Friday, September 24, 2010

La chiesetta di Lalla Pina

Grandmom Rosaio was proud of her chiesetta, the little “church” she had built in the yard next to her house where she displayed statues of the Blessed Mother and her favorite saints. It was another tradition she brought with her from her hometown of Giusvalla, where le chiesette dot the countryside .... little “churches” that were erected by Giusvallini families to honor Our Lady or a saint to whom they had a particular devotion. Some of the chiesette were large enough to accommodate a small altar with a few pews. La Chiesetta della Madonna del Deserto (loc. Mulino), la Chiesetta della Madonna della Guardia (loc. Riondi) and la Chiesetta del Bambin di Praga (loc. Ciocchini) are the largest of the chiesette, each big enough on its own to resemble a small church. Others (loc. Caporali, Pimpiri, Zambon, etc.) were no bigger than a refrigerator box, with an opening where a statue and some candles could be placed and a stone at the base of the structure to kneel on.

Each chiesetta carries its own history, often intertwined with the history of a particular family in Giusvalla. The history of the chiesetta devoted to Our Lady of the Desert at località Mulino begins in the early 1910s with a man named Carlo Marenco who made a special promise to the Blessed Mother. Carlo’s son had been injured when a sharp piece of metal cut a deep gash into his leg. The leg became infected, and it appeared likely that the leg would have to be amputated. Carlo’s vow to the Blessed Mother was that if through her intercession his son’s leg healed and was spared amputation, he would build a chapel that he and all his descendants would maintain in her honor. And so when his son’s leg healed in spite of the doctor’s dire prediction, Carlo made good on his promise and the Chiesetta della Madonna del Deserto was built – and is maintained by Carlo’s descendants to this day.

Grandmom’s chiesetta was quite modest compared to Carlo Marenco’s grand chapel at Mulino. But we all knew her devotion to the little church in her yard, and the marvelous sight of the pious convocation of the Blessed Mother, the Infant of Prague and Grandmom’s favorite saints – St. Anthony of Padua, St. Joseph and St. Jude – is something we all remember with great fondness.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What’s in a name?

The etymology of Italian surnames is a fascinating topic to which my humble blogging could never do justice. Nor do I presume to be an expert on the topic, but for the casual family historian there are some basics I’ve learned over the years that may help you understand the origin of your Italian family name.

It wasn’t until the 15th century that the use of surnames began to take hold in the area that became Italy – and throughout Europe for that matter. As the human population exploded after the plague ridden Middle Ages, the use of a surname became essential, as you might guess, in order to distinguish one individual from another. The Council of Trent decreed what was really the first official act that required the recording of an individual with both their Christian name and surname in the parish registers throughout Europe.

But where did these names come from?

Probably the most common origin of the surname in Italy can be attributed to patronymics, where an individual came to be known through his connection to another person, usually his father. Therefore, Giovanni, the son of Antonio, might be called “Giovanni di Antonio.” Surnames such as “de Bartolomeis” (son of Bartolomeo) “Perrone” (son of Piero) and “Gerardi” (son of Gerardo) all reflect the given name of some remote ancestor.

Other Italian surnames are derived from a geographical reference. For example, Anthony of the town of Padua might have been called “Antonio di Padova,” or James who lived on the little hill might have been known as “Giacomo Collina.” Another common surname origin is related to an occupation, such as Tortarolo (miller of flour), Ferraro (smith/blacksmith), Vaccaro (herdsman), Pastore (shepherd), etc.

Still other Italian surnames originate in a nickname that was given to an ancestor. Giuseppe with a red beard may have become known as “Giuseppe Rossi,” or Marco with curly hair may have been called “Marco Ricci.” These surnames could derive from any physical or personality trait. The soldiers of the local nobleman “Bonifacio il Vasto,” who controlled the territory in the area that is now Giusvalla and the surrounding towns, became known by the nickname “i Bonifacini” - or individually - “Bonifacino.” Due to the many soldiers who were known by this nickname, the surname Bonifacino became quite common in the various towns throughout the Val Bormida.

Other Italian family names originated in the custom of giving an invented surname to children that were born out of wedlock or abandoned by their parents. These surnames were sometimes created by the child’s mother, or by the priest who recorded the baptism or the official who recorded the birth in the town hall. Different towns had different traditions when it came to naming their illegitimate or abandoned babies. Some towns named the babies after the month they were born in (Aprile, Ottobre, etc.), other towns gave the babies floral sounding names (Mirto, Fiorello, Mela). Surnames such as Esposito (exposed) and Trovato (found) were sometimes given to abandoned babies.

Dozens of surnames often evolved from the “root” name, so a simple surname like “di Giovanni” could take on many forms: Giovannoni, Giovanelli, Giova, Giannoni, Zunino, etc.

A vitally important consideration for the family historian is the distinction of unrelated families who share a common surname. Just like Anglo surnames such as “Johnson,” “Baker” and “Miller,” many Italian surnames are quite common and therefore it would be completely inaccurate to assume that two people with the same surname, even those living in a small town like Giusvalla, are related. The only way to prove that any two people are related is through genealogical research that documents a paper trail for both individuals back to a common ancestor.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Becco Sisters

Many of we Giusvallini here in the U.S. and our cousins in Italy are descended from the Becco sisters – Francesca (Becco) Pesce and Carlotta (Becco) Bazzano. Francesca was the mother of eight children, six of whom came to the U.S. as adults before Francesca herself came over in 1910 at the age of 59. Carlotta, who was 10 years younger than Francesca, was the mother of six children, two of whom came to the U.S. Carlotta stayed in Giusvalla, but came over to visit her two sons in the 1930s.

Francesca and Carlotta were among the large brood of children born to Francesco Becco and his wife Margherita. One of their brothers, Carlo Becco, married in 1876 to Angela Beltrame, a relative of the Carozzo and Camoirano families. Another sister, Giuseppina Becco, married Pietro Reverdito and their son Lorenzo came to Squirrel Run in 1910. Lorenzo was a gardener for the DuPont family for many years, then worked as a mushroom farmer and stone mason.

Francesca was a tiny woman, just over five feet. She became the matriarch of her large brood of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and was known in the family as our “Mùma granda” and “Little Grandmom.” She lived with my great-grandmother up on the farm on Ebright Road, and my aunts often spoke of their memories of her as a kind and loving grandmother. She spoke only the Giusvalla dialect, and my aunts would reminisce about how they remembered her saying her prayers every night, kneeling beside her bed with her long hair hanging loose or in a braid down her back. Francesca died in 1940 at the age of 89, those who knew her during her lifetime still remember her with great fondness and much love.

Carlotta was taller than her older sister Francesca. She and her husband Giovanni Callisto Bazzano lived in a little house right along the strada provinciale near the center of Giusvalla. Giovanni held the important position of local postmaster, a vocation that later passed to his son Cide. One of my cousins tells me that she remembers Cide as a tall man, always dressed up formally in a suit and a tie and having a very serious expression with a deep baritone voice. He must have struck quite an imposing presence. Cide would stop at the Cavallo Bianco every day on his walk home from work for a glass of red wine. He was the youngest of Carlotta’s children, and died in 1977 at the age of 79. Carlotta made a visit to her sons Pietro “Pete” and Amedeo “Dave” in Kennett Square in 1931. She was almost 70 years old at the time and made the trip by herself, traveling aboard the steamer ship “Augustus.” She died at home in Giusvalla in 1943.

Like the Biblical Rebekah, who became “the mother of thousands of millions,” Francesca and Carlotta were blessed with an enormous progeny. We their descendants remember them with great pride.

In the picture: The Becco sisters, Carlotta Bazzano and Francesca Pesce, visit in Kennett Square (summer 1931).