Friday, February 28, 2014

#MakesMeSmileMondays Our Little Family Town in Reggio Emilia (Northern Italy) and a Surprise Countess in the Family Line

In the past few weeks I have been reconnecting with our extended family in Italy. 

First, the backstory: My great-grandfather, Domenico Bizzarri, left Italy in the 1920's. He traveled to Chicago, hoping to make some money, and planned on returning to his home town as soon as possible. He refused to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, never planning to live in the U.S. permanently. After he secured a home and a job in Chicago, he sent for his wife, my great-grandmother, Clotilde. 

Clotilde and Domenico already had two kids: Matlilde and Maria. Clotilde gave birth to her third child, Antonietta, ON THE SHIP to America. 

Every time I feel I'm in a difficult situation I remind myself my Great Grandma gave birth on a ship with two kids under the age of five by her side - it could always be worse and I've got strong-woman genes in me!  

To make matters worse, soon after she arrived in Chicago, Domenico died, leaving Clotilde pregnant (with my Grandpa) and alone in city where she knew no one. At this time, Chicago was mainly settled by a southern Italian population, so Clotilde likely didn't even have a community to support her - Sicilians and Calabresi are worlds apart from Northern Italians like my family - they likely all spoke in dialect and really didn't even share a common language. I have several very sad letters that Clotilde received from her family in Italy - she was never able to make it back to her hometown, never saw her family again. Clotilde raised her four children in Chicago as a single mom, at a time when being a working, single mom was even more difficult and challenging than it is today. Clotilde and Domenico were the only ones in their family to make the risky journey to the U.S. - the other 3 brothers and sisters remained (and had lots and lots of children - so Castelnuovo ne'Monti is populated with Bizzarri relatives). 

I lived in Rome for a few years as a college student and 20-something, but I never had the chance to make it up to Castelnuovo ne'Monti, the small mountain town in Reggio Emilia, where our Bizzarri family has resided for generations. 
Castelnuovo ne'Monti
This past week, I was in touch with the great-grandson of Maria, Domenico's sister. He was kind enough to go to our family church and take a picture of Domenico's birth registry, which was recorded, in Latin, in a bound book, still kept in the church today. He also sent me pictures of the family church. I can't even explain how special this was to me: about two years ago, I returned to the Catholic church that I grew up with. The picture of the little church in Campolungo, Castelnuovo ne'Monti, and knowing that generations of my family are recorded in the baptismal book there, remind me of the importance of carrying on our family's religious traditions. 

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The church at Campolungo, Castelnuovo ne'Monti
But perhaps the biggest surprise was when my Italian cousin casually mentioned that other cousins who are doing genealogical research sustain that we are related to Matilde of Canossa. 
I love Matilde's "What now?!" expression here. 

Matilde of Canossa, are you kidding me??!?!? 

For someone who is passionate about medieval history, this was akin to winning the lottery! Just to be able to say that I am even just perhaps related to one of the most intriguing women of medieval history amazes me!

(There are also a ton of Matilde's in our family reaching back into the centuries, so I am now kicking myself for not naming my daughter Matilde.) 

Matilde inherited the vast empire of her father, Bonfiace III, at the tender age of 8. She was a smart girl, educated in the military arts, and is known for being one of the first female military strategists. She knew several languages and wrote in Latin. She was forced into marriage with a man she didn't care for (his name says it all: Geoffrey the Hunchback). She is the likely origin of the mysterious "Matilda" who appears to Dante gathering flowers in the earthly paradise in Dante's Purgatorio. She was the principal Italian supporter of Pope Gregory VII during the Investiture Controversy, and championed Gregory VII's against Henry IV, at whose castle the Pope retreated when the Emperor tried to take the Pope hostage. There is a monument to her at St. Peter's, as well as her sarcophagus, carved by Bernini. 

Matilde by Bernini

Canossa is located near Campolungo, Castelnuovo ne'Monti. 

Canossa
Here's another cool thing about Castelnuovo ne'Monti: the Pietra di Bismantova, the town's quasi-cylindrical rock formation, is mentioned by Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy (Purgatory, IV, 25-30).


I look forward to visiting Castelnuovo ne'Monti soon. And one day soon I'll tell my daughter the story of how she comes from a long line of strong, strong women - women who held their own, even in the worst of times. 

File:Romanelli - The Meeting of the Countess Matilda and Anselm of Canterbury in the Presence of Pope Urban II.jpg

 Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (1610-1662), The Meeting of the Countess Matilda and Anselm of Canterbury 

in the Presence of Pope Urban II (1637-1642), oil on canvas, Galleria dei Romanelli, the Vatican.

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