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Italian Research
– Suzanne Russo

I am Italian-American. My great-grandfather Matteo Russo was a fisherman from Trappeto, a small town of 3,000 inhabitants on the northern coast of Sicily. A few years ago, I visited my ancestral town and wondered what life was like for my grandfather all those years ago. I sat on a large rock gazing out at the ocean just as the sun was setting and the lights from the fishing boats were growing brighter in the dusk of the evening. Someone once told me that after I visited Italy, my heart would be in two places forever. That evening, I began to believe that it might be true.

It is important to understand the history, culture, and language of your Italian ancestors in order to discover the trail of records they may have left behind. Most Italian research can be performed using records at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, but understanding the people you are researching can make finding and analyzing those genealogical resources easier, whether they are microfilmed records or documents located in the parishes and archives of Italy.

Place of Origin
It is important to begin your Italian research (whether at home or abroad) with a place of origin. Understanding when and why your Italian ancestor left Italy may help to shed light on his or her town of origin. The years 1880 to 1920 were record years for Italian immigration to the United States. A vast majority of these immigrants came from southern Italy, or an area commonly referred to as the mezzogiorno. They came for many different reasons, but most were seeking a better life in a new world.

For some Italian-Americans, their ancestors’ points of immigration to the United States are recent enough that they know the town, province, and region their family came from. But for some researchers, the task is not that easy. Many immigrants identified themselves by their town (comune) and province (provinicia) before they identified themselves with the nation-state of Italy. Some immigrants may even have named their frazione (fraction or hamlet) if they were from a larger city such as Rome, Naples, or Palermo. Immigrants remained loyal to the local body rather than the national body because Italy was not fully unified until 1871. It is, therefore, not uncommon to hear Italians referring to themselves as Genoese, Neapolitan, Sicilians, Tuscans, Venetians, and so forth.

Clues to the origin of your Italian ancestors may be found in your own home. When I began studying my ancestors on my grandmother’s side, I asked my relatives if they had any information that documented the lives of our immigrant ancestors. My father had a copy of a will that was sent to my great-grandfather Bartolomeo Gambino from Carini, Sicily shortly after my great-great-grandfather died in 1918. The document listed names of ancestors that helped create a research link from the United States to the records in the civil and parish archives of my ancestral hometown.

My grandmother had several tapes of an oral history, letters from family members in Italy, and a passport, all of which helped me locate the exact place of origin for another ancestor. Besides the sources already mentioned, home sources can include birth, marriage, and death certificates, family Bibles, journals, obituaries, passenger lists, photos, naturalization papers, military service records, and many other records.

Begin Your Research
Once the place of origin has been established, it is important to look at historical and modern gazetteers, maps, and atlases to understand the civil, court, ecclesiastical, or military jurisdiction to which your ancestor belonged. These jurisdictions provide clues to where certain records may be located.

I have ancestors from both Trappeto and Carini, Sicily. Before I began researching Italian records, I had already determined that these ancestors came from towns in the province of Palermo on the island of Sicily. But when I searched for these towns in a gazetteer and atlas, I was surprised to find two listings for a town of Carini and four listings for Trappeto. It is important to know both the town and province of origin, as there may be several towns with the same name, each located in a different province.

One of the most useful tools for correctly identifying the place of origin is the Nuovo Dizionario dei comuni e frazioni di comuni, a gazetteer of communities and hamlets in Italy. This gazetteer provides very valuable information, such as military and court jurisdictions. It is available on film or in book form at the Family History Library.

For information on Catholic ecclesiastical jurisdictions, use the Annuario delle Diocesi d’Italia. This church directory gives an alphabetical listing of towns and names of Catholic parishes in each town, as well as the diocese to which the town belongs.

Other maps and historical atlases may be found in public or university libraries. Consult the LDS Research Outline for more ideas on geographical research tools. The outline is available at familysearch.org.

Local History
To learn more about how and where your ancestors lived, read general histories of Italy from your local or university library. You may be able to find specific books about regions of Italy or even towns in Italy through interlibrary loan. Or there may be a Web site for your ancestral town. I found a Web site for the town of Carini that had useful information about the town’s history. While I was lucky to find English translations on this particular site, remember that a majority of the pertinent Web sites will be in Italian.

Language
The Italian language, as it is spoken and written today, was not known or understood among the general population of Italy until the late 1800s and early 1900s. Most Italians spoke the dialects of their regions and towns. Even today, it is not uncommon to speak a specific dialect at home, and to learn modern Italian in the schools, hear it on radio and television, and use it in business transactions.

It is important to consider the diversity of language when searching for records in Italy. The two predominant languages are Latin and Italian. Most church records are written in Latin, and most civil records are written in Italian. Also, depending on the area, records may have influences of French, German, Spanish, and a variety of other languages. On a visit to the military archive in Naples, I was not surprised to find records written in Spanish, because I knew about Spain’s dominance of southern Italy for several centuries. Understanding the history of the area can be very beneficial to understanding the records.

Naming Patterns
The given and surname patterns of your Italian ancestors may help distinguish them from other individuals with the same name. In Italy, a couple’s first son was traditionally named after the paternal grandfather. The second son was named after the maternal grandfather, the first daughter was named after the paternal grandmother, and the second daughter was named after the maternal grandmother. If a couple had more than four children, they may have chosen names of aunts, uncles, cousins, or close friends for the succeeding children.

If a child died in infancy, a couple may have named their next baby the same name to preserve the naming patterns. For example, my great-grandfather Bartolomeo Gambino, who was born in March of 1878, was not the first Bartolomeo in his immediate family. He had an older brother named Bartolomeo who died shortly before my great-grandfather was born. Knowing these naming patterns will help you to determine whether the person you discover is your ancestor or his or her sibling who may have died in infancy.

Also, the history of a surname can yield important ancestral clues. Italian surnames can be derived from geographical areas, animal names, occupations, nicknames, kinship names, or a variety of other things. Two helpful books for determining the origin of a surname are Joseph Fucilla’s Our Italian Surnames (GPC, 1996) and Andrea Malossini’s Cognomi Italiani (aVallordi, 1997).

Some surnames are found only in specific regions or towns of Italy. Web sites such as Ancestry.com have made the Italy White Pages available online. While these databases list persons currently living in Italy, they are a valuable way of determining the location of particular surnames. Another good Web site to check is www.gens.labo.net. This site shows the distribution of surnames on a map by region.

Geography
For the most part, families in Italy traditionally remained in the same geographic area. The peninsula shape of the country, along with the Apennine and Alps mountain ranges, which cover a large portion of the land, create a unique geographic environment. While there are several coastal cities in Italy that allowed for a mobile community, a majority of the inhabitants of the land remained fairly immobile. Towns were often built on the tops of mountains as a defense against opposing forces. Therefore, many communities were isolated from neighboring towns, which helps to explain the different foods, clothing styles, and dialects found throughout Italy.

Research in Italian Records
Once you’ve established a firm background in U.S. records, located the exact place of origin, and studied the history, culture, and language of the area, it’s time to search the actual records. Some of the most common records used in tracing Italian family histories are civil registration records and church records. These are the best record sets to use when beginning your research in Italian records; however, your research should not be limited solely to these two record groups.

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has microfilmed many of the Italian civil registration records, some church records, and various other records. Check the Family History Library Catalog to determine if records for your ancestral commune, province, and region are available on microfilm.

Archives
Civil records dating from the pre-unification of Italy are located in the provincial or state archive. For state archives, the Italian cultural ministry has a Web site at www.archivi.beniculturali.it. The Web site provides hours of operation, location, and other important information for each state archive in Italy. It also provides a copy of the general guide to Italian archives, which lists record types and year spans covered by those records. This general guide is by no means a comprehensive guide to each state archive; other published and unpublished guides may be used to find out what information is contained in the communal, or state archive of your ancestor. Some state, communal, and church archives publish a guide for their individual archives, giving much more detail about the actual holdings. Other less equipped archives only have a copy of their guides on hand at the archive. I have been successful in finding several guides to Italian archives in U.S. libraries. For a small fee, you can access these guides at your local public or university library through interlibrary loan. Records seventy-five years or older are considered public records and are generally kept in the state/provincial archive.

Civil Registration Records (1804—66)
Civil registration records (birth, marriage, and death) are divided into two main sections, in relation to the leadership dates of Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoleon annexed large portions of Italy, he began the process of keeping civil records. Therefore, the Napoleonic records date between 1804 and 1815. The earliest civil records in Italy begin anywhere from 1804, in Piedmont, to 1806, in Veneto and Lombardia, but may not be found in Sardinia or in areas where Napoleon did not rule. These records are kept in each Italian state archive, which is usually located in the major city of the province.

When Napoleon lost power in 1815, most areas under his control stopped keeping civil registers. However, in other areas such as Veneto, Trento-Alto-Adige, and parts of Lombardia, parish priests kept a separate civil registration. Post-Napoleonic records date from 1809 to 1865.

In the area known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which extends from Naples and Campania down through Sicily, there is some variation in years, but generally the recordkeeping years are consistent. For Tuscany, Abruzzo, Naples, Campania, and farther southward, these records were generally kept from 1809—65. In Sicily, Napoleonic-like records span from 1820—65. Because there was no central government in Italy at this time, there was no one to monitor whether or not a civil register was kept and how thoroughly they were kept; however, if they are available for your particular town of interest, they can yield valuable information on ancestral births, marriages, and deaths.

Civil Registration Records (1866 to present)
Registration of civil records by the Italian government began between 1860 and 1871, when the country was united. In most areas, the records began in 1866 and extend to the present. These records are kept in the local registrar’s office (anagrafe) of the town in which your ancestor lived. These records are generally not open to the public for perusal unless the records are over seventy-five years old. (Even then, a researcher must also have written permission from either a provincial authority or the mayor of the town to view the records.)

If a researcher supplies a name and exact date, he or she can request documents from the registrar’s office. Officials are often busy and do not have time to fill requests for extensive research. When requesting a record, it is best to ask for either a photocopy of the original or an extract of the document. Most offices will send only a certificate copy, which does not provide as much detail as the photocopy or extract. There is usually a fee (which varies from town to town) required for this service.

Church Records
The Roman Catholic church is the predominate religion in Italy. While there are other religions such as Waldensian, Eastern or Greek Orthodox, etc., the majority of genealogical research takes place in the Catholic parish and diocese records. In 1563, reforms brought about by the Council of Trent required priests to keep records of baptisms, marriages, and deaths. This decree was reinforced by a Papal proclamation in 1595. Generally, church records begin during the mid- to late-1500s, but for cities such as Palermo, the records begin in the 1300s.

Each parish priest has the custodial rights for the records of his parish. Access to records is given under the discretion of the parish priest. Most church records are still located in the parish in which they were created, unless the church was destroyed by war. However, after the 1900s, duplicate church records were sent to the diocesan archives.

Besides baptism, marriage, and death records, you may also find records of confirmations and first communions, and church census records, known as stato delle anime (state of the souls). These records provide valuable information about your ancestors names and dates, and the places they lived. In some cases, they also provide the names of godparents and witnesses who were often close friends or relatives. Again, these records are usually written in Latin, but can also be found in modern Italian or the local dialect.

Researching Italian records can be very rewarding. And learning more about the history, culture, and language of your ancestors can help you find, analyze, and decipher the old records. More important, this knowledge can help bring your ancestors’ stories to life. After visiting Italy and performing research there, my heart truly is divided between both of my "homes."

Suzanne Russo, AG, specializes in Italian research. She is a Brigham Young University graduate with degrees in sociology and family history/genealogy.


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