I spend much of my professional life working directly with families to preserve the past, yet build on top of it. While it sounds lofty, it really involves listening to families about what was important in their shared history, helping them translate that to what it means for their values today, and putting in place plans to transmit that history and those values to subsequent generations. It’s a process that, if done well, repeats itself. The next generation then takes what they can from their ancestors and makes it their own. And so on.
I had a chance to see this in full force during a family vacation to Italy this summer. The purpose of the trip was two-fold: to explore the country’s cultural and architectural delights, and to trace some of my own family history. My long-ago art history studies meant that our museum visits read like an Art History 101 textbook: the Palazzo Publico in Siena to see the 14th Century Ambrogio Lorenzetti murals and Simon Martini frescoes; the Vatican Museums to see the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms; the Coliseum and the Roman Forum; the Borghese Gallery to see the magnificent Baroque Bernini sculptures. As is sometimes the case during these excursions, I had several “ah-hah” moments along the way that I can bring back to my daily work.
The first came thanks to an amazing Roman tour guide at the Forum. She described what she called the “lasagna” of preservation efforts in Italy. Archeologists in the 19th and early 20th century who worked on the excavation of the Forum chose to preserve the medieval churches that were built on top of Roman ruins. Rather than just tear down one or the other, they kept both in place, so that modern visitors can see exactly how the site was used over time, how the needs of the community evolved, and how the prevailing political and cultural values dictated the use of public spaces. Preserving the past, and building on top of it.
The second ah-hah moment came when I visited the town where my grandfather was born. He left there in 1922, part of a massive wave of early to mid-20th century immigration. I found a town nestled in the hills of the northeast Campania region that likely looked much as it did 600 years ago when the town was founded. Its buildings have stood the test of time and its residents are proud of its heritage. The central piazza came alive at night with a multi-generational mix of residents making use of its public spaces. Many of those same values came with the wave of immigrants who left for my hometown in the US, which is now its sister city. I met the current generation of the town’s leadership, who are working to make a strong community for its residents and also attract tourism and cultural vibrancy. The evening of our stay, the local youth group hosted a Battle of the Bands of sorts, with food and music emanating from the town square all night long. They are preserving the past, and building on top of it.
Your Family Recipe
So what does this mean for families and family foundations? Incorporating these ingredients can help you to make your own family “lasagna.”
- Sometimes you have to go back to your roots so you can understand your past. This helps ground you in what’s important, and what is lasting from past generations.
- Then you can decide what to pull forward, what you leave in place for future generations to understand and learn from, and what is ok to leave behind.
- Once you have a blend of your past and present, you can apply it to your current goals and passions. Sometimes the layers of the “lasagna” matter, and seeing them laid out in front of you can inspire you to create new things from the foundations of the past.
We hope your summer travels have given you time with family and loved ones, a bit of time for reflection, and inspiration to launch into the fall and year-end giving season.
- Building a Family Legacy One Story at a Time by Nancy B. Gardiner
- Engaging the Next Generation in Family Philanthropy: Getting Started by Gioia Perugini
- Igniting Generation Next by Gioia Perugini
About the Author
Gioia Perugini is Associate Director, Family Office and Philanthropy Services at Hemenway & Barnes. She works with individuals, families, advisors, charitable trusts and foundations to provide a range of philanthropic and client services. Read Gioia’s full biography.