Oh boy, I love it when you can link stories on the blog and quite by chance there I was reading an article about researching ancestry in Southern Italy last night and no I don’t have any but the article caught my eye for other reasons.
Living in Puglia I have certainly tended to just accept the place and why it is like it is , the people the cucina povera etc. Yes I have read several histories of Italy and the reunification without to be honest really thinking about it just in terms of the South. However this article described quite clearly how difficult it is for later generations to research the people who actually got on a boat and went to the USA or South America or Australia or indeed other parts of Europe. Not the actual birth docs etc but why they made such a life changing and dangerous move and what kind of life they were leaving behind. And let’s face between 1860 and 1921 there were literally thousands and thousands of them from Southern Italy.
The reason is simple, even by 1921 less than 5% of the population in most of Southern Italy was literate and therefore most were unable to write down their experiences . There is a real dearth of books about life in the Mezzogiorno during those years. The blame for this rests firmly with first the French from Anjou and then the the Spanish who between them for 4 centuries of ruling Southern Italy kept it in feudal servitude with literally ,for the majority of the population, no advancement at all not even in agricultural improvements. Compare this to the City States in the North, Florence, Siena, Venice , the Duchy of Milan etc and their amazing wealth and culture.
Puglia at the time of re-unification in 1861 was the same as it had been in say 1261, nothing but a daily grind for survival and the reunification did nothing to improve their lot until, perhaps surprisingly, Mussolini .
So there, seemingly, are no books to help the would be researcher discover about life in those times. But as always when faced with a insurmountable problem there is always someone who grasps the issue with both hands and does the impossible . Step forward Helene Stapinski, a journalist by trade, but also a descendent of one of those families that upped and left for the States but this one with a secret .
From the age of four, she had heard lurid yet inspiring tales about her great-great-grandmother Vita, a loose woman back in Southern Italy who fled to America in 1892 with her three children after committing murder ! See I told you the article caught my eye !!
“Gripped by her family’s story, she embarked on a decade-long fact-finding mission, making numerous trips to Basilicata, where she comes to learn what really happened and how far one woman would go in search of a better life , not only for herself, but for her children and the preservation of her family”.
All this she has written in her book Murder in Matera which you can buy at Amazon and on Kindle too.
Is it any good well here are a few reviews:
“The style is streetwise Hemingway, the theme is Faulkner in a nutshell.” (New York Times Book Review)
“ A thrilling detective story ……..Fascinating and informative . . . Stapinski’s description of the near-feudal life in southern Italy in the 19th century is compelling.” (Newsday)
So I’ve bought my copy on Kindle .
I’ve also been spending time doing more research into those dastardly French and Spaniards as well as learning more about Denis Mack Smith the British historian who is considered by most as the numero uno authority on Italian History and his assertion that the reunification was always going to be an unsolvable problem because of the feudal nature and poverty of the South compared to the riches of the North.