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Family story sheds light on NZ’s Italian connections

3 October 2012

A little-known strand of New Zealand’s post-colonial history is unearthed in a lively and moving account of one family’s story, published by Canterbury University Press this month.

Family BusinessFamily Business: An Italian-New Zealand Story is the work of Wellington-born, Australian-based medieval scholar and publisher Vincent Moleta who has written a moving account of his family’s determined efforts to establish a new life in a new country.

Dr Moleta’s maternal grandparents, Bartolo and Giuseppina Barnao, were among the small number of non-British Europeans who immigrated to New Zealand, in their case from the Aeolian island of Stromboli, off the north coast of Sicily, at the turn of the 20th century. Through their story, and that of their descendants, Dr Moleta reveals how the small, tightly-knit Italian community became successfully integrated into New Zealand life while upholding their cultural traditions and practices.

He says the lives of Bartolo and Giuseppina Barnao and their children “offer a model of how one might adapt to an alien culture, maintaining one’s own inherited traditions, developing new loyalties, cementing new friendships, and making a useful contribution to a distant land of adoption – in their case, proud Aeolian Italians then, and assured Aeolian New Zealanders now”.

Family Business begins by tracing the childhoods of Bartolo and Giuseppina on Stromboli at the end of the 19th century, then follows Bartolo’s journey as he sails to Wellington as a 13 year old to work in the fish trade, his time as a cabin boy on a steam trawler sailing out of Napier and his two years driving a cart of freshly caught fish through the night from Makara Beach to the fish market in Wellington.

Eight years after arriving in New Zealand Bartolo returned to Stromboli to marry Giuseppina, the bride the village parish priest had chosen for him. They returned to New Zealand, raising five children and establishing two successful fish markets that became well-known New Zealand institutions – in 1908 Barnao Bros. Imperial Fish Market in Main Street West in Palmerston North and, in the 1930s after Bartolo moved his family to Island Bay, Barnao’s Fish Market in Lambton Quay.

Through these developments, Dr Moleta recounts the family’s joys and sorrows and paints an absorbing picture of life in Island Bay, New Zealand’s own “Little Italy”, from 1900 to the 1960s, describing the Fascist Club meetings of the 1930s, the visit to Wellington in 1934 of the Italian cruiser Armado Diaz, the Catholic tennis club socials and the excitement of Italian weddings.

Dr Moleta says readers of Family Business will find out more about the traditions these Italian migrants brought with them to New Zealand, and how this small yet vibrant community contributed to this country’s growth and development.

Dr Moleta lives at Fontecolombo, a fine Italianate homestead newly built of field granite south of Perth. He retired in 2000 after 27 years teaching in the Department of Italian at the University of Western Australia. From there he maintains his Aeolian Press, which concentrates on publishing Italian literature in translation, and has founded an annual festival of chamber music ( He also founded the Fontecolombo Institute, a centre for Italian culture, at his home. In 2004 he was knighted by the Italian government for services to Italian culture overseas.

Dr Moleta has had published 13 previous books, including Guinizzelli in Dante (Roma, Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1981); From St Francis to Giotto (Chicago, Franciscan Herald Press, 1983); Gloriosa donna de la mente (Firenze, Olschki, 1994); and Umberto Saba: Poetry and Prose (Bridgetown, Aeolian Press, 2004). He directs, for the academic publisher L.S. Olschki, Florence, the series “Italian Medieval and Renaissance Studies”.

Family Business: An Italian-New Zealand Story will be launched on 18 October at Unity Books, Wellington, by New Zealand poet and writer Vincent O’Sullivan. Launches will also be held in Sydney on 25 October, Melbourne on 27 October, Perth on 4 November and Fontecolombo on 10 November.

  • Family Business: An Italian-New Zealand Story by Vincent Moleta, published by Canterbury University Press, September 2012, RRP NZ$45, paperback, ISBN 978-1-927145-33-3

For further information please contact:
Stacey Doornenbal
Canterbury University Press
Ph: +64 3 364 2984