This portrait of my great-grandfather Gregorio Serrao has intrigued me since I was a boy. Look into his eyes and you know there is a story waiting to be told. Each time the photo would surface my grandmother would say in calabrese "Chissu è la bonànima de lu papà miu!" ("This is the good soul of my dad"). As a woman who has never held back telling stories of the past (the good, bad and downright ugly!), she would proceed to recount the tragedy of his short life, as was witnessed by her 10 year old self.
Gregorio Serrao was born 3 November 1901 in the Calabrian town of Capistrano. His father Francesco Serrao was a shoemaker-turned-builder and mother Concetta Pasceri was a fieldworker. As grandparents they were known as "Nanna Concettina" and "Pappù Cicciu" (Pappù derived from the Greek word for grandfather "pappou" and one of the last remnants of ancient Calabrian-Greek culture in the family)
Though a modest family, his parents encouraged their 5 sons to obtain a qualification. The first three brothers became builders like their father; the elusive eldest brother Giuseppe worked for many years in the the Americas, Raffaele would contract for a brief period in Bologna (his grandson Raffaele LaSerra would eventually work in the city's council chambers), Gregorio would also continue the building trade.
Antonio Guerino worked as a civil servant, acting as mayor of Capistrano during the early 1950s. Youngest brother Orlando was a gifted clarinettist, tutored by his future father-in-law Domenico Natale, and had an impressive career in the Marching Band of the Royal Italian Navy. Back in Capistrano he led the formation of the 50 piece "Banda Musicale" (Musical Band) that brought together men from all walks of life with a common love of music. This love of music would carry on through the descendants of the Serrao brothers with professional and amateur musicians (mostly guitarists) in almost every family unit.
Young and full of ambition in the roaring 20s, Gregorio began working in the nearby town of Vallelonga as a contractor and built many of the terrace homes that still stand to this day. His talent as "Mastru Guori" (Master Gregory) was recognised by local builder Nicola Galati whose family were among the upper middle class of Vallelonghese society. This included his brother Antonio Galati, Archbishop of Crotone-Santa Severina, and nephew Vito Giuseppe Galati, renowned writer, journalist and politician of the day. Nicola's wife, Maria Antonietta Cognetta, also descended from some of the town's most influential notaries. However, it was Nicola's 16 year old daughter Elisabetta (aka Lisa) that would catch Gregorio's eye. They married in 1925 and Gregorio transferred permanently to Vallelonga.
In less than 2 and half years the couple had 3 children; Francesco in October 1926, my grandmother Concetta in December 1927 and Antonietta in January 1929. Enthusiastic to take on the world with a group of other men from Vallelonga, Gregorio decided to travel to Buenos Aires in Argentina where migrant tradesmen were high in demand. There he worked primarily on completing the finishing touches to the Palace of the Argentine National Congress (Palacio del Congreso Nacional Argentino). On her trip of Buenos Aires in 1975, Lisa told her grandson Gregorio Marino that the couple would write to each other every fortnight. The address of his residence remained fixed in her memory: Calle Pasco n. 19
The photograph of these men from Vallelonga was taken on their day of departure from Buenos Aires on 18 May 1931. It is believed that Gregorio is the man with the bow tie and light coloured suit in the centre.
Lisa was pregnant again in no time. In May 1932 their son Nicola was born, followed by Clementina in 1933 (she died around 6 months of age), and Adalgisa in 1935.
Life was good for the young couple. Gregorio's success meant that Lisa could buy-in help to manage the household chores, a privilege her own mother, grandmother and noble maternal line had enjoyed in previous generations. As a child Concetta had a great love for her father's two sisters. She remembered her aunt Teresa would visit from Capistrano and help Lisa with her brood of children prior to her eventual marriage to Giuseppe Mandaliti (a man Concetta remembered as having the nickname "U Pescestuocu"). Visits from the families of her aunt Filomena and her husband Giuseppe ("Za Mena e Zu Pieppi Tinu") as well as her uncle Raffaele and wife Caterina ("Zu Rafhaili e Za Caterini") during the Festival of the Madonna di Monserrato also created fond memories.
In 1936, the Italian fascists under Benito Mussolini fought and won the Second Italo-Abyssinian war resulting in Abyssinia (more commonly Ethiopia) falling under the rule of the Italian Empire. A process of colonisation began soon after. Propaganda under the banner of "Ritorneremo" ("We will return") called for workers to join the effort of building the empire in Africa. To any ambitious man like Gregorio this would be yet another opportunity to see the world.
In 1937, with Lisa pregnant once again, Gregorio sailed out to Ethiopia and began working in the city of Gondar. The venture was short lived. This was no Buenos Aires. Imagine the harsh living conditions in Ethiopia. Gregorio contracted an unknown illness (a type of acute respiratory disease) and his health quickly deteriorated. He was immediately shipped back to Italy for treatment but by the time he reached Vallelonga his health was so bad that he could not be saved.
Once they realised that all hope was lost, Gregorio's family lobbied for him to return to Capistrano to live out his last days in his home town. Gregorio was too ill to move but his family invented the story that the mountain air in the higher altitude of Capistrano could save him, so he reluctantly agreed to go. Ten year old Concetta remembers accompanying her father to Capistrano, along with her mother Lisa and elder brother Francesco. The driver was a man by the name of Ciccio Brizzi. The journey took its toll on him but upon arrival he seemed in good spirits after seeing the rest of his family. Lisa and the two children returned to Vallelonga that evening to gather clothing and supplies to return the following day with the other 3 children.
The next morning at 5am, a car arrived to pick up the family, but no news was given to them on his health. It was not until they arrived at his bedside that they were told that he had died during the night. One can only imagine the grief Lisa felt not being by her husband’s side when he passed, and how terrified the children would have been seeing their dead father being flanked by their mother. Lisa felt robbed.
The family stayed in Capistrano for the days that followed. The Serrao family had traditions that were foreign to Lisa and the Galati family. One of these was performing a ritual like the Jewish “sitting shiva”. Family members would sit and sleep on the ground during the "lutto" (mourning period). Concetta remembered having to sleep on the ground and hearing the haunting sound of the church bells through the night knowing her father was lying in the church inside his coffin.
Lisa, by this stage heavily pregnant, could not handle the discomfort of being on the ground. Desperately needing the rest after days of incredible stress, she laid on a bed and fell into a deep sleep. While the country folk in Calabria tended to be known for their community spirit, sometimes those less educated became steeped in superstition and tradition, putting this ahead of compassion and understanding. She came under fire, being accused of not caring for her husband and not following the tradition as a display of her grief and mourning. Her children Concetta and Antonietta would separately recount this to me many years later as they had seen this with their own eyes. Grief can bring out the worst in even the kindest people and harsh words are seldom forgotten. The most comfort was given to the children by their young aunt Ines Natale ("Za Ìnisi"), fiancé/wife of their uncle Orlando.
The 28 year old Lisa returned to Vallelonga after the burial with her 5 young children and received close support from her mother Maria Antonietta, who by then was also a widow. A silver lining to the story came in late October of 1937 when Lisa gave birth to a healthy baby girl. There could only be one name given to the newborn - Gregorina
Within 2 years World War II, hunger and further loss of life would result in even more disastrous consequences for the young family. But that's worthy of its own story...