Finding family in Lombardia and Liguria



After two weeks bouncing around Lombardia and Liguria doing genealogical research, I'm home in Perugia, my head spinning with names and dates and places and second wives and unknown-until-now twins. It was an exhausting, fascinating, emotional, and exhilarating experience that left me with not only information but more understanding about the area my paternal grandparents' ancestors came from and how they lived their lives.


Since my archive searches would have limited time and lots of hard-to-decipher calligraphy, I hired genealogy researcher Elena Gissi. A very good decision—she has an amazing ability to hold the complexities of a family tree in her head, spot searched-for names in seconds that would have taken me far longer to find, and do on-the-fly calculations of generations, relationships, and so on. I also found a tremendous resource in Beppe Galli, a historian in Viggiù.


So far, the biggest takeaways from the trip: learning that my father's family's Italian roots go back at least 500 years, searching through books dating to the 1500s, and finding the building where at least part of the family lived in Viggiù. It turns out they lived there much longer than I realized.


Where part of my father's family lived until at least 1936

Parish records from the 1500s


Another very cool thing for me was discovering other surnames in my family tree, such as Clerici, Giudici, Grisoni, Argenti, Monti, and my personal fave, Baj (also spelled Bai).


In these days of Covid restrictions, access to municipal archives isn't permitted and parish archives can be seen only by appointment (and sometimes at the whim of the priest). My search was made more difficult because the births, marriages, and deaths were recorded in many small towns, most of them bordering one another—Viggiù, Clivio, Besano, Arcisate, Bisuschio, Cantello (and one part of it, the tiny, ancient frazione of Gaggiolo), and Brenno Useria in the province of Varese (formerly province of Como, until 1927), and the Maccio frazione of Villa Guardia (province of Como). Part of the family moved to Celle Ligure in Liguria; I think part went to Argentina. So there's more yet to discover about this northern side of my family.

It's always moving to see the churches where my ancestors were married or baptized, to sit in the piazzas they would have known so well, and to imagine them walking the narrow streets and shopping where now only the faint remnants of words such as "alimentari" remain.

Chiesa di San Stefano, Viggiù, where my great-grandparents were married and my grandfather was baptized

And then there are the emotionally loaded cemeteries, usually places of great beauty—and in northern Lombardia, they sometimes come with beautiful views.


Views from the cemeteries in Besano (of Lake Lugano, left) and Bisuschio

I searched for family names in something like 10 cemeteries (one of them twice), even though I knew that after 100 years the graves would have been exhumed unless the family paid to maintain them or moved the remains to a small box grave in an ossario (so named because at that point all that remain are the bones). I didn't expect to find the graves most important to me (my paternal GGF, GGGF/M, and GGGGF/M), and I didn't. But I found some possible relatives (more research!) and one large monument that I'm 90 percent sure belongs to the family of my GGF's brother. I left a note at the gravesite; we'll see if I get any response (not likely, especially if they don't visit the grave often).


You can't spend as many hours as I did looking at the names, dates, and faces of people who've died without carrying with you some of the sadness and grief and love documented in stone after stone. In Bisuschio I watched as a a burly man in his 40s gazed at one grave for at least 10 minutes. Before he left, he climbed a ladder—it was a box grave, way at the top of a high wall—and kissed the portrait of his loved one. I have thought of that man and his loss and his memories every day since.


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