On my paternal grandmother’s side I descend from one of the older families in the Hellenic region, that of the Giakoumelos (Γιακουμέλος) of the island of Zakynthos also known as Zante (Ζάκυνθος). According to the definitive book on the families of the island, Λεξικόν Iστορικόν και Λαογραφικόν Zακύνθου (Historical & Folkloric Dictionary of Zakynthos) volume 1 by Λ.Χ. Ζώης, the family has been on the island since before 1478. However, the family was not listed in the Golden Book (Libro d’Oro) of the island, maintained during the Venetian rule.
The family were the founders of the village of Gyri (Γύρι), located at the highest point on the island. For centuries, the family has led the village in a form similar to a señorío in Spain. Over the centuries, the family broke out into branches each with its own nickname but maintaining the surname:
- Camberi (Καμπέρη)
- Colovieni (Κωλοβιένη)
- Cousoula (Κουσουλα)
- Dairis (Νταΐρης)
- Darios (Νταρίος)
- Gialia (Γιαλιά)
- Malouchos (Μαλούχος)
- Roros (Ρωρός)
- Roupa (Ρούπα)
- Vardakastani (Βαρδακαστάνη)
The above are those I know about and there may very well be several more. In any case, of the ones listed above the Dairis and the Roros branches seem to have risen to the headship of the seignure and to have maintained that over the centuries. For example, the Roros were treated as the aristocracy of the village of Gyri. What is fascinating is that to this day, the family leads the small village and has a leadership role in the regional administration.
It should be noted that Gyri has always been a tiny village, out of the limelight and there back in the day it was very much isolated from the hustle and bustle of the islands capital, let alone the rest of the world. Marriages were usually with families in the neighboring, also tiny, villages such as the case of my paternal maternal great-grandmother who was a Moraitis.
Now, there is ample documentation about the Giakoumelos going to the mid 15th century but, what about before that? The family didn’t spring from out of nowhere so we need to see what was going on at that time on the island.
After the 4th Crusade of 1204 what was once the Eastern Roman Empire, better known as the Byzantine Empire, got split into a number of small kingdoms under the rule of the Western European Crusaders. As the Crusaders were all Roman Catholic and the general name for them in the Eastern Orthodox lands they conquered was “Latins” or “Franks”, the period during which these kingdoms existed is known as Francocracy or Frankokratia (Φραγκοκρατία). The rule ended truly in the 20th Century when Italy returned the Dodecanese to Greece after World War 2 though most would put the end in the early 19th Century when the Napoleonic controlled Republic of Venice ceded its Greek territories to the British Crown. To complete the story, the British gave those same lands to the new Kingdom of Greece with the coronation of King George I of Greece.
So, where does Zakynthos fit in this whole mix? Zakynthos was always treated as a package deal with Cephalonia (Κεφαλονιά), the latter usually having more noble families. This pair of islands has a particular history that starts diverging from their Greek Orthodox brothers in 1185 when the King of Sicily created the County Palatine of Cephalonia and Zakynthos for the services rendered to the Crown by Margaritus of Brindisi. After the first Count Palatine, the title went to the Orsini family in 1195. In 1325 it goes to the House of Anjou-Sicily and in 1357 to the Tocco family who kept it until 1479. This year was the first time that the two islands split rulers: Cephalonia was occupied by the Ottomans while Zakynthos went to the Republic of Venice. I should point out that 21 years later, Cephalonia joined Zakynthos and also came under the Venetians.
Notice the year that the Republic of Venice took over the island of Zakynthos and the year the Dictionary above uses as a mark for the family. This means that the Giakoumelos were on the island, with the name “Giakoumelos” before the Venetians took possession of the island. Unfortunately, there isn’t much about Zakynthos on the pre-Venice years, especially regarding its minor nobility or other genealogical records.
So, where does this leave us regarding the origins of the family? This is what we know:
- The family were the leaders of their village and treated like aristocracy however, they were not listed in the Golden Book (Libro d’Oro) of the island maintained by the Venetians
- They have been on the island for over 5 centuries and we don’t know much from before the mid 15th century
- Greeks of “Frankish” descent hellenized their names. For example, Capo d’Istria became Kapodistrias (Καποδίστριας).
Now that we have some background let’s try to take each item, one at a time.
The family was the equivalent to medieval seignures or señores (in the Spanish sense) or, to anglicize it, like a feudal Lord of the Manor. Not only that, they were of a village in the middle of the island and effectively, the middle of nowhere. So far removed they were from the center of power in city of Zakynthos (capital of the island) that many had never even been there! If one examines the Golden Book of the island one finds all the major players in the capital but none of these families were from the hinterland representing the less cosmopolitan parts. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Giakoumelos are not listed there as I’m sure dozens of other families of similar stature aren’t.
So, where did they come from? The bibliography doesn’t say that they are native to the island nor does it say where they are from. This is where we can come up with hypotheses based on some circumstantial evidence.
As the island was under “Frankish” rule for 300 years prior to Venice taking over and the bibliography is silent about any families from Constantinople with a similar name migrating there, we can assume then that the family has a Western European origin. It’s the only alternative. Where, though, did these people come from? Considering that the Orsini and the Tocco were of Italian descent and that their County was under the protection of the Sicilian or Neapolitan Crowns, the most likely case is that the Giakoumelos come from what is today Italy. This prompted me to do a simple Google search restricted to Italy with the search word of “giakoumelos”. What I found was amazing!
I discovered that there is an ancient Italian family with the name of Giacomello that has had a long history in their region of origin. What is their region? Venice! It’s all now coming together. A family with a notably Italian sounding name, without any mention of them in the Greek lands other than on Zakynthos, an island under Venice’s control for 450 years, is probably related to a quintessentially Venetian family with almost the exact same name. It is self evident that Giakoumelos is an hellenization of Giacomello, following the pattern of so many other hellenized surnames.
The hypothesis is a good one but, can it be proven? This is the hard part. This is a research project that must be attacked from both ends: the Giakoumelos end and the Giacomello end. Is there documentation proving descent of the Giakoumelos from the Giacomello? Did the Giacomello go to Zakynthos and if so, when? If they were notable in Venice why do they not appear in the Golden Book of the island? Why did they decide to live in the most remote part of the island?
So many questions but, not many answers.
Searching backwards, from the Giakoumelos to Venice may prove to be the most difficult since there are sparse records today about the island. Unfortunately, as per the curator of the archives of the island told me, almost all the records were destroyed in a fire caused by the major earthquake of 1953 that ruined most of the island. I hope one day to find a definitive answer.