My great-grandfather, Francesco Aruri, was born in Serra di Piro, and “frazione” or hamlet near Bianchi, Calabria, in 1846. Here is a summary of the recorded information about his birth: The birth of Francesco Arcuri was filed on 1 August 1846 in Bianchi by his father, Pasquale Arcuri, age 47, a peasant farmer residing in Bianchi. His infant son was born at home in the Serra di Piro District, on this day to his wife, Maria Innocenza Perri, age 35, and was given the name Francesco. Francesco Arcuri was baptized on 1 August by the parish priest of the Church of San Giacomo, in Bianchi.
I found the Serra di Piro area on Google maps. It is just north of Bianchi a mile or two, and very close to Palinudo, where Pasquale Arcuri was born. The records say: The marriage of Pasquale Arcuri and Maria Innocenza Perri was filed on 31 August 1830, in Bianchi. The groom was 26 years old, a peasant farmer born and residing in Palinudo. He was the son of Giacomo Arcuri, a peasant farmer residing in Palinudo, and Saveria Mancuso, residing here. The bride was 28 years old, born and residing in Bianchi in the Serra di Piro District. She was the daughter of the late Francesco Perri, a peasant farmer, and the living Concetta Cosco. The couple was wed on 3 October in the parish of San Giacomo, in Bianchi.
So Francesco’s father, and both his grandfathers, were peasant farmers in little hamlets in the foothills of the Sila. What does “peasant farmer” suggest? I headed to Palinudo with that question in mind–would we find a group of huts along a dirt track? Scattered houses among hillside vegetable terraces? Both of Francesco’s grandmothers were cotton spinners. What kind of textile industry supported their work? Who paid them? How far away were the weavers who used their cotton, and what did they make from it? Was the cotton also grown nearby?
Of course, more than 150 years has passed since those descriptions were written in Bianchi’s town records. And whatever Palinudo was in the 1840’s, it is now a small but thriving ‘suburb’ of the town of Bianchi. In the half-hour or so we spent there, I saw a Mercedes, a BMW, even a Jag. The roads were paved (not fancy, but paved). There is a small, but rather desolate, church in the hamlet. I wonder if it was desolate even in 1846–is that why Francesco was baptized in Bianchi? What were the options and factors that went into the decision about where to baptize a child?
All too soon after Francesco’s birth, this death was recorded: The death of Pasquale Arcuri was filed on 2 October 1846, in Bianchi by Emiliano Arcuri, brother of the deceased, age 22, a peasant farmer, and Carmine Mancuso, brother-in-law of the deceased, age 28, a peasant farmer, resident of the Serra di Piro District of Bianchi. Pasquale Arcuri, a peasant farmer, died at home in the Fiume Corace District on 1 October, at the age of 40. He was born in the Palinudo District, the son of Giacomo Arcuri, a peasant farmer, and Saveria Mancuso, both deceased, and was a resident of Serra di Piro. Pasquale was married to Maria Innocenza Perri.
At two months old, Francesco was left fatherless, and all his grandparents were already deceased. What did an widowed mother of an infant do to support herself? Various other family members are named. Maria Innocenza Perri had a brother who was living when their mother died in 1831. Was he still alive? Did her late husband’s family help her? Did she remarry?
Some of these questions can be answered with more research, but I’m sure many of my questions will never be answered. I recently read an article by Ian Mortimer, an academic historian who also writes historical fiction under the name of James Forrester. In describing some of the different challenges between writing history, and writing fiction, he observed: “You suddenly find that your evidence-orientated knowledge of the period is just not enough; it does not equip you to describe in detail how a man or woman passes one whole day, let alone a number of different men and women across the period of several weeks.”
Even the most detailed historical study won’t likely help me fully understand the lives of these ancestors. I may have to resort to fiction to make their stories come alive.