'Italy's ginger gene spread from Sicily'

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Roger I, who was the Norman Count of Sicily from 1071 to 1101, receiving the keys of Palermo. The Normans are said to be responsible for redhead in Italy. Photo: Memorato/Wikipedia
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Over the centuries, they’ve been scorned, persecuted and marginalized. But it was an example of modern-day disdain towards redheads that prompted an Italian photographer’s mission to safeguard their diversity, The Local has learned.

Let’s face it, redheads get a tough time, especially in the early years of their life. I should know, because I am one. But more on that later.

Marina Rosso, a 29-year-old fine art photographer and researcher from Udine, is not a redhead as the English translation of her surname might suggest.

But after hearing in 2011 that flame-haired men were being rejected from the world’s largest sperm bank because demand for ginger children was so low, she decided to explore the idea that redheads are at the point of elimination through a conspiracy of “online questionnaires, aseptic clinics and frozen sperm.” Put simply, nobody wants ginger - as they are commonly referred to in the UK - kids.

“When people are involved in a selection process, they don’t want redheads,” Rosso, who stumbled across the donor-clinic news while researching artificial insemination, told The Local.

“But they usually don’t admit to disliking red hair, they say they just prefer other colours. It’s a consequence of what people perceive to be beautiful – it’s like going to the supermarket.”

It was the Danish firm, Cyros International, that told ginger men to keep their semen away from their bank of an estimated 140,000 sperm samples, as apart from in Ireland, where redheads can feel at home, demand from elsewhere was pretty much non-existent.

The company later changed its mind, but it left an indelible mark on Rosso, who said that when choosing a donor, women tended to dismiss redheads for the embodiment of a ‘Prince Charming’: a man who’s not only handsome and healthy but who also went to the best schools.

So in an effort to “preserve the diversity” of the ginger species, she set about classifying its genetic variations and came up with a matrix that represented the red hair gene across 48 categories, with each combining this feature with five traits: gender, height, build, eye colour and hair type.

Rosso then travelled across Europe to find and photograph people who would fit into these categories.

After a journey that took her across Italy and to the UK, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Norway and Poland, she returned home with 204 photos.

Out of these, she selected 47 portraits, which formed part of The Beautiful Gene, an exhibition that’s so far been held in Turin, Milan and, more recently, in Rome. The project was brought together under the editorial direction of Fabrica, the Benetton Group's communications research centre.


Many of those she met along the way recounted experiences of bullying at school because of their hair, Rosso said, and so “tended to stick together” because they felt endangered.

However, by their 30s, they no longer felt marginalized.

“It’s not an issue by the time they reach that age. So during their younger years they don't like it, but then they end up feeling really proud."

I can relate to that. Although to be fair, I was more baffled by the colour of my hair than bothered by it, as I was the rogue ginger of the family, and I was lucky to only receive light teasing from friends.

Up until my mid-teens, I blamed the ginger gene on my Irish roots, from my mother’s side.

Then I took a trip to Sicily, where my father is from, and came across a Sicilian family of redheads - complete with blue eyes, freckles and pale skin - shielding themselves on a beach.

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My uncle then gave me a history lesson and laid my curiosity to rest. "You’re a descendant of the Normans,” he said, referring to the Norman conquest of Sicily in 1061.

Even today, the small population of redheads in Sicily are referred to as “normanne”, or Normans.

So the Normans, led by Roger I, transported the gene to Sicily, “and it spread across Italy from there,” said Rosso, who estimates a red-headed population of just one percent in the whole of Italy.

But redheads in Italy get a better deal than those elsewhere, she added, with the colour tending to be admired rather than mocked.

"There are also no typical 'mocking' phrases in the Italian language, like you might find in English," she added.

Rosso has written a book about her research, also called The Beautiful Gene, and published by Fabrica. Click here for more information.

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