Fornello Sustainable Preservation Project: Discovering and being a part of heritage in Southern Italy

By Theresa Felicetti


As we sat around the outside table at the Masseria on our last night, where we had shared several meals over the course of the 12 day workshop, we gathered one last time to share our thoughts and ideas with regards to what we had all experienced over the past couple of weeks. Tonio Creanza, the director of the program, took the time to hear what everyone had to say about their experience. As we went around the table the words ‘connection’ and ‘community’ seemed to echo throughout everyone’s comments, connection to the site, connection to the land and to the people involved in the project (fellow participants and locals). In my opinion, in heritage work today, connection to sites and with other individuals working within the same site is lacking. However, at the Messors workshop in southern Italy it happened so naturally and organically.

Half of our day was spent working on site at Fornello, a collection of 3rd century BCE Byzantine caves and a shepherd’s house. We cleared entrances, cleared the buildup of dirt from the floor of the caves, cleaned frescoes and despite our title at home, whether it be archaeologist, art restorer, geologist, student, social worker or pet shop owner, we all left for the site clean in our work clothes and returned dirty, hungry, exhausted and fulfilled. We were encouraged to take part in all the various jobs at the site and were not assigned a task based on our skills (some of us had zero experience in heritage conservation or art restoration). This allowed us to work as equals, broke down hierarchies and allowed conversation and perspective to be shared openly. The work and ideas that were contributed to the site were that of passion derived from hands on hard work, it generated a sense of ownership and respect for the site and all those involved, past and present.

Even back at the Masseria, the 18th century hunting lodge that was home during the workshop, this cohesive model blended into everyday life. On our first night our hosts said “here at the Masseria we provide, but we do not serve,” meaning there would always be food and the comforts of home available but we were encouraged to help cook or clean if we felt so inclined. Meals were enjoyed as a group and washing dishes became a highlight of the evening, accompanied by music and wine. I guess everything is a little better with a glass of wine.

With regards to the Fornello site, we learned about its history and how Tonio and his team intend to develop it in the future. A local shepherd and cheese maker visited the site to demonstrate the art of cheese making and discussed the issues they face in the work that they do. As standards and regulations change, it becomes more expensive for them to produce at their own farms, despite it being done for generations. This forces them to sell their sheep’s milk to commercial industries for low prices. As commercial cheese becomes cheaper (and less authentic), it becomes harder for local shepherds and cheese artisans to generate profit. Part of our work at the Fornello site is to create a space for these local shepherds and cheese artisans to preserve their livelihood. By providing them with a space to continue to make and store their cheese authentically and inexpensively, it allows them to generate the appropriate profit for all of their hard work.

When we weren’t working at Fornello, our time was spent visiting various areas and heritage sites around the Puglia region. This allowed us to gain an understanding of how these places have played a role in the development of the Messors vision and decision-making for the Fornello project, while experiencing and being a part of the culture that surrounded us. I was constantly reminded that we should take care of our traditions and our relationships with others because that’s what allows heritage built, tangible or intangible, to flourish. Why build new, when you have so many pre-existing structures available to you, rooted in a history with a sense of place that can not only become a place to connect to the past, but a way for a current society to connect as well. It’s not that these thoughts or ideas were new to me as they have been expressed and explored multiple time throughout my studies at Willowbank. However, it was nice to see that others understand the importance of giving a structure life by allowing it to simply stay in use.

Since I began studying heritage conservation, I personally have always had mixed feelings about tourism and how we see the world, which is another reason I was drawn to the Fornello project. For once, I felt I was contributing to a culturally important site and the economy it was situated in. I was working knowing the intention for the site has and will continue to have a purpose and that purpose does not consist of sitting vacant for the viewing of hordes of tourists. Yes, the Colosseum is magnificent but does the money provided by tourism actually provide any relief or assistance for the economy it exists in? Or is that money just continuously shovelled back into the site to cover the damage caused by visitors? What can you really learn about a site with thousands of years’ worth of history in a 45 minute tour? How culturally aware and connected can you become to the site and those that surround and interact with it when you are so far away from your tour guide you need a cassette and earphones to hear what he/she is saying? Not to mention your view of the areas of the site he/she is discussing is obstructed by hundreds of bodies. My experience the last time I was in the Colosseum, was frantically running around trying to find my group I had been separated from, since I made the mistake of going to the washroom.

I think the Fornello Project serves as a wonderful model for how to approach heritage and one I have become accustomed to. Throughout my time studying heritage at Willowbank, I have been learning under a model that questions the importances of the “expert” and welcomes the benefits of perspective and the interdisciplinary individual. The willowbank program similar to Messors accepts individuals with varying backgrounds and it is not required that it be in something related to heritage conservation. Overall, the experience is one that nicely complimented and reinforced what I have been learning at Willowbank and I am thankful I had the opportunity to be apart of this wonderful and culturally enriching experience.

To experience and be a part of a Messors workshop, check out: http://www.messors.com

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