Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Our Italian heritage: From Florence to Nannestad

In the year 1556, a new vicar was appointed to the parish of Nannestad, just north of Oslo. He moved into the vicarage and went about his life just like any other Lutheran priest in rural Norway. However, this particular vicar's history was very different from those of his colleagues.

He was Frantz Frantzen Florentinus, my 14th great-grandfather.

Frantz, whose birth name must undoubtedly have been Francesco, was born sometime around 1505 or 1510 in Florence, Italy, a city-state in political turmoil. Francesco's father was also named Francesco, and his mother was most likely named Lucrezia. Both the family's original Italian surname and the exact circumstances of their move to Norway are unknown, but according to family tradition (as told by one of his descendants in the 18th century), they left Florence due to poverty and arrived in Norway while Francesco was still a child.

View of Florence, birthplace of my ancestor Francesco/Frantz. Source: https://pixabay.com/en/firenze-florence-italy-travel-754366/ (public domain)

Eventually, Francesco became Frantz (which in modern Norwegian orthography would be spelled Frans), and because of his Florentine origin, he was given the bynames Florentinus ("from Florence") and Italus ("Italian"). He signed his own name as Franndtz Frandtzsønn Ittallianner ("Frantz Frantzen the Italian").

Florence is considered to be the birthplace of the Renaissance. Unless they were recent arrivals from elsewhere in Italy, Frantz's family - our family - must have lived in Florence at the same time as Dante, Boccaccio, Macchiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci; it's not unreasonable to imagine that our ancestors actually saw and perhaps even talked with some of these giants of history. I wonder what it was like for a young boy from this vibrant city, the very heart of Europe, to move to a place like Norway, literally in the backwoods, at the very periphery of the continent.

How much, if anything, did the family know about Norway in advance? Experiencing the harsh climate must have been a shock. Learning the language must have been a challenge, especially since Norwegian was at this time essentially only a spoken vernacular, the written administrative language being Danish. The Italian family must have seemed indescribably exotic to their Norwegian neighbours; did they get a taste of the "Jante law"? Were the Norwegians prejudiced against them? Or were they prejudiced against the Norwegians, perhaps looking down on them as simple and uncultured country folk?

All in all, it seems that little Frantz managed well in his new surroundings.

When Frantz was a young adult, the ideas of the Reformation started spreading throughout northern Europe, and in 1536, the Danish government (to which Norway was subordinate) adopted Protestantism as its official religion. This met with initial resistance among Norwegians, but the local population's attempts to hold on to Catholicism were soon quashed. In this very turbulent religious environment, Frantz trained as a priest. We do not know where he obtained his theological education; it has been suggested that he studied in Rostock in Germany, but that does not seem to be the case.

Frantz Frantzen Florentinus served as vicar of Nannestad from 1556 until his death in 1581 or 1582. Several generations of his descendants were priests just like him, and from the 1600s onwards, the family started to use the surname Flor, which derives from Frantz' byname Florentinus. In other words, the memory of Florentine ancestry was strong in the family. To this day there are people in Norway called Flor. In my line, however, the surname was not preserved. A 4th great-granddaughter of Frantz married a Høland farmer, and the Italian family line assimilated into Norwegian farming society.

The descendants stayed in Høland for another 200 years. My great-great-great-grandmother, Otilie Fredrikke Kristiansdatter, was born on Vestereng farm in 1862. In 1885, she moved to Oslo, where she settled and had several children, one of them being my great-great-grandmother Signe, an illegitimate child who grew up in dire poverty at the croft Tørtberg.


Mysterious names


I wonder if Signe knew she had Italian ancestors? Her middle names were very unusual; her full name was Signe Eresia Oberta Johansen. Could her mother have given her those names based on a centuries-old family tradition of Southern European origins? "Eresia" is in fact an Italian word meaning "heresy", and "Eresia Oberta" resembles the Italian phrase eresia aperta, "open heresy", which is a very strange name to give to a child... Unless, perhaps, it could be some kind of reference to Frantz Frantzen Florentinus' conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism? One could speculate forever upon this. It is probably more likely that Signe was named after the butterfly Eresia. Or maybe Eresia and Oberta were new names created simply by cutting off the initial letters of Teresia and Roberta.

Signe passed on the name Eresia to her daughter, my great-grandmother Aase Lilly Eresia Johansen, whom I met several times as a child. If I ever have children, perhaps I will pass this name on to one of them!

Norwegians of Italian descent: My great-great-grandmother Signe (left), her younger half-sister Alma (right), and their mother Otilie (middle).



Italy in my DNA

23andMe assigns me 0.5% Broadly Southern European. Since Frantz from Florence is my closest known Southern European ancestor, it seems very possible that this DNA segment has been inherited from him.


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