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Introduction to Italian Genealogy

In its most general sense, genealogy refers to the study of family history, while including such related fields as ethnology, onomatology and --in fewer cases-- heraldry. It is important to bear in mind that genealogy forms part of the framework of general history. The best genealogist is a competent historian, but also a good detective. While a knowledge of such topics as kinship, languages, paleography and canon law are important, the non-professional family historian cannot be expected to learn everything about these subjects. For the majority of Italian descendants embarking upon the quest for ancestral knowledge, the most important thing to know is where to obtain the necessary assistance as it is required. That is the purpose of this page --to provide you with the means to chart your course to the path of discovery of your Italian ancestors. In other words, to offer you a starting point.

Unfortunately, Italian genealogical authors do not speak with a unified voice when it comes to research strategies, and many do not possess a genuine knowledge of Italian history --hence the redundant repetition of the Garibaldi myth and many similar misconceptions, some of which may adversely influence the family historian's perspective. An example of this is the impression that the Italian North was always wealthier than the South, and that this economic disparity prompted millions of southerners to emigrate. In fact, Naples was the most prosperous and populous of the Italian cities until its annexation to the new Kingdom of Italy in 1860. The second wealthiest Italian city of that era was not Rome, Turin or Milan, but Palermo. It was partly because of the North's relative poverty that most Italians to emigrate before circa 1880 were from northern regions. Around that period, the artificially bolstered economy of the Kingdom of Italy began to favor the North at the expense of the South, and by 1900 most emigrants were from the South, which by then was less industrialized than the North.

History and Culture in Your Genealogy

As you begin to research your Italian roots, it is worth visiting your local bookstore and public library to obtain a few books that will aid your efforts at placing your ancestors into their proper historical context. (Some useful publications on Italian genealogical research methods are mentioned in Understanding Italian Records below.) Medieval and modern history are most important, and highly recommended. No single work is perfect, but many are worth reading. The books by Dennis Mack Smith are reliable, though they reflect some foreign biases. Sir Harold Acton authored some fine works on the Kingdom of Naples; those by Benedetto Croce on the same topic are a bit fanciful. John Julius Norwich and Steven Runciman wrote landmark works on medieval history. Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard, though fictional, provides profound insights into nineteenth-century southern Italian society. Gerre Mangione and Gay Talese have written about the Italian immigrant experience in the United States, with extensive research in Italy. Luigi Barzini's unsurpassed works on Italian attitudes are indispensable, and Claire Sterling's book on organized crime is a virtual window into the attitudes which shaped today's South. Works dealing with the Austrian Empire are invaluable to any study of Tirolean history; it is easier to learn about your ancestors' lifestyles when you know more about the region where they lived. Don't neglect local history, either.

Accuracy in Italian genealogical research depends on many things, the most important of which is a knowledge of the Italian language. This enables you to interpret records more easily, and allows you to read Italian historical works that are not available in English translation. An evening course is an excellent way to start learning Italian. It is worth mentioning that a knowledge of regional dialects is sometimes useful, but most Italian records are written in [Tuscan] Italian and Latin. Nevertheless, regional considerations might argue your studying a language other than Italian-French for some Piedmontese records, German for certain Tirolean records, etc.

Ethnology is the comparative social science that examines such things as customs, clothing, religion, cuisine, music and language. It distinguishes Italians from Japanese, and Americans from Australians. Because "Italy" has existed as a nation state only since circa 1860, ethnological factors also serve to distinguish Tuscans from Sicilians, Lombards from Calabrians, and Sardinians from Apulians. Ethnology is what makes your Piedmontese ancestors Piedmontese, and your Sicilian ancestors Sicilian. The way your ancestors worshipped, dressed, worked, and named their children reflect ethnological characteristics. Ethnological norms help us to know the remote ancestors we could never meet. These generalities are not "stereotypes."

Yes, stereotypes certainly exist, but many of these relate to factors other than history. For example, there exists a stereotype of Italians as having dark hair and eyes, and "olive" complexions, as though blond-haired, blue-eyed Italians were anomalous, especially in the South. In fact, there are many Italians who have light eyes and blond or red hair-especially in the South, which in the Middle Ages was ruled by Normans who bore these physical traits. Another frequent stereotype is the premise that all Italian immigrants in the Americas were impoverished or illiterate. While many certainly were victims of such conditions, many others were solidly middle-class (skilled craftsmen, merchants, et al.); some may have been perceived as "illiterate" simply because they couldn't read or write English. Corollary to this misperception is the stereotype of nineteenth-century Italians as landless peasants, when in fact most families owned a house and at least a small parcel of land; we know this because census and land records (known as catasti and rivelli in Italian) dating back to the sixteenth century are replete with references to the land holdings of ordinary Italians.

However, in the interest of discouraging what are perceived as "negative" stereotypes of Italians, a number of organizations (particularly in North America) prefer to foster their own notions of what constitutes "Italian" identity, and their ideas do not always reflect historical or sociological fact. The Italian monarchy, the Mafia, the Pact of Steel, and silver-haired Italian octogenarian widows dressed in black are just a few of the realities that the more outspoken members of such organizations would like to see banished from the Italian historical landscape. (The Americans who espouse these attitudes might benefit from a few weeks of banishment to rural Italy, where they could observe real Italian ethnology firsthand.) Don't let them banish genuine Italian culture from your family history project, and don't let them tell you who or what your Italian ancestors were!

Getting Started With Domestic Records

Unlike most historical disciplines, genealogical research usually commences in the present and works backward toward the past. Initially, you must establish your Italian ancestor's precise date and place of birth or marriage in Italy if you wish to proceed to establish a lineage. Along the way, you might discover other interesting information pertaining to their settlement in a new country. However, your primary objective is to determine accurate biographical details that will facilitate research in Italian records. You may already know where and when the Italian ancestor was born. If so, immigration information may still be interesting as family historical knowledge. Before you consult microfilmed immigration records, old census records and steamship passenger lists, question older family members regarding details of your ancestors' lives in Italy. Their recollections may not be accurate in every case, but fundamental information relating to geography could save you a lot of time and effort. It is also worth knowing where an ancestor was naturalized. In the United States, naturalization records are retained at local courts; under normal conditions, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) can tell you whether a person was naturalized, but not necessarily where.

Introduction to Italian Records

Since much has been written about various, notary, census and military records, even if some of it is in serious error, it is necessary to clarify the extent to which the genealogist should rely upon these documents. The primary records to be consulted in Italian genealogical research are acts of birth, baptism and marriage. Acts of death, though they may be considered "primary" records, are less reliable that acts of birth and marriage; atti diversi relate to extraordinary events, such as delayed registration of births. In most southern regions (the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies), vital statistics acts date from the early 1800s, and this is also true of certain northern localities. Elsewhere (in most of the former Kingdom of Sardinia, the Papal States, etc.), such civil records were instituted only around 1860. Civil (vital statistics) records are invaluable; they typically include professions, approximate ages, and other information unavailable in the older primary records consulted by the genealogist-namely, parochial acts. However, the absence of vital statistics records means that we must, in any event, rely upon parochial records for periods before circa 1800. Parochial census records (stato delle anime) rarely exist, local census records (stato di famiglia), when these exist, usually relate only to the late nineteenth century. Under most conditions, secondary records serve to provide particular details which might be lacking elsewhere, or to explain familial lifestyle (assets, professions, etc.). Secondary records (land and census assessments, military service records, heraldic-nobiliary records, etc.), when these exist, should be viewed as "primary records" only when the aforementioned parochial and vital statistics records do not exist, have not been preserved, or are otherwise unavailable for consultation.

Unavailable? Access to parochial archives in Italy is notoriously difficult, and comparatively few such records will ever be microfilmed. In some cases, obtaining access to these archives is a bureaucratic exercise requiring months or even years of negotiation. Inundated with postal requests for free genealogical assistance, overworked Italian pastors are reluctant to spend their time entertaining the needs of researchers, or even responding to most letters.

Certain vital statistics records have been microfilmed, and may be available to you through the auspices of the LDS Church (Mormons) via a family history center. Obviously, this presumes that you can read the records in question. Even if you can, the typical researcher must bridge the gap between the birth of an immigrant ancestor (circa 1890, for example) and the 1860s, the most recent period for which microfilmed vital statistics records are typically available. This may necessitate contacting the vital statistics office of your ancestor's home town for information that would facilitate such research. Although they are generally unwilling to conduct actual research, vital statistics officials might provide you with an extract of the act of birth (including parentage) of an ancestor if you furnish them with a precise name and date. Privacy laws preclude their issuing contemporary certificates (for persons still living) to third parties.

In Italy, vital statistics records, for localities where these exist, may be consulted directly at a regional Archive of State, which is usually based in a provincial capital. However, you should speak some Italian if you hope to communicate with the archival staff, and you should ensure that the records of interest to you are retained at the archive in question. Remember that Italian hours and holidays differ from American ones.

Transcription and Translation of Records

Theree are various documents you will encounter in Italian genealogical research --either in original or microfilm records. These records vary by region and period, and are usually written in Italian or Latin, though a few are recorded in German or even Greek, and may incorporate phrases in regional dialects. A degree of knowledge and practice is needed to render accurate transcriptions and translations.

Two formats are employed in the presentation of pedigrees. The traditional agnate (patrilineal) format shown concentrates on lineage through your father's father's father, etc. This may include collaterals (siblings) in some generations, but except for spouses every individual indicated will be of the same family and bear the same surname. In the seize quartier (multilineal) format preferred by many American genealogists, every ancestral lineage is indicated in each generation; in other words, the father and mother of each ancestor, ad infinitum. Patrilineal genealogies are usually more profound than multilineal ones.

Special Topics

Numerous topics relating to Italian genealogy constitute specialized studies in themselves.

Onomatology, the study of proper name origins, is usually pursued with regard to surnames. (Unfortunately, some of the standard compilations in this field include numerous errors, such as incorrectly-attributed etymologies.) The greatest shortcoming of the generic onomastic reports sold for $20.00 or so is that they fail to account for the differences between Italy's regional dialects; a certain surname encountered in Val d'Aosta might have a different origin and meaning in Sardinia, i.e. being homonymous. For example, the Piedmontese surname Alba is toponymic, based upon the name of a town, while the Sicilian surname Alba means sunrise.

Non-Catholic church records, including Jewish and Waldensian acts, may be interesting, but they pertain to fewer than one per cent of Italians. Most of the Orthodox Christian churches in modern Italy, such as those in the various Albanian communities founded throughout the South around 1500, soon became Roman Catholic parishes of the Byzantine Rite.

Heraldry, the study of aristocratic traditions and coats of arms, relates to very few Italian families. Unless an ancestor was a nobleman, he was not entitled to a coat of arms, no matter that certain unscrupulous heraldic and genealogical agencies would like you to believe otherwise. Genealogy is essential in heraldic studies because it is the vehicle by which aristocratic lineages, and thus heraldic claims, are established.

Lineages of adopted children and children born outside marriage can sometimes be traced, although each case is unique. In some instances, a father legally recognized paternity of his child born outside marriage, even though he never wed the child's mother. There are circumstances in which such information can be discovered, but success depends greatly upon which records have been preserved.

Two formats are employed in the presentation of pedigrees. The traditional agnate (patrilineal) format concentrates on lineage through your father's father's father, etc. This may include collaterals (siblings) in some generations, but except for spouses every individual indicated will be of the same family and bear the same surname. In the sieze quartier (multilineal) format preferred by some American genealogists, every ancestral lineage is indicated in each generation; in other words, the father and mother of each ancestor, ad infinitum. Patrilineal genealogies are usually more profound than multilineal ones.

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