202 – Life in Roccatagliata 1800s

Antonio Pensa

Antonio Pensa was born in Roccatagliata in 1825.

His father Giovanni and mother Caterina were born in Roccatagliata, probably in the 1790s. And their parents and grandparents were born in Roccatagliata.

Antonio married Rosa Gardella, who was born in Roccatagliata in 1835. Rosa’s parents and grandparents were born there too.

It was their home village.

Roccatagliata is a village on the side of a mountain in the Ligurian Apennines. It’s at the head of a valley that descends through the villages of Corsiglia and Neirone and drains out in a valley below near Ognio.

Life in Roccatagliata in the 1800s was much the same as it had been for centuries.

Italian farm families – 1860s

The valley and villages were remote. Access was by donkey cart. Many of the inhabitants had not ventured out of the valley during their lifetimes.

The village population was about 200, consisting of the nine kindred families who, in 1500, had been granted the right to live on the land by the Fieschi dynasty. The Gardella family were most numerous, followed by the Pensa family.


Man With a Hoe – Jean Francois Millet – 1860

The men and boys were “coltivatore” – farmers. They grew subsistence crops of wheat and potatoes.

The hillsides were terraced, with generations of farmers leveling small plots and shoring them with dry stone walls.

Besides growing crops, they herded goats and a cow or two, taking them to summer pasture farther up the mountain. And every family raised pigs. Pork was a staple of the diet.


La Filatrice (The Spinner) – Gerolamo Induno – 1863

The women ran the families, and were also “filatrice” – spinners. They made yarn for clothing and trade.

The women and girls harvested chestnuts, which they ground into flour along with wheat and potato flour.

There were mushrooms to collect from the woods, and olive trees at some lower elevations.

Outside trade

The valley was blessed with natural resources for trade.

The hillsides were covered in beech and chestnut forests, and had stands of tall Cerreta – “Turkey oaks”.

Cerreta – “Turkey oaks”

Turkey oak (Quercus cerris)

Recall that the feudal lords Fieschis had leased the land to the nine families including the Cerreta.

Gian Luigi Fieschi the old (the grandfather of the homonymous maker of the Plot) granted nine parentelle (family groups) – Pensa, Gardella, Lercari, Grossi, Bastia, Brondi, Fregoso, Bassi and Gnocchi- a wide woody area, called “Cerreta” (grove of Turkey oaks).

Tigullio Visit, Italy

Turkey oaks were ideal for shipbuilding and masts. They were straight, tall, and strong.

Although the transport from the valley to the seacoast was only 15 miles, it was extremely difficult and time consuming. By the mid-1800s, many of the oak stands had been clear cut.


The Ligurian Apennine mountains were underlain with slate.

It was a common building material. It could be used for everything – buildings, roofs, covers, fences. There was a surplus of slate available for trade to the seacoast. Like oaks, transporting slate down the valley was difficult.

Reconstructed slate workshop

Forty white potato (quarantina bianca patata)

We don’t think of Italians as growers of potatoes, but Roccatagliata began the trend of the Ligurian forty white potato. Michele Dondero was the priest of San Lorenzo Church in the late 1700s, and convinced the villagers to grow potatoes as a defense against droughts and crop failures.

In the Proceedings of the Society for Arts and Crafts of Genoa of 1793, the population of Roccatagliata was described as “willing to encourage their parish priest to sow potatoes”.

In fact, at the end of the eighteenth century, thanks to the commitment and studies of Don Michele Dondero, who also worked in the reclamation of mountain land, the cultivation of the forty potato spread, and Roccatagliata was the first Ligurian town to use the flour for the preparation of focaccia and pasta.

After an initial distrust of the population towards this new cultivation, potatoes became the main product of Roccatagliata, up to producing tens of quintals per year and causing their spread throughout the Ligurian territory.

Wikipedia – Roccatagliata
Patata di quarantina

The term forty refers to varieties that have a short (forty day) growing season and can be grown at higher elevations.

Quarantina bianca.

Adapted to the sandy mountainous soils, it is exclusively grown over 300 meters above sea level; it features a smooth, light skin and a white body with a fine and compact texture.

Its taste is exceptional, suited to every kitchen use and particularly good for stockfish and stews. It is now grown in the inland of Genova, on the Savonese and Spezzino Appennines.

White quarantina potato – Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity

Chiesa di San Lorenzo

As we saw earlier, the present Church of San Lorenzo was built shortly after 1646. Pensas and Gardellas were on the building committee. The church was the center for village religion, culture, education, and news.

We know from their later life that Antonio and Rosa Pensa were very religious. Probably most of the families in the village were.

Interior of Church of San Lorenzo – Roccatagliata

Antonio Pensa was almost certainly baptized in the Church of San Lorenzo. Rosa Gardella was too.

Antonio and Rosa had five children born in Roccatagliata, all baptized in the Church of San Lorenzo in Roccatagliata.

Obituary – Antonio Pensa – St. Louis Republic – July 18, 1904

There’s an excerpt from Antonio Pensa’s obituary that tells us about his involvement in the Church of San Lorenzo:

He was known chiefly, however, because of his intense interest in religious matters. Until the last few weeks of his life, when he was confined to his room, Mr. Pensa never failed to attend high mass at St. Charles Borromeo’s Church every Sunday. His knowledge of religious matters was often the occasion of surprise among acquaintances and priests.

This knowledge he acquired largely in Italy, where he was a trustee of his village church and where he was much associated with priests.

Obituary of Antonio Pensa


The lifestyle and society of Antonio and Rosa Pensa were just like their parents and grandparents. They were feudal peasants. But they did possess a perpetual lease to their lands. And they cooperated with the other leasehold families to survive.

Why, then, did they decide to emigrate? Why leave home and family?

It’s hard to discern why Antonio and Rosa Pensa left Roccatagliata for America in 1869. It wasn’t to “follow the herd”, because Italian emigration to America was low before 1870. The great waves of Italian immigration didn’t begin until the 1880s.

Between 1820 and 1870, fewer than 25,000 Italian immigrants came to the U.S., mostly from northern Italy. 

Wikipedia – Italian Diaspora

Diminished land and resources?

After Italian unification in 1860, the feudal system was discontinued. This meant that the parentelle of our families no longer guaranteed them the right to live on the land around Roccatagliata. Could that have been a factor? We don’t know.

Poverty was often a reason for emigration. It’s possible that land and resources had been subdivided between heirs generation upon generation, and each heir’s share was too small to get along.

The Risorgimento?

In 1870, prior to the large wave of Italian immigrants to the United States, there were fewer than 25,000 Italian immigrants in America, many of them Northern Italian refugees from the wars that accompanied the Risorgimento—the struggle for Italian unification and independence from foreign rule which ended in 1870.

Wikipedia – Italian Americans

Were Antonio and Rosa affected by the wars of the Risorgimento? We don’t know.

Extended droughts?

Here’s an observation from Anthony Guarnieri’s genealogy website that drought may have been a factor.

I’ve been to Italy many times but never got to Neirone. The last time I was in Milan, I met a guy from Liguria named Piero Ghirardelli who had at least passed through there many times. He told me that before 1850 more or less that these little places like Neirone and Roccatagliata became practically uninhabitable (apparently droughts) so that you couldn’t even grow food or feed the goats, so many came to the U.S. then and again around 1890.


Christmas letters and remittances?

Sometimes family members who had emigrated earlier wrote glowing “Christmas letters” back to relatives in the old country, espousing the glories of America. They would often send money to buy tickets. Could earlier family emigrants have enticed Antonio and Rosa? We don’t know.

Industrialization and technology?

In the 1850s and 1860s, Genoa was becoming an industrial powerhouse. Railroads began to connect the port with other areas of northern Italy.

Factories were becoming mechanized. Genoa became the leading Italian port, and demand for factory workers brought peasants from the Ligurian hills into the city.

This modernization ignored the Comune di Neirone, including Roccatagliata. No railroad or road or factory would grace the valley. The promise of paying jobs in the city of Genoa would lure some residents of the nearby mountain valleys. Did Antonio and Rosa consider moving to Genoa? We don’t know.

They left

Whatever their reasons, Antonio and Rosa made the decision to leave Roccatagliata.

Antonio was age 44, Rosa age 34. They had five children, ages 1 through 9. They probably didn’t have much money. They probably couldn’t take many belongings.

Their parents were deceased by 1869, but they left dozens of relatives and neighbors and perhaps siblings.

In 1869, they left.

Italian emigrant family

P.S. – Ritornati

Around 1888, Antonio Pensa returned to Roccatagliata. His wife Rosa had died, and his children were grown.

Antonio had left Italy when he was 44. Now, at age 63, he returned. He probably stayed in the homes of relatives, perhaps siblings. He remained in Italy for eight years, returning to St. Louis in 1896.

Josie visits her father Antonio on his return from Italy – Sedalia Democrat – May 13, 1896

I’ll bet Antonio loved returning to the old country and Roccatagliata.



4 thoughts on “202 – Life in Roccatagliata 1800s

  1. Brenda Teply March 5, 2022 / 8:25 pm

    Very interesting, family history. Your music offering was a nice touch.


    • Mark Jarvis March 5, 2022 / 9:41 pm

      Thanks most-loyal-reader Brenda. I like the music offering too. I’ll continue to add one, and you can choose to listen or not. I think it’s great that you read about all the families.


  2. mary beth gallagher March 5, 2022 / 9:45 pm

    Again, just so interesting and cool. Thank you so much.

    M. Beth Gallagher Sent from my iPhone



    • Mark Jarvis March 6, 2022 / 7:32 am

      You are very welcome. Glad you’re enjoying it.


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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s