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Stella Cilento, Campania, Italy 1875

stellaIt took many years and finally the hiring of an excellent Italy-based genealogist before many inconsistencies about my grandfather’s parentage and family could be resolved. And here’s the skinny.

databaseflagFederico Luigi Stamislao Lippi was born in 1875 to Caterina Gionti, who was not married. In 1878, she gave birth to Luigi Alfonso, still unmarried. Then, on December 24 later that same year, Giuseppe Luigi Lippi appeared before the village notary and claimed paternity of both boys. You can click on the thumbnail to see the notarized copy of the original birth certificate with the sworn addendum claiming paternity.

Sworn statement of paternity

Sworn statement of paternity

My great grandfather Giuseppe was the eldest son of one of the most prominent, land-holding families in that very small town, and at the time he was also podesta — a now antiquated term, akin to mayor. His wife was the daughter of another prominent family. The marriage was without issue.  One way to look at this is as a matter of simple pragmatism. He was wealthy and powerful; he needed heirs that his wife couldn’t give him; he went and got them elsewhere.

You have to wonder how all this played out in a village of some five hundred people in rural southern Italy. The only indication comes from letters written by both my grandfather and his brother from Newburgh to the family in Italy. Luigi Alfonso wrote to Carmela Massanova — his father’s legal wife — and addressed her as mama. Caterina Gionti, his biological mother, was Zia (Aunt) Caterina. The plot thickens when you come across the immigration records for my grandfather, who came into the States as an immigrant on 14 March 1893. He was traveling with his mother, Caterina Gionti, and his own name is listed as Federico Gionti (as you can see, below).

What I gather from all this is that Luigi Alfonso, the younger brother, was raised in his father’s household as his heir. Maybe my grandfather was offered the same deal, but he chose to stay with his mother and used her name until he got to the States. Luigi was educated, whereas Federico learned a trade — tailoring. He did not take up his trade once in the States and instead put his hand to whatever work he could find.

The only person I ever got to talk to me about this was Aunt Audrey, Uncle Freddie’s wife. Sure, she told me, she heard rumors that her father-in-law’s mother hadn’t been married to his father, but when she raised the subject with Uncle Freddie, she got an outraged denial. But the whispers were there.

None of the aunts I talked to had any memory of their grandmother Caterina, though she lived with Federico, Rosina and their children until her death. Talking to Aunt Irene about this I said, did you never notice this Caterina Lippi (note, not Gionti) buried in the family plot? Who did you think that was? And she said: I didn’t know. I didn’t ask. You didn’t ask questions. You never asked questions like that.

When the first three children born to my grandparents were very little, my grandmother (Rosina Russo Lippi) and her mother-in-law (Caterina Gionti) took all three (Joe,  Kate and Fran, an infant) to Stella Cilento. From what I can tell, they stayed six months, and then my grandmother returned to Newburgh with Aunt Fran. Caterina brought the two older children home almost two years later. More on this here.

What’s interesting to me about this epilogue to my grandfather’s early history is this: his wife and mother went back to Italy with three beautiful little kids, to visit his father (whose wife never was able to bear children) and his brother (who was also in a childless marriage). Why this trip? I imagine all kinds of less than kindhearted motives. It’s not hard to imagine this, because my grandmother had six daughters in all, and they did not get along well. The infighting was legendary, and often cruel. The nicest ones got out of Newburgh, moving away with their husbands to live a quieter life.

When I think about this I remind myself that it wasn’t just the Lippi daughters who were so badly behaved. Scratch any Italian woman of my age (or older, or probably younger) and you’ll get stories like this one:

On her deathbed, mama calls her daughters to her to extract a promise from them. She wants them to swear. “Promise me,” she says. “Promise me you’ll go on hating the same people I hate after I’m gone.”