Sunday, April 14, 2013

An important missing link found in Seghieri family genealogy

Thursday, April 11, 2013
Two years ago, I attended a speech given in Montecarlo by historian Dr. Sergio Nelli for the 150th birthday of Italy. In it, he listed significant dates, events and names in local history. I understood very little, but I do remember that he mentioned the name Seghieri 16 times, according to my count. Two years later, I finally have an opportunity to ask him more about the significance of the Seghieri family to the Montecarlo area, as Elena and I go to his family home in Altopascio to make some inquiries.

Elena and Dr. Sergio Nelli. Around them are some of the many books with
data from local records that Dr. Nelli has laboriously compiled by hand
in the last 30 years.

Dr. Nelli has an incredible personal archive on the families of Montecarlo and surrounding areas. He has been laboriously copying names, dates and events from various databases into dozens of books and his computer—birth, marriage, death, legal, military and court archives. He has at least partial family trees for every ancient family in the area.

We are also trying to find a connection between the family tree of Elena’s husband Davide Seghieri and my grandmother Anita Seghieri. I had e-mailed Dr. Nelli three weeks earlier, and he has found the answer in his research, although we need to go to the parish archives in Pescia to confirm it with 100 percent certainty. It looks very likely that Davide and I share a common ancestor, Andrea Seghieri, born in 1599 and later married to Francesca di Piero. Andrea had a son Luca, in Davide’s line, and another son, Seghiero, in my family’s line. Davide is 10 generations removed from Andrea, and I am nine generations removed. That makes me an 8th cousin of Davide’s father Sergio, so Davide and I are 8th cousins once removed. My children are 9th cousins of Davide.

This also clears up a mystery for two of the families here living practically next door, because it shows how Mario Seghieri and his children are related to the families of Sergio and Sergio’s brothers Pietro and Libero, and also to Gilda Seghieri, who with her husband and children operate the agriturismo where we stay each year. Still left unsolved is how two other Seghieri families living between Sergio and Mario are related, but that question will probably have to wait for another time.

Now that we have this mystery cleared up, I have more questions for Dr. Nelli. What can he tell me about the Seghieri Bizzarri family, a noble branch of our family, and how did they get that rather . . . bizarre double last name? It started with Simone Seghieri Bizzarri (sometimes written Seghieri-Bizzarri), born in 1717, when he became a Cavaliere di Santo Stefano di Pisa. The Knights of Saint Stephen were founded by Grand Duke Cosimo de' Medici in 1561 to fight Saracen piracy in the Mediterranean. In order to become a knight, Simone had to move to Pisa, but he kept his property in Montecarlo, and later his descendants moved back to Montecarlo.

This marker is in the cemetary in Montecarlo. This is probably
the one who was gonfaloniere of Altopascio. He was both a
cavaliere and an avvocato, a lawyer.
One of his sons, also a knight, had the longest name I have seen in my family tree research: Bartolomeo Michele Francesco Gaspero Maria Seghieri Bizzarri. This family reached its peak years in the early 1800s, with several members serving as cavalieri and at least one both a cavaliere and an avvocato, a lawyer. Leopold Seghieri Bizzarri was a medical doctor who had articles published in a medical journal in the mid-1800s. Another Simone Seghieri Bizzarri was gonfaloniere of Altopascio around 1850. In the late 1800s, the heirs began marrying commoners and had lost their relatively short-lived noble title. Now the Seghieri Bizzarri branch has disappeared entirely, probably from an absence of male heirs.

So where does that double surname come from? Dr. Nelli says there are two possibilities. First, and we think more likely, is that a male Seghieri married a Bizzarri of a noble family—possibly one without a male heir, so the daughter would have been next in line to inherit the family estate and title. Thus the children, or at least one of them, received the double surname to indicate the noble bloodline.

Another possibility is that the noble Bizzarri family was about to perish for lack of a male heir. In such cases, another family could purchase the noble estate and title, with the condition that they also adopt the surname to assure its continuance. Otherwise, if a noble family disappeared without an heir, the local bishop had the right to assign the estate and title to another family of his choice, or even to divide up the estate as he deemed best and let the name die out.

When the Seghieri Bizzarri family joined the ranks of nobility, it became necessary to adopt a family coat of arms, called a stemma in Italian, and the Seghieri stemma can be found on a wall in Montecarlo, which Elena will show me on another day. The Seghieri Bizzarri stemma has a lion—a symbol of power—and a crosscut saw, from the belief that the Seghieri name derives from sega, or saw. Dr. Nelli, though, thinks this is a mistake. First, a person who uses a saw is a segatore, not a seghiere. He is almost certain the name has Germanic origins from the Longobardi settlement in Italy. In that case, he says, it probably derived from two German words, Sieg, victorious, and heer, army.

Elena, who is a walking encyclopedia of Italian and European history, tells me that the Longobardi were in Italy from the late 500s to the mid 1000s. Just as I am adjusting to the idea of the Germanic origin of our ancestral name, Elena tells me that the Longobardi actually originated in the area that is now Sweden. But why did they speak German, then? Well, they didn’t just march straight from Sweden to Italy, she explains. They moved south over a period of centuries in search of more fertile lands, mixing and assimilating with other tribes in areas they conquered or occupied. When they arrived on the Italian peninsula, the local people called them the Longobardi—long beards—and the name stuck, although they are also referred to as Lombards in many English textbooks.

This history points to the futility of trying to consider one’s origins to be only of a single country. Italians are a mixture of numerous tribes who have occupied the peninsula for millennia—Villanovans, Etruscans, Greeks, Romans,  Goths, Moors, Arabs, Bourbons and a long, long list of other immigrants and conquerors.

Tomorrow I will go off to the coast to visit some friends from Germany for several days. Elena suggests I ask them about Dr. Nelli’s theory of the name origin, and I agree that would be a great idea.

Elena shows me the secret of
how to make risotto in only a
few minutes.
Dr. Nelli has more information on various members of the Seghieri family through the years—all the way back to the early 1300s. Most of it is not of great consequence but still entertaining. He will send some of his files by e-mail and Elena and I will sort through them later. We thank Dr. Nelli for his fascinating research and return to San Salvatore. Then I eat dinner at Elena and Davide’s house, dining on her incredible dishes of risotto, tortino ai carciofi and a main course she has invented but not yet named. It is seppia—squid—that she has stuffed with flavorful ingredients. We discuss the name over dinner, and she thinks she will call it squid with surprise.

We show the genealogy to Davide, who is interested to see the names of 700 years’ worth of his ancestors. Of course we knew before that we were somehow related, but it gives us an extra measure of satisfaction to see how it works out in writing. I feel the gratification that comes with the fulfillment of a long-term goal, along with the shorter term satisfaction of a gourmet meal.


  1. I wonder if you could tell me how to contact Dr. Nelli? I am a Nelli, descended from a Nelli who left the Lucca area around 1912 to emigrate to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He had three children, including my father and an uncle, who between them had 10 children. Those 10 children in turn had children...there are a lot of us Nelli descendants around!

  2. I have his e-mail address, but I don't want to post it here. However, if you send me an e-mail, I will tell you how to contact Dr. Nelli. However, be forewarned that he doesn't speak English. But he is very interested in history and genealogy. You might also want to read another of my blog's, in which I quote Dr. Nelli and he refers to his (your) family history:
    My e-mail is

  3. OK, thanks very much. Will send you an email. My married name is a Welsh name, so please look for that, under a Yahoo account.


Comments welcome.