About this One Place Study
Since I discovered my grandfather’s identity, background and family origins (click here to read more), I have been fascinated by my family’s historical and genealogical link to Italy. My father’s biological father was born in New York to Italian emigrant parents originally from the region of Piedmont. My great-grandfather Giacomo originally came from Mombaruzzo (then in the province of Alessandria, now in the province of Asti), while my great-grandmother Giovanna came from the village of San Marzano Oliveto (also in Asti).
My great-grandmother belonged to a large family which had lived in San Marzano Oliveto for at least two hundred years. She was one of twelve brothers and sisters, including three sets of twins. Unfortunately, the poverty faced by my family led to the untimely death of some of my great-grandmother’s siblings. To escape a bleak and uncertain future, she emigrated to America at the beginning of the twentieth century, following in the footsteps of her older brother and sister. She never returned to Italy, and sadly died very young shortly after the birth of her only son, my grandfather. These events inevitably led to the eventual severing of relations between my family and that of my great-grandmother’s.
My great-grandmother’s extended family lived at various times on both sides of the Atlantic. Many of her relatives emigrated to America in search of a better life. Others chose England and even Australia as their final destination, though the immense majority of my relatives remained behind in Italy, though not necessarily in San Marzano Oliveto.
Noting the huge number of branches my Italian family tree has, I decided to create this One Place Study not just to learn about my own family’s connection to the village, but the story of all those other families who at one time or other lived in San Marzano Oliveto. Many of them of course have a direct blood link to my family, while others remain disconnected from my tree – though given the continuous repetition of some surnames, and the relatively small size of the village, I can only conclude that most sanmarzanesi families indeed share common ancestors sooner or later.
If you have a family connection to this beautiful Italian village, then leave a comment below or send me an e-mail (click here to find out how) and I will be happy to cross-check the list of individuals that I have compiled over the years. You might also be interested in the following record collections:
- FamilySearch contains freely-accessible images for all births, marriages and deaths recorded during the period 1866-1910 by the civil registry office (Stato Civile). Please note that the births for the year 1901 appear to be missing from the collection.
- The Italian portal Antenati features deaths and marriages registered between 1911 and 1926. Please note the registers for the years 1914, 1916, 1917 and 1918 appear to be missing from the collection.
- Antenati and Geneanet both feature births, marriages and deaths recorded under the so-called Napoleonic Civil Registry when the area came under French influence. The collection covers the period 1811-1813.
- For those of you whose ancestors emigrated to another country, you will also find useful records (e.g. passenger lists, census returns, naturalisation records) on websites such as Ancestry and FindMyPast. These websites are note free and will require a subscription.
The following is a list of surnames that can be found in my family tree. Naturally, as my research continues, further surnames will be added to the list. To this I should add an extremely long list of surnames, some with a direct connection to my family, which either have or have had a presence in San Marzano Oliveto.
- Bussi (originally from the nearby village of Calosso)
- Sardi (originally from the town of Canelli)
- Scagliola (originally from Calosso)
The village that would later come to be known as San Marzano Oliveto began to grow on a hilltop location on the edge of an old Roman road about two thousand years ago. As time wore on, additional buildings (defensive walls, a castle…) began to be erected around the area. Unlike today, the surrounding territory was dominated not by vineyards and orchards, but by dense forests and wildness.
Although known originally as San Marziano (and later as San Marzano), the suffix “Oliveto” was incorporated as part of the town’s name in 1862. Legend has it that this is due to the abundance of olive trees that had once populated the area. However, anyone visiting the town today can easily see that this is not an area where olives would have been easily grown, with its cold winters and its mild summers. In fact, apples, pears, wine and truffles are, if anything, the area’s staple produce. One alternative possible explanation for the village’s name, as given by Egidio Colla in his excellent history of the town, is that in the local dialect the letters R and L tend to be interchanged. The nearby Mount Oliveto is known locally as “O rivè”, which translates roughly as a sloping terrain. This hypothesis seems to make much more if one notices the orography of the area. Whatever the reason, the dedication to Saint Martian, the village’s patron saint, obviously dates to a much earlier period.
Often caught between opposing neighbouring landlords, the village became part of a borderland march with a decisively defensive purpose. In 1382 count Amadeus of Savoy, lord of Asti, gave the feudal possession of San Marzano to Francesco Asinari, while other surrounding locations were given to Francesco’s brothers. The next two centuries saw San Marzano change hands many times. In 1531 Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, conferred the city of Asti and nearby territories (including San Marzano) to Charles III, Duke of Savoy. The Asinari family, meanwhile, retained the local lordship of the town and spread its branches into what we might call various local dynasties.
Despite the relative proximity of the Piedmontese-French border, the effects of the French Revolution were not immediately felt in San Marzano. It was not until Bonaparte’s army entered Piedmont in 1798 and the subsequent gradual incorporation of the area under French influence that life began to change for the local population. Meanwhile, Filippo Antonio Asinari, by then Marquess of San Marzano, became a trusted man in Napoleon’s First Empire, and was duly sent as ambassador to Berlin. By 1814, however, the Savoy dynasty had regained its footing in Piedmont as Napoleon’s forces retreated.
The 19th century brought about in Italy the Risorgimento, and with it, a political movement to unify under the same flag all Italian-speaking countries and fend off all foreign influence, particularly in the Austrian satellite states (Modena, Tuscany…) as well as in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the south, ruled by an offshoot branch of the Spanish Bourbons.
Italian unification did not come about in a single moment, nor would it have been necessarily something which continuously occupied our ancestors’ minds. They would have been much more concerned with gathering seasonal crops, wondering what the effects that the adverse weather might be on their livelihoods, being conscripted into the army, or whether taxes would be increased. Most inhabitants of San Marzano were poor agricultural labourers and worked the land that surrounded their unpretentious dwellings. Epidemics were also a constant fear, and as the 20th century drew closer, for the majority of them emigration became the only hope of escape from their meagre existence. Many chose the larger centres of Canelli or Nizza Monferrato as their destination; but the most adventurous made it to Turin, the regional capital, or Genoa, which in time granted them plenty of opportunities to emigrate overseas, be it to the United States, Argentina or even Australia.
One of the town’s main claims to fame today comes from the fact that it is the birthplace of Vincent Sardi (born Melchiore Pio Vincenzo Sardi). Born in 1885 to Giovanni Sardi and Anna Gilardino, Vincent later emigrated to New York and opened the first eatery, The Little Restaurant, in 1921. His success allowed him to open his next restaurant, the world-famous Sardi’s, in 1927 (incidentally, I believe Vincent’s mother Anna Gilardino may be a distant cousin of my great-grandmother’s – just saying, in case I am ever in New York and can claim a free meal at Sardi’s! Wink wink).
World War I
After Italy entered World War I in May 1915, many Italian men were concripted into the army. Most of the military action took place in present-day Slovenia and the north-east of Italy, where the Italian army struggled to take over territories occupied or administered at the time by the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Like most Italian villages, San Marzano Oliveto had its share of personal losses during the conflict. The war memorial, located on the edge of the village centre, is a permanent reminder to their memory. Click here to read my research into every individual soldier who gave his life for his country in WWI.