In the shadow
Foto: Livio Senigalliesi
In the vast mineral area Sulcis-Iglesiente, Sardinia, there was no family without a miner.
But only Carbonia is now home to the last working coal mine in the whole country.
Iglesias, Nebida, Monte Poni
My second trip to Sardinia enabled me to find the answers to questions that had been left unresolved during the first. The pace of life here is totally different from that in Belarus. People have no problem in talking and discussing things unhurriedly over some time. So it’s impossible to meet with more than two people in one day.
A closed island. I couldn’t understand why. It’s very difficult to get a miner’s family to agree to photos being taken or having their portrait done. The reason became clear to me in the course of my stay. As you talk with them, they form a clear idea of who and what kind of person you are. Seemingly, only then do they decide whether to let you into their private life or not.
That’s how it went with Luciano Otelli, former manager of the mine. We met at his home in the city center after being taken there by a ‘guide’. In Sardinia, people only trust others through personal contacts. A phone call gets you nowhere. Someone has to guarantee for you and show that “you’re an insider”.
Salvatore Loru, president of the ex-miners’ association was a wonderful person. He had built on his own the house in which his numerous family lived, made all the furniture with his own hands, and has been carving the traditional Sardinian knives from deer antlers all his life. He’s never sold even a single knife; either he gives them away or adds them to his collection at home. Together with his colleagues, he set up the ex-miners’ association in a small house in the center of the town of Nebida, where there is a very good exhibition on the history of the local mine. I was struck by the fact that the miners meet with the pupils of the local schools and give them presents of handmade objects using stone from the mine.
I also had an important meeting in Iglesias with a ninety-year-old former miner, Mario Fenu. He showed me a lamp that he had taken down into the mine for over 20 years. When he retired, he kept the lamp and enough gas for a few more days. He doesn’t believe in God and the lamp was the most important thing at work; it was his best friend. When asked “why”, he recounted when the light from the lamp had saved his life by helping him and three other miners to get out from a blocked passage.
They had lit the lamp only for brief spells to find the way out. By doing so, they didn’t use up the remaining oxygen in the mine and could keep breathing. In the end, the lamp stopped working because there was too little air, but it had been enough to help the miners get out and save their lives.
It was a big shock for me when I saw in two of the three houses I visited busts of Mussolini. It turned out that there had been no purging of Fascism in Italy. Many are sympathetic with what Mussolini did for Sardinia, the opening of mines and building roads and schools. I found myself in a very awkward situation and didn’t know how to behave and how to react.
What is probably very significant metaphorically speaking about how the miners are remembered is the fact that at present there isn’t even one monument in their honor. And the park that had been put near the old mine of Monte Poni was partly burnt down by hunters, and it hasn’t been rebuilt. Only some of the trees still have the plaques with the names of dead miners, showing the date and cause of death. Most of the plaques are lying on the earth next to the trees planted in their memory.
On the whole, it was an unforgettable experience. To meet people who never use the name of the nation they live in but simply refer to the “Continent”. To see a completely different Italy: a traditional one where the people have a truly hard life. And all around such beauty, which should make it a real Catholic paradise.
Then, of course, the food. In one week’s stay, I put on 5kg because wherever you stop off and whatever you order it’s exquisitely delicious, fragrant and cooked on the spot at that very moment.
Santa Barbara Defies the Waves
August 2018, Nebida
Tradition has it that on the 5th of August every year the Sulcis minors carry their patron saint Santa Barbara in procession. But it’s not just any old procession. The statue of the saint is taken from the church in which it stands and carried to the beach where, to the amazement of the bathers, it is hoisted onto a boat filled with flowers. It’s a homage that these tough men make to their protectress each year. A swarm of boats follow in procession out to sea heading for the cliff at Porto Flavia. The sight of this sheer rock wall over the sea is breathtaking.
It is a highly significant place for the Sulcis miners and the union between the sacred and the profane is truly moving. Rolling among the waves, the boat reaches the “Sugar Loaf”, the big rock that makes this stretch of the cliffs uniquely fascinating. Here the big cargo boats were loaded with the minerals dug out of the bowels of the earth at great sacrifice. Here was written the history of the Italian mining industry.
Now is the time for recollection and faith comes in support of human souls so worn out by life. Back on the beach, the arms of the faithful reach out towards the statue.
In the most complete confusion, amid the beach umbrellas and white lilies, the miners hoist the statue onto their shoulders and carry it back to where it belongs. In the silence of the church that dominates the sea, the saint stretches out her arms to protect the men and women who still work in the darkness of the galleries.
The miners of the Green and Blue Association of Nebida put a lot of effort into organizing this act of faith and attachment to tradition. A life spent at Carbosulcis, Giuseppe Fonnesu works the whole summer on the preparations and, thanks to him, I was able to take such revealing pictures. The documenting of these rare moments makes this project uniquely significant.
The Storehouses of Memory
August 2018, Monteponi
Going from Gonnesa to Iglesias in the midst of Mediterranean scrub under a cobalt blue sky, a large heap of rust-colored waste points the way to the skeletal structures of the mine at Monteponi. This” red mud” is potentially highly pollutant industrial waste, but its strange forms and variations in color make it truly fascinating to photograph. Here at Monteponi, the closure of the mine has left behind an extraordinary patrimony in industrial archeology with enormous edifices, residential buildings, machinery, open-pit mines, and galleries. It is of immense historical value, bearing witness to an important part of our past. Valentina – in charge of the mine’s historical archive – takes me to see huge unsafe structures. Within these walls and in the, now closed, galleries worked thousands of miners and other workers. This was one of the biggest extraction sites in Europe. Everything that used to exist can be reconstructed from the rich archives containing thousands of maps, photographs from the past, and the registers with all the names of those who worked here, men, women, and children. For each one there is the name of the village they came from, their job, date of birth, any accidents they had, and their monthly pay. The women earned half as much as the men. The children received a pittance, though it helped their family’s poor income. I also see the cells for the convicts, criminals or political prisoners condemned to forced labor. Now they house the tools used by the miners in the galleries.
I’m allowed to make reproductions of rare pictures dating back to the early 1900s. They are exceptional photos enabling us to see the workplaces, coal-black faces of the miners, tired eyes of the sorters and the heavy labor of the ‘galanzieri’, who loaded lead and zinc onto the small boats taking the minerals to Carloforte, on the island of San Pietro.
Every day, over 200 sailing boats – called ‘bilancelle’- plied between the mining areas and the port. Long forgotten stories and kinds of work that this research is helping us to rediscover and appreciate their value.
One such story is that of Giovanni Concas. “After 1972 I’ve never been away again from Iglesias. My father was a miner, my grandfather a miner, and my great-grandfather went down into the gallery with a pick. My memories of the mine are of a lot of movement and a great din. Anyone who has never experienced life inside a mine can’t know what it feels like, and it’s difficult to describe.”
Then there are the memories of Vera Agati, born in 1928. “From an early age I worked on board the bilancelle. We used to leave in the night from Carloforte and arrive at Buggerru at dawn. The boat had no engine, it used sails. I remember the work of the galanzieri, fascinated by their physical ability. Once at Buggerru, they placed a long board between the boat and the shore. It sloped down and wobbled. They ran up and down it with baskets full of minerals…and so many of them fell into the sea with their baskets!”
A Sulcis miner’s family
August 2018, Pistis
I meet Salvatore and Vanda in their home in Pistis. They are kind and hospitable. We sit in the kitchen with the traditional Sardinian flag of the four Moors behind them.
Salvatore spent many years down the mine and is now enjoying a tranquil old age surrounded by the affection of his wife, five children and eight grandchildren. He recalls the time he worked at the Montevecchio mine. He says it was so hot they had to work bare-chested and also that the acetylene lamps fixed to their helmets would go out due to the lack of air. It was dangerous and back-breaking work. That’s why his wife Vanda was always worried. She knew it was risky because in the past her grandfather and uncle had died in the mines. When Salvatore was on night shift, she couldn’t sleep anxiously waiting for her husband to come back home from work.
Livio Senigalliesi and Andrej Liankevich visited these areas for the first time at the end of April 2018. They met men and women miners, listened to their stories and went down into the mines.
The old mines
Men used to work the mountain in search of lead and zinc, eating dusk at the risk of silicosis. Children ruined their hands in the acid of the washeries for 10-12 hours a day. In the mines at Buggerru, Monteponi and Montevecchio there were thousands of women working between the mid-19th and mid-20th century. A hundred years of exploiting poor families willing to do backbreaking work for a crust of bread. Illiteracy remained very high up to the 1950s. It was only after the war that vocational schools were set up to create a class of technicians and managers in Sardinia.
Technological developments brought about a change in the heavy old-fashioned method of mineral extraction by hand. Huge modern compressors and other machinery made in the United States, Germany or the Milan area were brought by ship to the port of Cagliari, where they were dismantled and the pieces transported on trains to the mining districts. The oxen or hundreds of mules used for the conveyance of materials were replaced by trains on narrow-gauge lines. At Porto Flavia, the mineral extraction site was connected to the coastline falling sheer to the sea.
Among the miners at Carbosulcis
Visit to the Nuraxi Figus coal mine
Carbonia, 26th of April 2018 - 8.30 am
Authorized by the management of the Carbosulcis Mining Company, I and Andrei have the opportunity to enter the last working mine. We go down on an elevator hoist to 400 meters below sea level. We are accompanied by mining technician Pietro Piras and Nicola Muller, in charge of the rescue squads that take care of safety in the galleries. Coal extraction has been discontinued because considered to be not very profitable. Pietro Pira, geologist and trade unionist: “The mine will continue to exist, however. Scientists at the CNR - National Research Council - are planning to extract rare gases such as argon and making use of the pit’s structure to carry out drillings deep down. It’s a strategical reserve that may be useful in the future, so all the mining plant should be kept in good working order.” Mining engineer Renato Tocco, 47 years old, is “renovating” his mine: “It seems a crazy story, but that’s how it went…five years ago I saw on eBay this piece of land with a disused mine and I bought it.” It seems a perfect spot for tourists to visit.
The role of women in the mine
Gonnesa, 27th of April 2018
Iride Peis is a Sardinian writer who has dedicated her life to the memory of the women and girls who worked in the mines. In her book Donne e bambine nella miniera di Montevecchio, Iride recalls the exploitation, hard work and bereavements of people who didn’t even have the right to speak out. Those women were called sorters, who broke up the minerals extracted in the galleries and separated the valuable parts from the waste. But they also had many other backbreaking tasks such as splitting the biggest pieces with picks, putting the extracted minerals in sacks and pushing the filled wagons. Risky and poorly-paid backbreaking work. Deep down in the Carbosulcis pit at 400 metres, I meet with Patrizia Saias. Her face shows the sacrifices of a life spent in the mine with pride, determination and dignity. “The mine is in my DNA, but when I was a child I was dreaming the see". Antonella Sanna is here too: "I started with Carbosulcis at 19. I come from a mining family. My father worked in the galleries at Monteponi, mum was a sorter.
At that time I was unemployed and the only chance for work in the area was the mine. Bit by bit I specialized in the work of renovating the galleries and then moved on to safety inspection".
First impressions from Sulcis-Iglesiente