Italian Genealogy 101
Tracing your Italian ancestry is one of the greatest adventures you can ever undertake. You will find the road full of twists and turns and surprises. You will experience conflicting emotions — delight and disappointment; wonder and weariness; sentiment and sadness; exhilaration and embarrassment. But, as all roads lead to Rome, your Italian ancestry inevitably leads to you. It leads to the promise of who you are and what you can be. It is your own family history. It is about us.
But before you run off to beautiful Italy to research arcane Italian records, first do some homework. Verify your Italian ancestral town(s) and your ancestors’ original names. Remember that the name “Giuseppe” often became “Joseph” and “Vincenzo” sometimes became “Vincent” or “James”. This information may be preserved in family lore. So, interview your relatives. See if someone has knowledge of your Italian ancestral town or towns and other information about your family in Italy. Home sources, like old documents or letters from Italy; your grandmother’s Italian passport; notes on the backs of photos or in a diary, can also hold clues to your family’s origins in Italy.
Sometimes, though, the knowledge of our Italian ancestors’ origins is not known at home or within the family. In that case, please see this Finding Immigrant Origins post for ideas on researching this information.
After you have located your Italian ancestral town, you can begin delving into Italian records. Many Italian civil records can be found on Family History Library microfilm or online at www.familysearch.org or on the Italian website www.antenati.san.beniculturali.it. The time period for which these records are available depends on where in Italy your family is from. For example, civil registration in the Southern Italian region of Calabria began in 1809, whereas in the region of Emilia-Romagna it began in 1866. The existence of civil records in various parts of Italy relates directly to the history of a region or province and to the overall history of Italy.
If civil records are not available for the time period in which your ancestor was born, try locating a baptismal record (most commonly Roman Catholic) for your ancestor. When available, these records are held at the local parish church where the baptism took place. It is not always possible to request these records via email or telephone, so an onsite visit to Italy may be necessary.
Italian civil records for certain time periods are also available in the Archivio di Stato (Provincial Archive) in the province where your Italian ancestral town is located. Lastly, civil records can be found in Italian ancestral towns at the Ufficio Stato Civile (Office of Civil Records). This is the local office in every town responsible for both civil record keeping and conservation of historical civil records.
After exhausting the civil records for your Italian ancestors, there are many other resources in Italy to continue your family history research.
- Ecclesiastical records can date back to the 1500’s or 1600’s or even before. When available, these records are most commonly found at a local parish church, in a Diocesan Archive or in some cases on microfilm or online.
- Military conscription records. Following Italian unification in 1861, military service was required by each Italian male. These records are classified by city or town of birth and year of birth, and in many Italian areas date back to birth years 1840 – 1842. Historical draft records and military service records can typically be found at either the Archivio di Stato in the province where you ancestor lived.
- It is also possible in many areas to research using notary records (potentially containing land transactions, marriage contracts and other entries about your family); cemetery records; census equivalents (such as catasti, fogli di famiglia and other records); and many others.
It is a joy to research our Italian ancestry. And what a great reason for travelling to our magnificent ancestral homeland! Our Italian origins make us uniquely Italian-American. We are Italian by nature and heritage. Let’s preserve our special legacy through genealogical research, and then pass it forward to future generations.
— Mary Tedesco
How do you know if your ancestor was a free person of color?