View from the balcony of the apartment where my Grandfather’s sister Italia lived in Agropoli. The apartment building was situated at the base of the steps leading to The Old Town. Hilly streets similar to this one would greet my Grandmother’s parents when they immigrated from Agropoli to the United States and settled in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania.
So little information available, so much to consider
There is very little information on-line or in English language hard cover books about Agropoli that is of the detailed sort that would vividly portray what kinds of lives the ancestors in my maternal line lived. So my Uncle Sammy and I have summarized what we could find about our ancestral home town and then discussed the finds.
Agropoli is a small town (commune) in the province of Salerno which is situated in the region of Campania in Southern Italy. It is a rugged little town high atop a promontory which is called The Old Town. The New Town consists of the large sprawl of more modern buildings and streets situated at the foot of the promontory. My maternal Grandparents Josie and Sabato Serrapede took me with them for a three week vacation to Italy in 1976. Our purpose was to reconnect with our family in the hometown of Agropoli. We stayed at a small hotel owned by my Grandma Josie’s sister-in-law’s family and visited my Grandfather’s sister Italia each day. We also made day trips to visit the branch families that lived along the coastline. I would love to digress at this point and describe the rugged, natural beauty of the Cilento coastline and the towns of Gaeta, Positano, and Amalfi where our relatives lived as well as the stunning, haunting beauty of the ancient ruins at Paestum. But if I did that this entry would turn into a travelogue. I will leave the photos of these places to tell that story when I eventually come to the point in the family history where my own life story is told. This is because the trip forever changed my perception of what it means to have Italian ancestry, one that is positive and a complete world away from the stereotyped image I described in my second posting.
In Agropoli, whenever we visited the house of Grandpa Sam’s sister Italia, I was reminded many times that she lived in the New Town. The apartment building was quite old and quaint. Toilets were a shared facility on each floor and Italia was something of a star because she had running hot and cold water in her apartment. The building stood at the very foot of the steep stairway leading up to the Byzantine Gate and the Old Town. To the citizens and relatives in the Old Town Italia was doing alright, especially since her daughter and son-in-law living in Rome had made enough money to pay for the upgrade in the plumbing.
It is therefore, little things like this which I will keep in mind when reflecting on the sparse details I could gather from Wikipedia and the Italy World Club sites. First I will outline a very brief overview of historical events in Agropoli before sharing these reflections and what they might hint at in relation to what the ancestors experienced.
Agropoli through the centuries (1)
After the Fall of the Roman Empire: Invasions from Africa begin to hit the area of the Cilento Coast along which Agropoli is situated. The town, because of its elevation and location becomes a refuge for those escaping the ravages of invading forces.
Fall to the Saracens: In 882 Agropoli was taken by the Saracens who used the town as a stronghold from whence they went out to loot and plunder other towns in the surrounding area.
The Saracens were defeated in 915 and Agropoli was ruled by Bishops in its jurisdiction until the 15th century.
Feudal Period 15th though beginning of the 19th Century: The first demographic record of families was compiled in 1445. At that time there were 202 families living in Agropoli.
The town was passed along to a total of 11 noble families starting in 1505. Some ruling families were from outside the area such as the D’Ayergo family of Aragon and the Grimaldi family of Genoa and later Monaco.
In the 16th and 17th centuries Agropoli was again raided. On June 30, 1630 a band of 700 Turkish pirates were driven back by a group composed of residents of Agropoli and the surrounding region. The Turks still succeeded in taking loot and prisoners. During this time period the population of Agropoli dwindled to a few hundred people.
In 1809 feudalism was abolished. Later in the 19th century the New Town began to develop.
The early 20th century saw the struggle of the socialists, communists and facists for the rule of Italy. In the early 1920s the Facists and Mussolini began to come to prominence. When finally in control of the government the Facists spent large amounts of money on public works projects in an attempt to boost the national economy. Despite this the south of Italy remained very poor.
Demographics from Wikipedia – Population Growth
Year & Total Number of People living in Agropoli
Note: I’ve only included the years that pertain to the period covering the time prior to and after the immigration of the ancestors to the United States.
Discussion between my Uncle Sammy and I on these findings
The first impression we had was that the people must have been very resourceful and tenacious to survive the repeated raids after the fall of the Roman Empire and all throughout the Medieval Period.
A people less resilient might have ceased to exist. With some rulers living a great distance from Agropoli the townspeople might have formed close ties to each other. Ties so close that they depended more on each other for help in all things rather than a far away feudal Lord who may not even have had a nearby defense force available to help the townspeople in the event of a raid. Since we could not locate any material in English about the relationship between the Agropolese and the nobility who ruled the town this part is hard to assess.
There could very well be something in the genetic make-up of the people who lived in Agropoli in earlier times that enabled them to not only adapt to the harsh conditions but survive.
What were the factors that contributed to this tenacity? Was it the seaside locale which offered easy access to all manner of food from the sea? Was it the great distance from cities where it was easier for diseases to spread with more frequency? Was it also due to a diet of fresh fish, wines, fruits and cheeses, a diet that did not include all the rich foods the nobility enjoyed?
Were there any behavioral and social patterns that contributed to their survival?
We welcome any further information that would answer some of these questions.
We will be using the vital statistics of the families from Agropoli that were compiled by Anthony Vermandois and which are available at his site Imagines Maiorum-Ancestors from Campania at http://www.imaginesmaiorum.net
In our next posting, Uncle Sammy and I will invite you to climb up the stairs of the promontory with us, pass through the Byzantine Gate and meet the earliest ancestors Anthony has traced of our line, Luigi and Angela Maria (nee Borelli) Serrapede.
Luigi and Angela Maria are the ancestors of Sabato Serrapede, who was my maternal grandfather and father to my Uncle Sammy. Sabato was also known as Sam.
Discussed: Sunday, October 5, 2014 4:30 p.m.
Written: 5:45 p.m.
(1) Agropoli, Province of Salerno, Campania, Italy, http://www.italyworldclub.com/campania/salerno/agropoli.htm
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by Chris Anderson
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by Maria Shallenbarger
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Jane Dunford, The Observer, August 8, 2009