Cleo Barbafiera

“Less is More” — These are the words that Cleo gave without a second thought when asked if there was a phrase that has been truly formative for her. She had spent much of her life wanting to do, have, and be as much as she could, striving to the point of strain, but she has come to cherish the here and now, the memories of simple childhood afternoons and the times that she is able to sit and reflect in her own space. Certainly, hard work is never far from Cleo: when we spoke, she had just finished another excavation at Caldanelle, not far from Podere Cannicci, which she undertook right after the end of the IMPERO Project’s season; nevertheless, before looking on to the next, Cleo’s mind turned instead towards rest and recharge, towards easing her shoulders and hard-working hands in the calm of the sea. Indeed, Cleo has come to love the little things and moments of in-between, and even though she has seen so many corners of the globe and wishes to continue to roam, her most important place will always be back home — fun moments in adventure and with friends are made more special by peaceful time alone.

When we spoke, Cleo was almost finished with her master’s degree at the University of Siena, with only her exams and the completion of her thesis lying before her. Her research focused on Roman amphorae at the site of Roselle, where she has excavated for around three years, side-by-side with nearly all her companions from Cannicci; of all the places that she has dug, the wonders that Roselle has returned, the successes of the excavation seasons, and the group of friends that the site has given her earned the site a principal place in her heart. Despite her fondness for Roselle and her thesis focused on its ceramics, however, Cleo’s true passion is anthropology, particularly osteology. Prior to Siena, during her bachelor’s degree at the University of Pisa, this was in fact her focus, and she hopes to take up this subject once again and to complete another master’s degree in this specialization after her time at Siena. Cleo cites the importance of this trajectory of study during her bachelor’s degree, as she had the opportunity to work alongside a famous figure in the field, Professor Gino Fornaciari, in her investigations of funerary materials and paleopathology. She had taken many courses alongside him, fulfilling her passion of tracing illness through human remains, and by the time that she arrived at Roselle, her previous experiences proved invaluable, even for the careful handling of material culture. She would one day be grateful for the skill of her hands when fragile bones translated instead to precious mosaic.

Cleo has known since she was young that she wanted to go into the field of archaeology, but she never knew exactly why, and she had many other interests that she entertained in the interim. There was a time in which Cleo wished to study languages, influenced by her German mother’s bilingualism that colored Cleo’s early days, and the determined scholar has always had a passion for art, particularly watercolors, and even attended a high school specialized in artistic study. When she was little, Cleo recalled, she spent her free time creating artwork with her mother, when she was not running off to play with her friends, and she makes space to create even now, although she hopes to have more time to dedicate to art in the future. Still, archaeology remained the constant thread; it was never something that she ‘chose’ over her other potential selves, and when it was time to decide her path, she knew what to do.

Although she no longer has hours of free time in which to paint, her other passions are far from neglected: In fact, Cleo constantly applies her unique interests and skills to her archaeological work, which she cites as being all the richer for it. The training that she underwent at her high school of the arts has assisted her in the study of skeletons and has allowed her to truly capture the uniqueness of archaeological finds, especially ceramics, the accurate drawing of which is necessary for their study. Even language has given her a distinct advantage in this field: growing up speaking German has allowed her to connect with tourists and other people and has even predisposed her to the learning of other languages, especially English, which she describes as fundamental for travelling and working abroad. She has an advantage, then, to the access of global communication; without it, she would not be able to meet and to work alongside people of diverse nationalities, and her successful collaboration with people of German, Italian, Dutch, and Hungarian origin during a German excavation through the shared lingua franca of English attests to this.

Cleo, in fact, has already seen much of the world. Apart from digging at multiple sites in Tuscany, every year she goes to Germany, a place that she has become quite fond of, and has done two excavations there as well. Her personal voyages have reached all the way to South Africa, while her work has taken her as far as the Oromia region of Ethiopia, all along the territory’s southernmost border with Kenya. She is eager to see many different places across the world, always captivated by the new. She hopes to one day see Latin America, to meet the people and to experience the cultures that have fascinated her for a long time and that appear to her to be so open and kind. As for work, she dreams most of all for trowel to touch soil in North Africa, especially Morocco — there, too, as much to embrace the cultures of the living as much as to uncover the lives of the dead.

The fearless student had travelled to Ethiopia with a paleoarchaeology group to investigate the populations who had utilized the region’s caves, independently from the opportunities provided by her education. Instead, with the same personability that colored her international associations in Germany, yet with the same connection to home, Cleo was recruited by a man who lived nearby her house in Italy. Having spent many years living and conducting humanitarian work in Ethiopia, he extended an opportunity to Cleo that she bravely accepted, and she fostered relationships with researchers from the University of Florence whom she had never met before.

These facts do not lessen, in contrast, the importance that the University of Siena has held for facilitating similar opportunities for excavation and interconnection. According to Cleo, this institution is unique in its commitment to providing students the ability to dig in a multitude of contexts from prehistory to the Middle Ages and beyond, even extending participation to students outside the university who make a strong showing at digs every year. “l’università dovrebbe darla possibilità a tutti noi di imparare (the university should give all of us the chance to learn),” Cleo explained, and amidst Siena’s broader vision of cross-university collaboration, the interdisciplinary scholar found that this rich environment of potential does just this.

      The opportunity to undertake excavation is the potential to learn and to develop oneself, to experience wonder and to forge lifelong connections. Although many digs were formative for Cleo, one memory of a Roman villa in Tuscany is the most potent in her mind: Her grin, framed by soft, blonde hair, recreated the moment’s excitement, when after a month of toil, not knowing what was beneath, Cleo and her companions came upon an incredible mosaic. She seemed to be back there, if only for a moment, as if the awe of the experience were something that time could never diminish, nor fresh memories; in fact, the final day at Cannicci made her feel the same way, yet she can hold fondness for both. There, as the students were finishing up the day’s work, preparing to bring the excavation to a close, the team decided to clean the section of the excavation that housed the dolia. Here, Cleo recounts, Edo first found a bronze stylus, and then, all of a sudden, bronze began to appear beneath their hands all around them — a true moment of wondrous discovery.

 Cleo’s experience at Cannicci, however, was special in ways quite unique to the site. Despite the similarity of method, the group was very small: when she first joined the IMPERO team, there were only five people present, whereas her other excavations have had fifteen at the fewest. This not only provided the opportunity to take on more responsibility and to work with greater independence, but the intimacy of the group likewise fostered a fun environment that Cleo wished did not have to end. She recounted the beauty of the land and of the people who occupied it, the kindness of Luca and his family and the site directors and collaborators — even those met virtually. Although all were thankful for the unexpected chance to excavate as the rest of the nation had shut down, this human element and group rapport is, according to Cleo, just as important as the act of excavation itself: without the glue of harmony, labor in the field will not be fruitful, and Cleo’s fond reminiscence of the group’s days under the sun witnesses the power of joy, comradery, and interpersonal connection to withstand even a global pandemic.

Indeed, this power of connection has allowed Cleo to make the most of quarantine, even though she has not been able to physically get together with her many friends. Their bonds are stronger than these trials, one bond in particular even stronger still: the one that she shares with her roommate, Benedetta. These two had met by chance when Cleo first excavated at Roselle, not knowing anyone at all; Benedetta, Cleo explained, was the most significant stranger that she met in her life, only growing in importance with years of friendship. Now, living together in Siena, the two have brought light to an otherwise dark period, distracting one another from the circumstances of the world while respecting one another’s space.

Perhaps, then, it has been Cleo’s bonds with people, regardless of space or circumstance, that have acted as a thread, tying together her many interests and the places that she has been. Perhaps this is why, years after graduating high school at eighteen and entering a different field, the special bond between Cleo and her high school painting instructor has not waned; perhaps this is why she can still recount his passion for his craft and his quality of character, and why she feels as though they have known one another for a lifetime, continuing to catch up often and to enjoy exhibitions together whenever he comes to Siena. Perhaps it is her unshakable love for her mother and their shared, water-color afternoons that has conserved Cleo’s passion for art, that has turned their cat-filled home into her most important place no matter where she roams — a question that she could answer before I ever finished my words.

Text by: Elisabeth Woldeyohannes