“Quando si chiude una porta si apre un portone.” *
― Italian saying
“Be an opener of doors”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Pasquale Di Tonto was a generous one. He found a baby on his doorstep.
My questions about the generous ones who allowed my family to survive and thrive were sparked when I dove into research about my great-great-grandfather Antonio Gasperino and found that he was an orphan. Who took care of him? Who helped him to survive? I wanted to find out about these generous ones. Pasquale Di Tonto was the first.
My family told me that Antonio Gasperino was born in Italy and had died in Paterson, NJ, after joining his daughter’s family where they had settled in the early 1900s. He is buried in Laurel Grove cemetery in Totowa, NJ. His tombstone has his name, date of birth (14 March 1844) and death (7 October 1919) in Italian.
I found out that his daughter Maria - my great-grandmother - was born in Caserta, Italy, in 1871. Her birth record can be found on Ancestry.com. I used the keyword search of “Caserta” to search the card catalog and then browsed the Caserta, Campania, Italy, Civil Registration Records, 1862-1939 (in Italian). Maria’s birth record states that the names of Antonio Gasparrini's parents were unknown (di genitori ignoti).
I asked some members of my family and a distant cousin told me that he had heard that Antonio Gasperino was called “la ruota” - the wheel. He was an orphan.
La Ruota I knew nothing of le ruote - the wheels - but there were many in the region that is now Italy and throughout Europe.** The wheel was made of wood and was like a lazy-susan built into a wall. Someone could leave a baby in the wheel and rotate the platform so that the child could be recovered inside a church or hospital without those inside seeing who was leaving the baby.
When a mother left her child, she sometimes left a small token that could be used to identify the child so that if she returned one day she could be reunited with her baby. A piece of cloth, a special charm, a ribbon, a note ...... something.
Pianella I didn’t know if I would be able to find any more information about Antonio’s birth, but I found a clue about his birthplace when I located his immigration documents on Ancestry. He arrived in the United States in 1907 on the S.S. Germania. In the last column (of line 8) I could read his birthplace: Pianella.
There are a few towns called Pianella in Italy, but I started with Pianella in Abruzzo because it was closer to Caserta, where Antonio married and had his children. The documents for Pianella are online and there I found the documents of his birth - from 1844! The birthdate matched the tombstone exactly.
Written between the lines of the printed form is the story of Antonio. The report states that he was left at about 2 days old on the threshold of Pasquale di Tonto’s house in Garofalo, which is about a mile northwest of the city center of Pianella. The baby had no identifying note or other sign. He was simply wrapped in some cloth. Pasquale saved the baby’s life, taking him to the officials of the town who named him Antonio Gasbarrini.
In 1844 Pianella was a very small town in the Abruzzo Ultra Primo province of the Kingdom of Naples. The terrain is hilly and beautiful, with olive groves. When it rains, the smell of the earth is musty and strong. The nineteenth-century Italian diplomat and journalist Primo Levi described Abruzzo as “forte e gentile” - strong and gentle. I like to think of Pasquale as a true son of Abruzzo - strong and gentle.
Assuming the report is accurate, Pasquale found the baby crying at his door at eight o’clock in the morning on March 14, 1844. When he heard the sound and found the tiny bundle near his front door, wrapped in a cloth, the air was probably still quite cold from the night wind, maybe 45 degrees Fahrenheit. The little baby was likely shivering and weak and I can imagine Pasquale bending down and moving the cloth to see the child’s face.
Women out in the country, like in Pianella, often tried to hide their pregnancies as long as possible, maybe hoping that they would be able to keep their children, maybe hoping that the father of the child would marry them. But when this did not work out, they had to choose where to leave their children. There was a large foundling hospital in Naples but that was so far away. The baby that Pasquale found at his door must have been left during the night. I can imagine the mother holding the baby close to her, wrapping a shawl or blanket around them both. She might have hoped the night would not be too cold, that the animals would not come and take the baby, that he would be strong enough to make it through the night. But she also might have blessed the darkness, which would allow her to come and go without a trace. Would she ever forget this night? Would she ever know what happened to him? Did she choose this family purposefully?
Deciding to pick up the baby would require that Pasquale report this to the officials of the town. He would lose at least a half day of work in the fields as he took the baby into town and recounted his story. Historians note that many abandoned babies were left to die. In looking through the records online (http://www.antenati.san.beniculturali.it/?lang=en), I found that Pasquale di Tonto and his wife Anna had had a daughter - also named Anna- who died 8 years earlier as a young baby. Perhaps Pasquale remembered her and sought to save this baby at his door, thinking about the child he had lost. His generosity might have come from empathy or a sense of duty. Maybe he had felt powerless when his daughter died, and now he felt as if he could at least save this one.
Pasquale did pick up the child and traveled the mile or so to Pianella to report his discovery and to hand the baby over to the officials.
They, in turn, would call on the ricetrice - the woman whose role it was to place abandoned children with wet nurses who would raise them, often until the children were eight years old. Incredibly, with the help of a researcher in Abruzzo, I found out that one of these women was named Maria D’Agostina, our family’s next generous one.
* Some would translate this as: When one door closes, another one opens. Some say it’s closer to this: When one closes a door, one opens a bigger door or gateway.
** An interesting book on the subject of abandoned children is: Kertzer, David. Sacrificed for Honor: Child Abandonment in Italy. Boston: Beacon Books (1993).