A fatherless line of Italian ancestors

When my 24 year-old Italian great-grandfather Giacomo boarded a ship and emigrated to the United States in 1910, he left behind a tiny family unit composed of solely by his mother, Margherita. She was listed on the passenger list as his next of kin in Giacomo’s home country. One might therefore ask the question: why did he not mention his father? Had he passed away by then, perhaps?

Vincenzo – Giacomo’s father – has always been a man of mystery. Neither we in Europe nor our cousins in America ever knew what became of him. A few years ago, Giacomo’s daughter told us that Vincenzo had abandoned his wife Margherita early on in the marriage “because she was difficult to put up with” and moved away – to Genoa, she believed.

But tracing someone’s whereabouts in Italy if you do not know where they lived, particularly at the turn of the century, is almost literally like looking for a needle in a haystack. You simple need to know in which town or city the record you are looking for is located. Nowadays, websites such as FamilySearch and Antenati are of course allowing users to make general searches using a name and surname – but alas, Vincenzo does not appear among the results. Indeed, as we did not know when or where Vincenzo died – let alone where he lived between the time of his marriage and his death – we always suspected this was going to be a hard nut to crack.

The town hall of Nizza Monferrato, where the town’s civil registry is located, in 2012. Author’s private collection.

Vincenzo had been born in 1859 in the small market town of Nizza Monferrato, in the Italian province of Piedmont. He was probably his parents’ youngest child – though how many elder siblings he had remains an open question. However, since his parents (Gerolamo and Francesca) had married in 1840, it is not unreasonable to suppose they may have had a significant number of children over the ensuing 19 years. Vincenzo’s father Gerolamo would have been comparatively old by the time his youngest son was growing up and, while I may not know when he died, I do know that by the time of Vincenzo’s wedding to Margherita in 1886, Gerolamo had already passed away before having reached the age of 70. As you will see, the absence of a father figure is a recurring feature on this side of my family tree.

In March 1886, Vincenzo married Margherita. How that union came about, I do not know. 23 year-old Margherita was her parents’ eldest surviving daughter. Her father had died comparatively young two years earlier, leaving his widow with seven young mouths to feed. Consequently, Margherita may have been expected to marry quickly in order to bring in an extra helping hand to raise the children and work the land. If this was indeed the plan, then it seems to have backfired quickly.

Margherita and Vincenzo do not seem to have cohabited together for very long. I cannot be sure of how long they actually lived together, but by the time their first and only son was born the following December, Vincenzo was already absent from the family home. The responsibility of registering little Giacomo’s birth in the local registry office therefore fell on Margherita’s mother.

The question immediately arises: had Vincenzo abandoned his wife and unborn child? Or was he working elsewhere at the time when Giacomo came into this world? I doubt we will ever be sure of the answer. However, in view of subsequent events, it looks likely that Vincenzo played a very limited role in Giacomo’s upbringing.

Giacomo grew up in the Italian countryside surrounded not only by apple orchards and vineyards, but also by many of his mother’s relatives. The house, located in the small hamlet of Casalotto, is but a few miles outside the town of Nizza Monferrato, where his father had been born. Whether he ever saw Vincenzo – wherever he had gone to – or had any communication with him will always remain a mystery.

But where was Vincenzo? Where and when did he die? Were his wife and son ever made aware of his passing? Let’s look at the facts:

As already mentioned, Vincenzo married Margherita in March 1886, but by the following December he and his wife no longer appear to have been living under the same roof. When his son Giacomo emigrated to America in 1910, he made no reference to his father (although admittedly this cannot be taken as indicative that Vincenzo was alive or dead). When many years later Margherita died in 1945, she was described on the death certificate as Vincenzo’s widow.

Vincenzo and Margherita’s son Giacomo lived in the United States for the rest of his life, but thanks to ship passenger lists, we know that he travelled back to Italy several times. The first trip back home that we know of probably took place in or around 1914/1915. There are several reasons why he may have done so, but one possibility is that he may have gone back to sort out paperwork for his impending nuptials. Giacomo travelled back to America in March 1915, and married my great-grandmother Giovanna the following September. The marriage certificate, issued in New York City, does not provide any information about Giacomo’s father beyond his name and surname. So it’s back to square one.

In 1916 Giacomo and Giovanna’s only child, my grandfather Peter, was born. It is striking that they did not name the child Vincenzo (Italian families usually named the first son after the paternal grandfather), but instead chose the name him Peter. Of course, one has to bear in mind that Pietro was the name of Giovanna’s father, and that little Peter was born on the feast day of Saint Peter, but still, the fact that they did not given their only son the name Vincenzo – even as a middle name – could well be interpreted as a sign that Giacomo did not wish to perpetuate his absent father’s name within the family…

In 1920 Giacomo’s young wife, Giovanna, sadly passed away in New York aged only 24. Giacomo was not only heartbroken, but now had the responsibility of raising his four year-old child single-handedly. It was soon decided that Peter would be better off if he could be sent to Italy to be brought up by Margherita. The boy’s life in Italy was something that he apparently always remembered fondly. He may have been motherless, and to all effects, he may have almost felt fatherless as well, since Giacomo remained in the United States, but young Peter was spoilt to the extreme by his grandmother from the very beginning. A photo of him with other school friends taken in the early 1920s shows a mischievous-looking child, tall for his age – a little American boy surrounded by Italian country children.

The building in Casalotto that used to house the school attended by my American-born grandfather, in 2012.

By the mid-1920s Peter’s widowed father Giacomo made up his mind to marry again. He was still comparatively young at 39, and more importantly, he was doing quite well for himself professionally: he probably felt that he needed to recall his son from Italy and start afresh with a new wife by his side. So, in 1926, he went home once again, only this time he intended on marrying in Italy.

His marriage certificate, issued in his home town, again includes his father’s name, only this time specified that Vincenzo was deceased. Besides his widow’s death certificate, this fact was the first indication that Vincenzo had passed away during his wife’s lifetime. Finding out when and where would be harder to prove. Did he die in Genoa, as his granddaughter later suggested? Or did he perhaps emigrate, as his son would do a few years later?

As I often do in such cases, I drew a timeline of Vincenzo’s moves and analysed each fact as objectively as I could. Vincenzo definitely died between 1886, when his son was born, and 1926, when his son married his second wife. The forty-year gap would not be easy to bridge, but luckily I have the good fortune to know a few nice people in Italy who have access to invaluable records. I therefore decided to ask the civil registry of Nizza Monferrato – Vincenzo’s home town – to see if they had any indication as to when and where he may have died. My prayers were answered within a week of sending the email request: Vincenzo’s death certificate, which is registered in that very same town where he had grown up, confirms he died in November 1917 at the age of 58!

So, far from moving away very far, or even emigrating to the New World, dissatisfied Vincenzo was hiding almost in plain sight all this time, living a stone’s throw away from his estranged wife and his son, to whom he was probably little more than a stranger. Unsurprisingly, Vincenzo’s death was not registered by his widow (Giacomo, we must remember, was already living in New York at the time), but by someone called Giuseppina, who was aged 33. Who this young woman is I do not know, but given her age, and the fact that she shares the same surname as Vincenzo, I can only presume she might be his niece.

To the very end, Vincenzo, who probably had a limited memory of his own father, refused to have anything to do with his wife and son. Giacomo therefore effectively grew up fatherless, and tried to start afresh in America. Sadly, his own son, Peter, also grew up without a father figure when he was sent to be brought up by his grandmother in Italy. And let us not forget that during WW2 Peter himself would go on to leave a young Englishwoman pregnant and subsequently abandoned her before their son – my father – was born. Considering the four subsequent generations of fatherless male ancestors I am descended from, I can only state how lucky I am to have been brought up with a loving father by my side.

This entry was posted in Birth, Civil Registration, Death, Genealogy, Illegitimacy, Italy, Marriage, Nizza Monferrato, War, World War II. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A fatherless line of Italian ancestors

  1. Dominic says:

    Very nice find and an ‘end’ to the story (not that this kind of stories ever really get answered to our own satisfaction!).

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