Blurred Nationalities across the North Atlantic

Long before the mid-nineteenth century, thousands of people were constantly moving between the United States and British North America, and Leghorn, Genoa, Naples, Rome, Sicily, Piedmont, Lombardy, Venice and Trieste. Predominantly traders, sailors, transient workers, Catholic priests and seminarians, this group relied on the exchange of goods across the Atlantic to solidify transatlantic relations; during this period, stories about the New World passed between travelers through word of mouth and letter writing. Blurred Nationalities by Luca Codignola (University of Toronto Press, 2019) challenges the idea that national origin, for instance, Italianness, comprises the only significant feature of a group’s identity, and reveals instead the multifaceted personalities of the people involved in these exchanges. What follows are three excerpts.


The Invention of Italianness
There was a time when the history of the Italian presence in the Americas was an easy one to tell. First, there were the great navigators such as Cristoforo Colombo, Giovanni Caboto, and Francesco G. Bressani, a Roman Jesuit; adventurer Enrico Tonti, the son of a Neapolitan expatriate; and traveller Luigi Castiglioni, an aristocrat from Milan. In the troubled Risorgimento years, a good number of political activists voyaged to North America, some to remain there for the rest of their lives. These were men such as Pietro Maroncelli, a carbonaro originally from Forlì, in the Pontifical States; Antonio Gallenga, a Piedmontese journalist and author; and Alessandro Gavazzi, the Barnabite priest from Bologna who became an evangelical preacher. Finally, there were the emigrants, those who poured by the millions into the Americas as of the third quarter of the nineteenth century, a convenient starting point simply because Italian official statistics date only from 1876.

The past generation of migration historians has made the history of the Italian presence in the Americas, and the history of the relations between the Italian peninsula and the New World prior to 1876, much more difficult and complicated to tell. […] Some historians maintain that Italy was intellectually invented, artificially created, and violently achieved in the late 1850s and early 1860s. It is then inappropriate to speak of Italy and of Italians before then. In 1863, the Italian Risorgimento author and politician Massimo Taparelli, Marquess of Azeglio, recalled how “for half a century Italy ha[d] been in travail to become one people, a nation,” to no avail. His famous yet oft-misquoted paragraph springs to mind: “Unfortunately, Italy has been made, but Italians have not.” Undoubtedly, Italy is a name that goes back in time centuries before the peninsula became one country and that after 1815 became associated with a new political ideology. […]

Undoubtedly, there already existed a notion that intellectuals referred to as civiltà italiana, a mainly literary construct that was somewhat unified by a vague memory of a so-called ancient Rome. […] American historian Donna R. Gabaccia … maintains that civiltà italiana was a notion mostly recognizable outside the peninsula. People spoke of Italy as their destination when travelling from abroad, although they normally added the cities or regions they intended to visit. Gabaccia adds that in the sixteenth century, Italy’s highest moment, “the men who created civiltà italiana did not consider themselves Italians.” According to her, “other forms of identity – from the particular ties of kinship, to a universalizing religious faith, to the urban birthplace (patria) or its surrounding region – remained of greater salience.”

Furthermore, Gabaccia maintains that Spanish, French, and Austrian domination over the Italian peninsula made it rather similar to “the colonies of the New World beyond the Atlantic,” at least until the mid-nineteenth century. The letter of a Spanish official to his king, posted in Milan in 1570, is often cited as evidence of the Italian peninsula’s colonial role. The “Italians” were described as “masters in the art of saying one thing and meaning the opposite … and there is no other way to keep them in Your Majesty’s service than to make them fear you … for these Italians, although they are not Indians, must be treated as such, so that they learn what we mean and never mean what they should not think.” […] English historian Henry A.F. Kamen clearly shows that, far from being the centralized state we usually believe it was, Spain itself, let alone its empire, was a concoction of nationalities based on a network of alliances, of which those with the “princes, élites and soldiers” of the Italian peninsula were certainly of great import.

Blurred Nationalities Cover WebWith regard to Italy, then, historians should rather speak of an Italian peninsula, a term hinting at a geographical space where people and communities were constantly on the move. In doing so, they would avoid the risk of joining in with those historians who believe in a common Italian nation, supposedly there before 1861, when Italy as a political entity came into existence officially. They would also avoid the frustration of an elusive quest for allegedly original unifying features. In similar fashion, one could argue that the notion of a geographical space known as Europe was there centuries before the official creation of the European Union in 1993. (When it existed, this entity should more appropriately be referred to as Christianity.) At that time, as well as today, the notion of Europe coexisted and still coexists with local communities whose differences are at least as large as their commonalities.

Early Relations between the Italian Peninsula and North America
By looking at the experience of five families originally from Lombardy’s Lake Como area who went to New York and Montréal, one is able to get a glimpse of a close network at play and wonder how many of these networks existed in spite of the little traces they left behind. Their experience also confirms that these were people constantly on the move. […]

We begin our story with a commercial advertisement that appeared in The Daily Advertiser of New York City on 24 September 1800. It announced the recent arrival from London of the firm Corti, Vecchio, Donegani, & Co., whose associates described themselves as “Italians, Carvers, Gilders, Print-Sellers, and Weather Glass Manufacturers.” In their new Broadway store, they sold and repaired barometers, thermometers (for brewers, distillers, and hothouses), glass “blown for philosophical experiments,” telescopes, spectacles, optical glasses, and reading glasses. They also boasted a supply of maps, prints, landscapes, coloured and gilt paper, paint brushes, pencils, and “Fancy Articles for Ladies.” Both the Del Vecchio and the Donegani families were originally from Moltrasio, a village on Lake Como some thirty miles north of Milan. […]

The “Vecchio” component of the Corti, Vecchio, Donegani, & Co. was represented by two brothers, Giovanni and Giuseppe Del Vecchio. In 1810, a third brother, twenty-three-year-old Carlo, joined them in New York City. In his naturalization papers, Carlo described himself as an Italian national whose “allegiance” was to the first Kingdom of Italy. It is to be noted that Carlo arrived from Dublin, not London. In the Irish capital, he had previously joined a fourth brother, Giacomo, who had been there since at least 1797. […] Giacomo sold prints and frames, later adding to his wares mirrors, dressing glasses, ornamental statues, and house furniture. There was yet a fifth brother, Francesco, who in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century had taken up residence in Montréal. Whether the latter had arrived in Lower Canada via London, Dublin, or New York is not known. By August 1815, three of the five Del Vecchio brothers had died. Only Giacomo and Carlo survived and established themselves as prosperous manufacturers and retailers in Dublin and New York City, respectively. […] Carlo was also a prominent member of the New York City Catholic community; around 1818–21, he was one of the trustees of St Peter’s Church and the only one originally from the Italian peninsula.

The prolonged connection between the Del Vecchio and the Donegani family – from Moltrasio to the British Isles to North America – continued for a long while. […] In North America, this family connection even predated the Corti, Vecchio, Donegani, & Co.’s arrival in 1800 by at least a decade. Theatre performers Tommaso Del Vecchio and Giovanni Donegani, both from Moltrasio, arrived in Montréal from the United States in April 1788. They performed as Donegani’s Tumblers in Salem, Massachusetts, New York City, and Philadelphia, staging their show in Montréal in the summer and in Québec City in the fall. Between 1788 and 1791, they moved back and forth between Québec and the United States, eventually settling in Lower Canada. Rather than a stage performance, however, their show consisted of a variety of attractions and curiosities – Herculean children, trained dogs, deformed animals, bizarre natural objects, celebrity portraits, views of foreign cities – in the fashion of the cabinets of curiosities, some of which the two partners claimed to have visited personally during their tours in the United States. In 1824, Tommaso, by then a substantial real estate owner and hospitality entrepreneur, opened an Italian museum (“Museo Italiano”) in his Auberge des Trois-Rois in Montréal. This continued the tradition of the show that he and Giovanni Donegani had been staging since their arrival in the Lower Canadian city.

Lives of Non-Illustrious Men
Participants in early modern migrations from the Italian peninsula towards the New World were far more numerous than previously assumed – in the hundreds, if not thousands. Yet we have purposely avoided the numbers game, as we contend that the lack of adequate sources does not allow us to reach any reliable figure. Nor do the sources permit any educated guess about those who went to North America and returned home or criss-crossed the Atlantic Ocean several times; or, for that matter, about the Americans or British North Americans who travelled in the opposite direction. There are no reliable records of American ships calling at the ports of the Italian peninsula at any time during the period studied here and no consistent records of ships going in the other direction either. […]

Given that quantitative evidence of any sort is unavailable, how are we then to evaluate the first element in the classic migration and mobility studies triad – people, goods, and ideas – and state that participants in early modern migrations were in the hundreds, if not thousands? The answer is that our reading of a vast array of primary sources stemming from the activities of widely varying groups of people – mainly traders and ecclesiastics, but also scientists, artists, sailors, commoners, and migrants – has made such an impression that it has encouraged us to put forward this bold statement. […]

In the migration and mobility studies triad, the second element is goods. These were physical objects that were transported from one side of the Atlantic Ocean to the other, mostly for commercial purposes, but also for a variety of non-profit reasons – letters, books, gazettes, jewellery, artistic objects acquired as presents or as items of personal enjoyment, et cetera. In spite of historians’ best efforts, here too any quantification is impossible. Serial sources are far too incomplete; lists of transported items rarely provide weights and sizes; and traders’ ledgers are either nonexistent or unreliable. […] What we are left with then are occasional lists of products that individual ships carried from one port to the other through roundabout itineraries. These included several stopovers in the Americas, as well as in Europe. Goods were bought and sold, and empty space in the ship was filled with ballast. American staple products, such as sugar, coffee, cotton, and timber, were shipped in return for European exotic products, such as oranges, wine, marble, and alabaster. […]

As was the case with people, it must be admitted that in order to evaluate the volume of goods transported we are forced to rely not on hard quantitative data, which is not available, but on the impression created by the sources read – mostly personal letters that included comments on the merchandise the writers were awaiting, receiving, or sending. […] It is noteworthy […] that the co-presence on board any ship of major staple products, such as sugar and coffee, and of a wide range of sundry items meant for a more specialized trade mirrors the significant differences in the social classes participating in these international exchanges. […]

Ideas are the third element in the migration and mobility studies triad. They are most explicitly expressed in the writings of those few travellers, literati, and diplomats who put down on paper and sometimes published their views on the American War of Independence and the Early Republic. […] And yet rarely, if ever, do any of the authors whose documents we have examined express their political opinions with regard to North America or to the Italian peninsula. In the rare instances in which they do deal with the developments occurring on the Italian peninsula, they usually voice a common attitude of moderate conservatism. They showed a similar moderate appreciation of the United States, deemed to be a land of opportunity where at any given time harsh competitiveness could turn success into disaster. […]

To be sure, ideas are not to be equated exclusively with political views. All the persons whose writings we have reviewed, admittedly a limited sample, or who are mentioned in the documents – together with the myriad of persons who were somehow connected with them – were rational individuals who made daily choices and expressed preferences about where to go, whom to meet, and what to buy. Their thoughts are difficult to reconstruct, if not altogether lost. Yet feelings, sensations, intuitions, rather than any organized assessment or reflection, were expressed and circulated among the communities to which these people belonged.

From Blurred Nationalities across the North Atlantic: Traders, Priests, and Their Kin Travelling between North America and the Italian Peninsula, 1763-1846 by Luca Codignola, University of Toronto Press, 2019. Orders: Canada and U.S.:, U.K./Europe:

Luca Codignola is a senior fellow at the University of Notre Dame, Adjunct Professor at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax and Professeur Associé at Université de Montréal.

Share this post

scroll to top