All Joseph DiTrapani knew about his family was that they came from Palermo so it was a challenge for the genealogical firm, My Italian Family to research the lineage of this former OSIA president and current president of the Sons of Italy Foundation®. In big Italian cities like Palermo, researchers must contend with a byzantine and illogical bureaucracy. Fortunately, our team knows some tricks.
INTO THE ARCHIVES
Our researcher begins in Palermo’s town hall in Piazza Pretoria, a square graced by the intricate Fountain of Shame (Fontana della Vergogna). These beautiful buildings house the municipal archives that could have records about the DiTrapani family.
Working through the protocols and hierarchy of Palermo requires luck and know-how from our researcher. To begin, he builds rapport with a low-level clerk in the archives—a grunt worker who might break a rule or two.
After friendly banter, the clerk grants complete access to the archives. The registers begin in 1866 and are still in their original, handwritten ledgers with crumbling covers and dusty pages. Our researcher carefully selects volumes from the industrial metal shelving units that hold them.
The clerk interrupts. Procedure prohibits our man from photographing the pages. Instead, he must leave a detailed list of the documents. We rely on the clerk to photocopy the pages and mail us the documents. For Palermo, this round of research went quite smoothly.
Next, our researcher moves on to Palermo’s state archives to learn about DiTrapani’s family before 1866. The archives are a beautiful building that began as a 15th century farmhouse for visiting Franciscan friars. It also was used as a church before being converted to a government building. Procedural red tape limits the number of registers one person can browse daily. Knowing this, our researcher brings along a friend to access twice as many records.
Our researchers get caught photographing the DiTrapani family entries. No photos can be taken without permission of the archives director who summons our two men to his office. It is full of dark wood, leather furniture, oriental rugs and antique silverware. After small talk, the director agrees to have his staff photograph the documents and mail the copies — for a fee. Another list, another wait for mailed photocopies. No matter; these records will take us back a few more generations in DiTrapani’s roots.
CONNECTING THE DOTS
Finally, the research bears fruit as the promised documents arrive. We learn from the last name that an ancestor came from the Sicilian town of Trapani, but this family has been in Palermo since at least 1700 when Francesco Di Trapani was born. Settling in Via Resuttana, a neighborhood of northwest Palermo, the family scarcely moved until many immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s.
When Salvatore came over in 1913, he listed his occupation as baker or fornaio, the same occupation as Filippo Di Trapani, born more than 120 years earlier in 1791! Though the aftermath of World War II greatly changed Palermo’s cityscape, we tracked down still-standing family homes and village squares that DiTrapani’s ancestors probably frequented.
It has taken some elbow grease to gather the information, but it’s worth it when we see the surprise and awe on DiTrapani’s face after we reveal the historical information we’ve found about his roots.
Written by John J. Chinnici of My Italian Family, a genealogical research firm in Pennsylvania.
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