How an Italian family created an ‘open-door town’ while updating and respecting its past

The following article is co-authored by Linguistic Arts Project Fellow Julie Ruggieri, who works in the U.S. to educate families and students about the history and traditions of Italian culture.

These days, if you wanted to tour the Alta Benezza, a historic 18th-century plaza in Chioggia, Italy, you’d have to fly to nearby Pisa. But in the 1960s, before cheap flights, and just before the high-speed public transportation systems became the norm, the base was as far away as possible from Pisa: almost 75 miles away.

That was just part of the challenge for the Riparo family.

Giorgio and Maria Riparo had been there since they were kids. Their father, Pietro, had purchased the house. Pietro’s was one of the first houses in the town with functioning plumbing. It had an elegant, honey-colored stucco and marble façade, a formal garden, lawns, a garage, and more than a dozen fireplaces.

The main chance to tour the house was on a busy summer weekend in the summer. The main stretch of the pavement leading to the front door was also a possible spot for suicide attempts. But the family settled in, fully aware of the risks. Their houses were inspected every month. In the book Heart in Chioggia, by the author, Carmine Galante, Pietro Riparo recounts that his father was removed from the house by police for lying about his age, because he didn’t agree with him (his father was 78 when he first bought the house, but Pietro believed he was 30, so Pietro posed as his younger self)

Pietro later died.

Over the next 12 years, Maria and Giorgio made a series of financial decisions that would help shape their careers. They moved to another building, and they put one end of their house in water from the canal to add on to the property. While that bank of streets had streetlights, it was difficult for Maria and Giorgio to walk around the rest of the town, so they decided to put up a light outside their front door. A neighbor complained that the glare would impede the work of other residents, so the Riparo family converted the light to a sunshade.

An outdated stop sign was then erected, as were the many light posts, signs, and standard faucets to reflect the civic do-good spirit of the area.

As Giorgio’s teaching career evolved in the city’s public schools, Maria would come to follow him there. Gradually, after their two children were born, they were able to put the house up for sale, and the Riparo family began looking for a new home.

In that quick journey from Chioggia to Colli di Fe, Italy, and back, a new family was growing. It meant becoming an entrepreneur. Giorgio’s teaching job had become a full-time career, and he raised the two children while maintaining two day care spots and running a preschool in the morning and one in the afternoon, all within two blocks of his house. Maria’s long-time job took her to a distant part of the country, making it harder for her to care for the younger ones. Their working-class lifestyle was profitable, but it meant Maria had to return to the area every two weeks.

Even after Maria’s first pregnancy, she continued to spend about 30 nights in the Villa Terzi de Giorgio’s property. When the children went to school, she drove a rental car from the next town for a longer-term teaching position in the mountains. She learned on the fly, and you could feel a sense of responsibility when she taught students about Italian cooking and how to make pasta dough or how to use olive oil. Maria never felt she had the luxury of one “job.” The home changed as Maria worked, just as a home can change as the people who live in it do.

Eating dinner once a week with our youngest son in a house near Naples, Maria Riparo used to make a joke about her future career: “Well, the only job we’ve had is that of husband and wife.”

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