Friday, February 22, 2013

The real truth about the "illustrious and noble" Spadoni family

Would you like to hear about the prestigious positions once held by your worthy ancestors? Apparently, a lot of people do, because they pay researchers to find their noble forebears. However, most of the reports that paid researchers return are absent of documentation and, frankly, fraudulent. This includes a report and coat of arms I was given about the illustrious Spadoni family, and I even shared it with others on The Spadoni Family page on Facebook. I probably should have known better, and now that I have more information, I would like to say that the information is completely bogus.

The research, printed on plain paper but made to look like the original is printed on parchment, was given to me by Alberto Spadoni of Ponte Buggianese. He can’t remember any more who gave it to him, but it is obviously the work of one of the companies that advertise that they can provide your family surname history and coat of arms. I had been told that the work of these companies is suspect, but perhaps because I was given the document written in Italian and from a distant family member in Italy, I somehow assigned it more validity than it was worth—and by passing it on to other family members, I was indirectly attesting to its veracity.

Here is my translated version of the text:
An ancient and noble family that flourished for centuries in various cities of Tuscany, where the family has produced illustrious and noble men of renown. Formerly known as Spada, the family flourished in Lucca; in Gubbio and Bologna; in Pesaro; and in Rome and Terni. The head of this noble family had the surname Brando and was nicknamed Spada (sword); he lived in 1010. Many members of this family were of the Council of Elders in the town of Lucca, and some held the high office of Gonfaloniere. Mino di Gerardo was one of three ambassadors sent by Emperor Charles IV to Pisa in 1355 to help obtain freedom for the homeland (Lucca); Giannino di Mingo in 1370 was elected one of the twelve citizens of a reform council and of the eighteen elected with very broad authority for the government of the republic, and in 1371 he was one of the first three leaders of the city; Giambattista di Gheraldo was a noted doctor of law who went to Rome and was dean of the lawyers of the Consistorial Council* and was a lawyer for the tax department and for the Apostolic Chamber in the Pontificate of Clement VIII, Leo XI and Paul V. Another Giovan Battista, grandson of the former, was made a Cardinal in 1654 by Pope Innocent. Coat of arms: Red, with three swords of gold fanned out with the tips down. 

*An assembly of cardinals presided over by the pope for the solemn promulgation of papal acts, such as the canonization of a saint.
No sources were cited, but the specificity of the information added to its sense of validity; it didn’t seem like someone could make up this information. And indeed, I have since verified it—but these people are not my ancestors. I had my first serious doubts when I showed this document to another Italian cousin, Carlo Spadoni, who has done an extensive genealogy of the Spadoni family of the Valdinievole area. He wrote me that the research is not true, and he sounded a bit disgusted that anybody would think it was. “It sounds like a story put together by some heraldry agency only to extort money from those who had commissioned the research,” he said.

Carlo didn’t provide any further explanation to support his opinion, so I consulted with an Italian genealogical expert in Montecarlo, Doctor Sergio Nelli, whom I had heard speak in 2011 at a town meeting celebrating Italy’s 150th birthday. Dr. Nelli has made numerous presentations on genealogy and Italian history, and I have been recommended to him on more than one occasion. I emailed him the Spadoni surname research, and he explained how the agencies that put together these reports do their work.

Basically, they look in a reference book that shows names of noble and famous people. If the person inquiring is surnamed Russo, they may find a couple of people in history with this name who held important positions. One may have been in Northern Italy and one in Southern Italy, but that doesn’t matter to the researching company, which just names all the important people with this name and makes it sound like they are all related to the person who has paid for the research

That sort of fake parchment which you sent me the copy of is completely worthless,” Nelli wrote. “These documents consist only of reports of families of the same name taken here and there, with no real connection between them. The information that those ‘companies’ provide is true and may be taken from real documents, but they refer to different cities, different ages, different family strains.”

This is done for two reasons: First, it is easy. It takes only a few glances in a reference book to find famous people with the same name. The second reason is that it provides information people want to hear anyway—that their ancestors were important and noble people. As for the coats of arms provided, the researching companies lead customers to believe that the artwork they provide is for all people with the same family name, when it likely was limited to a very small, specific and unrelated branch of the family.

Dr. Nelli gave me an example from his own experience. He was contacted by a heraldry company which told him he descended from a nobleman named Nello in Firenze (Florence). Nello is singular and Nelli is plural, and that means Nello would have been the first of this family to have a surname. His children, grandchildren and so on would be surnamed Nelli, which is the plural of Nello. This explains why so many Italian names end in the letter i. Following this reasoning, Dr. Nelli said, the head of my family would have been named Spadone, which means “big sword” or “broad sword.” The rest of us from then on would be plural—big swords—or Spadoni. 

In Dr. Nelli’s case, the company said the descendants of Signor Nello, born in Firenze around the year 300, were in fact surnamed Nelli, and they were wealthy enough to have participated in the early government of Firenze. Dr. Nelli confirmed that the Nelli family of Firenze was well off and held the positions of authority as the company claimed. As Firenze and Lucca are only about 50 miles apart, it seemed reasonable that Dr. Nelli could be related to this noble family. However, Dr. Nelli has traced his family back one generation at a time—also to the year 300—and he found that he is descended from a poor farmer who lived in Lucca named Nelli, who has no connection to the Nello who started a family line in Firenze. 

This is the only way, Dr. Nelli insists, to place any certainty in one’s heritage. “The Spadoni surname is characteristic of Valdinievole,” he said. “Just go to the parish archives in Pescia, start looking from your grandfather, then back to your great grandfather, then the great-great-grandfather, and so on, until you meet the person who was dubbed the “Spadone,” and there you have a family tree that is real and serious. But there must be an uninterrupted human chain to those who lived so long ago, from father to son, shown on the documents.

Well, with the help of distant cousins Carlo Spadoni and Andrea Mandroni, the latter a historian who works at the Pescia parish archives, I have traced the Spadoni line back to Bartolomeo, born around 1430 in Marliana. His son moved about eight miles south, to Stignano, and then in the 1600s, most of the Spadonis moved another four miles south to Ponte Buggianese. Throughout the years, it appears the family made its living by farming and was never particularly wealthy. However, up until a few days ago, I still thought it was remotely possible that we could have been related to the “illustrious and noble men” who lived in Lucca in the 1300s. I hypothesized that Bartolomeo could have been from a branch of this family that moved about 30 miles east of Lucca to Marliana.

However, I always had this nagging wonder about why I couldn’t find any other references to the noble Spadoni family of Lucca, and recently it occurred to me that I needed to re-read the surname history that I had been given. One problem is the document says the head of the family was named Spada, not Spadone. That got me to wondering about when the name change occurred. I started searching for the name Spada instead of Spadone or Spadoni, and what I found cleared up all the mystery—and all possibility of me being related to the “illustrious and noble men” of Lucca or Rome. That’s because the Spada family never did change its name to Spadoni. None of the civic and papal leaders named in the document went by the name Spadoni; all were named Spada. I found an online version of the Italian book Dizionario Storico-Blasonico delle Famiglie Nobili e Notabili, which translates as a historical and coat-of-arms dictionary of noble and notable families. There, almost word for word, is the information provided in our surname history document. One important line is omitted, a sentence that says that all these notable people were surnamed Spada, including Cardinal Spada, appointed in 1654.  The dictionary has absolutely no mention of any noblemen named Spadone or Spadoni.

Yes, it says “SPADONI,” but it is not so.
It may be the Spada family crest, though.

Since the heraldry company couldn’t find any famous Spadonis, they just used a name that contained the same root word and then copied and pasted the Spada information, thinking that no one would be the wiser, and everyone would be happy to know how great their supposed ancestors were. Meanwhile, besides charging $50 or more for such research, these companies also sell numerous products with family coats of arms printed on them. The website offers family crests printed on a huge array of products: beer mugs, golf shirts, pillows, plates, flags, wrist watches, wine glasses, door knockers, decks of cards, ties, baby bibs, tote bags, aprons and dozens of other items. I would be cool with this if I thought the coat of arms I was given had anything to do with my real ancestors, but if it is real at all, it would have been for one of the branches of the Spada family. And given the deceptive language on the surname history document, I have my doubts if the family crest is even valid for the Spada family.

I am not alone in being fooled into believing false information. A search through some articles in genealogical magazines shows that many families have been deceived by poor or fraudulent research. An article called “Watch Out for Fake Family Trees,” by James Pylant, cites several examples:

In National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 79, No. 2, editors Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills, on the subject of documentation, shared their experience with a well-known genealogical compiler who did not cite his sources. “Several expensive years later, we discovered that he disdained documentation: he had manufactured ancestors for us. As he later explained, he ‘liked to make people happy, and people don’t like dead ends or dull forebearers.’ The Millses added, “This man’s writings are still very much alive on library shelves, as well as on genealogy’s ‘swap-out circuit.’”
In “Early Nichols Genealogy Exposed as Fraud,” in American Genealogy Magazine, Vol. 12, No. 1, we wrote of George L. Nichols’s experience with the research of an earlier researcher named Leon Nelson Nichols. George L. Nichols concluded that the work of the earlier researcher was purely fictional. “It’s a shame that people think they have to invent glamorous backgrounds for a family or families,” he said, “but they do it.”
Do I find it disappointing that my ancestors were not notable or noble? Not at all, though this is made easier because I know what hard-working and honorable men and women my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were and are. I can well imagine the ancient Spadonis of Valdinievole earning a living by working the soil, trading goods with their countrymen and eating produce from their own fields. Unlike noble and wealthy families, nothing came easy to our ancestors. They were good neighbors and attended and contributed to their local churches. Parents went without food and possessions so their children could survive and have better lives, and they taught their children the same values of integrity, family, perseverance and an honest day’s work that they had learned from infancy in their own extended families. In the end, my grandparents made the extreme sacrifice of starting over again in a strange new country so their children could prosper. How could I not be extremely proud to be part of the genuine Spadoni family line?

Author's footnote: A couple of years after writing this, I came across some evidence that the Spada and Spadoni families could actually be linked after all. I have written about this possibility here: