Back in the day when I first researched my Italian-American grandfather’s life and origins, I remember partially uncovering the personal story of his paternal grandfather, my Italian great-great-grandfather Vincenzo Ameglio. Vincenzo – as far as the family knew – was an agricultural labourer born in the north of Italy around the mid-19th century. He was also a very absent father, since – according to family lore – he had abandoned his wife Margherita and their only child, my great-grandfather Giacomo, because he found Margherita to be “very difficult to live with”. Consequently, it was the jilted wife Margherita who raised her son single-handedly. In time, the general perception within the family was that her difficult character was an excusable trait, given the abandonment and neglect she would have faced. In short, it was her runaway husband Vincenzo who was vilified by the family for over a century.
Until a few months ago, no one knew what became of Vincenzo. According to his granddaughter, the family always believed he had moved away, possibly to Genoa, and he was not heard from since. He already appears to have been absent by the time his wife Margherita gave birth to their son in late 1886, leading me to wonder whether Vincenzo ever clapped eyes on his own son.
Searching for a death certificate in a country like Italy, without knowing where to look – particularly in a large city such as Genoa – would have been akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. Therefore, rather than embarking on a quixotic research campaign without much hope for success, I decided to go back to square one and focus on the very place where Vincenzo had been born. The staff at the civil registry of Nizza Monferrato, his hometown, were extremely kind and trawled through index after index for any reference to Vincenzo’s death. Bear in mind that, in Italy, when someone dies, the death is registered under the registry’s main section in the town where the death took place (Parte I); but if the person happened to be from a different town, then their death would also have been communicated to their hometown’s civil registry office, which would in turn register a transcript of the original certificate on the section known as Parte II. It was therefore quite probable that, even if Vincenzo had died in Genoa – or elsewhere – his death would have still been registered in either section of Nizza Monferrato’s civil registry. What I did not expect to find out was that he actually died in Nizza Monferrato itself!
Now that I knew Vincenzo had lived out his last years in the town neighbouring that where his estranged wife and son lived, I began to wonder if he was indeed the absent father I always imagined him to be. At least the chances of Vincenzo and Giacomo meeting – even if rarely – now seemed definitely higher.
Vincenzo’s death certificate states that he died in 1917 at the age of 58. Margherita is still mentioned as his wife, though of course the couple had not cohabited for many years. There are no further clues as to the latter part of Vincenzo’s life, but two names leapt off the page instantly when I first saw the record: they refer to the people who went to register the death. On the one hand, 33-year-old Giuseppina Ameglio (same surname as Vincenzo’s) and 33-year-old Francesco Berta, whose link to Vincenzo seemed a total mystery.
Who was Giuseppina Ameglio, and why had she been tasked with registering my great-great-grandfather’s death in 1917? Her age meant that she was probably born in 1884, making her too old to have been born from the same union as my great-grandfather Giacomo (remember that Vincenzo and Margherita were married in 1886, and he abandoned her and their unborn son a few months later). I suspected she was some sort of close relation – possibly Vincenzo’s niece – and that she may have been among the relatives that Vincenzo went to live with when he left his wife years earlier.
In order to find out who this Giuseppina Ameglio was, I requested a copy of her birth record from the civil registry in Nizza Monferrato. Imagine my surprise when I received the certificate stating that Giuseppina was the daughter of none other than Vincenzo himself! Her mother, as would I suspected, was not my great-great-grandmother Margherita, but someone called Teresa Chiorra. So it turns out that Vincenzo had actually been married once before his wedding to the woman he would later abandon!
A few more requests addressed to the civil registry office helped me to fill in the remaining gaps: Vincenzo and his first wife Teresa were married in early 1884; before the year was out, Teresa had given birth to the couple’s daughter Giuseppina. Sadly, Teresa died less than two weeks later – one can only assume, as a consequence of childbirth. Vincenzo was therefore left a widower, emotionally bereaved, still young at 27 and now with a baby to look after. It should not be surprising, therefore, that just over a year later he decided to remarry.
Here is where things become hazy. Based on family lore, and in view of later events, I can only imagine that Margherita’s “difficult character” extended not only towards her husband, but also towards her step-daughter. I have no reason to believe that she was in any way cruel or unkind towards little Giuseppina, but the fact that the marriage apparently broke down fairly rapidly after his second wedding, and that Vincenzo appears to have moved away in a hurry – taking his little daughter with him – could be indicative that there was some degree of coldness between Margherita and Giuseppina too. We will probably never know.
It soon became clear to me that Vincenzo, far from being the villain of the story, simply may have been the victim of a series of tragic losses and emotional miscalculations. First his first wife died unexpectedly, then his second marriage soured very quickly… I can sympathise to a certain extent with him in that he wanted to move away, even if it cost him his relationship with his unborn son Giacomo.
While Giacomo was being raised single-handedly by his mother Margherita, Vincenzo and his daughter Giuseppina’s lives seem to have moved on too. Vincenzo lived to see Giuseppina’s 1909 wedding to Francesco Berta – that’s the other person mentioned on Vincenzo’s death certificate a few years later. Interestingly, Giuseppina’s half-brother Giacomo is not among the witnesses who attended her wedding – which may be indicative that the two never had much in a way of a brother-sister relationship. Who knows if they ever met at all! What we do know is that in 1917 Vincenzo died in the presence of his beloved daughter Giuseppina. She outlived her father for twenty-two years, dying in Nizza Monferrato a few weeks after the outbreak of the Second World War.
Interestingly, Giuseppina’s death certificate provides the names of the two people who recorded her death: Giacomo Berta and Vincenzo Berta, who were 29 and 27 at the time. As you may know, in Italy it is traditional that children take their grandparents’ names, and usually the first-born son is named after the paternal grandfather, while the second is usually named after the maternal grandfather. This seemed like a good indication that Francesco Berta and Giuseppina Ameglio had at least two sons, and that they were named after their parents’ respective fathers. Sure enough, the couple had three sons: Giacomo (b.1910), Vincenzo (b.1912) and Ernesto Berta (b.1917). But wait! There’s more!
The fact that I knew that Giuseppina’s husband predeceased his wife, but was still alive in 1917 when his father-in-law died (and when his third son was born), I decided to check the online database of Italian soldiers who died as a result of the First World War. The chances of Francesco Berta being on it were slim, but Italy’s casualties during the war were extremely high and, at 33, Francesco would have still been young enough to be sent to the front. My suspicions were sadly confirmed when I found his name listed among the war dead: he did not die at the front, however, but in his hometown Mombaruzzo. His death, which occurred in April 1918, was due to “illness”, likely contracted as a direct consequence of the war. So, poor Giuseppina not only lost her beloved father in 1917, but she was also left a widow a year later – and with three young mouths to feed too!
Alas, that would not the end of the family’s link to the Italian army. Another chance search for this new branch of relatives on the Italian Ministry of Defence’s database of soldiers fallen in World War II brought up a rather unexpected match: Vincenzo Berta, Giuseppina’s middle son and the one named in memory of her beloved father, died (or disappeared) in the Soviet Union in April 1943 at the age of 30. Whether he was died in combat, died as a prisoner of war or simply went missing, I do not yet know. This discovery has prompted me to learn more about Fascist Italy’s disastrous campaign in Russia, as an ally of Nazi Germany. I have also sent for Vincenzo’s military records from the State Archive in Alessandria (Italy), which I hope will provide further details about his life and sad demise.
Who knew a chance request for my great-great-grandfather’s death certificate would bring up a new branch of the family tree, and provide me with so many new details about my family history!