Meatpaper zero

Pig slaughter,
Montenero Val Cocchiara, Italy

by John Caserta, as told to Amy Standen
MARCH, 2007

JOHN CASERTA won a Fulbright to spend a year in the small village in southern Italy in which his father was born. From August 2004 through August 2005 he interviewed village residents, took photographs and video, and gathered images from family collections. This portfolio was taken in the winter during a rare gathering to slaughter a local pig.

Montenero Val Cocchiara is a town of 500 people located east of Rome in the Appenine mountains. It’s a small town, a collection of families. The town is shrinking, and with it, its traditions. My dad’s from there, so we’re part of the system, but we’re ones who emigrated, so that’s already an asterisk on our name. This is a region of Italy that’s considered backwards and it’s a town that’s considered especially backwards. There are a lot of elements of things gone wrong in Montenero—it’s a region of corruption and so people were suspicious of me, there with my cameras. It took about six to nine months for people to really understand that I was collecting a time capsule of the town.

There’s a heartbeat that actually decreases, and you can hear the breathing. Even after the blood is gone, there’s still a bit of life left, and some motion...Over the course of the next few hours, the pig becomes completely utilitarian. 

Nicola, the man with the beard, is an intelligent, well-read man. He’d been out of town and worked in restaurants—he sort of has that guru quality. He believed my reasons for wanting to photograph and understand the pig slaughter. He was much more talkative than others I approached, not so suspicious. He’s one of the few people in Montenero who will take a walk with their wife in the countryside and love it. For most of them, nature is a tool, not something they love.

Traditionally, stables were in the village and people would keep their pig under their house, so that every piece of land could be used for agriculture. Eventually, sanitation laws stepped in and the government imposed incentives to build stables outside of town. Nowadays, it’s illegal to slaughter pigs in this traditional way. Pigs are supposed to be sent to a government-sanctioned butcher. There are signs around saying “You’re not allowed to kill pigs.” But it’s expensive to send the pigs to a butcher, and people say that the meat doesn’t taste as good.

For a while, there was some embarrassment about being too much of a villager, not being able to afford people to do things for you. But that’s changing. The people who are killing their pigs are happy and proud that they know how to do it. It’s not a sign of poverty, as it was in the 80’s and 90’s; it has now become a point of pride.

They only kill in the descent of the moon—la mancanza—and pretty much only on the weekends. Most everyone told me that this was the tradition that had been handed down to them, and if you only have one pig you don’t want to ignore it. So a couple weekends in the winter, you start hearing the squeals.

It was really cold that day; it was below freezing. I remember my fingers were as cold as they could be. I had two cameras, still and video, I was trying to do it all. I felt like I had to push through physical discomfort.

The pig is led out onto the snow, where its throat is cut open, and then it bleeds to death. Then, they take the intestines and various other parts out of the animal and set them aside. They let the carcass hang like this for two days. All the blood drips out and, since it’s freezing outside, the meat cools and dries out.

I used both the still and video cameras that day, and what’s really different between the two versions is how in the video you see the blood coming out in pulses. There’s a heartbeat that actually decreases, and you can hear the breathing. Even after the blood is gone, there’s still a bit of life left, and some motion. Soon it is inert, the lack of life apparent. When I watch the video, it is breathtaking to see the life come out of the animal, but it was less so at the time.

Over the course of the next few hours, the pig becomes completely utilitarian. I think that’s most apparent when the pig is opened up—maybe it’s that physical opening of the animal that marks its transition from animal to meat. That’s when the real transition for me began. Eventually, some women came in to remove parts of the body that they didn’t want. That’s when it was really clear.

About six months after they killed the pig, I ate some of it in the form of sausage. I don’t think it was cured, I think it was cooked. It was really good. Nicola said it took almost a year get that sausage in my hand—the raising of the pig, the killing of the pig, the making of the sausage. To most American perspectives, that cycle is almost unimaginable.



John Caserta is a Providence-based artist specializing in data visualization, new media design, and landscape photography. He was the Fulbright Fellow in the Arts to Italy from 2004 to 2005. He is an adjunct faculty member in the graphic design department at the Rhode Island School of Design and runs the Small Books Project, an experimental book-making cooperative.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Zero.

Photos by John Caserta