Management from Erasmus University, and prior to that she spent two years working as a researcher at the Scottish Institute of Sustainable Technology, a Heriot Watt University spin-off based in Edinburgh (UK). She also holds a M.Sc in Ecotourism from Edinburgh-Napier University and a BS.c in Tourism and Local Community from the University of Milan-Bicocca. She was born in Monza, near Milan and lived twelve years in both Turin and Arese (near Milan). More about Veronica and her projects can be found on her website: http://nonlinearoutes.net/.

About Nicola Orichuia

Nicola is an Italian journalist and media enthusiast living in the United States. He keeps an eye on the Italian-American communities across the country and is always looking for positive stories to highlight.