Embarking on Italian Genealogy: An Introduction to Tracing Your Italian Ancestry

Genealogy refers to the study of family history and related fields such as ethnology, onomatology and heraldry. However, it must also be remembered that genealogy forms part of general history. Genealogist should be both historian and detective. A genealogist with expertise should possess knowledge about topics like kinship, languages, paleography and canon law; however, non-professional family historians cannot be expected to acquire all this information themselves. Italian descendants on their quest for ancestral knowledge should know where they can obtain assistance when needed. This concise guide offers sound advice that should help chart a course to discovering your Italian ancestry and guide their search process.

There is a need to provide people with easy and fast ways to learn something new, but we all understand the need for safety when driving is there. So it is time for some real progress with education as an integral component. Unfortunately, Italian genealogical authors do not share a consistent voice when it comes to research strategies; many do not possess genuine knowledge of Italian history –hence repeating myths such as Garibaldi’s “fateful voyage,” which could potentially alter family historian’s perspectives and potentially distort perspectives of other authors. An illustration of this can be seen by looking at Italy, where many believe the North was always more prosperous than its southern regions; due to this economic disparity, millions of southerners left home in search of better living conditions elsewhere. Naples was one of the richest and populous Italian cities before it joined the new Kingdom of Italy in 1860, followed by Rome, Turin and Milan; Palermo being second richest. By 1870, most Italian emigrees who left before this point came from northern regions due to poverty. After this point however, due to artificially enhanced economies within Italy favoring one region over the other and eventually culminating in 1890 when most emigrants originated in less industrialized South Italy rather than its industrialized Northern neighbor.

As You Explore Italian Genealogy
Once you begin exploring your Italian roots, it is wise to visit both your local bookstore and public library in order to obtain some books that can help place them into their historical context. Medieval and modern history are of primary significance and should be studied extensively. No single work can cover every topic completely, but several are certainly worthwhile reading; Dennis Mack Smith’s books offer reliable coverage but may contain some foreign bias. Sir Harold Acton authored some great works about the Kingdom of Naples; Benedetto Croce has provided more imaginative works on this same topic. John Julius Norwich and Steven Runciman wrote landmark works on medieval history. Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard provides profound insights into nineteenth-century Italian society in southern Italy. Additionally, Gerre Mangione and Gay Talese have written extensively about Italian immigrants living in America who have extensive research conducted in Italy. Luigi Barzini’s works on Italian attitudes are invaluable, while Claire Sterling’s book on organized crime provides a view into its influence in shaping today’s South. Works pertaining to Austrian Imperial history are an indispensable resource when studying Tirolean history; you’ll gain more insight into your ancestor’s lifestyle when you understand their environment better. Don’t neglect local history either! This will provide information about where your ancestors lived; even if they aren’t mentioned specifically in any one general history book, they could still have contributed significantly to shaping the history of their city or town. Accuracy in Italian genealogical research depends on many factors, but perhaps the most critical element is knowledge of Italian. Being fluent allows you to quickly interpret records and read works written in Italian which do not exist as English translations. An evening course is an ideal way to begin studying Italian. While knowing regional dialects may prove useful at times, most records in Italy are written using [Tuscan] Italian and Latin – although considerations regarding regional records might require studying another language like French in Piedmont or German in Tirolean regions etc.

Ethnology is the field of comparative social science that studies customs, clothing, religion, cuisine, music and language of various societies around the world. Ethnological factors can distinguish Italians from Japanese, Americans from Australians as well as Tuscans from Sicilians, Lombards from Calabrians and Sardinians from Apulians; because Italy only became a nation state since approximately 1860 these factors also help distinguish Tuscans from Sicilians, Lombards from Calabrians, Sardinians from Apulians or Tuscans from Sicilians as well as Tuscans from Sicilians or Tuscans from Sicilians or Tuscans from Sicilians etc; because of this complexity this type of ethnological norms help us know these remote ancestors that we could never meet in real life; these generalities do not translate to “stereotypes”.

Yes, stereotypes do exist but may have little to do with history. For instance, Italians have long been stereotyped as having dark hair and eyes with olive complexions; so much so that blonde-haired, blue-eyed Italians seem strange or outliers. Italians with light eyes and blonde or red hair are relatively common; especially in the southern regions once dominated by Longobards and Normans with such physical characteristics. An often-held perception is that all Italian immigrants in America were either impoverished or illiterate, though many certainly were victim of such conditions; many more, however, were solidly middle class – skilled craftsmen, merchants etc.). Some may have been perceived as “illiterate” simply due to not having been able to read or write English. Due to this misperception, nineteenth-century Italians are often mischaracterized as landless peasants; yet most households owned at least some land. Census and land records dating back to the sixteenth century provide ample proof that ordinary Italians owned at least some land holdings.

However, in an attempt to combat what they consider negative stereotypes of Italians, certain ethnic Italian organizations (outside Italy) tend to promote their own notions of what constitutes “Italian” identity – often not reflecting historical or sociological fact. Certain groups seek to erase aspects such as monarchy, Mafia, Pact of Steel and widows dressed in black from Italian history that they see as undesirable features of authentic culture from your family history project and don’t let these outspoken members of these organizations tell you who or what your Italian ancestors were! Don’t allow these organizations to banish genuine Italian culture from your family history project! Don’t allow these organizations tell you who or what your Italian ancestors were!

Launch Your Genealogical Research
Genealogical research typically begins in the present and works backwards into history. If your ancestors lived outside Italy for multiple generations, in order to establish your lineage you must know their date and place of birth or marriage in Italy. Along the way, you may uncover additional interesting details related to their arrival in their new country; however, your primary goal should be obtaining accurate biographical details that will aid your research of Italian records. Even if you already know where and when your Italian ancestor was born, immigration information may still provide important family historical knowledge. Before consulting microfilm immigration records, census records or steamship passenger lists, it would be worthwhile consulting older family members about your ancestor’s life in Italy. Their memories may not always be exact but even basic information regarding geography could save both time and effort in researching this aspect of your family history. It is also essential that we know where one was naturalized!

As much has been written about Italian records – some of it very inaccurate – it is necessary to make clear to genealogists the extent to which they should rely upon these documents in their research. Italian genealogical research relies on three primary records to conduct its investigation: Acts of Birth, Baptism and Marriage. Death records, although considered primary, should not be relied upon as reliably as birth and marriage registrations; exceptions could occur for reasons such as late registration of births. Vital statistics acts date back to the early 1800s in most southern regions (such as the former Kingdom of Two Sicilies), and certain northern localities (such as Parma). By comparison, elsewhere (ie Sardinia, Tuscany and Papal States etc) Civil records began being maintained around 1860. These vital statistics records (civil, vital statistics or vital records) can provide invaluable genealogical data not available from primary records such as parochial acts.

Due to a lack of vital statistics records for periods prior to 1800, we must rely on parochial records as our main source for information on those events. Parochial census records (stato delle anime) are scarce while local census records (stato di famiglia), when they exist, usually only cover the late nineteenth century. Secondary records typically provide specific details that might otherwise be lacking, or provide insight into family lifestyle (assets, professions). When these secondary records exist (land and census assessments, military service records, heraldic-nobiliary records, notarial acts etc), they should only be considered primary if parochial and vital statistics records don’t exist or have not been preserved or are otherwise unavailable for consultation.

Accessing Italian parochial archives can be challenging and only some records will ever be microfilmed; often times this requires months or years of negotiations with bureaucrats; in addition, their pastors often don’t want to waste their time helping researchers or responding to most letters they receive for free genealogical assistance.

Some vital statistics records have been microfilmed and may be made available through an LDS Church Family History Center if you can read them. Even when possible, the typical researcher must bridge the gap between an immigrant ancestor’s birth in 1890 and when microfilmed vital statistics records became available; typically this period dates from around 1860s. Contacting the vital statistics office in the town where your ancestor lived may help facilitate such research. Vital statistics officials generally decline to conduct actual research, but may provide you with an extract of an act of birth (including parentage) of an ancestor provided they have their name and date of birth. Due to privacy laws they cannot issue contemporary certificates (for people still alive).

Vital statistics and records, for localities that contain them, may be accessed directly at an Archive of State in their provincial capital. To do so effectively you must speak some Italian with the archival staff as well as verify whether or not any records that interest you are located there – also remembering that Italian hours and holidays differ from American ones.

Understanding Italian Records For assistance in understanding Italian records, several publications offer extensive research strategies and methodologies which would be impossible to present here. As previously discussed, it is essential that you read these publications with care, keeping in mind all information from various sources as many do not offer definitive guidance in every respect relevant to Italian family history projects. Research projects vary dramatically in scope. Genealogists should seek information regarding historical facts of secondary interest to them by perusing books on topics like the seventeenth century and Risorgimento (Unification Movement). Some books even refer to “Napoleonic records” among other documents when searching for details that pertain to genealogists.

Transcription, Translation and Presentation
When researching Italian genealogy using original or microfilm records, the documents you encounter will vary significantly based on region and period. An act from a seventeeth-century Byzantine Rite Catholic baptismal register in Sicily might combine Greek, Latin and Sicilian elements; most parochial records written in Latin or Italian require knowledge and practice for accurate transcriptions and translations to take place.

There are two formats used in pedigree presentations. The traditional agnate (patrilineal) format traces your lineage back through your father and father before him, including any collaterals such as siblings that share surname. Spouses may be included but each individual identified will belong to one family with same surname. On the other hand, many American genealogists prefer seize quartier (multilineal), where every ancestral lineage from every generation (in other words: father/mother pair of all your ancestor(s), making multilineal genealogies more in depth than their patrilineal counterparts.

Source Documents
In some instances, it may be possible to acquire certificates or photocopies of supporting documents like baptism or birth acts; this may prove challenging when working with original Italian records that do not allow photography of them (photocopier may be unavailable; photography of these materials not permitted; sometimes pastors and vital statistics registrars cannot write numerous certificates in response to genealogical research requests); therefore it would be prudent for you to focus on gathering supporting documents for acts which most intrigue you or are relevant for your project.

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