Friday, February 21, 2020

Save the date! Details on 2021 Italy reunion for Spadoni/Seghieri families

Here are Seghieri families from France and Italy (and one
from the United States) at a reunion in Montecarlo in 2016.
The dates have been set for our 2021 family reunion in Tuscany! (See Oct. 25, 2019, blog entry for background.) The event will be held from Monday, May 3, to Friday, May 7—and remember this will be in 2021, not 2020.

I realize this is not the best time for teachers and students, but I am not able to be in Italy during June because of my work. In addition, a date in early May allows us to avoid the heat and crowds of an Italian summer. 
May 3-4 will focus on the Valdinievole (Valley of the Nievole River) roots of the Spadoni family, and May 5-6 will feature Seghieri history. May 7 will be an open day, with a variety of suggested itineraries, an optional cooking class and a farewell dinner at Fattoria Il Poggio, one of Montecarlo’s finest restaurants.
Above are photos and details about the Spadoni/Seghieri reunion held in Gig Harbor in August 2019.
I anticipate that relatives from France, Italy and throughout the United States will attend. It is also possible that some relatives from South America could come as well.

Following is a tentative itinerary, with many details and exact times still to be worked out.

Morning: Road trip to Marliana, Massa, Buggiano Castello and Pescia—all places various Spadoni families have lived throughout the centuries.
Afternoon: Open
Evening: Dinner where you will be able to meet and greet Spadoni relatives. I will present information on how the various family lines are linked together along with history of the earliest known Spadonis. Primary information will be presented in both English and Italian.

This church in Stignano has a tomb for the Spadoni
family located in a prominent place.
We’ll be on the road for most of the day in order to visit the most significant historical Spadoni sites.
Morning: Stignano, Borgo a Buggiano and Ponte Buggianese. The church in Stignano is where we find the first records of Spadoni marriages and baptisms in the late 15th century. It’s also the location of the Spadoni tomb, an indication that the family occupied an important role in the town in the 1500s. In the 1600s and 1700s, most Spadonis moved into the lush farmlands that were opening up around Borgo a Buggiano and Ponte Buggianese as new canals lowered the level of the swampy Padule di Fucecchio. Ponte Buggianese still has a large concentration of Spadoni families, all of whom are descendants of two brothers from Stignano in the late 1400s. We will see the street named for Italo Spadoni, look at many Spadoni graves in the cemetery and visit the site where Italo was brutally murdered by Fascist zealots in 1924.
Afternoon: After lunch in one of Ponte Buggianese’s best restaurants, we’ll move on to San Salvatore, where Enrico, Michele, Alfredo and Adolfo Spadoni were raised (Enrico remained in Italy, while the other three all moved to Washington state). We’ll see the church where Michele met and later married Anita Seghieri. Then we’ll travel to Capannori, where we’ll visit the impressive but mysterious Torre degli Spadoni.
Evening: Dinner will tentatively be at La Favola Mia in Chiesina Uzzanese, which is owned by cousin Leonello Spadoni.

Morning: Tour of the Fortezza di Montecarlo, followed by a wine and Tuscan aperitivo tasting (fees to be collected upon entrance).
Afternoon: Tour of Lucca, with 5-Star guide Elena Benvenuti, a Lucca native and the wife of Davide Seghieri.
Evening: Dinner where you will be able to meet and greet Seghieri relatives. I will present information on how the various family lines are linked together along with history of the earliest known Seghieris. Primary information will be presented in both English and Italian.

We’ll be on the road for most of the day in order to visit the most significant historical Seghieri sites.
Morning: Tour of the facilities of the Casolare dei Fiori (family of Gilda Seghieri and Enzo Pasquinelli). Tour of churches in San Salvatore and Montecarlo and several other sites in Montecarlo with significance for Seghieri family members. Tour of Montecarlo cemetery.
Afternoon: Lunch in one of the Montecarlo restaurants that serves exquisite Tuscan cuisine. Tour of Casone di Marcucci (which once housed some 50 members of various Seghieri families), tour of family farm of Ivo, Celestino and Fabbio Seghieri. Tour of church in San Gennaro of Capannori, where Torello Seghieri was once the choir director. We’ll stop in Alberghi (a suburb of Pescia), where we will sample gelato from the best gelateria in the area and then stop at the bicycle shop owned by Francesca Seghieri and her husband Franco Natali. The final stop will be at a used merchandise store where you can buy interesting souvenirs at a great price.
Evening: Make your own plans for dinner. Recommendations will be available upon request.

Morning: Open, but with many suggestions, including: Go to the open air market in Ponte Buggianese (ends at 1 p.m.). Take the funicolare to Montecatini Alto. Go to a wine tasting (plenty of options). Drive to Vinci, birthplace of Leonardo and home to two Leonardo museums. Shop in Montecarlo, Montecatini or Lucca. Drive to the Devil’s Bridge in Borgo a Mozzano. Go to the Parco di Pinocchio. Take a train to Florence or Pisa.
Afternoon: Cooking class with Elena Benvenuti.
Evening: Farewell dinner at Fattoria Il Poggio.

What kind of costs can you expect? Airfare, obviously, is a major expense, but you can save by making reservations well in advance. The closest airports are in Florence and Pisa, each of which are about 40 minutes from Montecarlo. It’s usually cheaper to fly to the major airports of Rome or Milan. However, if you are only coming for the reunion and not planning to visit other cities, it likely won’t be worth the savings to book flights to Rome or Milan because of the time and expense required to travel to Montecarlo.

You’ll need to provide your own housing, and I’ll provide recommendations with contact information in the coming months. You’ll also need to provide motor vehicle transportation as we move from site to site. You can rent a car at any airport.
Meals at our various group dinners will be paid to each restaurant, and costs will vary depending on what you order and the menu prices.

Elena is a professional tour guide, and if you want to take the tours of Lucca or the cooking class, you will pay her set rates and make your reservations with her directly. It would be great if you could contact her prior to the reunion, but you’ll also be able to sign up when you arrive. Entrance to the Fortezza di Montecarlo costs around 8 euro and a wine tasting will cost from 20-30 euro.

Otherwise, there are no costs associated with the historical site tours, which I will lead, with occasional help from other family members. Showing people around our wonderful ancestral home is my hobby and a labor of love.

I’m a little nervous about bringing so many people together in one place, most of whom speak only one language. However, there is precedent: The French Seghieri families, with help from Davide, Elena and other Montecarlo relatives, have held some wonderful reunions both in Italy and France. Your patience and positive attitudes will hopefully overcome my shortcomings in planning and leadership.

I’ll be in Italy for 10 days in March and for longer periods of time this fall and next spring, and I’ll be working with Elena and other relatives to firm up the plans. Meanwhile, put the dates on your calendars, talk to members of your family and make sure your passports are current. It may be more than a year away, but you’ll want to be well prepared for an unforgettable reunion and vacation! Ci vediamo in Italia.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Which company is best for DNA testing for Italian Americans?

Testing for Ancestry? 23andMe? Family Tree DNA? Which of these companies—and many others that have joined the DNA testing game—are the best for finding relatives and determining one’s ethnic background, especially for those of Italian heritage? I’m an amateur genealogist and have now been tested by four different countries. Based on my experiences, I have some recommendations.

Ancestry is the best for finding relatives—by far. And, it’s the worst for determining Italian ethnicity—also by far.

It’s great for finding cousins because it has the largest database. Some 15 million people have submitted their genetic samples to the company as of May 2019, and the number nearly doubles each year. It has an option to let you search for people who had DNA tests matching yours by surname and by geographic region. Of course, this only helps if matching people have attached a family tree to their test results, but some have, and it has enabled me to find many previously unknown relatives.

It’s the worst for determining ethnicity for the simple reason that southern Italians and Northern Italians have different DNA patterns, and, in my experience, Ancestry seems to have decided that southern Italians are pure Italians, while northern Italians (and Tuscans) are only Italian to the extent that they have genes in common with southern Italians. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I have friends with Sicilian roots who have tested as 100% Italian, something I previously didn’t think could be possible. This seems especially ironic given that Sicily has been invaded more than 17 times by outside groups.

Sicily native Alfio Di Mauro, science PhD and former researcher at the University of Catania, said, “You’ll never find such a genetically diverse place in Europe as Sicily.” Indigenous residents have had their genes mixed with Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Islamic Arabs, Normans, Borbons, Spaniards, Jews and a host of other seafaring traders and invaders.

I also have Tuscan friends and relatives who can trace their ancestry back 200 years or more who test less than 20% Italian. Ancestry may be quite accurate in other areas, so their analyses are not worthless—my only complaint is with their Italian labeling. Perhaps I wouldn't be so inclined to complain if my ancestors were from the South, but I still think it's a shame that so many northern Italians and Tuscans were being informed that they are more French than Italian.

So what is the most accurate ethnicity service for Italians? This is not an easy question, because as Lynn Serafinn of Trentino Genealogy observes, “no two companies have the same test people in their reference panels, no two companies have the same number of ethnic groups, no two companies label their populations with the same names and no two companies define these populations with the same geographic boundaries.”

I can only speak for the four companies I’ve used, but I have some facts that make my situation worth considering. I’ve spent days in Italian archives researching my Italian ancestry, and I have found birth records for every Italian ancestor on my dad’s side of the family going back to all 16 of my third great grandparents. That takes into account 31 ancestors in total. Each one was born in the same valley in Italy, the Valdinievole (roughly between Lucca and Montecatini), or just a few miles away.

I’ve done the same from my mother’s mother, who came from Holland. All eight of my third great grandparents (and all successive ancestors until my mom) on my grandmother’s side were born in Amsterdam or no more than 10 miles from there. Theoretically, this should make me half Italian, and one quarter Dutch.

My mom’s dad is not so easy to classify, since his ancestors had settled in Ohio and Indiana many centuries before he was born. The best I can determine is that he was about 65% German and 35% British. That would make me about 16% German and 9% British. German ethnicity is a little hard to pin down, because travel and borders between what is now Germany, Switzerland, Holland and even France have varied through the centuries.

I never expected any DNA test to show me as 50% Italian, because Italians have mixed with other countries over the centuries, and the specific genetic segments selected for comparison could also have more of my mom’s genes than my dad’s.

With this in mind, 23andMe comes the closest to replicating my genealogy data. While 30% Italian seems a bit low, I accept it as a reasonable variation, and I’m impressed that the company pinned most of this down to Tuscany (CRI Genetics was the only other company that named Tuscany as a gene source). If you add my researched Dutch and German, the combined 41% comes close to 23andMe’s 46%, and then the British/Scandinavian mixture is fairly close as well (many British people have Scandinavian roots anyway).

Ancestry not only has me low in Italian but much too high in British roots. They have me as more French than Italian, and this result comes out much worse for my brother Roger, whom Ancestry claims is only 4% Italian and 26% French. Meanwhile, sister Linda is also only 4% Italian and 17% French, and some of my cousins (also half Italian by genealogical standards) come out as 0% Italian. In case you are thinking that maybe we had some unknown French ancestor, I have covered this topic in another blog post, and I am certain this is not so. Even if I had a French fourth great grandparent, I would only have inherited 1.56% of French genes from him or her. See also Are new algorithms ignoring northern and central Italians?

Family Tree DNA is in some ways the broadest and least helpful. It’s hard to argue it’s not accurate, since the maps they include for Southeast Europe and West & Central Europe overlap such that both include Tuscany—but really all that it tells me is that I’m mainly from Europe. The one interesting tidbit is that they credit me with being 7% Sephardic (Hispanic) Jew. Large numbers of Jews left Spain for Italy and France when they were forced out in the late 15th century. A substantial admixture between Jewish and Tuscan genes in the 1500s and beyond could be the reason I’m not closer to 50% Italian—and also why Ancestry thinks we have some French genes (which could actually be from Sephardic Jews who settled in France).

CRI Genetics has me too high on German and too low on Italian, but it’s interesting that they give me 7% Spanish and 3% Jewish and French. This would lend credence to the theory that I had Sephardic Jewish ancestors who left Spain and immigrated to Italy and France. However, my Dutch grandmother reportedly also had some Jewish roots, so where my Jewish DNA came from is far from certain.

In summary, one should remember that just because 23andMe most closely matches my known family tree doesnt mean others will find the same level of accuracy. While the actual genetic code is hard science, the interpretations of cultural origins is fraught with assumptions, extrapolations and educated guesses.

I should also note that genealogist Serafinn has extensively researched her father’s northern Italian ancestry and also received analyses from four companies: Ancestry, 23andMe, CRI Genetics and MyHeritageDNA. Of these, MyHeritageDNA—a company I’ve not yet tried—matched  her genealogical research most closely.

Recently one of my Italian America Facebook friends, Jim Pantaleno, posted a simple but brilliant message that is always good to remember: “If the Italian culture is the only one you know because generations of your family trace back to what is now Italy, then you are Italian. Period. Whatever else might be mixed in, like spices in a classic dish, only adds to the flavor.”

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Beneath a Scarlet Sky an eye-opening tale of World War 2 in Northern Italy

I’ve read at least a half dozen books that describe what it was like to live in Italy during World War 2—but none quite as compelling or eye-opening as Under a Scarlet Sky, by Mark Sullivan and published in 2017.
Author Mark Sullivan with Giuseppe "Pino" Lella.

The book is based on the true story of Pino Lella and covers the years from June of 1943 to the end of the war in September of 1945. Lella was a happy-go-lucky 17-year-old Italian boy whose family home in Milan was destroyed by Allied bombers. When his parents sent Pino and his brother into the mountains for safety, they worked under the direction of a Catholic priest to smuggle hundreds of Jews to neutral Switzerland.

Pino Lella at age 17.
Photo provided by Lake Union Publishing.
When Pino turned 18 and was required to enlist in the Italian army, he became the driver and translator for one of the most powerful and mysterious officers in the German High Command. Lello also became a vital spy for the Partisan resistance.

Lella risked his life to pass along information about German plans and the location of vital weapon-producing factories. He also witnessed important events and conversations, met Benito Mussolini and Clarina Petrarci, lost friends and extended family members and fell in love with a woman who would haunt him the rest of his life.

Beneath the Scarlet Sky is an extensively researched novel of biographical and historical fiction that reads much like a work of narrative nonfiction. In an interview with author and blogger M.K. Tod in May of 2019, Sullivan describes some of the efforts he took for accuracy: “In late March 2006. I spent nearly three weeks with Pino, who was 79 at the time. We went all over northern Italy so I could see where many of the incidents he described had occurred. We drove high into the Alps and visited the site of a Catholic boys’ school that served as a staging facility for Jews escaping Nazi-occupied Italy. I climbed and skied the escape routes myself. In Milan, we met with a retired priest who’d been a forger in the underground railroad that led Jews out of Italy, and we walked the streets of the fashion district where Pino had grown up. We talked to Holocaust historians, war historians, and old men who’d been part of the partisan resistance.”

Pino after the war in 1949.
Ironically, a few readers have given the book mediocre reviews because they find it unbelievable that one teenager could have experienced and seen so much in such a short time (see note below*). I tend to believe that while dialogue and descriptive details were added, the major events truly took place. Sullivan spent extensive time with Lella, so why would he have to invent incidents? Pino’s story is a great example of the axiom that truth is stranger than fiction. Life experience have shown me this can be the case at times.

Another criticism is that the writing is simplistic and not especially literary in tone. For me, the action, intrigue and historical value more than make up for that minor shortcoming. In fact, the movie rights to the story have already been purchased and Tom Holland has been selected for the lead role.

Tom Holland
Photo courtesy Gage Skidmore.
What makes this book stand out from the other stories I’ve read about Italy during war times? First, Pino’s position as a driver and translator for a general in charge of operations in Northern Italy gave him unique insights on the machinations of the war. He was able to see both the daily lives and sufferings of Italian citizens and the inside operations of the German army.

The second intriguing aspect: the descriptions of the acrid relationships between Fascists and the partisan resistors. In books I’ve read about the war in Southern Italy, the Fascists lost the support of the Nazis in autumn of 1943. In Northern Italy, the Fascists maintained a semblance of power for two more years, which they used to help the Germans dominate the citizenry, rob factories and farms, and create a labor force of Italian slaves.

Having read mostly about the experiences of Southern Italians, the bitter animosity that developed between opposing sides in the North surprised and saddened me. Lella witnessed unspeakable brutality and witnessed grievous losses because of conflicts among fellow countrymen. As the war ended, mobs of otherwise ordinary citizens became blood-thirsty avengers, executing anyone suspected of being Fascists or associating with the German occupiers.

“The WW II era was a time when courage was common,” Sullivan said. “There were also clear and defined enemies who forced one person after another to decide who they were going to be and how they were going to act in the face of evil.

Other books on the Second World War in Italy that I’ve reviewed:
Bicycle Runner provides a compelling look inside war-shattered Italy
Franca’s War tells tragic saga of Italian suffering . . .
And here’s one about a movie that depicts war times:
L’Uomo che VerrĂ 

*Footnote: Because some of the (very few) negative reviews of this book on Amazon questioned whether the events in the book were true, I wrote to the author. Here is the answer, direct from Mark Sullivan: “As I indicated in the preface to tell the story I had to do things like create composite characters and stitch lines of plot in a way that tell the story more efficiently. For example, I couldn’t tell the story of the thirty or so escapes that Pino Lella led in the winter of 1943-44, so I put together two escapes based on the parts of others. Mrs. Napolitano is based on three different women who Pino helped into Switzerland. One of them was a violinist, one was an older woman, and one was pregnant. Out of those three, the character of Mrs. Napolitano came to life. Did Alberto Ascari teach Pino Lella to drive? He did. Just not in the way I portrayed it. But, from a novelist’s point of view, I had to show you that Pino Lella could drive the way I described, and that is unequivocally true. I have driven in cars with him, and it was hair-raising. Did he actually get the job of driver to General Leyers by fixing his car? Yes. According to Pino, that’s exactly why he got the job.”
In addition, I listened to a presentation by Sullivan at Wagner College, and someone asked about the love story between Pino and Anna. Absolutely true, Sullivan said. He had to pry the information out of Pino, and it was an extremely personal and emotional experience for both Lella and Sullivan.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Try Montecarlo for a lively yet uncrowded Tuscan hill town

During the final 10 years before I retired from teaching, Lucy and I visited Italy almost annually, looking at different places we might want to live. Each time, we stayed in a different city or two. We wanted a hill town with a view that was near a train station and small enough to compel us to learn Italian (we’re still working on that part). We didn’t want some remote town in the mountains that was losing population and services.

We settled on Montecarlo, which met almost all our criteria and had the added bonus of being the comune where my grandparents grew up and married before leaving for America. We’ve never had a moment of regret.

I’ve recently been doing some freelance writing for magazines, and when I pitched the idea of an article on a lively and picturesque but largely unknown city near Lucca, Chicago-based Fra Noi magazine gave its approval. My article on Montecarlo was published in the January 2020 issue and can be seen below.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Retired American tech researcher shares why he chose to live in Italy

One of the first things people assume when we mention that we have a home in Italy is that we must use it as a jumping off point for travel around Italy and other European countries. While we have done some exploring in Italy, traveling is not the reason we bought a house here. We prefer the sweet and peaceful rhythm of daily Italian life. We are happy just to be.

I recently read a post by another ex-pat who seems to feel the same way, and hes given me permission to reprint it here. It’s not flowery or profound; in fact, it’s quite simple—much like the rather ordinary pleasures that compel us to live in Italy.

Ted Wobber is an ex-New Yorker who has worked for Xerox, Google, Microsoft and Digital Equipment Corporation, but he and his wife recently left that behind for life in a small town in Le Marche.

Ted wrote:
“Folks often ask us why we moved to a relatively unknown part of Italy. Here’s part of the reason.

Linda DeMelis and Ted Wobber
Today we woke up late having been out until 1 a.m. at a jazz guitar concert the night before. Finishing breakfast, we prepared to go out to do the shopping as we often do. It was a beautiful Saturday morning, and lots of folks were out preparing to look at this weekend's Mercato Antiquario (antique market).

We first stopped off at the open-air vegetable market, picking up some artichokes, broccoli, romanesco and cavolini (brussel sprouts) on the stalk (rare here). We then ambled over to see Emidio and sons at the bar where we usually take morning coffee. Fully caffeinated, we headed off to finish shopping at the local grocery.

Soon we ran into an American friend who visits Ascoli for a month or two a year, and we had a lovely conversation about the magnificent buildings along the main drag. Not long after, we ran into two expat friends of ours who were excited about a new type of pasta they made the night before.

Ascoli Piceno
After picking up some dinner for tonight, we met Franco, an engaging gentleman I met working with the Angeli del Bello—a volunteer organization that cleans up graffiti and other ugliness. He was happy to point out that my picture was in the local paper this morning from our most recent project. I’m a bit taller than most other folks in our group and so am easy to recognize.

Finally, we ran into my commercialista (accountant), who was most happy to introduce his wife, whom we had not met before. After all this, it was almost time to go home and make lunch! A typical morning in Ascoli!

So none of this is world-shaking—but I do think it is typical of a lifestyle that didn’t exist for us in the US, a lifestyle where moving slowly and meeting and talking to all sorts of people is really the essence of living.”

Ben detto, Ted! Well said, indeed.

Monday, November 25, 2019

A joyful encounter with a musically talented Spadoni angel

The gospel choir that Lucy and I joined several years ago, Joyful Angels, presented a concert yesterday in Lucca, and a Spadoni earned special mention at the end for outstanding performance. All of this is true, I swear, but it’s not the complete story.

We did join the Joyful Angels for a few months in 2016 and 2017. We attended practices during our three-month stays, but the group never had a concert during the time we were members. Eventually, we realized that it was too difficult to continue attending rehearsals during our limited months in Italy, and we dropped out but kept in touch with some of the members by Facebook. When we saw there would be a concert only 20 minutes from our home, we jumped at the opportunity.

We enjoyed the nostalgia of hearing people we knew singing gospel music in English, with their slight Italian accents still coming through on certain words. It was especially noticeable on “Oh Appy (Happy) Day,” because the letter h is silent in Italian, and choir members had to be a concentrated but sometimes unsuccessful effort to make the h sound. We sometimes quietly sang along during the numbers we had once practiced with the group.

Pianist Eva Spadoni
The choir is now directed by an old friend from Lucca’s Valdese church, Andrea Salvoni, who formerly was the Joyful Angels’ pianist. When the name of the new pianist, an accomplished and stylish young lady, was announced to applause, I did a double-take. Her name is Eva Spadoni.

Naturally, we went up to meet Eva afterward, and I asked where she was from. Lucca, she said. And does she know if her ancestors came from the Valdinievole, where I’ve traced the Spadoni line back to the early 1400s? No, just Lucca. We are probably distantly related, I told her, but I couldn’t be sure. To connect her to our family tree, we’d have to know if her ancestors once lived in Stignano, Ponte Buggianese or Borgo a Buggiano. If they didn’t, then the connection could still be there, but it would be too distant to trace.

Anyway, as usual, the thrill of meeting another Spadoni is usually much greater on my part. Eva knows that Spadoni is an ancient name in this section of Tuscany, and it’s probably no big deal for her to encounter someone else with that surname. For me, it always adds another sense of connection, a feeling of belonging to this land. Pleasant surprises like this continue to pop up in my life, and I truly feel blessed by God to have had still another.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Caught by the "IRS." The slow pace of Italian life has its pros and cons

The Italian IRS has caught up with me at last! And I have surrendered without a fight.

For those who have followed my story, in 2017 and 2018, I had received letters from the Agenzia delle Entrate claiming I owe taxes on a car and phone that had been used by an unknown person who had fraudulently claimed to be me in 2014 (see A high stakes challenge I must fight). I had filed a denuncia with the Carabiniere in Altopascio and gone to the AE several times trying to explain that I was not even in Italy during the months that these events occurred, but no one wanted to listen to my story. As far as I know, they still think I owe money, so I wondered if I would receive any more letters this year.

A few days ago, the postman rang our bell and had me sign for a registered letter—from the Comune di Montecarlo, claiming that I owed 89 euro to the Agenzia delle Entrate. But this time there was no mention of car and phone taxes. As best as I could make out, they wanted me to pay back property taxes on our house for November and December of 2015.

We had gone to an accountant every year since we had made the home purchase to pay our taxes, but since we had made the purchase in late 2015, perhaps it was true that no taxes had been paid for those last two months. We assumed that the notaio would have done this as part of the purchase process, or our accountant when we paid taxes in 2016. Apparently not, and it certainly wouldn’t be worth the trouble to dispute this relatively small charge (the actual tax was only 59.01 euro, but the fines and interest added another 30 euro).

I immediately went to the Ufficio Postale and paid the bill, a very simple process because Montecarlo has its own tiny post office, and there was no line when I arrived.

So what has become of my other supposed fees and fines? Maybe the Carabiniere investigated my complaint, found the crook and reported this all to the AE, and my debt was immediately canceled. And, no doubt, they sent the report via flying pigs, and the tooth fairy made sure the AE took swift action.

More likely, I’ll get another letter next  year, or the year after, and perhaps I’ll even try again to explain my innocence. We’ll see. With the famed slowness of the Italian bureaucracy (four years have passed since my apparent failure to pay property taxes from 2015), I may be dead before they write again (I know, I know, it’s bad luck to say that, but I’m touching metal right now to cancel the misfortune).

As for a couple of other things I was anticipating learning about upon my arrival in Montecarlo this fall, I was grateful to find that the concrete asbestos vat is no longer in our attic (see Unfinished business).

Our kitchen sink drain, however, still flows into the roof gutter and empties into the field behind our house. However, my neighbor says that he knows how to connect it to the sewer, and if the plumber does not come back to do it, the neighbor can do it himself. And, after all, it’s only been two years since I paid for this. In Italian time, that’s apparently not long at all.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Two previously unknown Leonardo da Vinci sculptures displayed in Tuscany

The angel Gabriel in San Gennaro. Photo
by Paul Spadoni
A few years ago, I “discovered” one of the few remaining sculptures of Leonardo da Vincia four-foot tall statue of the archangel Gabriel. Of course, it wasn’t I who really discovered it, but I was one of the few Americans who knew about it. This fortunate circumstance led to an article I wrote being published in Ambassador magazine this fall. The article is most likely the first announcement about the statue in a major American publication.

I came upon the statue by accident in 2014. I had learned that my great grandfather Torello Seghieri had been director of the Philharmonic Choir at a church in the small hillside town of San Gennaro around 1900. Lucy and I went to see the church, and there in the back was the statue, inside a protective glass case. We picked up a brochure in the church which stated the sculpture had been attributed by art experts to Leonardo.

The church in San Gennaro, Tuscany. Photo by Lucy Spadoni
How could it be that this town, virtually unknown to the outside world, could contain one of the very few sculptures attributed to the famous master? With a little research, I found that since 2008, the statue had been well known to art experts in Italy, but almost nothing had been published about it outside the country. Over the next few years, I interviewed several Italian art experts and then pitched the story idea to the editor of Ambassador, a publication of the National Italian American Foundation. He accepted the story and it was published in the fall edition of this year.

Mary with a laughing Jesus. Photo
by Lucy Spadoni
By coincidence, earlier this year another statue, The Virgin with the Laughing Child, was announced by art experts to be the work of a young Leonardo. Only 20 inches tall, it is made of red clay and depicts the Virgin Mary, with an enigmatic smile reminiscent of Mona Lisa, looking down at a smiling baby Jesus on her lap. Lucy and I saw it last spring in Firenze as part of a special display showing works from the laboratory of Andrea del Verrocchio. We’re not art experts by any stretch, but we could see similarities in style between the two statues.

Below you can read my full story. Well, almost the full story. A few paragraphs had to be cut because of space limitations, including one that I thought important in establishing the credentials of the primary expert who first attributed the angel statue to Leonardo, Dr. Carlo Pedretti—an amazing man in his own right. Here is the dropped paragraph:

Carlo Pedretti
Pedretti himself acquired his own share of fame in Italy. Historian Kenneth Clark—writer, producer and presenter of the BBC Television series Civilisation—described Pedretti as “unquestionably the greatest Leonardo scholar of our time.” By his 13th birthday Pedretti had taught himself to read and write left handed and backwards as Leonardo did. Pedretti’s first articles about Leonardo were published in 1944 at the age of 16. An article about Pedretti in 1952 in the prestigious Italian newspaper Corriere Dell Sera, said, “At the age of twenty-three he knows everything about Leonardo.”

Click on the page below it to read it without the sidebar on the right overlapping it.

For more information about the town of Vinci, read Visit to Vinci, birthplace of Leonardo, one of Tuscany's best day trips.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Israel trip evocative because of its strong ties to both faith and family

Our home in Italy is only about four hours from Israel by air, and Lucy and I decided to take advantage of this proximity to visit the Holy Land last week. We chose a highly rated tour called “Roots of Our Faith,” by American Israel Tours, and it lived up to its enthusiastic reviews.

Behind us is one of the caves where some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

This twisted olive tree in the Garden of
Gethsemane is more than 2000 years old.
Both Lucy and I have Jewish roots in our family trees, and of course our lives have been greatly influenced by our Christian faith, so it was only natural that we’ve long had an interest in seeing Israel. We visited many significant locations from both the Old and New Testaments, including Joffa (Joppa), Mt. Carmel, Caesarea, Megiddo, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Capernaum, Tiberias, Caesarea Phillippi, Masada, Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) and Jerusalem. We took a boat trip on the Sea of Galilee, swam in the Dead Sea, prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and at the Western Wall, and waded in the waters of the River Jordan. Many in our tour group took the opportunity to be baptized in the river as a sign of re-dedication to their faith.

On the banks of the Jordan River.
At most of the sites, someone in the group would read from the Scriptures about some historical event that had taken place there. We also shared communion at the site of the Garden Tomb, one of the two most likely sites where Jesus may have been laid to rest before his resurrection. Along the way, we also saw many ruins from civilizations that have occupied the region throughout the years, including the Canaanites, Romans, Persians, Byzantines and Turks.

Lucy at the Sea of Galilee, near Capernaum, where Jesus called Simon,
Andrew, James and John to be his disciples.
On our only free day, we went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, an indescribably evocative yet disturbing experience. I made it about three fourths of the way through it before I just couldn’t handle my emotions and had to leave. I can’t imagine the strength it would have taken to survive the prison camps, and I also felt a flood of sorrow when I saw the looks on the faces of the young American soldiers who first came upon the emaciated survivors and had to remove the piles of dead bodies.

However, we also had the privilege to visit a much more hopeful, positive part of the museum, a memorial garden dedicated to compassionate non-Jews who assisted Jews during the horrific years of Nazi rule. In particular, we saw an olive tree planted in 1984 to honor Mathilde “Tilly” Smith Bonnist (1918-2015), the wife of Lucy’s cousin the late Ernst Bonnist.
Lucy at Tilly Bonnist's olive tree.

Tilly was named “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem organization, having been nominated by Maurits Houk, who survived the Holocaust with Tilly’s help. We learned only recently about this honor from her son Eduard and daughter Else, who live in Amsterdam, and we were thrilled to see Tilly’s tree thriving in a large olive grove, along with hundreds of other trees. In all, more than 27,000 people have been honored, although the tree plantings have been discontinued for lack of space.

We were also given a description of why Tilly was selected: “Mathilda Smith was the secretary of the textile firm owned by Mr. Hoek (the father of Maurits), who was Jewish, working out of his house in southern Amsterdam. In August 1942, after the extensive summer razzias, Mr. Hoek gave Mathilda a proxy to act in his name in matters related to the firm. Shortly afterwards, as the situation for Jews grew more and more precarious, the various members of the Hoek family—parents and three grown-up children—decided to go into hiding and hid in different places. Mathilda knew where they were all hiding and agreed to act as the intermediary between the family members, keeping them in touch with one another. From that time on and well into 1943, Mathilda made sure the Hoeks were safe in their hiding places. Each time one of them had to move for one reason or another, Mathilda, who still lived with her parents, hid them temporarily in her house until she found them an alternative address. She also arranged false identity papers for them. Unfortunately, only one member of the family, the son Maurits, survived the war. The rest of the members of his family were caught. Mathilda and her parents also hid another Jew, Ernst Bonnist, and his mother in their house. Mathilda and Ernst married after the war. Mathilda considered it her human duty to help the Hoek family and others, and never asked for any remuneration for her acts of bravery.”
Tilly is shown below planting the tree in June of 1984. Today this hillside is covered with mature olive trees. Photo courtesy of Else Bonnist.