When American writer Ariel Sophia Bardi discovered she was eligible for Italian citizenship through her great-grandfather who had settled in Baltimore, it led her to a tiny, seemingly undiscovered village in Italy.
In 1913, Giulio Bardi—my bisnonno, my great-grandfather—disembarked from a transatlantic ship at the Port of Baltimore. After many gray days at sea, he arrived on a hazy, lusterless morning. At least, that’s how I imagine it; it may well have been a bright afternoon.
I picture the young Italian, stocky and lantern-jawed, lined up with other men on the docks. They look unshaven and slightly shell-shocked. Seagulls screech and oil-swirled saltwater laps the pier. Giulio opens a battered suitcase for inspection, dark eyes glinting with the light of a new world.
In reality, I don’t know much more than names and dates. I knew the Bardis were a prominent Renaissance banking family, but until I started tracking my great-grandfather’s immigration papers, I knew very little about my origin. And with family stories focused on a distant golden age, it never occurred to me to wonder what our last Italian relative had actually left behind.
We always preferred to focus on the glory days of ‘Bardi-dom’. The Bardis were an affluent dynasty, esteemed patrons of the arts. Growing up, my dad fed me tales of our aristocratic past—Opera was invented in the Bardi family salon; Donatello, the sculptor, was a Bardi; and at Santa Croce, the art-filled church in Florence, I even elbowed away other tourists to gaze reverently at the Bardi shrine.
So all I knew of Giulio, a handyman and moonshiner, seemed to signal the decline of the once-prosperous Bardis. He lived out his days in a small house in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, making the local news during prohibition when his whiskey brewery was raided by police.
I seemed to have chanced upon that rare treasure in tourist-clogged Italy: Unchartered territory.
All of that changed when I learned that, according to the Italian law of jure sanguinis (right of blood), my great-grandfather made me eligible for an Italian passport. Since he became naturalized as an American citizen only after the birth of my grandfather, that meant his original citizenship technically passed onto me. As the Obama years came to an end, and my health insurance ran out, I started to think seriously about reverse-immigrating to Italy. In the eyes of the state, I was already considered Italian—I just needed to gather up the proof.
The crown jewel of my citizenship request was Giulio’s birth certificate. But how did one order a birth certificate from the 19th century? And yet without it, my application would be dead in the water. I couldn’t take any chances. The idea of pounding pavements—a genealogical detective on the hunt for clues—appealed to the mystery-lover in me. And I was curious about where my great-grandfather came from. Not that I expected much—after all, he left, didn’t he?
It was soon settled: I would track down the document in person. A little online research revealed that Giulio was born in a village called Santa Sofia, in the northern Italian region of Emilia Romagna. From an Airbnb in Florence, I scoured the internet for more information on his birthplace. There were pictures on TripAdvisor—but mainly of food. Other forebodingly dim snapshots showed jagged treetops and a blurry water reservoir. In the forum, a single, unanswered post from 2009 asked plaintively, “Has anyone been to Santa Sofia?” I seemed to have chanced upon that rare treasure in tourist-clogged Italy: Unchartered territory.
From a rental Fiat the following morning, spiky, sun-drenched Tuscany gives way to cooler climes. Bursts of wildflowers color the roadside. I pass pine forests and sheep-dotted hills, skirting the Foreste Casentinesi, a dense, sprawling National Park. After several hours, a white metal plaque stating “S. Sofia,” half-covered by wild grass, signals my approach.
Breathless with anticipation, I follow a winding road as it descends to a stone bridge, then park and step out onto the sidewalk, stunned by the hidden beauty of my surroundings. The typically Mediterranean red-tile roofs and splayed wooden shutters stand out against the alpine backdrop. A cream-colored clocktower presides over a small central square surrounded by sidewalk cafes. White geese waddle over a grassy riverbank. Overlooking the water is a line of sunset-hued buildings, framed by tufts of green forest and the low, grassy hills of the Apennine Mountains.
The genealogical thrills I had come for were proving easy to find. But what I hadn’t counted on was the allure of the village itself.
Santa Sofia, I learn, is one of Italy’s ‘Slow Towns.’ The movement—Cittaslow or Slow City— formed in 1999 as a way to preserve the tranquility and diversity of Italian cultural life. Products are locally sourced and the pace is seductively unrushed. But unlike other Slow Towns, such as the postcard-perfect village of Positano on the Amalfi Coast, Santa Sofia tucked into the Bidente river valley, though achingly pretty, is still un-branded, and filled with locals—not tourists.
In fact, my arrival sparks plenty of curious surprise. And, whereas in Florence or Rome my pidgin Italian often earns exasperated English replies, here everyone seems eager to hear the halting story of my expatriated bisnonno.
“Lots of Bardis come from here,” the dark-haired woman checking me into the hostel tells me. I set my bags down in a sparse vaulted room then head back out to explore the town. Across the river is the old quarter, Mortano, which remained a separate village until 1923. It began as a Roman-era settlement and in Renaissance times (between the 14th and 17th centuries) it housed a noble palace. Much later—in 1888, to be exact—it was also where my great-grandfather was born. A cousin told me he lived above a barn owned by the church and worked on their farm.
Up a sloping hill, illuminated by the late afternoon sun, I round a corner and spot an old, moss-covered church—and next to it, a barn. A fat, prowling cat with pale green eyes stalks the roof. I feel a frisson of discovery.
The genealogical thrills I had come for were proving easy to find. But what I hadn’t counted on was the allure of the village itself. With the sherbet sunset streaking the sky, I eat a plate of gnocchi overlooking the Bidente River, which runs the length of the town. A sculpture park skirts the water on either side. And though off-the-beaten track, Santa Sofia is an arts and gastronomy hub. Each meal I have is proudly regional—and mouthwateringly sensational. During the next day’s lunch of grilled offal sausage (ciavàr), baked eggs with truffle, and pear arugula salad with a sprinkling of parmareggio, I all but forget my original mission.
Luckily, the village comune, or municipality, is close at hand. The young, friendly clerk is, serendipitously enough, named Giulia. I inquire about Giulio Bardi’s birth record and steel myself for a long wait. She will no doubt climb a ladder through some dusty, neglected archive and emerge sneezing, hours later, tattered tome in hand. Within minutes, she hands me a crisp print-out of the certificate, signed and sealed: Mission accomplished.
I doubt my great-grandfather could have foreseen that I would one day follow his footsteps in reverse. But I give silent thanks for the opportunity, looking forward to taking one last stroll around our family’s rediscovered village.
Giulia still seems confused as to why I came in for the copy. Nervously, I explain the citizenship application package, and wonder aloud if I’m the first person to make such a request. Talk about unchartered territory.
“No, no,” Giulia laughs. “Plenty of people ask me for this,” she tells me in Italian, sounding out each word for my benefit. “But they usually do it by email!”