Family legend — and a lost birth certificate — has it that my paternal grandfather, born near Rome in 1889, was the illegitimate offspring of an Italian princess of the Orsini family and a Philip Emanuel Marconi. Supposedly born in a castle, but given away to be raised by a poor family in the countryside near Rome, Giovanni Orsini/Marconi wore rags on his feet instead of shoes. The family who raised him was provided a stipend from the family of the birth mother. Orsini became Osenni in 1907 when Giovanni arrived in New York at Ellis Island to escape the poverty of south central Italy. He promised to come back for his childhood sweetheart, my grandmother, Annunziata Grilli, who lived nearby. Aided by a sponsor, Giovanni landed a job in Teddy Roosevelt’s White House where he was employed as a servant. It was where, he told his daughters, he learned to read and write English. Eventually, in 1918, after WWI, my grandmother joined Giovanni, and they were married as soon as she landed at Ellis Island. They raised seven children; my father, John, was next to youngest.
Giovanni had always intended to return to Italy to research his origins, and was actually able to procure a copy of his birth certificate through the intercession of an official in Italy after WWII. Giovanni died suddenly in 1947. He never returned to Italy, and somehow, his birth certificate was lost.
Fascinated by the romance of the story — a princess giving up her baby, a tragic love story — I began to do a little research on my own, and eventually found an Italian genealogy site, Angel Communications, owned by Canadian Ann Tatangelo, who is married to an Italian and who lives, coincidentally, in the same mountainous region southeast of Rome where Giovanni was raised. My own voyage of discovering Ciociaria began.
The region of Ciociaria (cho-cha-REE-ah) begins in the mountains about 40 miles or so southeast of Rome. It happened that in 2006, my husband had a week-long business trip to Rome. I tagged along, thinking it was the perfect opportunity to continue some genealogical research in person. Ann Tatangelo and I met and visited the mountain towns that figured prominently in my grandmother’s life, including Piglio, where she was born and where she met Giovanni, and Serrone-La Forma, where her father Giacinto Grilli had a brick factory.
We visited local churches, seeking baptismal records (all babies in Italy were baptized, regardless of legitimacy) and spoke to the priest and workers in various municipal offices, but no one recognized the Orsini/Osenni/Marconi name. We ended up in the lovely village of Piglio (peel-yoh) at the municipal offices, where the accommodating officials let us search their records. There were no Orsini records, but we did find the surname of my grandmother’s family, Grilli, and there we found Annuniziata, her parents, her siblings and the address of the house where she was born in 1892. We asked if the house was still there. In a village founded in the 13th century, a house from the 19th century is relatively new … and yes, it was still there! Guided by a policeman, we found the house, and when we explained to neighbors, curious about our little entourage, what we were looking for, they told us that I had other relatives living just up the street.
To make a long story short, we met many relatives that day, and I began a great friendship with a second-cousin-once-removed, Giulio Tirinelli, whose great-grandmother was a sister of my grandmother. It happened that Giulio spoke English … a rarity in small towns in Italy!
My husband had another business trip to Rome the following year, and we visited Piglio together to meet once again with our newly discovered extended family. We returned subsequently a few more times, getting to know Giulio and his family. As a landscape painter, I found the landscape and villages of Ciociaria appealing, and suggested to Giulio that we might find a way to introduce this un-touristed part of Italy to other landscape painters. Our painting workshop, “Discover Ciociaria” was born. As our plans grew, we enlisted the help of the local government of Piglio, and in particular the councilwoman responsible for cultural activities, Stefania Bedetti. Enthusiastic about the idea of bringing tourists to Piglio, Bedetti not only welcomed us, she provided lodging for me and my husband, free of charge, as we investigated possibilities and planned our first painting workshop. As a thank you for the town of Piglio’s generosity and hospitality, I volunteered to work with local school children there to create a landscape mural similar to one done with the Saugerties Lighthouse Conservancy “Mural Miles” project in 2003, when Saugerties kids painted their own version of a Saugerties landscape. In 2011, 27 Italian school children painted a mural, “The Beautiful Land,” and their parents were so happy with the results that they suggested we should do the same for adults.
The gauntlet thrown, we rose to the challenge! Once again, a Saugerties project provided the blueprint. The huge mural at Town Hall for which I served as project manager in 2006 was the template for a much smaller project with Italian and American artists. A photo of the Italian landscape near Piglio was divided into eight sections. Eight artists, four American (Angela Gaffney-Smith, Carol Slutsky Tenerowicz, Nancy Campbell and Jon Campell) and four Italian, each chose a section and painted their own version. The work was brought together in Italy in summer of 2012, and traveled for six months to six towns in Ciociaria. With funding from the regional government of Lazio (roughly equivalent to a state here), booklets describing the cultural tourism project, “Scoprire La Ciociaria” or “Discover Ciociaria” were produced and the mural has now arrived in Saugerties, where it will be displayed in Town Hall as a gesture of friendship between our countries. Plans are in the works for an official “twinning” of the towns of Piglio and Saugerties. An official dedication of the mural was held during a Transatlantic, live Skype call on Tuesday, May 20, between Saugerties and Piglio officials.
As for the mystery of Giovanni Osenni? Well, it still hasn’t been solved, but I like to think that he’s had a hand in all that’s happened since my search for him began.