Sins of the father….the story of Anna

Stories about women are rare so I would like to take a few minutes of your time to focus on a kind of heroine.  One who went against the culture and traditions of the time.  A young woman whose true story we will never know, but one that we can imagine, based on various documents of the time period.

John wants to try to trace the biological father of his ancestor Anna.  It won’t be easy given the situation and laws governing babies born to unwed mothers in Italy at that time. Men were protected by law from being identified in the birth records of illegitimate children and from being traced and expected to provide for these children.  But something curious happened with Anna so let’s take a look at the documents surrounding her birth.

Anna’s birth record was recorded in City Hall at 10am on October 1st 1913.  Exactly two days after her birth in a house on Arno Street in Rome.  She was taken to the town hall by the midwife, Concetta Imperiale with a report by the resident doctor who affirmed the birth and sex of the baby.  The baby was named by the clerk according to the rules for abandoned babies then sent to the Brefotrofio of Rome where she would have been also baptised in the Church of San Francesco a Ripa.

What do we learn from this birth act?  The house in Arno Street was probably a private home or clinic where unmarried women could give birth.  If the mother had gone to the hospital of San Giovanni Laterano (where many illegitimate and anonymous births took place) the baby would have been taken from the mother immediately by the hospital officials.  In this case the mother presumably took care of her baby for two days before she was taken away. Why?  Was the mother protesting the forced abandonment of her baby or did she need to feed the baby to stimulate the uterus to return to normal?

As it was, three weeks later, her mother, Agnese, went to a lawyer and swore out an act, recognising Anna as her natural daughter.  This notation was placed on the original birth record and Agnese’s full name, her father’s name, her place of birth and her address in Rome (Via del Babuino n. 39), was noted.  Normally the baby’s surname would have been changed to that of her mother and that would have been that.  In this case, Agnese exercised her right to have the birth act rewritten. It didn’t provide us with any additional information and I am not sure what benefit it would have had for Anna or her mother.

At some point Agnese returned to the town of her birth where, in 1920 she would marry Angelo.  The bride and groom, in the presence of witnesses, then declared that Anna, born in Rome in 1913 was their natural daughter and that their marriage would make her legitimate.

This story has several questions?

How did a country farm girl get a job as a housemaid with a rich family in Rome?

Who paid for the birth of a housemaid’s baby in a private clinic??

Where did she stay during the pregnancy? I doubt she went back to her parents in the country.

Who paid for the lawyer to do the recognition of the baby?

Why would Angelo acknowledge a child that he could not have fathered since he was in America at the time her birth?

What can these records tell us?

Via del Babuino, 39 is a distinctive building not far from the Piazza del Populo and definitely worthy of a family with a ‘housemaid’. It was common for rich families from Rome to have a summer residence in the mountains. Agnese’s home town is 50 kilometres from Rome and would certainly fit with this story.  Agnese’s family may have worked for this family during the summer. This may be how she got her job as a housemaid in the Rome household.

There were rules when working for a rich family.  You had to be single and live-in with the family.  You were always ‘on-call’. However, housemaids who got pregnant were usually quickly dismissed.  It didn’t matter if the father of the child was a member of the family or another member of the staff.  This behaviour of a servant was not tolerated.  An unmarried woman who sinned against her family and God, traditionally gave up the child (willingly or forcibly) after the birth.

But Via del Babuino, 39 was the same address given by Agnese when she claimed her baby.  What could have convinced this rich family to allow her to use their address?

Emilia was born on September 28th, which puts her conception date right in the middle of the New Year’s Eve festivities.  Christmas was for family but New Year was the perfect time for a major event that might include politicians, and important police or military officials.

Agnese was about 21 years old when she first went to Rome, innocent and likely a virgin.  It is highly probably she was raped by one of the powerful guests of the family at the New Year’s Eve party. If the family were close to Agnese’s family and had brought her to work in Rome under their protection this situation would have been very difficult for them.  The rapist could not be brought to justice and they had failed to protect her.  I can’t imagine any other circumstances where the family would have continued to maintain her in their household and arranged for her to deliver her baby privately and then arrange for the child to be sent to the Brefotrofio.

Agnese would have known that as an unmarried woman she could not maintain a child without going home to her mother, where, in a small village community she would have been ‘shunned’.  Especially if her family were upstanding citizens!  By staying in Rome during her pregnancy she had avoided the worst of the problems of being single and pregnant, now all she had to do was dispose of the results of her ‘sin’ and resume her life.  Allowing her to feed and care for her baby for two days was probably the biggest mistake the clinic made.  Normally the child is removed immediately after the birth and taken to the Brefotrofio without the mother even seeing the child.

Despite the circumstances of her conception Anna managed to enter the heart of her mother who, three weeks later claimed her as her own.

What happened during those three weeks?  Almost certainly, once Agnese’s intentions were made clear the family sent for her mother or sisters to reason with her.  Claiming this baby would ruin her life, she would never marry, never be able to hold her head up in the town.  She would shame her family.

None of this mattered; Agnese claimed her baby and went home to her mountain town to face her future.

Why would she do that?

Life would have been difficult for this family after Agnese’s father died in 1911 and left a wife, one son and 5 daughters. The family were carbon makers, a dangerous profession. The only son had married in 1909 and by 1913 already had two children of his own to care for in addition to his numerous sisters.  Since women did not usually become carbon makers the daughters were likely trained by local nuns to be seamstresses or housemaids or any other suitable, feminine occupation.  Rome would have been a natural destination for these women even though it could also be dangerous.

Agnese had almost certainly seen the way foster children were treated by the families who took them in and the attitude of the town’s people.  Having the label ‘genitori ignoti’ (unknown parents) tagged on to your name at every occasion was a shame that was difficult to bear.  It meant you would never marry into a good family, just another person of the same ‘unknown parent’ state.

How the situation was resolved?

Angelo had immigrated to America in 1910 and at age 36 (in 1920) he likely returned to his home town seeking a suitable wife to take back to America with him.  One who was prepared to leave her family forever and go to a country where she didn’t know the language, where the weather was very different from Italy and where the people were not curious.  Why Angelo chose Agnese is not clear but he wanted her badly enough to acknowledge her bastard child as his own.  In America, he could claim that he had married a widow with a child, no one would question that and Agnese would be content that her child would now have the surname of her ‘father’ and that no one would ever question her about her past.

What can John do next?

John may be able to locate the family for whom Agnese worked by checking the parish census (Stato d’anime) of 1913. These documents are held by the Diocesan Archives in Rome. Most parishes did one every year let’s hope John is lucky.

It’s also possible to get a historical residence certificate from the Comune of Rome at a cost of 21.16 Euro which would tell John how long Agnese lived in Rome and where.

The file from the Brefotrofio won’t give the name of the father but it may tell him how much the baby weighed on admission and when she was retrieved by the mother.

One thing is very sure, John won’t find any document naming the father of Anna.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: