Valentina Piccinni, Italian photographer and freelance contributor to Redux Pictures based in Rome, took an “emotional backwards journey into [her] origins” in making the portrait series Pasta Divas. These women, roughly a dozen from Bari, the capital of Puglia, Italy, make orecchiette pasta just like their mothers and grandmothers before them. Piccinni’s portraits are frank and direct, and they showcase the strength and power these women bring to their pre-selected profession every day. In one poignant image from the series, a cluster of orecchiette lies on the rough, wooden table. Hands, fingers, and knives alike enter the frame, a huge ball of pasta dough weighing down the bottom of the frame. The scene is less a production than merely a glimpse into their cultural fabric. We recently spoke with Piccinni about the project’s impact on her photography.
How did you relate to these ‘pasta divas’?
“I am a native of Puglia, and I left my hometown for Florence and then Rome to follow my studies when I was quite young. This work is a kind of homage to my land and to Puglia’s capital, Bari. It was enchanting to hobnob with these women and to witness the craftsmanship of orecchiette pasta production—they are the keepers of an otherwise lost tradition.”
Tell us more about the region and this deep-rooted tradition of pasta making.
“Puglia is a fascinating region located in the heel of the geographic boot of Italy in what is known as Magna Grecia or “Greek Italy.” People here have a strong agricultural tradition and the peasant staples of the past have evolved today into some of the finest high cuisine, including the fresh handmade pasta. The most famous traditional pasta made in Puglia and exported all over the world are the orecchiette.
“In Bari, a dozen women are the clear bearers of this deep-rooted tradition. In “Bari Vecchia”—the old town—there are two short alleys, Via dell’Arco Basso and Via dell’Arco Alto, where women of all ages sit in the street outside their houses making orecchiette. They take their handmade pasta seriously—this is not just pasta, it is also their pride and primarily their job.
“In many cases they are the only ones to generate a family income. These women are an example of a homemade type of female entrepreneurship, created to support the economy of the entire family, often a large family. For this reason, the pasta divas command respect in the community. They are feisty women, tireless workers, and at the same time the icon of a timeless tradition. This experience reminded me of these weighty words by Kafka: “Intellectual work alienates man away from the human community. The material work, however, leads man towards men.”