Descendants of Jefferson neighbor reunite in Albemarle - The Daily Progress: News

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Descendants of Jefferson neighbor reunite in Albemarle

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Posted: Saturday, August 10, 2013 9:30 pm

About 240 years ago, Antonio Giannini and his wife and daughter left Fibbialla, Italy, for Virginia at the behest of Florentine merchant Philip Mazzei, a friend of Thomas Jefferson's. 

Part of a cadre of skilled workers Mazzei employed at Colle, his farm adjoining Monticello, Giannini planned to return home after five years. 

On Saturday, scores of Giannini's descendants — estimated to number more than 10,000 in total —  gathered around wooden picnic tables mere miles from the grape vines their progenitor tended for Mazzei, and later, Jefferson.

An Italian flag draped across the entrance to the Elks Lodge shelter near Darden Towe park welcomed visitors from across Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and New York.

"It is great to see so many people from different states taking the time to come together, especially the young people," organizer Judi Giannini told the group, before the prayer was said and the piles of pasta and barbecue disappeared.

Saturday's gathering was the first reunion since the passing of University of Virginia professor Allan Gianniny, who co-edited the family's definitive history alongside his cousin, Robert Lewis Giannini III.

Research since the book's 1999 release has broadened and enriched the family narrative, said Rosanna Bencoach, who cultivated an interest in Giannini lore by poring over Allan Gianniny's notebooks as a teenager.

"I became invested in the Giannini story when my mother became ill," Bencoach said. "I knew that I'd be losing her ... and I didn't want to lose her family, too."

In recent years Bencoach said the family made contact with a line extending from one of Antonio Giannini's daughters for whom records are spotty. Researchers through court records also discovered that Antonio Giannini was with Jefferson when the state's second governor received warning that a troop of loyalist dragoons were en route to Monticello in June 1781. Giannini joined the militia in Yorktown shortly thereafter, according to Jefferson's own records.

"From what we know, Anthony was a courageous and talented man [and] an American patriot," said Cindi Burton, a historian and Giannini descendant.

Burton said she cultivated some curiosity about her ancestors by reading the names in her grandmother's bible in her youth, but did not delve deeper until later.

"We have to know where we come from so we know where we're going," she said.

For some on Saturday, the devil was in the details. 

"I want to know about this 'y,' 'i' thing," Roger Gianniny said,  pointing over Burton at their cousin, Ralph Giannini,  née   Gianniny .

"I broke the system. I'm 71 years old, and it's what I wanted to do," Giannini said, explaining that he changed the spelling. "We fuss at each other, but we're still kin," he added.

"The 'y' is just the anglicized version," Burton interjected. "Back in those days, to be Italian in this area, people looked at you differently. There are plenty of both - just be proud of whatever you've got."

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