Talking with Giovannino …

28 August, 2011

 a conversation about sea sponges on the island of Lampedusa

Last year when I visited Lampedusa, I hadn’t even noticed the little freshly painted shop at the end of the main street selling natural sea sponges.  This year, visiting the shop and talking to Giovannino, its owner, turned out to be one of the highlights of my stay on the island.

The shop is small, but very attractively set up, with sponges of different types and sizes displayed on tables, and hanging from the walls, and a series of photographs showing the various stages of processing.  It is obviously a shop run by someone who knows, and cares about, what he is selling.  That someone is Giovannino, a dark haired, strongly built man, probably in his 50s, with that distance and deep reserve Sicilians often seem to have, at least on first meeting.  I made a small purchase, complimented him on his shop, and asked if I might come back some time to talk to him about sea sponges and sponge ‘fishing’.  He graciously agreed. 

When I returned several days later, the little shop was empty, and Giovannino welcomed me warmly, sitting himself down in a chair in the corner and inviting me to pull up a chair behind the counter.  I sensed immediately that here was someone both interested in and aware of his surroundings – and after talking to him for a few minutes I realised he was also someone with that particular mix of curiosity, intelligence and wisdom I have seen before in people whose lives are lived close to Nature. Our conversation gave me a little insight into a world I knew nothing about.

Before we began talking about sponges, though, Giovannino was keen to tell me a little bit about Lampedusa’s history. His interest in the island was different from that of other locals I had met – probably because he had spent some time away from the island as  a ship’s captain, travelling to many countries including Africa; North, Central and South America; and Norway.  His horizons had expanded and his perspective shifted. He told me how, in the mid 19th century, whenSicily was ruled fromNaples by the Bourbon king, Ferdinand II, Lampedusa was virtually uninhabited, and considered to be of no value.  Ferdinand decided to colonise it, and people, mostly fishermen and farmers, were brought to Lampedusa from various places, but primarily other Sicilian islands, including Ustica, a small island off Sicily’s north coast, and Pantelleria, a small island off the south west coast.  The seas surrounding the island were particularly rich in both fish and sea sponges and these industries soon proved to be very profitable.

In the past, sponges were collected by professional deep sea divers.  Synthetic sponges did not yet exist, and the market for natural sea sponges was very lucrative.  Giovannino’s grandfather, a sponge diver from the Greek island of Spiros, came to Lampedusa in search of sponges in 1890.  There he met Giovannino’s grandmother and married, and the family has been there ever since.  Now, with the development of synthetic sponges, the market for natural sea sponges has shrunk and it is no longer profitable for divers to go down to harvest them.  Fishing nets dragged along the sea bed bring sponges up and Giovannino and his family go down to the port when the boats come in, and buy sponges from the fishermen.   

I asked Giovannino about the characteristics of natural sea sponges and how they compare with the synthetic sponges that have taken over the market.   He was quick to tell me that there is really very little similarity between synthetic and natural sponges.  Sea sponges are, in fact, a very simple form of animal that has no brain or nervous system and is capable of regenerating itself asexually from a single cell.  The part we use is actually the fibrous skeleton.  One of the most important advantages of natural sponges, he said, is that whereas synthetic sponges retain bacteria, natural sponges expel them.  But there are other advantages too:  natural sponges act as a mild exfoliant, but are so soft they can be used on the most delicate skin, even that of babies, and they are more absorbent than synthetic sponges.      

He then explained how the sponges are processed.  Once out of the water they die in about 24 hours.  They are then put into nets and soaked in sea water for several hours and then, one by one, bashed on rocks until all the dead material inside the fibrous skeleton has been removed.  After further rinsing, the water is squeezed out and the sponges strung onto cords to form a ‘necklace’, and left to dry in the sun for three or four days.  After that, they are ready for use – no chemicals are used in the process.  They are then pressed firmly into sacks ready to be shipped to their destination.  Giovannino had photos showing men standing on the bags and using all their weight to press the sponges down.     

His sponges are sold only in Italy, but Mediterranean sponges are recognised as being among the best in the world and there are producers who export them all around the world.  For Giovannino and his family, winters are dedicated to the collection and processing of sponges, summers to marketing.   In the past they had only the small premises at the old port where all the work is done; then, on 25 June 2010, they opened this little shop.  This year the shop will close for the season on 15 October.  Athough it is likely to be still warm on the island then –  there are warm currents in the surrounding seas until the end of November – the tourist season will have come to an end.   

This year, he said, had been particularly difficult – not only because of the refugee problem which had received such publicity and kept tourists away, but also because of the economic crisis.  But Giovannino is philosophical and there was more acceptance than melancholy in his voice when he said he didn’t know how much longer the business, the last one the island dedicated exclusively to the collection, processing and sale of natural sea sponges, could survive. 

                                        *        *        *

Giovannino may be philosophical about the passing of a way of life, but I, for one, would be sorry to see the end of small specialist shops like this one, where the owners know, and are enthusiastic about, what they are selling, and shopping is a personal and enjoyable experience, involving genuine human contact.

On my return from Lampedusa, I happened to pick up Haruki Murakami’s book of interviews with survivors of the Tokyo gas attack, Underground, and was immediately struck by a comment made by one of the subway attendants who had been on duty at the time of the attack: “I already knew that society had got to the point where something like [this] had to happen.  Dealing with passengers day after day, you see what you see…. If we’re sweeping up the station with a dustpan and brush, just when we’ve finished, someone will flick a cigarette butt or a piece of litter right on the spot where we’ve cleaned”.   It illustrated perfectly how very impersonal life in a big city can be – and  made me think again, with gratitude, of Giovannino and his little sponge shop.

4 Responses to “Talking with Giovannino …”

  1. Sally Field Says:

    I will make sure I go to see him when I am there in September.

    • kateludlow Says:

      Yes, you must. Please give him my best wishes. And while there, you must visit the Art Gallery just across the street – it’s run by an architect who spends half the year in Naples and devotes the rest of his time to helping protect and promote Lampedusa’s cultural and historical heritage. He is interesting and so is his gallery – lots of interesting things, including silver reproductions he has had made of a very early coin found on the island. He has also written a little book on the island’s history, but unfortunately it’s only in Italian.

  2. Cate Says:

    Fascinating! Also a quite depressing that so many traditional methods and ways of life seem to be being continually eroded. I knew absolutely nothing about natural sea sponges and was very interested to read about Giovannino and his business.

    • kateludlow Says:

      Thank you for the comment – I’m glad you found the article interesting. I remember using sea sponges a long time ago, but I’d forgotten all about them and was very pleased to find Giovannino and his shop.


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