Updated: Jun 14, 2019
Examining what went on inside Albert’s head to see what made him tick would take an advanced degree in psychiatry. Still, it’s fun to speculate. First, why would he tell my mother so many half-truths? Self-aggrandizement comes to mind. He was a self promoter and good at pulling himself up by his Italian bootstraps. Partial confession comes to mind. A real confession in front of a priest would have been tedious and not as interesting as unraveling a tale to a granddaughter, which included a few hints of sins committed, sprinkled in. Even Albert’s similarities to Samuel Clemens (you might know him as Mark Twain) come to mind. I know it’s a stretch, but I can’t resist trying to make something out of nothing.
Both Albert and Samuel could spin a good yarn that had something of truth in it. Albert said numerous times that his family had a beautiful estate in Italy, and he had been asked to return there and take it over. Samuel Clemens’ father owned 70,000 acres in Tennessee in the late 1820’s, hoping it might someday make the family wealthy. Later in life, Samuel Clemens lamented that the possibility was a curse. “It put our energies to sleep and made visionaries of us – dreamers and indolent…It is good to begin life poor, it is good to begin life rich - these are wholesome; but to begin it prospectively rich! The man who has not experienced it cannot imagine the curse of it.” Fortunately, neither Samuel Clemens nor my great-grandfather waited around for his ship to come in.
With the evidence I’ve retrieved from “the box,” I still don’t know if Albert’s family was rich or poor, landed or homeless; if they were counts and countesses, or if they were no-accounts? The answers are somewhere outside “the box.” In his youth, Samuel Clemens speculated in silver mining and other business ventures, similar to young Albert’s risky gambling on silver certificates in Italy. Albert lost all his savings earned from his work for the French steam ship companies, and that was a deciding factor for moving to America. Samuel Clemens ended up destitute after his prospecting ventures; and that was the beginning of his days as a writer. There are several other similarities, but I’m getting off track.
Albert tells my mother that he valued American citizenship over the title of Count and his family’s “beautiful estate” in Italy. Was this the truth, a half-truth, or a complete invention? Albert was never one to shrink from inflating his resume. I can halfway understand why he would tell my mother that his “father was a Count and his mother a Countess.” A grand daughter would likely be spellbound by such romantic sounding possibilities. A recently found record indicates that Albert’s father was Guiseppe “Joseph” Alberti, who resided in Santo Stefano, a port city in Tuscany. There is nothing to indicate he held the title of Count. This is a tantalizing connection I have yet to verify.
The best evidence of Albert’s history was perhaps left behind by me, 46 years ago. I was stationed in Darmstadt, Germany, the result of a series of events that led me there, instead of Vietnam. My mother-in-law signed up for one of those “Best of Europe” tours. Another lucky event occurred when a couple on the tour disembarked in Amsterdam. Sharon and I filled the vacated bus seats for the best part of the trip. We traveled with the group to southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. In Italy, we visited many famous sites including Michelangelo’s Pieta in Milan, the leaning tower in Pisa, and the coliseum in Rome. In Florence, we stood behind a crowd of Italians spellbound by a television set in a store window. On the small screen, a man in a white space suit was bouncing slowly across a barren rock strewn terrain. They were watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. That afternoon, we walked over cobblestones that had been trod on by Alberti’s from the past.
I have trouble reconstructing yesterday, so you can imagine my trouble reaching back 46 years. After watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, we crossed over the Medieval Ponte Vecchio Bridge that spans the Arno River. It is pedestrian-only and is home to small jewelry shops and artisan kiosks. The Medici’s used it as an escape route back in the 15th Century.
Sharon remembers that we were still loosely following the tour guide when left the bridge and entered the nearby Palazzo Pitti, a museum of sorts, dedicated to the powerful families of Florence. She remembers a full-sized statue of Leon Battista Alberti, set in an alcove. He is high on the list of suspected ancestors. She has an uncanny memory for cathedrals and statues. Her memory jogs mine, and I remember the museum was huge and I left Sharon inside and walked out into a back garden to rest. After a short eternity, Sharon emerges and we left the tour group to begin looking for a place to stay near the Borgo Santa Croce, at the suggestion of the guide. The travelers that disembarked in Amsterdam were refunded for their meals and hotels, so Sharon and I paid only for the bus ride. We scrambled daily to find our own lodging and meals. It was a small inconvenience for such a terrific trip.
We wandered down the Via dei Bardi. On the corner of that street, we saw a large Coat of Arms of the Alberti family etched into the stonework of the building. In the center of the large engraving are two crossed chains. It seems rather ordinary, unless you know the history. In the eighth century, a young male Alberti progenitor saves a city in Tuscany (Valdamo) by chaining the gates and stalling invaders. As a reward, Charlemagne gives the eighth century Alberti two chains made of silver. Two crossed chains then become the armorial bearings of the Alberti descendents. This sounds plausible, but I wasn’t there - and I don’t trust everything I read on the net.
After seeing the family crest on that cornerstone, a further sequence of events I can’t recall, led us that warm July day in 1969, a short distance down the street to the “Instituto Araldico Coccia.” It was basically a private institution that did genealogical research. A massive street-side door led to an inner courtyard. A short set of steps led to another large door. I knocked, and was welcomed by a young lady I took to be a secretary. She led me to a middle aged man sitting behind a large mahogany desk. He spoke enough English to get the general idea of my inquiry on the Alberti family. He reminded me that, to have arrived at the Institute, I would have had to pass the corner of the Alberti’s where the original homes of the Alberti family were found. I told him I had seen the Alberti Coat of Arms engraved into the stone. I did not have the time or the $500.00 asking price for a full history of the Alberti family, but he was kind enough to send me a short letter a month later to the army base I was stationed at in Darmstadt, Germany. Quoting directly from the letter:
“The Alberti’s have been Counts since the year 867, in that more than one thousand years ago the Emperor Ottone the First gave the title of Count to Goffredo Alaberti. From that time until today, the Alberti’s have always been Counts. They also possessed many Castles, the most famous one is the Castle of Catenaia but they were also owners of the Castles of Talla, Montegiovi, Bagnena and Penna which are found between the higher valleys of the Trevere and Arno rivers: these rivers are born together from Monte Falterona. The Alberti Family has been so important in Florence, that there are still streets and “piazza’s” named for this Family. If the cost is not too burdensome, the research number 4, the genealogy, would be much more interesting than research number 3, the data-book.”
The second page of the letter has been lost, but I think it only contained some contact information that was already included on the heading.
That’s the evidence of Albert’s connection to the main branch of the Alberti family I left behind decades ago. Googling a street view of the “Instituto Araldico Coccia,” it appears they are no longer in business. Free access to information on the web probably made it unprofitable. The “research number 4, the genealogy,” referred to in the letter has hopefully been transferred to some library in Florence. I may be able to track it down with the aid of my keyboard.
Let me ramble here about Leon Battista Alberti, who was the illegitimate son of Lorenzo Alberti, and speculate on any connection to Albert. Not only did Leon design many of the famous buildings in Florence, but he was an architectural consultant to Pope Pius II, who rebuilt Pienza. Curiously, Albert lists Pienza on his naturalization papers as his birthplace, although most evidence points toward Florence. We know Albert had a sister still living in Florence at the time of his death in 1940. He tells a reporter interviewing him at the age of 61 that he was born in Florence. Maybe time will tell.
In addition to being a talented architect, Leon Battista Alberti was an accomplished painter, mathematician, and a published writer on many subjects. If you want to compare personality traits that may have been passed forward to Albert, Leon’s immodest autobiography provides some clues. He says he excelled in all bodily exercises, and that he could stand flat footed and jump as high as the head of the man standing next to him. He had a penchant for mischief, and when entering a cathedral, would throw a coin far up to ring against the vault. In his spare time, Leon tamed wild horses and climbed mountains. I fact checked the wild horse claim, and he did write a published manual on taming wild horses, adding that there was no horse he could not subdue. Self promotion, ambition, hyperbole, and mischievousness seem like traits Leon and Albert shared. Unfortunately, none of the mathematical or artistic genes were passed on to me.
I had hoped to move on from Albert to another relative next week, but Albert and his colorful past will take one more blog. Next week, I’ll include the reason all the Alberti men were exiled from Florence during the 15th Century, and give a little more info on the flamboyant retirement party at the Dupont hotel in Delaware that saved Albert’s pension. The hotel is still a classy place with rooms at $400.00 per night; and the “green dining room” where Albert hosted his guests, is still getting rave reviews even today from guests who visit there.