Over 30 years ago, when I was 14 or 15, I went on a trip to Florence with my granny, Maggie, my Dad’s mum. An unconventional lady, her way of showing affection wasn’t to buy us lots of presents, or shower us with sweets and ice cream, as most people do. Instead, she gave me and my sister our cultural education, taking us to see the sights of Europe, such as the Palace of Versailles, the Duomo, the Eiffel Tower and the great art galleries, like the Louvre. She introduced us to different cuisines by taking us out to eat, encouraged us to work hard at school and practice our music, as well as taking us to the ballet in London at Christmas, or to see a play.
I visited France, Germany and Italy with her and our adventures would always begin by boarding the train to the continent in London, taking a sleeper train to our destination. Fiercely independent until the very end, it is from her that I learnt that women could do anything they put their minds to, as she had so ably done. She loved to keep a travel journal too and encouraged me to do the same. I’m so glad, as I still have some of them and now a few of hers and they make very entertaining reading, as well as transporting me straight back to my childhood.
Florence is the trip that I remember most vividly though; I’d never been to Italy before and loved everything about it, the beautiful red roofed buildings, the pretty countryside, the amazing art galleries and churches, the markets and the different culture, particularly their habit of staying up late with their children. Our little penzione was right in the centre of town, perfect for walking to all the sights. A gifted linguist, Maggie also taught me a little Italian, so I could converse with people and always a stickler for manners, how to work out a 15% tip whenever we ate out.
This trip was notable for one other reason: Maggie took me to meet our Italian relations. Some time before, when we’d been visiting Maggie’s brother Mac (Mackenzie), I’d expressed an interest in family history and he’d taken me to his study where he had sheets and sheets of family tree information, stretching back about 500 years. It was all a bit overwhelming and perhaps sensing this, he picked out one particular sheet that he thought I’d be interested in, our connection to the Conti family of Tuscany.
My seven times great-grandfather, John Mackenzie, born around 1681, was the ship master of Cromarty in Scotland and he’d been to Venice when he was younger and had a romance with a Venetian lady. One of his daughters, Jean, married Robert White who worked in the British Consul in Tripoli and they had a daughter called Janetta who married Cosimo Michelangelo the Conte di Conti (an Italian count ennobled in 1769) and she settled in Italy and raised a family. One of John’s sons, Alexander (Jean’s brother), born around 1728, is who I’m descended from through my father, with the family moving to and staying in London, around the Leytonstone area. Over the next 200 years the two branches of the family didn’t stay in touch with one another but Mackenzie family folklore always claimed that we were related to the Contis.
Contact was re-established in the 1920s through the meticulous research of my great-grandfather Stephen and his cousins into their branch of the Mackenzie family. Reading the letters between the cousins as they work out the family tree it becomes apparent that Stephen was friends with Piero Ginori Conti, his 5th cousin and a descendant of Jean Mackenzie, and they realised eventually that they were related. Sadly, it doesn’t say how they met. Serendipity perhaps?
Maggie and I stayed in Florence in the springtime and one sunny day we caught a bus out of the centre of town up into the wooded hills above the city. When the bus had taken us as far as we could go, we walked the rest of the way up the road until we reached a curved gateway in a long stone wall. It was the entrance into an old Florentine villa, with a large stable yard in front, stable blocks on either side and the house itself set back behind a further archway. Gosh these people are rich I thought to myself.
The owner of the property, Ginevra, came out to meet us, greeting Maggie like an old friend. She had two daughters, Selvaggia and Susi, who were around the same age as me and are my 8th cousins. We said hello shyly and realised that we were going to have problems communicating, as I only spoke a few words of Italian and they didn’t speak any English. With help from Maggie and Ginevra it was established that the three of us could speak French, so that was how we talked to one another that afternoon, all of us slightly embarrassed by the situation as only teenagers could be but making the best we could of it.
I don’t remember what we talked about that afternoon or how long we were there for. I don’t really remember what their house was like except I was overawed by their wealth. I don’t really remember my cousins very well either, after all it was a long time ago. What I clearly remember is this: a portrait of Jean Mackenzie, our common ancestor, hanging in pride of place at the top of the stairs. After nearly 300 years you’d think that the two branches of the family would have no knowledge of each other but not only do we know of one another’s existence, we have actually met: it was obviously meant to be.