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 companies. 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.”

* * *
Updates: Both 23andMe and Ancestry have revised their estimations, and they are closer to being accurate when compared to my actual ancestry. 23andMe now lists me as 43% Italian (mostly central). Ancestry upped my Italian percentage from 11 to 16 and called it Northern Italian, a step in the right direction but still far from accurate.

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.