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Chapel Hill, NC, United States

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Family History

My paternal grandfather, Daniele (1864-1956), immigrated to America from the city of Cervinara, which sits in the scenic Valley of Caudina in the Province of Avelina in Southern Italy. It's not far from Naples.

Photo from Google Earth: "From the Mountains of Cervinara"
Cervinara is first mentioned in a document dating from 837 AD when it was part of a Feudal state. In 1800 the population grew to about 5,000, and in 1900 (around the time my grandfather left) Cervinara's population had risen to about 7,400.

The region functioned primarily as an agricultural economy because of the fertile soil. Cervinara is known for its' wine grapes, apples, pears, vegetables, hemp, porcini mushrooms, truffles, and chestnuts. The trees are alder, beach, poplar, and chestnut. Other industries around the turn of the century included stone and marble quarries, a coal mine, and lumber.

Beginning in 1900 a wave of modernization in and around Cervinara began. The Benevento-Napoli steam railway, an aqueduct, and a new power plant all provided basic services to the community.

Some people prospered, but a lower-class - the children of laborers and craftsmen - were drawn away by the lure of gold-paved streets in America. Four million Italians entered the United States in the decades around the turn of the century, and about a third of those settled in New York. The resulting mass-exodus of human capital created social, economic, and cultural disruption in the Campania region of Italy. The population was out of balance.

Many people from Cervinara (or "Cervinaresi") chose to emigrate to New York City, Toronto Canada, and Troy NY where they found strong support in the local communities for immigrants departing from the port of Naples and arriving continually at Ellis Island. Many of them came from the region of Campania - including the city Cervinara.

Cervinaresi in America organized into clubs and lodges to provide a cultural and linguistic connection with their homeland. In New York City, the Lodge Cervinara Caudina Valley of the Great Order of the Sons of Italy was started in 1915. A similar organization existed in Troy, NY. My grandfather Daniele was a member of the NYC Lodge.

At least one immigrant from Cervinara made a huge impact in America: Gaetano Clemente. Clemente founded the Clement Contracting Company in the Bronx, and constructed many of the roads and buildings in Manhattan. The Medical Center in Washington Heights, buildings for Columbia and Fordham Universities, as well as some roads (e.g. Casanova Street in the Bronx) were all constructed by his company. Gaetano didn't forget about his roots in Cervinara, where he had stared out in the construction trade. He returned to Cervinara, raised the funds, and constructed a grand monument in the city square. The Piazza di Cervinara memorial monument was dedicated by Gaetano in 1930.

My grandfather Daniele arrived at Ellis Island on April 13th, 1893 via the steamship Kronprinz Friedrich Wilhelm. He was single, 29 years old, and promptly took up residence in New York City. His reasons for leaving Italy were primarily to explore the New World for opportunity and a better life. There may have been some inter-personal reasons for his rapid departure, and those are details best left unspoken.

Daniele married Annina Tammaro (1874-1951), and they resided at 235 East 126th Street in Manhattan - an area of the city known for its' large Cervinaresi population. My grandmother Annina was from Solofra Italy, located a little south of Cervinara.

My grandmother Annina was very religious, and up until her final days kept in close contact with friends and family in Italy. She corresponded frequently with the Sisters of the Insigne Collegiata S. Michele Arcangelo in Solofra (Avellino), especially around the Catholic holy days. I still hold her beloved wooden Rosary beads as a memento to remember her by (photo below).

When Annina immigrated to America from Solofra, she brought with her on the ship a collection of hand-crafted copper cooking pans, and a heavy mortar and pestle made from white Italian marble. These items are still in the family and held by myself and my brother Larry.

To read more about my grandparents, check out the following blog post:

To continue with the story, my grandfather had three brothers: Pasquale, Annibale, and Raffeale.

I have no record or information about my grandfather's brother Raffaele. I think he may have enlisted in the Italian military and was a casualty of one of the many Italian conflicts.

Pasquale (b. 1862) decided to immigrate to the United States, and follow in the footsteps of his younger brother (my grandfather) Daniele. He arrived at Ellis Island from the port of Naples in 1903 at the age of 41. Pasquale was looking to make a better life, but had left his wife and an infant or two behind in Cervinara to fend for themselves.

On April 19th, 1913, Pasquale's impoverished (and probably destitute) wife Amalia Mercaldi [misspelled as Mercaldo in the passenger record] arrived from Naples on the ship Cedric and were processed at Ellis Island with her two children: 14 year-old Luigi (b.1899) and Mario (b. 1903) age 10. [The US immigration records erroneously indicate their last place of residence as "Cusinara" - which does not exist].

Amalia was born in 1861, and was already 52 years of age when she arrived at Ellis Island. There were about twenty other "Cervinaresi" accompanying them to America on that ship.

According to one account, Amalia didn't know how to locate her husband Pasquale, who had apparently abandoned his family. She enlisted the aid of an US immigration official who located Pasquale in New York. It is unclear that after 10 years apart if the family was able to reunite. But Amalia and her two children were welcomed into the larger family.

Pasquale and Amalia's oldest son altered his first name from Luigi to Louis, and rose rapidly to become one of the world's premiere French hornists. After a year performing with the Saint Louis Symphony (at age 17), he joined the NY Philharmonic in 1917, and performed over 5000 concerts with them during his incredible 45-year tenure. He retired from his position as Assistant Principal with the New York Philharmonic in 1962. His colleagues in the world-renown French horn section included the Principal James Chambers, and with horn colleagues Joseph Singer, William Namen, Mark Fisher, and beginning in 1950, Ranier "Dinny" DeIntinis.

In addition to the NY Philharmonic, Louis regularly performed before an audience of ten thousand with the Stadium Symphony Orchestra beginning with the first concert on June 23rd, 1918. The summer concerts were held at the Lewisohn Stadium at 136th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

He kept it up well into the 1950s, and never missed a concert over all of those years. In the book "Mother is Minne" about the eccentric patron and unsalaried impresaria of the Stadium Orchestra, Minnie Guggenheimer, her daughter writes (page 85), "The same claim [about never missing a concert] is made by Louis, a dashing Neapolitan who began playing French horn in the Stadium orchestra when he was fifteen and is still blowing strong."

Louis probably retired from his orchestra positions because of the mandatory retirement age of 65. However, he remained on the faculty of the New York College of Music. His students included David Helfrich, Alyce Whitman, and Allison Feld. Louis died in 1970 in Yonkers, NY.

To learn more about Louis and see some photos, visit my blog posts about his extraordinary musician...

Pasquale and Amalia's second son Mario (no photo available) followed in his older brother Louis' footsteps by joining him as a world-class French hornist. Mario performed in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Larry Huffman, a music historian wrote to me that Mario's colleagues in the French Horn section at the MET were Silvio Cosica and Richard Moore in addition to Gunther Schuller. I met Mario when he came to visit our house in Dobbs Ferry, NY around 1976. We talked about Schuller, and he recommend that I get in touch with him.

Mario taught at the Manhattan School of Music, and at the Juilliard Preparatory Division. From his colleagues at the music schools who knew him well, Mario was said to have had an extremely high-strung and nervous personality.

Mario and his wife Olga had a daughter by the name of Linda Quinn, and three grandchildren (Gina, Samatha, and Timothy). Mario was born on January 9th 1903 in Cervinara, and died on October 7th, 1988 in White Plains, New York.

Olga was born on April 4th, 1914 and may have been a concert pianist. She died in November of 1995 in White Plains - where the family lived in an apartment at 76 Lexington Avenue (Cousins, if you read this, please get in touch!).

Little is known about what happened to my grandfather's older brother Pasquale. My grandfather and grandmother seem to have assisted his wife Amilia financially. Pasquale may have died in 1921 when Amalia was 60 years old, or perhaps he was a victim of the influenza pandemic of 1918. Perhaps Pasquale returned to Italy. A handwritten note with "legalese" absolving all debt to my grandfather was signed by Pasquale's widow - my grandfather's sister-in-law, Amalia - as follows:


I the undersigned declare that of the outstanding accounts that existed between my deceased husband and his brother Daniele, I have been totally satisfied and nothing further is owed to me.

Amalia Mercaldi
September 3, 1921

My grandfather's brother Annibale remained in Italy. He was a musician, and moved from rural Cervinara to Naples to teach music. It's clear from these photos that Annibale was elegant and distinguished looking.

The years that followed must have been very difficult in Italy. Two world wars intervened, and moving between the United States and Italy became difficult. At one point new US Immigration restrictions limited the flow of Italians entering into the United States. Italy too issued new requirements that Italian men needed to serve in the military, or lose their citizenship rights.

In 1946, after WWII, Annibale wrote the following letter to my grandfather offering his gratitude for the basic food rations my grandparents had mailed him. You can see from the photo below, he had aged and his hair turned white (he looks just like my Uncle Charlie in this photo). He was retired, but taught music at the Metronome Conservatory in the heart of central Naples. The private music school was founded in 1900.

Naples, 23 May 1946

My dear brother Daniele, sister-in-law and nieces (nephews). I thank you with all my heart for having exhumed a starving corpse; I have received with great pleasure your letter and the package with the wonderful macaroni, coffee, sugar, two pairs of socks and the beautiful necktie. I was also able to save all the red and white thread (used for stitching on the package), of which we have none here, I have eaten the great macaroni even, though cooked without condiments, since I have none, I have had a great cup of your coffee, I have sent you many of those blessings (intentions) that God will give you all long life; I couldn’t believe that after many, many years you have remembered me, the last heir of an unhappy family. Here we can no longer go forward; a pound of dark pasta costs 150 lire; a pound of rice, 100 lire; half a measure of oil, 50 lire; three mouthfuls of coffee 30 lire; potatoes are 30 lire per pound; I find myself disheartened. I have resumed, after many years, the music business to try and earn something. But it seems that I can do nothing (not succeed). I have a small pension from the city hall, but it is not enough for me to buy 20
0 grams of black bread a day and to eat boiled potatoes. If I could come to you (emigrate), I would do it voluntarily. I have an only son who is still a prisoner (of war) in Egypt. I am alone and discouraged and if God wishes me to live longer I must die before (his son), of starvation. I still am in good health and would like to live longer. Today I will again satisfy myself with your delicious macaroni and I am always sending you and your family blessings (of God). I beg you all to remember this poor wretch of God, don’t abandon me for who knows how things will turn out and in turn if I can be of use to you please ask and I will do anything I am able. If you write please put a (razor) blade in the envelope so I can shave, since they are not available here. In Italy, we pin our hopes on the Italian Fiorello La Guardia, (mayor of NY), who has promised that he would not let us starve.
Kisses and infinite thanks to all.

Yours for life


It is worth clarifying that in 1946, one US dollar equaled roughly 575 Italian lire (Italy adapted the Bretton Wood System in 1949, which pegged 625 lire to one US dollar for decades). But with inflation, one US dollar in 1946 would be the equivalent of $10.91 in 2008 inflated dollars. Thus, 100 lire for a pound of rice mentioned in the letter above was equal to 17 cents (US) but in 2008 it would cost us about $1.86 today. Compare that to the wholesale price that is normally around 20 cents per pound, $1.00/lb for Supermarket, or 50 cents/lb when on sale.

Also, the mention of Fiorello H. La Gaurdia is interesting. La Guardia was a very popular Italian-American figure, and known world-wide. He was the 99th Mayor of City of New York from 1934 to 1945. But in 1946 (when Annibale's letter was written) La Guardia had left his position as Mayor to become Director General for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). Thus La Gaurdia would have been the face of international humanitarian relief efforts in war-torn Europe - including Italy - at least until his death in 1947.
That's about all I could discover about my ancestors on my own. Feel free to contact me with additional information.

I am indebted to the assistance and input from a number of people who helped me research this family history blog post:

Pasquale Tassone, a fellow Maestro concertatore and good friend, provided the Italian-English translation of the documents above.

Larry Huffman corresponded with me regarding his historical records regarding Louis and Mario. His website ( provides an amazing wealth of detailed historical information about orchestral musicians.

I also learned some important details from Italian historian and journalist, Angelo Marchese, who posted an article about Louis on a Cervinara-related website. We corresponded by email.

John A. Misso called me on his "magicJack" from Cervinara this summer. He is a liasion for ex-patriots and their descendants who emigrated from Cervinara to the US, and would like to reconnect.

I offer my appreciation to all of then for their invaluable assistance.