Deciphering the clues in a military photograph can be challenging—especially if the image was taken overseas. David Dew’s mother found this portrait, which had belonged to his great-aunt Helen, while cleaning out a closet. The photo bears the caption “Dad in the war of Tripoli.” Dew thinks the man is his great-grandfather Joseph Arena, Helen’s father. Joseph migrated from Cupa, Italy, to New York sometime before 1904, when Helen was born in the United States. Dew would like to know more about the image, but doesn’t know where to begin.
I’d start by looking up the dates of an Italian war with Tripoli. Doing so will help determine when the image was taken. To find this information, I suggest using an online search engine such as Google. My next stop would be a large public or academic library for additional information on Italian history.
Dew also could consult a costume encyclopedia, such as Battledress: The Uniforms of the World’s Great Armies, 1700 to the Present edited by I.T. Schick (out of print, but available used through online vendors). A Google search for Italian military uniforms, turned up a guide to Italian colonialism, called Soldati D’Africa by R. Catellani and G. Stella (available for purchase online at www.tuttostoria.it/specificheing.asp?ID=323). The first of three volumes, this publication covers 1885 to 1896 and includes color photographs of period uniforms. By comparing the significant details in his military photograph—trim, jacket, headdress and shoes—to those in the Italian publication, Dew might be able to establish a date for the image.
A few other details could assist Dew’s interpretation of this picture. A good lead is the photographer’s imprint, which reveals the artist’s place of business. The imprint on this photo is hard to see, but I can make out the name of the town, Verona. Two publications on Italian photographers could help date the picture: Fotografi e Fotografia in Italia, 1839-1880 Piero Becchetti (Quasar, out of print) and Fotografia Italiana dell’Ottocento (Electa, out of print). The latter contains a directory of more than 200 photographers in business before 1900.
Since Joseph’s place of origin is believed to be Cupa, Italy, networking with other Italian researchers through US genealogical groups will help Dew connect with resources overseas. Several organizations and links to information appear on Cyndi’s List under the Italy heading.
Identifying the uniform and Joseph’s years of service, following the US paper trail and searching for records relating to Cupa, Italy, should answer questions raised by this photograph. As usual, I’d love to hear from readers who recognize this image. Contact me at [email protected]