This article, written by Jakob Schiller, appears on Wired.
THE PORDENONE RODEO looks like any other rodeo, what with the people sauntering around in cowboy boot and hats, country music blaring in the dance hall, and all those riders on horseback roping cattle. The only thing unusual about it is Pordenone is in Italy.
That’s right. Italy.
For two years running, thousands of wanna-be cowpokes from throughout Italy and as far away as Slovenia have gathered in this city in the far north to celebrate the American West. Photographer Mattia Balsamini captured the Italian fascination with cowboy culture in his project The West Family, which also was released as a book.
“It was a little too mechanical and it looked artificial, but the people were really into it,” says Balsamini, who grew up in Pordenone but studied photography at Brooks Institute in California. He regularly shoots for WIRED Italia and other commercial clients, but this was a personal project.
Balsamini got the full experience, capturing everything from mechanical bull riding to vendors selling confederate flags. Dancing is a major feature, with hundreds of people two-stepping and yee-hawing for seven or eight hours each day. Participants were so earnest they tried to set the world record for the most line dancers on the 1,500-foot floor. “Some of the dancers were walking around in shirts that were totally drenched in sweat,” Balsamini says.
Music also was crucial. Most of the time DJs entertained the crowd, but there was a special performance by James Otto, an American musician whose song “Just Got Started Lovin’ You” was the No. 1 country single of 2008. Balsamini tried taking it all in stride, but when he saw Otto playing for a crowd that didn’t understand the lyrics, he couldn’t help but feel a little weird. “I looked at him and felt so bad that he was playing at this event. The people listening were kind of helpless,” he says. “It’s a culture that doesn’t really belong to us.”
Vendors sold everything needed to deck out in full Western garb—hats, boots, jeans, and, somewhat oddly, axes and wolf stickers. People took their get-ups seriously—the photographer spotted people wearing custom-tailored Wranglers—and Balsamini donned a cowboy hat so as not to stand out. To tie it all together, event organizers plastered the walls with images of the Grand Canyon and other notable Western landmarks. Still, there were a few unique twists. Rather than drinking Budweiser or bourbon, for example, many guests drank Spritz, a common northern Italian apertif.
While it might seem odd to have Italians imitating cowboys, there’s a historical connection between Italy and the American frontier. According to Renee M. Laegried, an associate history professor at the University of Wyoming, Buffalo Bill’s famous Wild West reenactment shows came through the country in the late 19th century and Spaghetti westerns like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly were popular in the mid-1960s. All had their influence. Balsamini claims the American soldiers stationed in Italy exposed the locals to country music.
The photographer says the event will likely return next year but he won’t shoot it. The West Family is part of a larger series he’s working on about Pordenone, which is known for things like its book fair and movie festival, not its country western spectacular. If he does go, he’ll be a participant. “I going to have to learn to dance,” he jokes.
See more of Balsamini’s photographs on Wired