Untangling a Yarn

Pietro Magistris and his wife Teresa Magistris, nee Barnaba


"The last letter that was ever received from him came from Turkey," my grandma said, concluding the tale of Pietro Magistris, her great grandfather, who had mysteriously disappeared on his way East.

I had been intrigued by the story of this long passed relative, not only for it's enigmatic ending, but also for its connection to Turkey, linking Italian and Turkish history in a common thread.

"Do we have the letter?" I asked excitedly.

"No, they threw everything away," she said, referring to his children.

"Do you know where he was in Turkey?" I continued to pry.

"No, no. No one knows,"  she said, throwing her hands up.

There had been several theories about the fate of Pietro Magistris in the family. One even linked his disappearance to a possible flight to America in the face of financial ruin, but the most likely one was that he had gone to Turkey on his way to China. The reason for his voyage was the need to find healthy silkworms. He had moved from Lombardy in Italy to the Friuli region in the mid 1800s, where he had immediately set up a silk factory in Udine. This building still exists in Udine and has now been transformed into a museum.

The exact reason for Pietro Magistris' initial move to Udine isn't known, but my grandma believes that he was fleeing an area of high competition, close to the silk production centers of Lyons in France, and moving to an area of lower competition in the Friuli, which at the time was still under Austrian rule. My grandma cites the speed with which he initially set up his factory in Udine as proof that he had both knowledge and expertise in the business, as well a source of start-up capital (although the practice required little initial investment), which probably came from his previous factory.

The factory did well financially, until the outbreak of Pébrine disease, which made the fragile silkworms unable to produce its valuable threads. It was caused by a small parasite and manifested itself in brown spots on the silkworm and affected the silkworm at every phase of its life cycle, effectively killing them off. This disease created great alarm amongst the centers of silk production in Europe. In France, which had important centers for silk manufacturing, Louis Pasteur was asked to find the source and cure for the disease, which he eventually did. Nevertheless, this disease in essence brought to a halt large-scale silk production in Italy. It was in this ill-fated wave of events that my grandmother's great grandfather found himself, after attempting to make his silk venture take root and bear fruit in Udine.

When business got so bad that it seemed there was no alternative, it is thought that Pietro Magistris left his wife, Teresa Barnaba, and children, and set off on the path of the Silk Road in search of 'un baco da seta sano'- a healthy silkworm. After his departure, his family received one more letter from him, sent from Turkey, and he was never heard from again. Was he killed? Did he die of disease while traveling? Did he abandon his mission and set up a life elsewhere in the world? Of his fate, no one is sure and I am filled with questions.

I am excited to fill in the cracks in his story, and now that I am in Turkey, possibly visit some of the cities that were stops along the Silk Road. Turkey, after all, was the bridge to the East and an important connector in the exchange of goods and information. I am also excited to learn more about Italy and the Friuli during this time and silk production in general. It is thrilling to have found this link with my family's history, the larger history and trends in Italy, Europe at the time, and Turkey's presence in this story as well. I feel inspired.

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