“How soft the music of those village bells,  Falling at interval upon the ear In cadence sweet; now dying all away, Now pealing loud again, and louder still, Clear and sonorous, as the gale comes on! With easy force it opens all the cells Where Memory slept.”

William Cowper

In 1998 the genealogy bug bit hard.  I had set a goal that I wanted to walk in the the villages of my ancestors. Unfortunately for me I started this journey a decade after my great grandparents and their contemporaries had died. To my surprise no one of my grandparents generation knew or remembered the name or the location of our ancestral villages in Italy. Eight more years of painstaking field research in the NYC Municipal Archives, cemeteries, and other repositories using direct and collateral line techniques had expanded the family tree, the pool of surnames, and identified a number of potential relationships. However I was no closer to identifying the land from whence we came.

At the same time in my work life I was involved in a number of large mergers and acquisitions in the software industry. One of those acquisitions had a broad portfolio of geodemographic analytics solutions. Geodemography is the linkage of demographics with a spatial location. Geodemographics is a structured method for making sense of complex socio-economic data by where people live. One of the key learnings in geodemographics is that people who live in the same neighborhood are more likely to have similar characteristics than are two people chosen at random.

I began to wonder if the massive amount of data I had collected between 1998 and 2006 could be geolocated and visualized together.  I then went back through my research and through online census records at Ancestry.com to extract as much address information as possible.  What became immediately clear is that the names and addresses I had captured had a clear spatial pattern – these people were not randomly spread through the area – they were actually quite spatially proximate to each other.  Through additional outside research it became clear there were established 19th century spatial settlement patterns for southern Italian Catholics:

  • Neighborhood distinctiveness and social cohesion in New World urban areas was directly related to migrants tendency to move in with relatives and acquaintances from their Old World rural past.
  • Southern Italian villages tended to be isolated and insular, and new immigrants tended to preserve this isolation in their new country, clustering together in close enclaves.
  • The population of a single Italian village ended up living on the same block in New York, or even the same tenement building, preserving many of the social institutions and habits of worship

In Italy, this spirit of village cohesion was known as campanilismo—loyalty to those who live within the sound of the village church bells.  Therefore, it became clear a more detailed analysis of the people living in certain neighborhoods in time and finding out where they immigrated from (vs. direct or collateral lines) might allow me to “hear” the echoes of the village bell and “force open all the cells where the memory of my ancestors slept.”

It worked.

By following intensely researching a witness on the marriage record of Clementina Carmela Petrone and Angelo Corbo and corroborating surnames patterns with existing surname distributions in villages in Italy I discovered a probable candidate for one of the ancestral villages of my maternal line – Piaggine in the Salerno Province of Campania.  I sent my proof sources to a wonderful field researcher near Naples (Joe De Simone) who went to the archives in Piaggine and not only validated my research but sent me back stacks of vital records.  The ancestral echoes of the village bell as outlined by the spatial pattern of immigrants in the New World has pointed me to the ancestral village of the Petrones.  There was only one thing left to do – to hear the ancestral echoes of the village bell in Piaggine.

With the outstanding hospitality as well as transportation and translation services of Joe De Simone on the ground, my eldest daughter Julia and I flew to Naples and joined Joe for the long drive to Piaggine. We timed our trip to coincide with the festival of Piaggine’s patron saint – Santa Filomena (Saint Philomena) on August 23rd where the size of the village swells as Piagginesi from around the world come home.  We stayed at an agriturismo (Le Grazie) and as we stood out on our veranda for the first time looking at the village below – we heard the sound of the Village bell calling us home too.

I could write 10 more blogs about what happened in Piaggine – the people from around the world that we met, the outstanding hospitality, the vistas, the vibe, the music, Mt. Cervati, faith and tradition, and the food! One of the thrills was getting an unscheduled personal tour of the oldest Church in Piaggine  – the Chiesa di San Pietro which was built in the year 1200.  When we saw one of the pews with a dedication to a Petrone family in Piaggine we really got the sense of the potential span of Catholic Tradition in our family back to the 13th century.  But the arc of these blogs does not end in Piaggine.  We had found the ancestral village of the Petrones but not of the Corbos.  All the of the vital records from the archives in Piaggine as well as a physical geographic assessment from Google Earth pointed to us to a smaller village nearby – Sacco.   Not only in Sacco did I have my “Kunte Kinte I found you” moment – I also discovered what I believe has been the driving force of Faith in my family for three and a half centuries.  More on what I found in the last installment of this series of posts.