Italian Genealogical Research: Part II
By Melanie D. Holtz, CG®
Italy is a land of beauty and contrasts, not only in its topography but also within its records. Yet that’s what makes this form of genealogical research so interesting! Knowledge of the major record sets is key to making sure your research is thorough. The five major record sets are:
- Civil Registration – Italian civil registration is not just birth, marriage, and death records. It also includes municipal census records, records compiled from municipal census records, such as the Stato di Famiglia Storico [Historical State of the Family Certificate] or the Certificato di Stato di Famiglia [Certificate of Family Status, one of several forms of an Italian residency certificate], diverse acts [such as civil recognitions, births of abandoned children, adoptions, deaths of residents elsewhere, stillbirths], marriage banns, supplemental marriage, birth, and death records, and citizenship records.
If you wish to order civil records from an Italian town hall, it’s important to understand what formats the documents come in. Your purpose will determine what format of the record you order. For example, if you need the record because you are tracing the heirs for an estate, then you will need the “Certificato,” as other formats would not be acceptable in a U.S. court. Keep in mind that Italy has privacy restrictions that extend for seventy years after the creation of the record.
Two sets of civil registers are created each year. One set is conserved in the town hall and the other set is sent to the Tribunale (similar to a District Court) for use in legal proceedings. After seventy years, the Tribunale’s copy is sent to the province’s Archivio di Stato (provincial/state archives) for conservation. Understanding how these records were created may help find a record when one set of civil records has been destroyed.
FamilySearch currently has the largest and most accessible collection of Italian civil, ecclesiastical, military, and notarial records outside of Italy. According to their agreement with the Italian State Archives (Direzione Generale per gli Archivi or DGA), they are digitizing all civil records held within Italy’s provincial/state archives. Digitized copies of these records are then returned to the Italian State Archive, a key part of the digitization agreement. The DGA is placing these images on their website, Portale Antenati. These records will eventually be indexed by name, date, location, and record type. Ancestry also has a modest collection of Italian civil records.
- Ecclesiastical Records – This record set includes baptisms, confirmations, death/burial records, marriages, marriage attachments, dispensations, and different types of ecclesiastical censuses. FamilySearch has some ecclesiastical records on microfilm but the great majority must be accessed in local parishes or diocesan archives.
In general, ecclesiastical records extend back to the end of the Council of Trent in 1583 or to the construction date of the parish the ancestors attended. Records of defunct parishes are often kept at the diocesan archives. In 1614, Pope Paul V prescribed the keeping of status animarum (State of the Souls) records, a census-like record used to track the vital statistics of all parishioners and the sacraments (baptism, confirmation, communion) they had received. They were also used for taxation purposes in some time periods and localities.
- Military Records – Key military records consist of conscription records, extraction lists, service records, and discharge papers. FamilySearch has a limited amount of these records on microfilm or in digitized form. Some provincial/state archives have created databases containing the conscription records for their province, which can be accessed on their websites. For an example of one such project, see the website of the Archivio di Stato di Cosenza.
- Census and Tax Assessment Records – Census and tax assessment records take many different forms in Italy, depending on time period, locality, and who created the records. Various forms of land or property taxation censuses existed into the mid-nineteenth century (for some areas into the 1870s). Often called catasti onciari, censimente, or riveli, they were usually created by ecclesiastical authorities. Many provincial/state archives are digitizing these records, which can be a valuable resource, especially when parish records have been destroyed.
Some forms of municipal censuses began after Italian Unification but were phased out with the onset of federal censuses. If the municipal censuses survive (registri di popolazioni, shede individuale, foglie di famiglie), they can be an invaluable source of information, as they often document the vital statistics of whole family groups, as well as immigration/emigration information. Federal censuses are usually not available for consultation.
- Notarial Records – In Italy, notaries recorded all types of legal transactions. Therefore, notarial records can be an invaluable source of evidence. Some types of notarial records are mortgages, property sales/transfers (may include the sale of land, buildings, animals, trees or fruits thereof, wells/water rights), adoptions, atto di notarietà (sworn statement used to prove identity when there was no birth or baptismal records), wills, dowries and marital contracts. I once found an amazingly helpful property transfer that detailed three generations of a family and provided death dates and places for the initial couple on the deed, the client’s second great-grandparents. As access to parish records was not permitted in this area of Italy, this pre-civil registration information was especially valuable. To learn more about notarial records and their application to genealogical research, consider attending my BCG webinar this coming November, “Civil Law Notaries: Using Notarial Records to Build a Family History.” Watch SpringBoard for an announcement in October.
FamilySearch has a limited amount of these records digitized or on microfilm but their collection is increasing. The majority of these records need to be researched onsite in Italy’s provincial/state archives or notarial archives, depending on the province.
Other types of records do not have as strong a genealogical application as the four listed above. Italian newspapers are one of these resources. The great majority of emigrating Italians came from the peasant class, which was largely illiterate. Obituaries, wedding announcements, or “hometown happenings” sections in Italian newspapers for the majority of Italian citizens are not found until the later part of the twentieth century, long past the major immigration waves. However, Italian newspapers are a valuable resource for cultural, social and historical research. There is no centralized source for digitized historical versions of Italian newspapers, like one sees in the U.S. These records are being maintained on individual newspaper websites. For example, see the Italian newspaper, La Stampa, which has digitized all of its publications since its founding in 1867.
In contrast, Italian-American (Italian-Canadian, Italian-Brazilian, etc.) newspapers contain notifications of immigrant arrivals, wedding announcements, death notices, and many other types of valuable genealogical information. You can find these records in the collections of historical societies, as well as state and local libraries.
Further Study in Italian Research
There are several Italian courses available now or during the upcoming year.
- FamilyTree University offers a basic Italian genealogy course.
- The Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh offers an intermediate course on Researching Italian Ancestors on 17–22 July 2016.
- Ancestry Academy offers a course titled Tesoro! Finding Your Italian Roots.
- The National Institute of Genealogical Studies has four Italian genealogy courses available, ranging from basic to intermediate, with more to come in the future.
- The Virtual Institute of Genealogical Research will offer an Italian Genealogical Research Practicum in October 2016. The practicum is for the intermediate researcher with some experience in Italian research.
The list below is not exhaustive but does provide important resources for a genealogist learning to work in Italian genealogical research.1 Several language resources are included.
Amadè, Luca Sarzi. L’Antenato Nel Cassetto: Manuale di Scienza Genealogica. Sesto San Giovanni, Milano, Italy: Mimesis Edizioni, 2015. This resource is in Italian and contains handwriting samples of abbreviations seen in documents written in Latin.
Battelli, Giulio. Lezioni di Paleografia. 4th ed., second printing. Città del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2007).
Bischoff, Bernhard. Paleografia Latina Antichita e Mediovo. 2nd ed., Italian translation. Padova, Italy: Editrice Antenore, 1986.
Cole, Trafford R. Italian Genealogical Records: How to Use Italian Civil, Ecclesiastical, & Other Records in Family History Research. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Incorporated, 1995.
Holtz, Melanie D. “Evaluating the Evidentiary Value of an Italian Record.” Finding Our Italian Roots Blog, 21 May 2015. http://italiangenealogyroots.blogspot.com/2015/05/evaluating-evidentiary-value-of-italian.html : 2016.
Holtz, Melanie D. “Genealogical Standards in Italian Genealogical Research, Genealogical Proof Standard (Part I).” Finding Our Italian Roots Blog, 23 November 2014. (http://italiangenealogyroots.blogspot.com/2014/11/genealogical-standards-in-italian_23.html : 2016.
Holtz, Melanie D. “Applying Genealogical Standards to Italian Genealogical Records.” Finding Our Italian Roots Blog, 17 November 2014. http://italiangenealogyroots.blogspot.com/2014/11/applying-genealogical-standards-to.html : 2016.
Holtz, Melanie D. “Adding Cultural Context to Your Family History.” Finding Our Italian Roots Blog, 29 July 2015. http://italiangenealogyroots.blogspot.com/2015/07/adding-cultural-context-to-your-family.html : 2016.
Mendola, Louis. Sicilian Genealogy and Heraldry. New York: Trinacria Editions, 2013.
1 The resources given in the first post on this subject have not been repeated.
The words Certified Genealogist are a registered certification mark, and the designations CG, CGL, and Certified Genealogical Lecturer are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, used under license by board certificants after periodic evaluation.