The small, provincial town of Mombaruzzo lies quietly on a small hilltop at the foot of the Italian Alps, and is surrounded by dense forests and seemingly endless fields of vineyards. Once a part of the old Duchy of Monferrato, Mombaruzzo is located roughly at the centre of the triangle between the larger cities of Turin, Genoa and Milan, in the northern Italian province of Asti; Mombaruzzo is the centre of the municipality of the same name. My ancestors, who lived there until the first half of the 20th century, would have spoken Piedmontese, rather than Italian, as their mother tongue.
One of the smaller villages that surround Mombaruzzo is Casalotto, a smaller and quieter location enclosed by even more vineyards, forests and fields. Casalotto is the birthplace of my great-great-grandmother, Maria Margherita Ameglio (née Leva), whose only son, my great-grandfather Giacomo, emigrated to the United States in 1910. Maria Margherita, in turn, was the oldest-surviving child of Giacomo Leva, who was also from Mombaruzzo, and his wife, Francesca (née Frola), who came from nearby Fontanile.
When my father and I visited Casalotto for the first (and so far only) time in September 2006, we were immediately struck by how little the village has changed in the last century. Most of the buildings that dot the area today would have already existed when my great-grandfather packed his bags and left the place in search of a better life in America. The local church still dominates the sleepy home-town of my long gone ancestors, and the school (where his son, my grandfather, was probably educated after being sent to live in Italy with his grandmother until the age of 14) can still be seen in the vicinity.
My father and I stayed for a few days at the only hotel in the village, the well-appointed La Villa hotel, run by a British couple. I will not comment on the tiresome atmosphere that the dull presence of Britons constantly created, what with vacuous conversations about the weather and where was the best place to invest in some local property. I do remember that the owner somewhat coldly but kindly offered to guide my dad and I into the registry offices in town, and see if we could fare better than on the Internet in order to find some information about our paternal ancestors. Thanks to a local clerk called Ornella, we successfully managed to lay our hands on a birth, marriage and death certificate, but there were still many unanswered questions.
Our greatest surprise came when we went back to the hotel, still in awe at our discoveries at the municipio; struck by Margherita’s last name, the owner of the hotel contacted his next-door neighbour, also called Leva. When we got back, the neighbour and a cousin of his were sitting at a table next to the terrace, armed with several papers and documents. We introduced ourselves in my very rusty Italian, exchanged facts and names, and realised that we were actually closely related; their common grandfather was my great-grandfather’s youngest uncle! Baffled, we proceeded a few yards down the road, the old Via San Michele (now called Via Torino), until we reached a small group of small, unimpressive houses: the birthplace of my great-grandfather Giacomo.
Mombaruzzo has become for my father and I a place of emotional pilgrimage. Every year since 2006 we make the effort of going back and meeting our cousins once again. Perhaps this year we will finally manage to book our tickets.
Of course, we still have a lot of facts to dig out and there are still many unanswered questions about our ancestors, but through photographs and documents, provided to us by our newly-discovered cousins Luigi and Luisella, we are closely starting to fill in the genealogical gaps which have remained unanswered for one hundred years.
And now, enjoy this video (in Italian) about Mombaruzzo: