BY: DENISE DENARDO
It was the experience of a lifetime when I travelled to the island of Sicily with my mother in quest of my ancestor’s home. My mother, a historian, researched the maternal side of our family and decided we should try to find the home of my grandmother from three generations earlier.
We stayed at an ancient villa in the resort town of Siracusa on the tiny island of Ortigia, which is off the the southeastern coast of Sicily. I was struck not only by the turquoise blue ocean, but also by the antiquity and Roman influence exhibited on the Baroque architectural elements, especially the carved stone columns, capitals, and arches.
My mother was able to uncover my great-great grandparents and their seven young daughters’ address that had been jotted down in the 1909 ship manifest, which made our quest even more difficult. The biggest challenge was finding the town of Castelgiovanni, which was absent from all maps, even the most detailed editions. Walking to dinner one night, we stopped in a tiny travel office and encountered a travel agent who spoke some English.
When asked if he could direct us to Castelgiovanni, his eyes grew large and said, “It has been many years since anyone has uttered that name. You see, in 1926 Mussolini changed the name of the city to Enna.”
On a map, he showed us the location of Enna, right in the center of Sicily. The following day, we rented a tiny manual car that my mom insisted on driving and journeyed north on ER45— European Route 45— as far as Catania, then west on A19, the Palermo-Catania Highway. The farther west we went, the more rural the countryside became.
The landscape transformed into small farm plots of vegetables and vines planted on hillsides, taking over the large, decaying buildings from a former time. As we neared our destination, we noted that Enna towered high on a mountain with the castle being built on a massive rock, accessed only by climbing a road twisting up the mountain until we reached the summit where the ancient city stood.
From Enna we could see breath-taking, panoramic views of Sicily, including Mt. Etna and seas. The Castello di Lombardia, an austere military fortress, and the Baroque-styled Duomo (Catholic Church) were memorable sites in the city. Few people were seen because shops closed for riposo (siesta) at this time of day, and the emptiness allowed me to imagine my ancestors walking the streets, praying in the church, and living their lives in the stunningly beautiful town.
The main street was Via Roma, so it was easy to find the home, which was within a cluster of white balconied commercial and residential buildings that had obviously been there for centuries. We found the entrances around the back of the building, including our long-time destination, 42 Via Roma.
We turned to leave when a woman, who had been peering at us through a shuttered window, called down to us. Luckily, I was able to communicate with her using my recently studied Italian. She came to understand where we were from and why we had come so far.
She led us up the steps to my family’s former home. An ancient, toothless woman came to the door and invited us into the apartment, and somehow, we were able to communicate why the place was of such importance to us.
The elderly woman remembered the family and confirmed that indeed, the Spampinato family moved to America many years ago with all the daughters. The kindness of the people we encountered helped to piece together my ancestry little by little, so we left Italy with even more than memories of the beautiful city.