It is ironic that the promotion of the valley should be carried out by an elephant. Surus, the elephant of the Trebbia, created by the skillful touch of photographer Paolo Guglielmetti , unwitingly became the promoter of Val Trebbia. It is ironic that a fantasy creation now represents the need of the valley to open up to the rest of the world but at the same time this is also a spot-on metaphor for Val Trebbia itself: a sleeping beauty waiting to be rediscovered, an enchanted creature forgotten by time that now can come back to life thanks to the imagination and the initiative of the inhabitants of the valley where it rests. We asked Paolo Guglielmetti to tell us more about the back-stage of the pictures he took and that portray Surus as well as the comics/newspaper which carries its name and of his personal link to Val Trebbia.
Paolo, when did you first meet Surus and how did you become aware of it?
It was April 7th 2009. I was documenting the canyons of the Trebbia, taking
advantage of the good weather which allowed me to take pictures and video
footage of that part of Alta Val Trebbia located at km 76400. The water was
lively and the images perfect to be filmed. As you can observe in the video, I drove
up the valley and stopped to take different shots of the river, its water and
the surrounding mountains. Towards the end of the session, while I was taking the
last snap I captured a corner of the mountain encircled by the curve of the
I looked at the screen of my Nikon and I was impressed to see the shape of the
elephant’s trunk which then showed me the whole body of the sleeping animal;
the composition was probably inspired by the shades and colours of the woods,
details that surely contributed to reveal that unusual shape. A thought came to
my mind: what if it was the elephant itself who decided to be seen? How come no
one else before ever noticed its shape? This finding and visual composition is
very special to me, a photographer who in a thirty-year-long experience surely
had the chance to see many visual effects. I also took some videos and then I
went back home still excited by what I had just discovered. I soon understood I
was in the presence of something important and I started working straight away on
a program that could turn the elephant into the symbol of Val Trebbia. I did
some research on the Internet but it turned out no one had “seen” the elephant
before in that same spot: the existing pictures of that part of the river were
all named “canyons in Confiente”. The moment had come to make the discovery
official and in July 2009 the Piacenza newspaper Liberta’ published an article
about my finding.
How did you link it with the Hannibal’s crossing of the Trebbia and the battle that took place there?
Thanks to the support of my brother, my family and some friends that encouraged me to keep on working on this project, I became more and more aware that we had found the visual symbol of Val Trebbia. There had never been something similar before. It was therefore natural to link the elephant to history, especially to the battle of the Trebbia which took place at Tuna in the valley close to Rivergaro, around 218 B.C. I did some research and I read the description of Pliny the Elder regarding the death of Hannibal’s 37
elephants, all killed by exhaustion or in battle during the winter. All of them died but one, Surus, that not only survived, but after having recovered from the winter also carried Hannibal on his back as far as Lake Trasimeno the following June. My personal version of the legend continues and adds to the official narration:
“ After carrying Hannibal to
Lake Trasimeno, Surus went back and fell asleep close to Cerignale where it
still lies today and where its shape gave birth to a very special place”.
In relation to Surus’ story, it is important to note that many people think that a fraction of Hannibal’s army found shelter in Val Trebbia after the winter, especially in Val Boreca, founding a community there. Many of the villages of this area carry names that can be traced back to ancient Carthage, like for example Zerba, Tartago or Barca (the name of Hannibal’s family). I believe in this version, although nothing has been found so far that could prove the presence of Hannibal’s soldiers. So it is clear how the location where Surus lies, close to Val Boreca, in the middle of Val Trebbia and halfway in between Genoa and Piacenza, is a magical place, which is inclined to be considered as a new, meaningful discovery. I would like to point out an esotheric detail: did you know that Surus lies on the straight line connecting Stonhenge in the UK to the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt? If you link the two sites you can see how Surus lies on the same trajectory, together with Pietra Parcellara and Pietra Perduca. While a lot is already known about these two rocks and they were referred to during the past centuries as places emanating positive energy, nothing is known about Surus yet. But don’t you find it peculiar that our elephant lies exactly on the line that reaches out to the pyramids?
What is your relationship to Val Trebbia?
My mother is from Mezzano Scotti, a small village close to Bobbio, but I grew up in Milan. However, I spent all my summers in Val Trebbia: this is why I grew up with two souls, an urban one from Milan and a natural one linked to Val Trebbia. I think this is the reason why I always carried inside of me the love and care for nature, the river and the Trebbia: it was in this kind of environment that I used to spend whole summers in full immersion with nature.
Let’s talk about the Surus’ comics: how did you get in touch with the authors and how do you create the narratives?
After discovering Surus I involved some schools in Bobbio for a project in which some 100 pupils wrote 40 fantasy stories about the elephant out of their own imagination. The stories were gathered in a book published by Edizioni Ponte Gobbo, which is named “I racconti dell’elefante (“Tales of the elephant”, n.d.t.). I also designed Surus gadgets, such as t-shirts and the 2011 calendar. At this point though, an idea that could be kept alive and develop was needed: Surus had nothing new to offer from a photographic point of view. This is how I decided to create something that would allow him to live through its own narration. This is how the idea of the comics developed, although my original project was aimed
at producing a cartoon, but it was not possible due to lack of funds.
I met Franco Garioni, illustrator, comic designer and teacher, who was really
enthusiastic about the project from its very beginning. The first issues
featured comic strips divided under different categories: history, environment,
fantasy and recipes. As of the September 2010’s issue we decided to keep a single
comic strip and give more room to texts in order to give relevance to
contributions, culture, opinions and thoughts of the people of Val Trebbia. In
December we will issue a comic collection featuring three or four stories
linked to Surus, the Elephant of the Trebbia. The comic designers involved in
the project so far, besided Garioni, are Gianluca Rossi, Luca Piccoli and
Edoardo Arzani. We decide together about topics and texts, we then establish a
common guideline and each comic designer develops its strip autonomously.
Franco Garioni is the supervisor for the whole process, the mentor and
reference for any doubt that might arise during the production.
How was the Surus project received by the audience at its beginning and now? Was there any scepticism and did you then notice more interest towards the project?
To be really honest Surus is now very positively welcomed, the people who learn about it admire the project. Schools and pupils are enthusiastic about it but at administrative/political level nothing is happening. I forwarded requests for funding to anybody, to many institutions during the past two years, for projects that would involve schools and not just to organize events in the villages. All with no results. What we achieved so far, and it is already a lot, was possible thanks to private funding of the people who support us. Funding is scarce and we are really doing all in our power to be able to continue working on our project, whose core aim is the promotion of Val Trebbia trough the visual image of Surus the Elephant of the Trebbia. Unfortunately the risk is that people into administration or politics would now see that the idea is good and it is working, and would try to appropriate it and steal it rather than give us credit for our idea. They would rather promote other associations and initiatives which, under a different name, do exactly what we are doing. If this is true, we will soon increasingly hear about an elephant in the valley: for example, the Piacenza province will soon install on the new bridge over the
Trebbia a statue of an elephant as the symbol of Hannibal’s battle. What I really do not like is that Surus has been known to all the people-in-the-know for two years now but no one ever “gave to Cesar what belongs to Cesar”, no one ever gave us credit for the idea, the discovery but above all the project we want to realize.
What was the best comment the project received so far and the most constructive critic to focus on?
We received many positive comments. When we present our projects for the promotion
of the valley people compliment us and encourage us to keep on the good work; the constructive critics come from people who, aware of the political mechanisms, tell us not to give up and that maybe we should also apply a bit of “mafia” tactics in order to receive some funding. However, this is not part of our spirit or culture so we will go on without compromises, we are aware we will find enemies on our path but also many friends among the people. They can try to steal the Surus-concept but they will never win, Surus is untouchable and unsinkable and as long as it is alive it will remain the only true, unique and original Elephant of the Trebbia.
Can you explain the future projects of the Surus association?
We want to promote Val Trebbia. Surus the Elephant of the Trebbia is an association
that aims at making our beautiful valley known in the world. We also want
people from other valleys to get together, involve the people living in bordering
areas to keep the culture of the past alive and to allow the current
generations to look at the future all together, providing concrete alternatives to those who want to come and live in Val Trebbia. We are developing several projects: from a large scale promotion of food and wine products to cultural events, music, cinema, documentaries, we now have the newspaper/comic and a Youtube channel
featuring interviews with inhabitants of the valley or travellers. We clearly know what needs to be done to spread the interest and curiosity for our valley but the lack of funding is our biggest concern at the moment. We need to find funding partners willing to help us develop these projects.
Did you ever consider starting comic-design courses in Val Trebbia? It could be an interesting experiment…
We strongly focus on comic-design courses but unfortunately, once again, the problem is the lack of funds. We are awaiting replies for projects we presented to some schools in the province of Piacenza.
It looks like the promotion initiatieves you organised so far focused mainly in the province of Piacenza. Are you planning to include also the province o Genoa and the villages of Alta Val Trebbia?
Of course! For us Val Trebbia is the whole valley! From Genoa to Piacenza, we also think that the bordering areas carry an added value to the project. We want to extend our action to a 360 degree vision and Surus will be our starting point.
Why do you think it took a mythological elephant to move something in Val Trebbia and start a new kind of promotion?
I think having found the elephant in our valley, the link it carries with history and having it so massively present before our eyes are all elements that could only bring anyone of us out of our daze and laziness, beyond the image.
What do you think are the main difficulties the valley is encountering to opening up to a wider audience?
The biggest difficulty could be the mentality of the political class which unfortunately infected a big section of the population too. I believe that if we keep on enhancing the cultural dimension, above all outside of Italy, there will be increasingly a more healthy interest towards our valley, and it will push and stimulate us all to carry on our projects.
interview and translation: Claudia Costa