From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 32
The Emigrants

One of the things that makes Gioviano and the Garfagnana area so appealing to Americans and other English-speaking peoples is that thousands of Italians speak English due to the fact that they had emigrated to America, Canada, England, Scotland, or Australia to seek their fortunes. Afterwards, they returned to their homeland to work, to open a business or to retire.

It is not at all unusual to be walking through a tiny village and be greeted in English by a local resident, usually an elderly person, eager to practice speaking English. When we first discovered Gioviano, there were several citizens who had emigrated in years past and who had returned to live out their lives in their homeland. These friendly people were anxious to help us overcome any difficulty we might encounter.

Adenaco was extremely kind and helpful. He had so many amusing expressions that kept us in stitches, such as “Americano smoka da sigaro (cigar) – Italiano pusha da wheelbarrow.” Before he left Gioviano for America, there was no automobile road to the town, so he had no need to learn to drive a car. When he returned there was a one-lane paved road up to the parcheggio. So. when riding either up or down the hill, at every curve he would command nervously, “Honka da horn!”

Emilio lived alone in the wing of the Palazzo that had been sealed off for a hundred years before we purchased it in order to make the building whole again. He had lived in Canada and enjoyed practicing his English with us.

Both Adenaco and Emilio are no longer with us except in spirit and as preserved on canvases painted by my mother. These works of art hang on the walls of the Palazzo along with others of our friends whose bodies have made the journey to the camposanto.

Renzo and Giorgina own two houses in Gioviano but still live in Canada. Until this year, they spent their summers here with Giorgina greeting the passersby from her window overlooking the parcheggio--in English if they were American or in Italian if they were Giovianini. Every year, Renzo would hold a fish banquet at Al Cantuccio, and it would be my job to give a flowery speech in my broken Italian, proclaiming the beauty of the village and the pure hearts of the citizenry, and lamenting the passing of those of our friends who could no longer be here to enjoy the festivities.

Roberto lives in a house on the only way into the village and is often outside greeting us in English with a Scottish brogue. Having lived in Australia, Carla and Lionello -- who run the agriturismo in Piano di Gioviano -- speak with Australian accents as do Johnny and Silvia who own Carrozzeria Johnny, a car body shop.

Danilo and Melide have also lived in Australia. For several years after returning to Gioviano, Danilo worked as the electrical engineer in a nearby factory. Since retiring, he has become what I call “il sindaco” di Gioviano (the mayor of Gioviano) due to the serious interest he taken in helping to promote the interests of our community. Sometimes I tease him and call him “Podestà”, an archaic term referring to the title of the chief magistrate in Italian cities during the Middle Ages – a person with virtual dictatorial powers.

Many beautiful houses and villas were built by emigrants returning to Italy after having made their fortunes abroad. They are especially numerous on the outskirts of Barga, Valdottavo, and in other communities throughout the Garfagnana and the Serchio Valleys.

The success story that we live with each day revolves around Palazzo Margherita. The imposing Renaissance loggias on the back of the house tower above the parcheggio. They are perhaps the most prominent features, other than the campanile, that greet visitors to Gioviano.

From our very first visit to the village in 1973, I was fascinated with the Palazzo and tried to imagine its history and what it looked like inside. At the time, the huge structure was inhabited by the widow of Vincenzo Calissi. Her name was Argia. A book about emigrants from Borgo a Mozzano and its frazioni published in 2005 lists her as being a “contadina,” or farm woman, when she left for America from the port of Genoa. In America, she worked in a laundry.

For years, as I would pass back and forth from the parking lot to Casa Giorgio, I would stare up at the house and try to peer into the windows but to no avail. I never met or even saw Argia. After her death, the Palazzo remained empty. One day, Adenaco borrowed the key from Dina who had looked after Argia during her last years. She had been put in charge of the Palazzo with her husband Domenico who did his best to patch the leaks in the roof—a roof that hadn’t been replaced since the late 17th century.

I remember going into room after room after room, admiring the antique furniture and the frescoes on the ceilings as I contemplated the many centuries of births, feasts, sicknesses, wedding parties, and deaths that had occurred within its walls. Including the Emilio wing, I counted 40 rooms and 50 windows. I couldn’t even imagine that someday we would own this wonderful building with its mysterious past.

Vincenzo Calissi was a venditore di statuini (statue salesman) and must have been very successful, because in 1921 he and his wife returned to Gioviano and purchased what then came to be known as Palazzo Calissi. The Calissis restored the Palazzo, retaining nearly all of the original features, but they added a very unusual fresco on the ceiling of the entry hall. An Italian Royal Eagle is portrayed clutching a wooden pole with an Italian flag on it. Above the eagle is an American flag-like banner. It is obvious that the Calissis took great pride in having lived in America, but also in being Italian.

Giovianini are still emigrating to America. After Maurizio Turri and Anna Black married, they restored part of one of the great Palazzi Barsanti where they lived until Maurizio decided to emigrate to America where he is now obtaining a university degree and teaching Italian. Anna is pursuing graduate studies.

When they retire, sometime around the year 2035, they will no doubt return to Gioviano to enjoy the peace, tranquility, friendliness of the people, and wonderful food and wine as have many generations of Giovianini before them.

An old saying around these parts is that when Columbus reached America he encountered a statuini salesman from Barga, who was selling statues to the Indians.

Revised March 3, 2008
Copyright 2005-2006 George H. Russell
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