Finding One’s Roots in Abruzzo – Discovering Your Family History

Tracing your family’s roots in Abruzzo can spark all manner of exciting things, even when the roots are of your spouse!  Mark Johnson recounts his story of helping his wife trace her ancestral roots in Penne which led to a captivating story and him becoming the author of ‘The Patriots of Penne in the Nineteenth Century’.

Several years ago I was talking to an Italian friend in Italy and telling him how my wife Mariolina, a native of Penne in the province of Pescara, and I were trying to trace her ancestral routes. He asked, “Why? Is she a noble?” I responded that to our knowledge, she was not. “Then,” he said, “Why does it matter?” I’ve thought about that question over the years and always reached the same conclusion that it does matter.  Learning about one’s ancestors is ultimately learning about oneself.   If we want to understand our country, in my case, the United States, would I only study the part of its history that I can remember? Or do I also study its history from before, to understand why it is the way it is now? The truth is who we are as individuals is in good part shaped by who our ancestors were and not just in the sense of physical characteristics. In addition, the hunt to discover and track those ancestors can be a fun, interesting, and rewarding endeavour.

Our early attempts to discover my wife’s family history were limited to talking to her parents and especially, her grandmother in Penne. She gave us the names of her parents and her in-laws as well as a few stories, but did not know anything about anyone before her own grandparents and our project was set aside. Then a few years ago, quite by accident, I discovered that the Italian state records of births, marriages, and deaths had been made available online. One of her grandfathers was originally from a small town in Puglia, but her other three grandparents were Pennese and it was simple to find those records and start looking. I quickly found the birth records of her grandparents, then those of her great-grandparents which led to her great-great grandparents, all of whom were entered into her pedigree chart. Along the way I was finding other family members, the siblings that made up typically large families of the time.

At one point I found that her great-great aunt was married to a man named Clemente De Caesaris. I had no idea who he was, but thought his name was interesting. When I told Mariolina his name, she exclaimed, “He’s famous!” and explained that he was a poet, author, and patriot who had something to do with the unification of Italy in the second half of the 19th century.

Intrigued, I started to research who he was and what he had done. I soon discovered that he and his cousin Antonio had led a revolt against the king (Abruzzo then being part of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, with its capital in Naples) in the middle of the century, earning a prison term of ten years in the process. I learned that there had been two previous revolts in Penne, in 1814 and 1837, led by Clemente’s father Nicola and uncle, Domenico. What was frustrating was how little information about this period of history in Abruzzo was available. There was nothing in English and most of the Italian writings told a brief version of the story with scant details. I finally found a small book with more details, published in 1940 in Pescara of which there was one copy in the US, a microfilm copy at Harvard University. I have spent my career as a professor of ancient and medieval art, with a particular expertise in Early Christian architecture, rather removed from Nineteenth-Century Italian history, but seeing that there was a story that was on the one hand family history and on the other an important story in its own right for anyone interested in the history of Abruzzo, the Risorgimento, or Italy in general, I decided that a new study and a new book were needed.

Beyond retelling the story in more detail, I wanted to contribute something others had overlooked. Realising that in most of the accounts of the revolt little is said about those involved beyond their names and maybe their occupations, I decided that I would tell whatever I could about those individuals. Combing through the available publications, I made a list of everyone who could be identified as a patriot, or who was otherwise involved as a government official or royalist, and decided that what I could add would be information from the state records I had been using to construct Mariolina’s genealogy. The list grew to some 250 names, but I tracked down every birth, marriage, and death record I could find as well as records of their parents, siblings, and children.

This led to the discovery of numerous family relationships between patriots – men who were cousins or brothers-in-law. I learned of men who were sent to horrible prisons who were unable to support their families, with some losing a child or wife while they were gone. After the revolt of 1837, eight men were executed by a firing squad, paying the ultimate sacrifice for wanting to have a say in how they were governed. I also learned that two others had died in prison, one of whom had been sentenced to ten years for simply carrying a letter between patriots. In short, the information gleaned from the state records fleshed out the story and made each of the participants more human and real.

It also added to Mariolina’s – and our children’s and grandchildren’s – family history and heritage. More ancestors were found among the patriots and I discovered that of the eight who were executed, men since known as the “Martyrs of Penne”, six were relatives. She may not have titled nobles among her ancestors, but she certainly has ancestors who acted nobly in their lives.

The book was published last summer by Edizioni Menabò in Ortona. I was anxious to make the story available to those with an interest in Italy who didn’t read Italian. The publishers agreed to issue both an Italian edition and an English one, though fewer copies were printed of the English version.

That experience led to my current project, a book about an earlier revolt in Penne that took place in 1779, an event that up until now is known only in its barest outlines.  Doing research for it has taken me to archives in Naples, Pescara, and Penne to uncover the story and led to the added benefit of finding out even more about Mariolina’s heritage, as a number of her ancestors were among the troublemakers in that uprising, too. Who knows what is in your family heritage? It may well be that the person who finds out will be you.

MUST READ – See Mark’s Thirteen Timesaving Tips for Doing Family History Research in Abruzzo

Buy The Patriots of Penne in the Nineteenth Century

The Patriots of Penne in the Nineteeth Century

The cover shows Clemente De Caesaris, ca. 1840; the background is a detail of E. Lear’s lithograph of Penne, done ca. 1843

Mark Johnson
Author: Mark Johnson

Mark J. Johnson is a retired professor of art history, author of four books and numerous scholarly publications, mostly about art and architecture in Italy. He and his late wife Mariolina Esposto, a native of Penne, are the parents of 4 and grandparents of 10.

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