Italy has a way of capturing your heart with its miles of vineyards, picturesque coastal towns, tranquil countryside, ancient ruins, stunning art and architecture, delicious foods (gelato, anyone?) and melodious music. If you have ancestry there, you may have cherished memories of a childhood in an Italian-American community or your nonna (grandmother) making pasta sauce. As you begin to unravel the stories of your ancestors, you’ll learn about the sacrifices they made to provide more opportunities for their children and grandchildren—opportunities that weren’t possible in the Italy they left behind.
Pinpointing Italian origins
The largest wave of Italian immigration to America occurred between 1876 and 1930, when nearly 5 million Italians entered through American ports. Poverty was often the motivating factor in an Italian’s decision to emigrate. Most immigrants were from southern Italy and Sicily (Sicilia, to Italians), which tended to be the poorest areas of the country. More immigrants came from Sicily’s Palermo (also Palermo in Italian) province than from any other province on the island.
Immerse yourself in Italian Genealogy Research with Italian Genealogy 101.
Italians often settled in large communities in US cities such as New York City, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans. Each of these cities had an area that became known as Little Italy, often with those from a particular town or province living in close proximity to each other. Italians call this sense of identity and pride in one’s birthplace campanilismo.
To help narrow the choices of ancestral towns, use the Comuni.Italiani website. For example, let’s say that your ancestor’s immigration manifest says he was born in Polizzi and the ship he sailed on left from Palermo. On Comuni.Italiani, you can search for all towns beginning with or named Polizzi. The only possibility is Polizzi Generosa, a town in the Palermo province of Sicily. Sometimes you’ll find multiple towns starting with a certain name.
Take, for example, Santo Stefano. At least eight towns in Italy begin with these two names. Knowing the immigrant departed from Genoa could help tremendously to narrow the list of towns in which to begin your research.
Unpuzzling Italian places Once you know the town of origin, you can discover the civil and religious jurisdictions that created your Italian family’s genealogical records. Italian civil jurisdictions include:
Town/city (Comune/cittá): The designation of a place as a comune or cittá is similar to an American town or city, and is determined by population numbers. Within a comune or cittá, you’ll find the common subcategories of frazione (a hamlet or village) and quartiere (neighborhood). These areas were under the jurisdiction of the town or city to which they belonged. Sometimes the hamlet where your ancestor was born is the location he gave as his birthplace or last residence when booking passage to America.
Province (Provincia): An Italian province is similar to a US county. Currently, Italy has 110 provinces. Each province has a provincial/state archive (archivio di stato) in its capital city (capoluogo). The name of the archive usually corresponds with the provincial name. Therefore, you’ll find the archivio di stato for the province of Reggio Calabria in the capital city of Reggio Calabria; it’s named the Archivio di Stato di Reggio Calabria. You can send record requests to these archives, but they won’t do extensive research for you. Their websites often contain databases or documents detailing their collections.
Region (Regione): Italy has 20 regions. Five of these regions—Sicily, Sardinia, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Aosta Valley and Fruili Venezia Giulia—are relatively autonomous and have their own legal statutes by which they govern.
For finding church records, an important resource in the predominantly Catholic country of Italy, you’ll also want to determine the parish and diocese your ancestor lived in:
Parish (Parrocchia): The local parish is where your ancestors attended services, baptized their children and married. Smaller towns may have only one or two parishes; larger cities could have dozens. If your ancestors come from a large city, find out what neighborhood they resided in. This will help you narrow the choices of which parishes you’ll need to research.
Some civil records provide an address where the family resided and can be used to determine the neighborhood. To find a town’s parishes, check the official website of the Catholic Church in Italy as well as the parish search engine site. Keep in mind these websites list active parishes, and you may find that your ancestor’s parish is no longer in use. In some towns, all old records are consolidated in the Mother Church (Chiesa Madre), cathedral (Duomo) or cathedral (Cattedrale).
Diocese (Diocese): A group of parishes in an ecclesiastical district is called a diocese. Each diocese has a diocesan archives (Archivio Diocesano/Archivio Storico Diocesano). Marriage dispensations and records of closed parishes are often in the diocesan archives. Few of these records are online, but most you can access in person, by appointment.
Occasionally, certain records will be held in an archive at the Archdiocese. One example of this is the diocesan archive at the Archdiocese of Lucca, which has parish birth, marriage and death records dating back to 1740.
Understanding civil records
Italy doesn’t have a single archive that’s comparable to the US National Archives and Records Administration, so genealogical records are most accessible at the provincial or town level. Birth, marriage and death records are some of the most useful for Italian research.
Italian archives categorize civil registrations into three different groups, depending on location and/or time period:
- Napoleonic civil records (Stato Civile Napoleoico) were kept between 1804 and 1815. Many areas of northern Italy ceased civil registration in 1815 and didn’t begin again until 1866.
- Restoration Civil Records (Stato Civile della Restaurazione, also called Stato Civile Borbonico or Bourbon civil records) were mainly kept in the area known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies between 1809 (1820 in Sicily) to 1865.
- Italian civil records (Stato Civile Italiano) generally encompass all civil registrations after 1866 or the Unification of Italy. Two sets of civil records were created at the time of a birth, marriage or death. One set is held in the town hall (municipio), where you can generally find them in the civil records office (ufficio dello stato civile). The registry office (anagrafe) often contains town and federal census records, but accessing those records is difficult because they’re available only when researching on site. In smaller towns, the ufficio dello stato civile and anagrafe offices may be combined. Most Italian town halls have websites where you can find the address of the civil records office to request records.
The second set of civil records was sent to the district court (tribunale) at the end of each year. They’re held there for 70 years, at which time they’re transferred to the provincial/state archives. For privacy reasons, Italy restricts civil records access to 70 years after the creation of the record. The following are the types of civil records you’ll want to look for:
- Birth records: In the birth certificate (atto di nascita), you’ll find the person’s date of birth, the baptismal date (before about 1865), and the names, ages, occupation(s) and residence of the parents, among other information.
- Marriage records: Italians kept four types of marriage documents: banns (atto di pubblicazioni/notificazioni), act of solemn promise to celebrate marriage (atto di sollene promessa di celebrare il matrimonio), records (atto di matrimonio) and supplemental documents (processetti/allegati).
Marriage banns usually provide information about the names, ages, occupations and places of residence of the couple and their parents. Sometimes you will find more information in the banns than in the marriage record. Prior to about 1865, marriage banns may contain two or three parts; after 1865 they usually are in a single document.
The act of solemn promise to celebrate marriage is a promise to marry, not the actual marriage document. The couple filed their banns and marriage promise civilly, then proceeded to marry in the church. Information about the names, ages, occupations and places of residence of the couple and their parents are provided. The date of the couple’s marriage was subsequently added to this document. You’ll find this document for pre-1866 records in most parts of Italy, in the same places birth records are kept.
The marriage record is often available only after 1866, when the civil marriage record became the legal one. It provides the names, ages, occupations and places of residence of the couple and their parents. Supplemental documents had to be attached to the marriage documents, potentially providing information on three to four generations of your family tree.
Supplemental documents included the couple’s birth or baptismal records. If any parents were deceased at the time of the marriage, their death records would likely be attached. If the father was deceased, the grandfather would appear to give permission, or his death record would be also attached.
- Death records: A death certificate (atto di morti/morte) provides the date, place and time of a person’s death. Often neighbors, not relatives, reported a person’s death. These are kept in the same places as birth and marriage documents.
- Other civil records: A “historical state of the family certificate” (stato di famiglia storico) records the vital statistics of a whole family. The certificate is a compiled record, meaning it was created from other records at the time of the request. Town population registers (registri di popolazione) or schedules (scheda) were often used to compile these documents. These are usually in town archives, but they may be at the provincial archive. A certificate of family status (certificato di Stato di Famiglia) is a residency certificate providing details about a person’s residence in a certain town. Italian consulates often request this document when a person seeks dual Italian-American citizenship. The certificates are typically available from the town registry office.
Studying church records
Catholic church records will figure big into your Italian research. Parishes and/or diocese hold most records. A few diocesan archives’ websites to explore include the Diocesan Archives of Vittorio Veneto and Diocesan Archives of Lodi. These websites often give the address of the archive for requesting records, operating hours and limited information on their holdings.
Church records begin earlier than civil registrations in Italy. You’ll find that many church records were written in Latin, rather than Italian. A translation resource can help you interpret these records. Once you’ve identified your ancestor’s the parish or diocese, you can search for baptismal, birth, confirmation, marriage, death/burial and parish census records.
- Baptismal records (Battesimi): Baptismal records document the date of baptism, parents’ names (although the mother’s surname is usually not given) and the names of their godparents. From 1815 to 1865, some dioceses in northern Italy chose to record both birth and baptismal records after the government ceased civil registration, so an ecclesiastical birth record may be available for that time period. Exact titles for these records vary.
- Confirmation records (Cresima/Confirmazione): Confirmation records are often found for children between ages 8 and 12. The records contain the child’s name, age, father’s name and date of confirmation. Few of these records have been microfilmed or digitized.
- Marriage records (Matrimonio): These documents serve as proof of the couple’s marriage within the Church. Parents’ names are not always included.
- Death/burial records (Sepolture): Depending on the age of the record, it may read more like a burial record than a death record. These records are usually very minimal, providing only the name, date of death and sacraments given.
- “State of the Souls” (Status Animarun/Stato delle Anime): Essentially a parish census, this is a wonderful source of genealogical information. These documents are especially helpful in areas of Italy that ceased civil registration from 1815 to 1865. Vital statistics of whole family units were recorded, as well any sacraments they received. In Sicily, these records include less information and were called the Riveli di Beni ed Anime.
Mastering military records
Military records might exist for male ancestors born after about 1850, although conscription wasn’t universally enforced until 1865. They were kept by province and military district, rather than by town. These records are useful when you know your ancestor’s province of origin, but not the town. They’re at the provincial/state archives. Military records include:
- Extraction Lists (liste di estrazione) were kept in most areas of Italy between 1855 and 1911, and recorded an ancestor’s name in the order in which his number was assigned in the military “toss.” These records are sometimes difficult to find but may help to clarify information on an ancestor, especially when there is record loss.
- Conscription records (liste di leva, also called registro di leva) may include the man’s name, date and place of birth, current residence, occupation, parents’ names and even a physical description. You also can usually find information on whether the soldier was deemed eligible to serve and the regiment he was assigned to.
- Service records (ruoli matricolari or registri dei foglio matricolari) recorded a soldier’s regiment, military campaigns, injuries sustained and medals earned.
- Discharge papers (foglio di Congedo Illimitato) document a soldier’s discharge from the Italian military, and may include service information. Immigrants often brought these papers with them to the United States as proof that they had already served their time in the military, in case they were conscripted again.
Accessing Italian genealogy records
Many provincial/state archives have been digitizing records for years. Often they began with military conscription records, the focus of research requests from around the world. For example, the Cosenza province’s digitization project is one of the largest and is free for anyone to view after registering with the website. The Gorizia province has a PDF index to service records and a searchable database of conscription records.
Ancestry.com has more than 150 databases of Italian records, including civil registrations. Most of these records are separated by town and province, but some have been combined and indexed into databases by record type. A few other databases of interest include Italy Historical Postcards, Order Sons of Italy in America Lodge Records and Order Sons of Italy in America Mortuary Fund Claims.
For immigration records, search for New York arrivals in an index to Castle Garden records (1820–1892) or in Ellis Island records (1892–1924). You also can search immigration records for other large ports such as Philadelphia and Boston on FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com. Some Italians also are listed in Ancestry.com’s “New South Wales, Australia, Unassisted Immigrant Passenger Lists” database.
If you can’t find records online or on microfilm, you’ll need to request them from an Italian archives or parish. Write in Italian; our letter-writing guide will help you. Don’t send money for postage unless it’s requested. Include your email address in your letter, and the recipient will let you know if you must send postage before the request is fulfilled. To request military records, write to the provincial archives. For church records, write to the parish or diocesan archives. For civil registrations, write to the municipio or town hall (use the Comuni-Italiani website to find the sito ufficiale or official website of the commune). Ancestry.com’s Italian website also has a free list of the archives with their contact information.
If you reach a brick wall, don’t be shy to ask for help on Italian genealogical websites or blogs. Someone who reads your question may have just the answer you are looking for. A professional genealogist from the Association of Professional Genealogists, the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists or the Board for Certification of Genealogists who specializes in Italian research may also be able to help you and offer suggestions that will enable you to move your research forward. Buona fortuna (good luck) in your research.
Italy is a rather young nation, having been formed from multiple city-states in the 1860s. This means you’ll find differences in cultural mores and spoken dialects from one area of Italy to another. As you delve into Italian research, you’ll need to learn Italian genealogical terms and numbers to find and understand the records. You also may need to know a bit of Latin to decipher parish records.
• About.com Italian Numbers
• Ancestry.com: Italian Genealogy Terms—Occupations
• Corriere Della Serra/Dizionari (Dictionary)
• FamilySearch: Italian Birth Document Translation
• FamilySearch: Italy Language and Languages
• Italian Extraction Guide
• Italian Genealogy Letters
• Italian Occupations
• Italian Occupations A-Z and the English Equivalents
Italian Genealogy Toolkit
• Ancestors Portal (Portale Antenati)
• Archivio di Stato di Cosenza Records Search
• Archivio di Stato di Gorizia: Liste di Leva Search
• Digital History: Italian Immigration
• FamilySearch: Italian Records and Research
• Immigrant Ancestors Project: Napoli and Torino Passport Requests
• Italian Genealogical Group
• Italian Genealogical Society of America
• Italian Genealogy Home Page
• Library of Congress: Italian Immigration
• RootsWeb Mailing Lists
• Transcribed Vital Records of Italian Towns
• Understanding Italy
• Discovering Your Italian Ancestors: How to Find and Record Your Unique Heritage by Lynn Nelson (Betterway Books)
• Finding Italian Roots by John Philip Colletta (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
• Finding Your Italian Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide by Suzanne Russo Adams (Ancestry)
• Italian-American Family History: A Guide to Researching and Writing About Your Heritage by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
• Italian Genealogical Records: How to Use Italian Civil, Ecclesiastical and Other Records in Family History Research by Trafford R. Cole (Ancestry)
1796: Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of France, gains control of most of what’s now Italy
1806: Napoleon requires civil registration in most areas of Italy
1814-1815: Civil registration ends in most of northern Italy, but continues south of Roma
1820: Sicilia begins civil registration
1858-1859: Most of northern Italy becomes part of the Kingdom of Sardinia
1860-1862: Southern Italy and Sicilia are freed from French rule
1861-1866: Italian Unification unites all areas of Italy, except for Roma and the Venezia region
1865: Military conscription of men age 18 and older begins
1866: Region of Venezia becomes part of Italy; civil registration in Italy is required again
1871: Italian capital moves from Torino to Roma; Roma begins keeping civil registrations
1911: The first government census to name all family members is taken
1915-18: Cities of Trentino and Trieste become part of Italy
1929: Italian government recognizes church marriage records
1946: Italians vote to establish a Republican constitution
1970: Divorce becomes legal
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• A Genealogist’s Guide to Italian Names download
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A version of this article appeared in the October/November 2014 of Family Tree Magazine.