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Saturday 16 November 2019

Photo Essay

Bitter harvest

A dwindling group of Italian families is clinging on to a previous generation’s land-owning dreams

By Mariano Silletti

Serra Maggiore is one of the rural villages built as a result of the Agrarian Reform of the 1950s, located in the countryside of Montescaglioso, in Basilicata, southern Italy. The purpose of the Reform – to create a class of economically self-sufficient landowners – soon failed. The area was affected by massive emigration. Today only six families remain out of the 100 who lived in the village during the 1950s.

The photographer has documented the everyday life of women and men who decided to save, in part at least, their parents’ habits and traditions, living in harmony with nature to preserve the fragile beauty of the territory through the practice of traditional agriculture. Serra Maggiore is a place probably destined to disappear  – a parallel universe to be discovered and rediscovered.

At the same time that it assigned farms to farmers, the Agrarian Reform in Basilicata led to the construction of farmhouses. This formed rural villages and encouraged mass emigration. 

The families who are still living in the village have few herds of cattle. Most are sheep. 

Bucking the trend of migratory flow in the 1960s, Davide and his wife emigrated from the north to the south of Italy where they bought a farmhouse to enjoy retirement in the beauty of the Lucanian landscape.

Following an ancient tradition, Michele burns the stubble: an essential procedure to prepare soils which eliminates pathogenic germs and weeds.

Rocco returns home after a hare hunt, a widespread pursuit in the area.

Michele and Lucia dance inside their home, one of the many traditions popular among peasants that have endured. 

The school of Serra Maggiore was closed in 1970. Caterina accompanies her nephews to the bus that will take them to the school in Montescaglioso.

Domenico’s clothes in his bedroom. 

A carousel stands surrounded by uncultivated and abandoned land, a reminder that the place was once populated by children.

Caterina and her family have rediscovered the sober and straightforward lifestyle of previous generations. They try to live in harmony with the natural environment that surrounds them. 

The accordion is a very popular musical instrument in southern Italy. Michele uses it to accompany traditional songs.

Michele dressed as Cucibocca, a traditional figure born here. The mysterious character wears a dark cloak, a hemp crusher disc on their head, and their face is framed by a thick white beard. On the night before the Epiphany, they walk through the town’s alleys, threatening to sew children’s mouths shut if they don’t behave before the arrival of the Epiphany. 

Caterina, one of the few inhabitants of Serra Maggiore. In recent years, she has seen her village abandoned by other residents who emigrated to northern Italy and Europe. 

Claudia plays with her hula hoop. Few children live in Serra Maggiore, where there are no playgrounds or recreational services. 

The Giracca’s family house is empty. During the winter they return to their hometown in northern Italy. 

The horse was considered a work tool and a means of transport, an essential element in the rural economy. The strong bond remains today. 

Lucia dressed as Carnevalone. The Carnevalone of Montescaglioso is a typical costume of farming culture that used to be made of hessian. Today it is made out of paper, cardboard and disused clothes. The long ritual of dressing begins at the first light of dawn on Shrove Tuesday. 

Michele lives with his family and works the land that once belonged to his father in Serra Maggiore.  

The main road leading to the village. 

Caterina and her nephews walking along one of the village’s roads with their dog Biscotto. 

A stretch of land that belongs to Domenico. Here he cultivates cereals such as wheat, spelt, maize, corn and barley. Cereal cultivation largely takes place in soils where irrigation water is scarce. 

Carmela in her living room.

Rocco inside his car.

A night-time view of the village. This type of housing is now largely abandoned.

Michele and Lucia aboard an old Lambretta which Michele’s father used in the 1950s. 



Mariano Silletti is an Italian photographer active in both documentary and storytelling fields. He lives and works in Matera, southern Italy, and enjoys long-term projects which focus on exploring the human condition within the everyday urban environment. He often looks to his homeland, explicitly placing people at the heart of his work. Silletti has won several awards including the World Report Award for Short Story, the Moscow International Photo Award and the Italy Photo Series. His work has featured in various international solo and group exhibitions including the Festival della Fotografia Etica (2015) and Miami Street Photography Festival (2018), and appeared in publications including Burn Magazine and Gup Magazine.

All photographs by Mariano Silletti