In the Tonnara

By  |  October 18, 2017
Photo © Matthew Neill Null Photo © Matthew Neill Null

Redneck Letter from Rome 


The walls are pale, hard, sun-bleached rock. The tin roof is full of holes. Timbers lay piled against it. I can see through the crack in the chained door. The warehouse, I suppose you’d call it, is solid and square, large enough for dozens of men to butcher tuna. This is the tonnara of Marzamemi, a lovely fishing village in the extreme southeastern corner of Sicily, bounded by water on three sides, the bluest water, with small fishing boats bobbing in the harbor nearby.

On this shining day in high season, hundreds of tourists walk by the derelict tonnara. This building is the centerpiece of Marzamemi’s harbor and its history, but oddly enough, it seems shuttered and unused. A huge banner flies with the name of a real estate company and a phone number: for a price the tonnara can be yours!

It is said that Arab fishermen brought the tradition of tuna fishing to Sicily, including the famous mattanza, a slaughter of tuna schools caught in a shallow series of nets—the sea turns slick and red as fishermen drive their spears into the massive, shivering fishes, as brutal and ritualized as a Spanish bullfight. The Arab conquest of the island over a millennium ago lasted just a few generations, but the legacy is obvious in the architecture and the food. Here, we are closer geographically to Tunisia than to Rome. Some believe the name Marzamemi derives from the Arabic al-Marsa-hamem, “bay of turtle doves.”

At high tide, seawater rushes into a scoop on the stone harbor walk where thousands of fishermen have stepped. Slender silver anchovies, the alici my son loves to eat, turn fins and glide onto the harbor walk and rest in the shallow pool, close enough we can catch them in our hands.


When I see the body of a live Bluefin tuna, I (unreconstructed Marxist) can believe in the existence of God. The fish is sleek, shining, fast in the water, carving arcs beneath your boat—so fleet considering their massive bodies, which can reach a thousand pounds yet never seems bulky. They are so perfectly attuned to their environment. Their hearts are solid and maroon and drive the blood. Their flesh is packed and firm, as if by a strong mason’s trowel. The physical strength is amazing. When I used to live in Provincetown, Massachusetts, I would walk the mile across the jetty to Wood End—the ultimate curl and finale of Cape Cod—and watch the Bluefin launch themselves into the sky and the sun. These were “little” ones, merely the weight of my own body. The Bluefin are overfished now, especially for the Japanese sushi trade. I have never caught one, and I have my qualms—would I be willing to kill one? No, perhaps not. But then, I have eaten my fill of them: the odd chunk of steak, a gift from commercial-fishing friends, but more often bought at the store. On the ancient island of Ortygia, in Siracusa, I would point to the whole bodies of the swordfish (pesce spada, lovely name) and the Bluefin on the market slab. The fishmonger would pick up a shining cleaver and hack off my chosen piece, skin and all, a blood-red brick for my hand.

The prices rise and fall in this rank stock market, but that day, I had the best of my life for twelve euros a kilo—just over six dollars a pound. The sun was brutal, the market in its fifth hour, the scales caked and green on the fishmonger’s hands and brow. A dozen yellow jackets were ferrying in and out of the swordfish’s carcass. The fishmonger had tired of driving them away. Finally, a child was sent back for ice, and he packed it inside the body, driving them off, more or less.

What does it mean to love the animals you kill and consume? I come from farmers, hunters, and fishermen—those who live close to the land, close to the bone. It is impossible to explain that feeling to people who have lived in another way. It is impossible even to explain that feeling to ourselves. Once again, I am reminded of Sherman Alexie’s poem: “we worship / the salmon // because we / eat the salmon.”


Alas, this handsome creature is associated—in American minds—with those vile little cans packed with mass-produced, watery protein. It’s the moral-aesthetic equivalent of a black velvet oil-painting of Crazy Horse that one sees for sale down at the truck stop.

Bluefin tuna are a staple that link the culture of the Mediterranean to the east coast of the United States, where the Bluefin, along with its smaller cousin the Yellowfin, are fished from Cape Cod down to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The link is not only metaphorical. According to the Cranston Herald, in 2004 a captain named Al Anderson caught, tagged, and released a juvenile, nine-pound Bluefin southeast of Point Judith Light, Rhode Island. Eleven years later, the same fish was caught off the coast of Sardinia, another one of Italy’s tuna-fishing strongholds. The fish had gained nearly six hundred pounds and traveled 3,865 miles. It had crossed the Atlantic and slipped through the Straits of Gibraltar to find the homey Mediterranean, reversing the migration pattern of Italian-American life.

Today, migrants try to make their way across these waters from Africa to Sicily, and many have died where the Bluefin are. The refugee camp on Lampedusa is notorious for overcrowded, grim conditions. Lampedusa is a rocky scrap of a pelagic island, once owned by the ancestors of a favorite author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and it is strange to see the echo of the writer’s name on front pages above pictures of broken boats and drowned bodies.

The tonnare ring the island of Sicily. The buildings in Marzamemi in the southeast and Scopello in the northwest are the best known—I spent ten days in a rented house near the Scopello tonnara, the one featured on many a guidebook cover, and could hear the weddings and concerts held there—but most tonnare seem to be in sad disrepair or total neglect.

In these buildings, every scrap of the tuna was used, even the blood and the fat, just as my people butchered their hogs in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The choice cuts are obvious, and the dried roe (bottarga) is especially prized, but in the tonnara, the fish’s entrails and offal also were salted or preserved in oil for various uses, and difficult portions such as the joints and buzzonaglia were accorded care. Even the lattume, the male Bluefin’s sac of seminal fluid, was kept for the table.


I was drawn again and again to the tonnare. Only now do I realize I was fatigued by the endless palazzi and cathedrals of the rich that one is pointed to in Italy. It was refreshing to encounter a place where typical people—workers—lived and made a living.

The places of workers are not much revered in the Euro-American world. I think of the faded logo on the brick of the Marsh-Wheeling Stogie Factory, where my great aunts, farm women in search of steady wages, stood hand rolling cigars for ten hours a day. It is another unloved place where I saw the real estate company’s banner: another property that cannot be unloaded. For all we romanticize the notion of “work” in America, and as much as the politicians shill for it, the daily life of a laborer is the first thing to slip the collective memory. Instead, our children are taken to visit the mansion, the cathedral, or the art museum where the dirty money was poured. The factories corrode. The roof falls in. The weather comes. I remember bored teenage friends throwing rocks at the high windows of Dalzell-Viking Glass—their people had surely worked there blowing glass, but no one had a sense that it was of any importance. I didn’t either, not at the time. I probably would have thrown a rock had I any athletic ability.

These places are functional, solid, lasting. They’ve no vanity. “Remove far from me vanity and lies, give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread”—looking at them I remember the verse from Proverbs.

I had fantasies of buying the tonnara of Marzamemi and making it a place where people could enter and remember the people who had worked there, as I have about the factories of Wheeling, West Virginia.

What could the buildings be? I don’t know. Surely not places to be rented to the rich. A few years ago, the poet Jonathan Farmer invited me to speak at his school on the Haw River in Saxapahaw, North Carolina. I was amazed. We stood in a brick hall with wooden floors and skylights, the schoolchildren running in and echoing as they filled the space, a former cotton mill and dye house where people—maybe their grandparents—had earned their daily bread. I could sense the happiness of the ghosts as the students sassed and played on the factory floor. I’m no great shakes as a speaker. Some of the schoolchildren were engaged by my little talk, and some were indifferent, as is right and natural to the way schoolchildren have always behaved, everywhere. After, I took them down to the river, and they wrote stories about the people who lived on the Haw a hundred years before—then a thousand years before.

“Redneck Letter from Rome” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.

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Matthew Neill Null is a a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the O. Henry Award, the Mary McCarthy Prize, and the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is author of the novel Honey from the Lion (Lookout Books) and the story collection Allegheny Front (Sarabande). Originally from West Virgnia, Null and his family currently reside in Rome, Italy.