Decamot of the month

30 Sep 2020-Italian Ancestry Part 2

Events take an unexpected turn and the families end up at the Vatican.

Continued from Italian Ancestry Part 1


Lisa Eagles parked her car in the municipal car park in Esperia, five minutes ahead of her scheduled meeting with Mayor Giuseppe Villani. It was two years since she had visited Esperia City Hall on Viale Vittorio Veneto, so she was cross with herself for misjudging the traffic on the E45. It had added 20 minutes to the journey from Fumone, which should have taken a little over an hour. Her head was buzzing with multiple thoughts following the telephone call she had taken from her former political ally the day before.

Giuseppe was pleased to tell her that he had identified some records relating to Claudio Romano, but the situation was far from straightforward. Rather than commit to an email, he would prefer to tell her face to face. Would she like to pay him a visit? We could always have some lunch and a glass of vino afterwards? He had said. “For old times’ sake”; a reference to their political jousting of two years earlier.

Giuseppe had never really got over the concept of a female mayor in a neighbouring commune, let alone one that had been chosen to head the Frosinone deputation to the Ministry of Education in Rome, and a flaming Brit at that!

It was the kind of invitation Lisa always found hard to resist.

“Ciao Bella” said Giuseppe as Lisa entered his office “On time as ever, if only just, on this occasion” he teased.

“I was doing well until the roads came under your jurisdiction” Lisa replied, also laughing.

The exchange was watched by an elderly monk who stood up with some difficulty, offering an outstretched hand by way of welcome. Once multiple cheek greetings had been exchanged all round, Giuseppe said “This is Father Pietro from the Abbey of Montecassino. He has been extremely helpful in my research”

“I am head of archives at the Abbey for my sins”, he said “before that I was a parish priest for 50 years at the Church of Saint Mary Maggiore on via Guglielmo Marconi. It is where the Romano family worshipped”

When he spoke, Lisa noticed he had a slight twitch in his left eye, but she quickly discovered his mind was still razor sharp. She couldn’t help liking him. Later, when relating the tale for friends, she would refer to him affectionately as Pietro the kindly twitcher. But for now, she concentrated on giving him the respect his age deserved.

“Father Pietro,” she said gently “I really am most grateful to you for helping his worship the Mayor in this enterprise. I know how painful this period must be for the citizens of Esperia”

He waved her comment aside with a shrug of his shoulders and invited Giuseppe Villani to pick up the narrative which he did by taking out a document from the draw of his desk.

“Here is a copy of Claudio Romano’s birth certificate. As you can see Lisa, he was actually born in Rome in 1910 but Romano is not his family’s name. That was changed by deed poll at some point, by his father, Gustavo Filippo Giulio, who was born a Benso, which is the family name of the Count of Cavour, who was the first Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy. If you know your Italian history, he was succeeded eventually by Benito Mussolini. Claudio Romano’s family was steeped in politics although there is no evidence of Claudio getting involved. If anything, he was seen as a bit of an outsider in Esperia, a cut above the average, someone who was keen to get on.”

“As Father Pietro will tell you, he fathered a child with Cesira Benito, a local girl, who was murdered by the Goumiers following the Battle of Monte Cassino, but we cannot trace a marriage certificate. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but many records of the period were destroyed. It was a chaotic time. Their little girl was discovered by US soldiers sheltering in a cave and handed over to the Church when we surrendered. As I told you on the phone, those were dark days. There were so many groups jockeying for survival, communists, nationalists, neo Fascists, not to mention ordinary citizens who just wanted peace at any price. The trouble was you didn’t know who to trust. Frankly, civil order had broken down completely”

Lisa was itching to fire some questions but decided to wait for Father Pietro to carry on with the story which he did after taking a sip of water from the glass in front of him. He seemed nervous.

“My child,” he said quietly “I was only nine years old myself when the war ended so I did not know Claudio Romano myself although I grew up in the area and became aware of the atrocities that split families. It was partly my experiences as a teenager which led me into the Church which I have now spent my whole life serving. What I am about to tell you is based on some personal recollections and observations but also supported by official Church records that I have had access to.

Rosetta Romano, the little girl, was comforted by a US captain called Stevens who was himself a Roman Catholic. When he found her she was extremely distressed and was clutching a hessian bag which she kept insisting she was holding for her father. It took Father Carlo, one of my predecessors, several days before he was able to persuade her that he would keep it safe and give it to her father when he returned.

When he opened it, he found that it contained some legal documents that he felt should be sent to the Vatican. There was also a small shoe trinket which Father Carlo gave back to the little girl to keep safe for her father’s return.

When Captain Stevens returned two days later, he said the Mayor had told him that there were wild rumours circulating that Claudio Romano must be part of CLN – the Italian Resistance movement – and that he had gone to England where he had been detained when war broke out.

There is no evidence that this was true, but they had decided that it would be best all round if a message was sent to him via the British embassy, telling him both Cesira and Rosetta had been killed. As far as I know, that is what they did”

“What!” exploded Lisa “You told Claudio Romano that his daughter was dead when you knew that was a lie!”

There was a silence which lasted at least five minutes broken by Giuseppe Villani.

“I know you are upset Lisa, but we shouldn’t judge the actions of our forebears based on today’s moral standards. I did try to warn you. This was a particularly dark period for our citizens most of whom were simple folk with simple country beliefs not inhabitants of the modern metropolis of today”

“But how could the church have colluded in this deception, Father Pietro?”

“We can only pray for guidance and forgiveness my child” he replied quietly “The records show that Rosetta was severely traumatised. They wanted to give the child the best chance possible chance of a complete recovery. Sadly, marocchinate was an alien corrupting experience which defied belief. It warped minds. Local people even thought her mother could have been a witch. In the end, the Church elders did what they believed was in the child’s best interests. In my humble view, faced with a similarly tragic situation today, God would guide them to a different decision”

Lisa remained in contemplative mood for several more minutes before speaking again.

“My silence is no reflection on your good self, Father Pietro. I can see that you are a man of genuine faith. As Mayor Villani has said, we mustn’t sit in judgement and I am so grateful to you both for the trouble you have taken, but I have two further questions if I may?”

“Anything, my child, anything” replied Father Pietro, relieved to have reached this point.

“Did Rosetta recover and what were the legal documents in the hessian bag?”

Giuseppe Villani was quick to confirm that Rosetta made a full recovery and married a local lad called Paulo Martinello in 1961 before emigrating to the UK shortly afterwards. He reached into his draw and presented Lisa with a copy of their marriage certificate. Father Pietro confirmed that the legal documents were in The Vatican Apostolic Archive, known until October 2019, as the Vatican Secret

Archive, which is the central repository in the Vatican City of all acts promulgated by the Holy See.

“I have already made a formal request to have sight of them in my role as chief archivist at the Abbey of Montecassino” said Father Pietro

“I am hopeful of an early response as it is all part of Pope Francis’ drive for more openness. The moment I hear, I will let you both know”

The journey back to Fumone took one hour seven minutes as Lisa Eagles juggled with what to say to whom and when. She was aware that her eyes moistened every time she thought of Claudio Romano making his way in life completely unaware that he had a daughter he had never seen.

Hi Tessa,

I thought it might be easier if I wrote you this little email as I have uncovered information which you will want to share with Ollie and Rosetta. You may even prefer to call Ollie first, to warn him that some of the facts might be a touch sensitive for Rosetta, but especially for her sister Cesira.

I have translated the notes attached which were compiled by Mayor Giuseppe Villani and an ancient old local priest called Father Pietro who turned out to be a real sweetie. I call him Pietro the kindly twitcher for reasons I will explain on another occasion. The brilliant news is that Cesira and Rosetta appear to be descended from Italian aristocracy as this truncated Family Tree illustrates:

Gustavo Filippo Giulio Benso (Nephew of Count of Cavour)

Claudio Romano (nee Benso) (1910 – 1996)


1940 ‘Marries’ Cesira Benito
1941 Birth of Rosetta Romano
1961 Marries Paulo Martinello
1962 Birth of Paul & Anna Marie (twins)
1982 Paul Martinello marries Chrissie
1983 Birth of Paul & Rose Marie (twins)
2002 Paul Martinello marries Ellie
2003 Birth of Stephen & Rosetta (Twins)

US Line

1961 Marries Sofia Lorenzo
1965 Birth of Cesira & Rosetta (twins)
1995 Cesira Romano marries Cyrus Webber
2000 Birth of Kelvin
2002 Birth of Carolyn

Father Pietro has promised to call me as soon as he has been given access to the hessian bag mentioned in the notes. When he does, I will let you know. Perhaps we might finally see how and if the pair of Ciocie shoes fit into the story – excuse the pun! Love Lisa XXXX


easyJet flight EZY8251 from London Gatwick to Rome Fiumicino touched down at 10.45 am.

The appointment at Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s secretariat was fixed for 2.00 pm in the afternoon, which gave Lisa Eagles an opportunity to host a brief round table light lunch at De 'Penitenzieri on the way. She was amused to see how Cesira and her daughter turned heads as they walked into the Wine Bar as well as the attention Stephen Martinello and Carolyn Webber were paying each other. Cesira definitely had a magnetic ‘presence’ but Lisa easily suppressed a smidgeon of envy because Cesira was such a nice person. Lisa had hired a minibus which seated up to 10, as the plan was to drive back to Fumone afterwards and for her guests to stay at Antico Borgo for a few days.

The family history had prompted much discussion within the Webber and Martinello households, especially when they realised that they were all related. Cyrus P Webber had worked out that Kelvin and Carolyn were second cousins twice removed in relation to Stephen and Rosetta Martinello. Nobody was prepared or qualified to argue with his logic. They had all met in London the day before and were genuinely excited to be making their first ever visit to Rome.

Father Pietro had told Lisa that the interview facility was limited in space, so that it would be necessary to restrict the numbers to six, including himself. All had agreed in advance that the two families would be represented by Cyrus and Cesira for the Webbers with Stephen and Rosetta for the Martinellos. Kelvin and Carolyn planned to look around the Vatican whilst the others were occupied.

They all insisted that Lisa attend as chief translator as Cesira’ s Italian was not good enough. Lisa noticed that Cesira had a slight regional accent when she did commit to Italian, which she found rather endearing. The subject cropped up over lunch when Cesira explained that she had rarely spoken to anybody other than her father in his native language. The local Italian community in Dobbs Ferry was a melting pot of immigrant families from all parts of Italy, but especially from the central and southern regions.

They were ushered into an unexpectedly spacious room and were surprised when Cardinal Parolin himself entered with much ceremony and due deference on the part of Father Pietro who appeared in awe at being in his Cardinal’s presence. The Secretary of State is appointed by the Pope and reports directly to the Pope. Such is his exalted position within the hierarchy, the Cardinal Secretary of State is sometimes described as prime minister of the Holy See, as the kindly twitcher later explained.

“A nome del Santo Padre, vi do il benvenuto a Città del Vaticano. Il comunicato di padre Pietro è stato un'occasione per sperimentare l'eterna natura perdona del nostro redentore”

Cardinal Parolin said waving his arms in a magisterial way as if offering them a blessing just for coming.

(“On behalf of the Holy Father, I bid you welcome to Vatican City. Father Pietro’s communique was an opportunity to experience the eternal forgiving nature of our redeemer” translated Lisa.)

Cesira and Lisa looked at each other suspiciously. It seemed a touch over the top, bordering on excessive, for a simple welcome.

To their surprise, Father Pietro intervened with a shorter version of his own, in incredibly good English.

“Cardinal Parolin bids you welcome on behalf of the Holy Father” he said, whereupon Cardinal Parolin continued:

“Le carte sacre arriveranno dalle cantine a breve. Padre Pietro spiegherà la storia”

(“The sacred papers will arrive from the cellars shortly. Father Pietro will explain the history” translated Lisa.)

With that, Cardinal Parolin left the room, prompting all six visitors to get hurriedly to their feet accompanied by the discordant noise of chairs scraping on quarried tiles and much ritual bowing from Father Pietro, who then invited his guests to be seated. Since his very first calling, he had struggled to get the balance right between hierarchical deference and his simple faith in God.

“Could someone tell me what’s going on here?” said Cyrus P Webber, slightly irritated that his inability to speak Italian coupled with ignorance of Catholic ritual, was leaving him side lined.

“The legal documents will be here shortly darling” said Cesira quietly. “In the meantime the Cardinal has asked Father Pietro to explain the history. Is that about right, Lisa?”

“Yes” she replied, adding to Father Pietro, “I didn’t know you were fluent in English Father!”

With a modest shrug he said that he had studied English at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan. As a priest he became interested in the history of the Church and studied early Greek and Latin. His work as an archivist became his way of serving his God.

“So what did Cardinal Parolin mean when he said you would explain the history, Father Pietro” asked Stephen Martinello, “Ironically, Rosetta and I are the only two of us with Italian surnames and neither of us can speak a word of Italian. We are not even Catholics!” Father Pietro laughed and began his introduction

“Claudio Romano’s father was a special secret adviser to Pope Pius XI” he began. “He was the Pope who negotiated the Lateran Treaty with Benito Mussolini in 1929 which created the Vatican City as an independent nation state. It finally settled the unique status of the Roman Catholic Church.”

All five visitors were totally knocked out by Father Pietro’s opening statement. Stephen Martinello thought it could not be a proper independent state otherwise it would have its own football team, but he kept the thought to himself.

“You have to understand” continued Father Pietro, “Much of the Catholic Church’s development in Italy, from 754 until 1870, was by the establishment of Papal States, the governmental structure of which reflected the dual spiritual/secular character of the Papacy at the time. The secular or lay persons were strongly in the majority, but the clergy occupied the key decision making positions and every job applicant had to present a character evaluation from his Parish priest in order to be considered.

The Cardinal Secretary of State appointed and dismissed ministers of which three were lay people. Their decisions were subject to papal approvals. There were ministers for internal affairs, including Police and Health, and commerce, including trade crafts and agriculture.”

“So, Father Pietro” said Cyrus Webber, intrigued by what he was learning “There was no separation of state and religion, like we have in the USA. Is that right?”

“Correct!” confirmed Father Pietro “It is a situation that I have struggled to come to terms with myself but by 1861, much of the Papal States' territory had been conquered by the Kingdom of Italy. Only Lazio, including Rome, remained under the Pope's temporal control. In 1870, the Pope lost Lazio and Rome and had no physical territory at all, except the Basilica of St Peter and the papal residence and related buildings around the Vatican quarter of Rome, which the new Italian state did not occupy militarily”

“Am I right in thinking that my father’s family supplied the first Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy?” said Cesira “And that is why his father was consulted by Pope Pius XI?”

“Yes that is right” confirmed Father Pietro. “His great uncle was Camillo Paolo Filippo Giulio Benso, Count of Cavour, the very first Prime Minister. Although he only served for a short time, the Benso family had long been associated with progressive pollical causes” Rosetta Martinello thought this might finally persuade her father and grandfather to take more pride in their Italian heritage, but she kept the thought to herself.

Father Pietro apologised for having taken up so much time on the history, but his Cardinal had taken him rather by surprise. He would have much preferred to have left the politics to his Cardinal and concentrated on the spiritual.

“But you can see how important these documents are” he concluded “In 1929 the head of the Italian government ended the crisis between unified Italy and the Holy See by negotiating the Lateran Treaty signed by the two parties. This recognized the sovereignty of the Holy See over a newly created international territorial entity, the Vatican City State, albeit with a token territory”

At that very moment, the door opened, and a young priest entered carrying a silver tray on which sat a hessian bag with a draw string. He bowed to Father Pietro then placed it in the middle of the table.

A collective shiver went down six spines, followed by a moment of complete silence, as they all took in the historical significance of what they were looking at. Lisa Eagles’ eyes moistened at the thought of the five year old girl curled up inside the cave waiting and hoping to be saved.

Cyrus Webber felt a lump of pride rising in his throat at the thought of a US major having rescued a little girl whose father had gone on to reward him with his own wife whose hand he was now clutching under the table. Cesira wept quite openly.


Father Pietro handed round pairs of white cotton gloves which he invited all five visitors to put on before pulling on a pair himself and carefully opened the hessian bag.

Stephen Martinello thought they might be about to audition for the Black and White Minstrels Show but kept the thought to himself. Father Pietro looked inside the bag and delicately withdrew four pieces of rolled parchments which he carefully placed on the green baized table top, smoothing them gently as he went. He asked Lisa, Cesira and Rosetta to hold one each down carefully whilst he examined them with a magnifying glass. Cyrus Webber and Stephen Martinello looked on with increasing interest.

“What are they exactly, Father Pietro?” said Cyrus

“They are papal bulls” announced Father Pietro in a triumphal tone.” It is the first time that I have seen them and the first time I have ever seen four together like this from four different Popes!”

“What is a Papal Bull?” asked Stephen hoping he was not exposing himself to ridicule.

“It is a public decree or charter issued by a Pope. They have been in use since the 6th century. From the 12th Century they have carried a leaden seal with the heads of the Apostles Saint Peter and St Paul on one side and the Pope’s name on the other. You see here, he said, pointing, “three of these have seals attached and are made of rough parchment. The fourth is much older and could be made of Papyrus”

“Absolutely fascinating” said Stephen, instantly regretting his earlier unspoken cynicism. “But how do they fit in to the story and come to be in the possession of our family?”

Father Pietro continued, choosing his words carefully, as this went to the heart of what he regarded as temporal and spiritual overlap, a moral dilemma about the structure of the Roman Catholic Church which had troubled him for years without in any way weakening his personal faith in God.

“It is all about persuading Mussolini to grant the Church its special status within the Italian State.” He explained. “Pope Pius XI needed to show that the Church had a special affinity with Romans and Rome. The Church had a very weak hand. It had lost all its territories. Your ancestor helped Pope Pius XI devise a strategy which enabled it to be the spiritual head of the Kingdom of Italy, leaving Mussolini to take total control of all temporal matters.

“They appealed to his ego and his ambition. Mussolini was an atheist who could not see the importance of spiritual matters, but he was also a fascist, so the Church had to seal itself off inside Vatican City. Nation status for Vatican City and the Holy See was the elegant solution. It was too small to have any strategic value to Mussolini”

“It doesn’t seem to be much to do with religion” commented Cyrus Webber, anxious to understand the true significance of the documents.

“Frankly, it isn’t” replied Father Pietro “Its all to do with the politics of the time.”

“Which Popes are involved here?” asked Rosetta Martinello, keen now to understand more of the detail for the benefit off her father back in Boston, “And how do they fit the strategy?”

Father Pietro took each one in turn, carefully scrutinising key elements with the aid of a magnifying glass and continued his explanation.

“My Latin is not what it was but here is my initial assessment in chronological order

754 Pope Stephen II. He purports to grant dominion over Ciociaro to representatives of various Italic tribes, Romans, Samnites, Messapians and Apulians, with freedom to practice their folk traditions as if they were Christian rituals. It finishes … traditione christiana plebs tanquam libertatis consuetudinem. This particular Papal Bull is almost certainly a fake designed to tie in with the subsequent Papal Bulls which look genuine.

“A fake!” cried Stephen Martinello could not believe his ears “A fake! Is that morally right Father Pietro”

“Sadly, many Papal Bulls were faked but I seem to recall your countrymen being committed to invading another sovereign state using a dodgy dossier. It is an old technique in the temporal world where the ends sometimes justify the means. Absorbing local customs as accepted Christian rituals has been a successful conversion strategy for over 2000 years”

“But you think the others are genuine” said Cyrus Webber clutching at straws.

“Oh yes” replied the kindly twitcher continuing his evaluation with the aid of his trusty magnifying glass, “But “genuine” is not necessarily the adjective I would use for each one; effective or pragmatic might be better words - efficace e pragmatico – as we say, for the complete collection”

"1870 Pope Pius IX: This is an authenticated true copy of a well-known Papal Bull in which the Pope explains two fundamental beliefs for the benefit of the faithful. One is the doctrine of immaculata conceptio clare the immaculate conception. The other is papal infallibility or pontificis infallibilitas"

"1878 Pope Leo XIII: This Pope created the Secretary of State function which was responsible for all church property everywhere. He supported Christian democracy against communism. This Papal Bull apparently recognises the superior claim of the Romans over all other tribes in the Lazio region bella cum Romanis superiores. It is another authenticated copy of an original, but it could be a doctored fake."

"1929 Pope Pius XI: This looks like a Paul Bull but is, in fact, a special proclamation or charter addressed to Gustavo Filippo Giulio Benso and his successors. He commissions two identical handmade Ciocie trinkets to be crafted by the monks of Abbey of Saint Scholastic as a token of his appreciation for the life and work of the Benso dynasty, to be kept together, thus representing a fusion of the temporal and the spiritual. His final blessing is - Ita Deus aeternus fertilitatis donum detur vobis." “And what does that mean?” asked Rosetta Martinello, infatuated with the detail and bursting to get home and tell her Mum and Dad all about their famous Italian ancestor. “Roughly translated, it means you will all be blessed with eternal fertility” said Father Pietro smiling his characteristic smile. The drive back to Fumone took 90 minutes but flew by as everybody talked ten to the dozen about what they had discovered. Kelvin and Carolyn Webber were amazed at what they had missed but had enjoyed being typical tourists in the Sistine Chapel. They all thanked Father Pietro profusely for his detective work on their behalf but could not persuade him to return with them to join in a special Ciociara celebration.

After settling in at Antico Borgo, Lisa took them to Paolo’s cousin’s taverna for a mini banquet where they were served by waiters wearing traditional folk dresses and wearing Ciocie shoes but the highlight of the evening was when Cesira Webber took centre stage and sang a traditional folk song accompanied by Rosetta Martinello on an acoustic guitar supplied by the ever resourceful Lisa Eagles.


Father Pietro negotiated the return of the Mussolini Papers to their rightful owners, under the declaration of openness initiated by Pope Francis. The Webber and Martinello families donated the Papal Bulls to the Museum at the Abbey of Monte Cassino where they were framed and displayed. They proved an extremely popular tourist attraction with recorded commentary via head phones provided by the unmistakable voice of Father Pietro.

Stephen Martinello and Carolyn Webber continued their inevitable romance and were eventually married in typically Italian style in Dobbs Ferry with a local group performing a saltarello, but the highlight was three numbers performed by Cesira Webber, accompanied on acoustic guitars by Lisa Eagles and Rosetta Martinello who had flown over specially. The lucky charms are kept together in a secret location known only to the newlyweds.

Every year they all stay at Antico Borgo for a few days in order to visit the grave of Father Pietro who died a contented man at Monte Cassino. It has a simple headstone:

Father Pietro

April 8 1935 – April 8 2021


Decamot inspired by the following items: witch, red brick university, trawler, Nile, cardamom seeds, Boston, plectrum, monkey, drive through kiosk, twitcher