Searching the Amalfi Coast for Long-Lost Family Ties

CLAN ABOUT TOWN The 11th-century Salerno Duomo, near a street named for the author’s family.
CLAN ABOUT TOWN The 11th-century Salerno Duomo, near a street named for the author’s family. Photo: Francesco Lastrucci for The Wall Street Journal

WHILE searching for our roots on a recent pilgrimage to southern Italy, my family and I realized we’d have to take the good with the bad and, at times, the ugly. In the town of Amalfi, somber posters hung everywhere on ancient walls depicting a diabolical-looking character in a black hood. Turns out he was a distant relative.

Sicardo, the brother of Prince Siconolfo—one of my nobler Lombard ancestors—was the real-life villain in “Amalfi 839 AD,” a musical then playing locally. The plot details a key historical moment when Sicardo conquered the great maritime city and imprisoned its citizens. A travel guide in our hotel called him “sadistic” and said he “physically and mentally weakened the subjugated populace” of Amalfi. The musical ends as the people of Amalfi win independence from the Lombards—stabbing Sicardo to death in the process.

A pretty dark legacy indeed. But as our quest unfolded and we traced ancestral clues in libraries, churches, city halls, an ancient village and the remains of a sprawling castle, we uncovered a far brighter side of our heritage. Our two-week sleuthing trip—undertaken by my wife and I and our two kids, two cousins and a spouse—was inspired by my Italian immigrant grandfather, who told us kids years ago that we had German bloodlines as descendants of the Lombards, a Germanic tribe that ruled Italy before the Normans. We started in Rome, at the Biblioteca Angelica, a library built in 1604 that’s tucked into a church courtyard near Piazza Navona. There, among the stacks of books from medieval times, we dug up a 1627 manuscript tracking the history of families from the Salerno region. My cousins translated the text. Leafing through several hundred delicate pages, careful not to tear them, we struck gold: detailed references to the rule of Siconolfo and other Lombard princes. Some pages included family trees, charts and diagrams.

An Italy You Can Relate To

On a pilgrimage to the Amalfi Coast to trace their ancestors, reporter Michael Siconolfi and his family find clues to their noble roots

View of Vietri sul Mare village and Salerno in the background as seen from the Amalfi Coast road. One of the author’s ancestors was Prince Siconolfo, the first prince of the Lombard principality of Salerno.
Francesco Lastrucci for The Wall Street Journal

We took a train south and rented a van to explore the Salerno province, which encompasses the Amalfi Coast (I was elected to drive along the terrifyingly steep cliffs), and based ourselves at Palazzo Suriano in the small town of Vietri sul Mare. From there, we cast out in different directions each day. One afternoon, we wandered through the remains of the medieval Castello di Arechi that sits atop a mountain above the city of Salerno, visible for miles. Prince Siconolfo lived there 1,200 years ago; he was the first prince of the Lombard principality of Salerno. The stone walls, archways and courtyards are still imposing. Through wall slots once used to guard against enemies, we saw goats roaming the grounds, their bells clanging. As we climbed the castle’s stairs, a hard rain pounded the property, and a mist rose around the fortress. I shuddered from the cold, or was it the ghosts?

Heading down to the center of Salerno, we noticed a street named Vicolo Siconolfo, after our ancestor, on a small city map. We searched the ancient section of the city near the Salerno Duomo, an 11th-century church, and soon discovered the “street” was a dark, narrow, 200-foot alley, lined with archways and grime. Drying clothes hung from windows, along with a faint whiff of danger.

View from Castello di Arechi, former home of Prince Siconolfo, the author’s ancestor.
View from Castello di Arechi, former home of Prince Siconolfo, the author’s ancestor. Photo: Francesco Lastrucci for The Wall Street Journal

Another day, we drove to Cava de Tirreni, where we met Loredana Caserta, a guide from the city of Salerno whom we’d hired to help in our research. In the weeks before our trip, Ms. Caserta ferreted out family documents in the region. Over cappuccino at the palatial Hotel Scapolatiello, she mapped a family tree. She noted that Prince Siconolfo built a tower in our family’s ancestral town that led to its name, Guardia Lombardi—“guard of the Lombards.”

Rain pounded the castle. I shuddered from the cold, or was it the ghosts?

We drove two hours up winding mountain roads to get there—a lush, grain-farming village northeast of the Amalfi Coast, and an area called Case Siconolfi, or Siconolfi houses. As we entered a town square, bells rung from the 14th-century church where many of our ancestors were baptized. A war monument contains rows of names of the Siconolfis killed in combat. We ventured into the Municipio, a tiny city hall. Guardia Lombardi town clerk Luigi DiSanto, who is married to a Siconolfi, pulled out registries of our ancestors’ birth records, written in flowery Italian script. Flipping through a book documenting page after page of relatives, Mr. DiSanto chuckled: “Tutti Siconolfi”—all Siconolfi.

Before our trip we had reached out to distant relatives in Guardia Lombardi and alerted them of our plans. Giuseppe Siconolfi, a third cousin, met us to drive to the nearby farming area where he grew up. In her home adjacent to the house my grandfather grew up in, Giuseppe’s mother, Giovanna, treated us to a glorious feast of prosciutto, lasagna, mozzarella and red wine—all homemade from the farm. Between bites, she expanded our family tree, drawing on a small piece of paper.

I asked Giuseppe’s dad, Angelomaria, how long our family has existed in Guardia Lombardi. Forever, he said, with a flick of his hand. For hundreds of years, Siconolfis have lived and died in homes passed from one generation to the next. We were struck by their simple, healthy lives, all tied to the earth—lives today that probably aren’t very different than those of our ancestors who lived in other centuries on the same hills and tilled the same land.

Searching the Amalfi Coast for Long-Lost Family Ties
Illustration: JASON LEE

We only learned about the musical once we arrived in Amalfi’s town center, and immediately bought tickets for a performance, staged in an ancient arsenal. Hooded and leering, Sicardo was a tyrant and a murderer. “I take what I want without anybody saying no,” he sang, for “our noble Lombard cause.” An Amalfitano woman cries that the murdered Sicardo “has stolen our memories.” Sword and knife fights erupted on the stage uncomfortably close to us.

The writer and director, Ario Avecone—an Amalfi native who also starred as the play’s hero—assured us he held no grudge against our family. He invited us to take pictures with the cast, including Antonio Speranza, who portrayed the murderous Sicardo character and goaded us to mimic his leer. He grinned as he pointed to us, saying gleefully in Italian: “Cousins!”

LA FAMIGLIA MATTERS / How to Trace Your Own Family Roots in Italy

DOCUMENTS: Collect photos, letters, birth and death certificates, and any military records, family trees or other documents from relatives.

INTERVIEWS: Speak with older family members, seeking stories about ancestors and how and when they came to America. Search passenger manifests at libertyellisfoundation.org/passenger-result.

ANCESTRAL TOWN: The most important initial step is finding the name of your ancestral town. In Italy, records are categorized by towns and provinces. In the past seven or eight years, many towns and provinces have digitized their records, so you can initially track more online. To help find more information about your ancestors’ region, province and town—including city halls, phone numbers and maps—check the site comuni-italiani.it. You can also contact parish churches in your ancestral town, seeking baptismal and other records (call or mail, though a trip may be needed). And, finally, seek out civil records at the Provincial Archive in your family’s ancestral province, or in the Office of Civil Records in the ancestral town.

ONLINE SEARCHES: Seek out Italian civil records. Sites to start with include familysearch.org or Antenati (antenati.san.beniculturali.it.) The sites offer free digitized records from Italy, though not every town is online yet. Ancestry.com also has databases of Italian records.

BOOKS: Check out “The Family Tree Italian Genealogy Guide: How to Trace Your Family Tree in Italy,” by Melanie D. Holtz, a genealogist and owner of Lo Schiavo Genealogica.

TRAVEL: Plan your trip. Reach out to relatives in Italy. Contact parishes, libraries and city halls ahead of time for appointments. In the Salerno region, we hired guide Loredana Caserta to help with the research, at loredana.caserta@hotmail.it

PAYOFF: “It can bring closure to families” seeking to confirm ancestral anecdotes and history after a hundred or more years in America, said Mary M. Tedesco, a professional genealogist and founder of originsitaly.com. “And you learn something about yourself along the way.”

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