Many families hide real local history treasures inside their own family life, sometimes even historical events, which had been orally transmitted down the generations. Today scientific genealogy research saves those stories from oblivion through systematic research and study of the civil registrar files.
This research gives us an insight of the sequence of dates and personal events and sheds light upon daily life the main events for a family in the past. In our fast-paced society recovering the stories of our grandparents through their personal files is more than necessary. I spent most of my young life in Brindisi, and old town with a millenary history, and soon I wondered why my family had a so obviously foreign surname. A particular event aroused my curiosity. I used to do my homework at the Provincial Library and the then director, having read my surname in a book loan form, said to me: “Hello, Janissary”. “You are probably the descendant of one of the many Spanish soldiers that lived in Brindisi during the Spanish rule”, he further said.
Janissary? What was he talking about? What did he mean? What kind of story was behind that word? My grandfather house was close to the Archbishop De Leo’s Library and I knew that all the Cathedral personal files of the last centuries were held there. I also knew that all my paternal ancestors lived for the past 300 years right next to the Cathedral, in the houses owned by the Church. The then librarian welcomed me as if I was his own son when I walked in haltingly and I introduced myself looking for answers. That austere man instilled me a certain reverential fear, couldn’t believe that a 16-year-old would like to spend his free time in an old dusty library. Looking at the list of the names of my ancestors in the files of the town where they lived their whole –and, in most cases short- life, made me feel (and it still makes me feel) excited and breathless.
Since the early seventies I’ve spend a lot of time in that library, which receives in my opinion less visitors than it would deserve. In this library I’ve confirmed that us, the Lafuentis, and all the other families (the Piliegos, the Scivales, the Martínez, the López…) were called “janissars” (giannizzeri en Italian, jannizzi, in the local dialect) by the “real” brindisini, a little bit for spite and a little bit for servile adoration, because they saw in us the descendants of the Spanish soldiers that decided to remain in Brindisi once the Spanish rule ended.
The Janissaries were an elite infantry unit of the Ottoman Empire and with that name the local population put on the same level the Spanish soldiers who had ruled the town for over two hundred years and the Saracens who had preceded them centuries before.
In order to confirm my ascendancy I started to thoroughly read the many Parish Registers (Libri Baptizatorum, Matrimoniorum, Mortuorum, Confirmatorum) and the Parish Family Book (Status Animarum) held by the Archbishop’s Library, and I broaden my research at the State Archive local branch, where I found the civil registrar books.
I would like to point out that I am not a professional genealogist, but, due to my personal interest towards genealogy, I’ve become a great genealogy aficionado. During the first years of my research I trace my family tree back to my Spanish ancestor, the one that started the Brindisi family branch: I felt an intense emotion when I first read his name in the marriage certificate and the death certificate. He was a young Spanish army officer, and I found him through my paternal grandfather and his fathers’ (my great-grandfather) personal data (his date and place of birth, his marriage certificate). From them I went back my family male line for 5 generations; it was quite easy, since –just like I suspected- my family lived for two centuries nearby the Cathedral. He was the first one to be registered as Spanish soldier and not as a sailor or a fisherman at the marriage (1709) and death certificate. I found out as well that he married his wife by proxy (he was represented by his wife’s brother), because he was then fighting in the Duchy of Milan.
In the following years I followed two paths on my research: reconstructing my whole family tree, including the female branch of the family, up to the generation of my Spanish ancestor, is taking longer than the second task due to its enormous difficulty, but it has also brought me great fulfillment and has let me discover ancestors who I would have never imagined I had. I had the chance to visit, and I still do it whenever I can, the State and Parish Archives, where I have met all sort of clerks and priests: some of them were eager to help; others had been reluctant to let me see their files. Meanwhile I’m trying to reconstruct my wife’s family tree as well.
The second path is related to History, but I have to remind you again that I’m not a professional historian. I used alternative sources, different from the usual sources genealogist work with, and thanks to those sources I have been able to reconstruct in the most accurate way possible the History of the families of Spanish origin that have lived in Italy since the end of the Spanish rule, and so I was able to give the “janissaries” a more precise information about their families in a conference held in Brindisi in 2006, where I was invited by the State Archive.