Back to Your Italian Roots: The Ciampi Family That Didn't Exist

Silvia Donati | Fri, 02/21/2020 - 00:00
Ciampi family

[Photo: Current Ciampi family members living on the same 1700s farmland as their ancestors.]

Joan Ciampi was told by her Italian American relatives there was no one left from the family in the Italian town her father came from, San Giorgio del Sannio. Yet, she was not convinced.

With the help of a friend passionate about genealogy, she began looking for clues into her family history, learning not only that indeed there are still relatives in her ancestral town, but also that her Italian family is still living on the same farmland, in the same farmhouse, since the 1700s.“My father’s father was born in the old stone farm house, and his grandfather, great grandfather, great-great grandfather…and great-great-great grandfather - all in the same house which is still operating today with another generation of Ciampi,” Joan says. 

Last year, Joan, with her mother and her sister, brought her 92-year-old father to Italy so he could meet his extended family for the first time, including first cousins he never knew.  
“It was an emotional few weeks, but one I am so thankful for and realize how blessed we were to do this for him now that he's gone,” Joan says.

Read on for Joan’s emotional journey to Italy. 

What prompted you to begin your search to trace your Italian roots? 

I always knew I was Italian on both sides of my family - but what did that really mean? Where were those sides and who was on them? Curiosity led me on the quest for answers. It seemed like everyone who came through our front door was a relative even though I’d never met them. As years went on, our family became smaller with the passing of each relative, yet so many unanswered questions remained. I was told my father’s family, the Ciampi, were long gone from Italy. No one existed there anymore. How could this possibly be? I had to find out.

The Ciampi farmhouse

[The Ciampi farmhouse originally built in the 1700s.] 

Please describe the process. Did you already know your ancestral town (by ancestral town I mean the town where your relative(s) who emigrated was from)? If not, how did you find it? Who or what was your first resource when you started your search for your ancestral town and Italian relatives?

My dear friend Mandy, a true aficionado of ancestral history, started the climb into my family tree. I explained the stories I heard over the years, but they were vague and probably incorrect. Even my father Guido Victor Ciampi, who was born in America, didn’t quite know the details of his mother and father’s life in Italy. Detective Mandy was on the case. Months of research and exploring like Christopher Columbus, Mandy discovered San Giorgio Del Sannio, the town where the Ciampi family planted their roots. After numerous emails to the town’s Comune with the help of Google Translate, and phone calls placed by Mandy’s husband Tony, we made contact with the secret key to the past. Vincenzo, the keeper of the town records, blew the dust off the old record books from 1897 and found the birth certificate of my grandfather, Teodorico Ciampi, and his wife, Rosaria Iannace. The information was surprising and riveting, and I was determined to learn everything I could about their life in the early 1900s.

What were the obstacles, if any, during the process of finding your relatives and then getting in touch?

I was so blessed to have a dear friend whose brilliant genealogy investigative skills brought me to my relatives. It was because of Mandy's diligent work and determination that she was able to discover the names, dates and relationships, and hand me the road map to my family. I took her with me in spirit every step of my journey.

Ciampi farmland

[The Ciampi farmland - San Giorgio Del Sannio.]

Please describe the moment you arrived in your ancestral town for the first time.

The following year, I was fortunate enough to spend time in the Valpolicella region of Verona at the Nicolis winery learning about their famous Amarone. I told my Italian colleagues of this little town of San Giorgio in the mountains north of Naples and how my father’s family came from there. They replied, “You are in Italy. You must go!”

Having never met Vincenzo from the Comune of San Giorgio, I sent him an email stating I was coming to town. To see what? Go where? I had no idea.

I boarded a train for the five and a half hour ride to Naples, then climbed on a bus for another hour’s ride into the mountains. It was pouring rain that day and no one was at the bus stop except for a man with an umbrella. As I got off the bus, he approached me and said, “Signorina Ciampi?” “Yes,” I replied. “I am Vincenzo”. I was stunned since I wasn’t expecting anyone to meet me.

Not only did he meet me at the bus stop, but he had researched the Ciampi family before I arrived. In his car sat another man - a Ciampi whom Vincenzo had found by driving to a home address and knocking on this man’s door. Mr. Ernesto Ciampi was indeed a relative of my father and Vincenzo brought him to meet this Ciampi girl from America.  

It turns out not only do we have family in the old country - they’re still living on the same farm and utilizing the same farmhouse since the 1700s. It was a stunning revelation not only for me, but for my entire family. 

Ciampi family in front of farmhouse in the 1900s

[1900s - The Ciampi Family on the steps of farmhouse.] 

2019 Ciampi on Steps of Farm House

[2019 - Marie Ciampi, Ernesto Ciampi, Joan Ciampi on the steps of the same farmhouse.] 

Tell us about traveling to your ancestral town in Italy with your father. 

Last year at the age of 92, I brought my father Guido Ciampi to Italy to meet his extended family for the very first time. My 91-year-old mother, Marie DiStefano Ciampi, and my sister Debbie came along for the very emotional journey. My father stood in front of the antiquated farmhouse where his father Teodorico, his grandfather Pietro Ciampi and his great-grandfather Romualdo Ciampi were born.

Walking through the house was no different than entering a museum. We saw the old rustic rooms with beautiful handmade tiles, frescos on the ceilings and massive fireplaces. The world had moved on but time stood still in this magnificent stone farm house.

We spent the next few days visiting Ernesto and his family, looking at old photographs of generations who lived there, eating food grown from his fields, and sharing stories of life in Italy and America. Ernesto Ciampi, a fifth generation, was also born in the farmhouse, as was his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great grandfather. Ernesto is the curator of the Ciampi farm today, but just recently he handed off the torch to the newest generation - Ernesto Ciampi jr. born on December 19, 2019, who is now the seventh generation living on the farm.

Also during our stay Vincenzo’s kindness and efforts not only found my father’s family, but he also found a first cousin on my father’s maternal side of the family. It was the first time in his life my father met his 75-year-old cousin Carmela Iannace Mattola, who eerily resembled his mother Rosaria.

Guido Ciampi

[92-year-old Guido Ciampi meeting his first cousin, Carmela Iannace-Mattola, for the very first time.]

Ultimately, what was the experience of reconnecting to your Italian roots meant to you?  
My father died this past November at the age of 93. I miss him dearly, but am so thankful he had the trip of his lifetime. I like to think he’s with his mother and father telling them of his visit to the old stone farmhouse, and connecting with our Italian relatives who still exist in the old country. 

Thank you, Joan, for sharing your story with ITALY Magazine readers.

Photos courtesy of Joan Ciampi.