Mystery of the Italian bagpiper

I enjoy a good mystery. I found one Christmas Eve.

A small, beautiful figurine was strategically placed next to a creche at my sister's house. I was immediately drawn to it: an elderly man, seated on a rock structure, dressed in old-world European garb, playing a bagpipe-like instrument. The detail and craftsmanship were stunning, down to the minute wrinkles in his face and tiny fingers on the pipes. It reminded me of a Lladro in quality and artistic aesthetic but crafted from paper mâché. Its imperfections - the piece was very old - made it more appealing.

"An Italian bagpiper. My mom gave it to me before she died," my brother-in-law Steve said, when I inquired.

His eyes lit up with pride and voice filled with sentimental joy as he explained the figurine's history. Intrigued, I wanted to unearth more.

Antonino Indovina was Steve's great-great-grandfather, born in Termini Imerese, a small town about 45 minutes outside of Palermo, Italy, in 1836. The son of a master builder, Antonino inherited his father's gift for imagining, planning and crafting buildings, bridges and roads. A few old articles I obtained from Steve's cousin, who is deep in the family's history (particularly Antonino), suggest he started crafting the figurines as young as 12 years old. He crafted several hundred during his life, and when combined just right, they created breathtaking creche scenes called "presepios." He similarly recreated the "Representation of the Souls in Purgatory" which is on display at the Santa Maria di Gesù Church. Looking at an old photo of this work, I'm reminded of Michelangelo's depiction of cherubs, angels, and the awe of divinity. It was breathtaking.

Antonino made two trips to Chicago, where four of his eight children settled, starting around the late 1890s, with a treasure trove of his art in tow. I suspect that's how Steve's mother came into possession of the figurine.

An old article in "Archer Road," a monthly publication issued by the Francis E. Clark Settlement (a Chicago school for children of mostly Italian immigrant families) cites that his figurines were proudly displayed at Himera Pharmacy located at 22nd Place and Wentworth Avenue, known today as Chicago's Chinatown. The kindergartners of the Settlement were treated to a holiday presepio viewing there.

His art is still displayed in Termini Imerese and I'm mulling finding a way to bring his collection to Chicago - in part to share his gifts, and Chicago lineage, with Steve, his family and others who will appreciate it.

Most importantly, I discovered Antonino was a man of profound faith and a deep dedication to the Catholic Church. He was devoted to his family.

I see very similar qualities in Steve. And on some level, I now know him better.

We've all wondered about the mystery of our ancestors, seeking answers in our family tree. Some clues are elusive, and others hide in plain sight. For Steve and me, a clue came as an Italian bagpiper.

- Kevin Cook of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. Readers can email him at [email protected].