The research of your own origins and the reconstruction of your family history starts by tracing your affinities and kinship relationships. But the reconstruction of a genealogical thread, of the ascendancy table by quarters and the family tree is not but a first step towards getting to know your own family, and you will know them deeper through the study of the documents that tell us about the ways of life, the alphabetization, the places where they lived, the occupations and jobs they did, etc. Thanks to their particular stories we can create a complex and articulate picture of the italian society through the generations.
Where can I begin my research? How can I trace my ancestors? The essential sources for research are generally divided in two types: private sources, within which we can find personal memories (direct sources) and the oral tradition of each family (indirect sources) but the family and personal archives as well; public sources, as the Civil Registry, the military records and the Parish books; and the equally important notarial acts, registries and professional registries, even if those sources don’t hold the same amount of genealogical information as the abovementioned sources. Other public sources that contain personal data are the Police, Prefect and Court Archives, and the archives of the care public services, such as orphanages, hospitals, etc.
Actually, genealogical research needs evidences, like any other research, and not a single document, even an accounting record, can be dismissed as irrelevant, since any document can bring us new information or redirect us to other documents with which we can dig deeper on our research.
But to start it’s necessary to take a look at the “serial” sources, that is to say, the registries and documents issued and preserved by public institutions or the Church, now accessible through the State Archives and other historical archives. The research should be based on geographic and historical references and on kinship relations (filiation, brotherhood and marriage), in order to go, following a general rule, back on time. So, in order to research personal data of a personal forefather, starting from a date that we know, which generally has been taken from documents or news, it is recommended to act in the following way:
- From January 1st 1866 on, it is appropriate to check the Civil Registry, the Parish books or military sources;
- From December 31 1865 to the first years of the 17th century, it is advisable to do your research with the help of Parish books (in some particular areas and cases Parish books are older and go back to the 14th century);
- From the oldest Parish book to the 13th century you should do your research through notarial acts, estimations and censuses;
- If we go beyond the 13th century, in theory, we can trace the footprints of our outermost forefathers in the diplomatic documents of the nobility, city hall and oldest monasteries and churches archives.
The Civil Registry was introduced in some Italian regions in 1806, after the annexation by the French Empire and the introduction of the Civil Code. Such system was in force until the fall of Napoleon in 1815.
The Italian States that were restored after that date applied different solutions.
In the Old Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which occupied the area that correspond to today’s Southern Italy, the Civil Registry works uninterrupted since 1809. In Sicily wasn’t introduced until 1820.
The Grand Duchy of Tuscany established a mix system after the Restoration, in which civil authorities took control of the Civil Registry: the motuproprio of June 18, 1817, stipulated that the Civil Registry Body, an office attached to the Royal Law Secretary dedicated to the coordination and surveillance of the priests and chancellors’ work on Civil Registry and personal documents within the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. A copy of the registries issued by the priests had to be send to the headquarters of the Civil Registry in Florence. The same process was applied in the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1837, when it was enacted the Regolamento per la tenuta dei registri destinati ad accertare lo stato civile, a document attached to the Patent-letter of June 20: this regulation declared mandatory for every priest to send one of the two original documents of the Civil Registry to the Prefecture Court, which later will send that document to the territorially competent cities.
The Civil Registry was established in all regions only after the Italian Unification, in 1866.
Naturally, in the regions annexed by the Kingdom of Italy after the Unification, the series of the Civil Registry start after 1866: in Lazio Region and Rome those series start in 1870, in 1871 in Veneto and Friuli (except for the Austrian area), and in Southern Tirol and the rest of Friuli provinces after 1918, in other words, after World War I.
The Civil Registries, mainly birth, marriage and death certificates, are held by the City Councils. Those documents are issued on double copy: one of the copies remains in the city hall archive and the other, until 2011, was sent to the competent Court, which, after a number of years prescribed by law, sent that file to the State Archive.
Until 2001 the Civil Registry was regulated by r.d. number 1238 of July 9th 1939, Ordinamento dello stato civile. After DPR number 369 of November 3rd 2000, Regolamento per la revisione e la semplificazione dell’ordinamento dello stato civile, in force since April 1st 2001, the surveillance of the preservation conditions of the Civil Registry archives held by the City Councils was given back to the Prefectures, and this offices held the second copy of the registries since then.
Besides the aforementioned Civil Registry, one of the many duties of the City Councils was to issue a list of Military Draft, in other words, a list of the group of men whom were subjected each year to a mandatory health check and, eventually, to military service.
But the Registry Office is the fundamental source to reconstruct the family tree in a specific year. That is why it is strongly advised to start your own genealogical research in the local archives of your town of origin or residence.
The Anagrafe, as it is known the local registry office in Italy, takes a census of the local population considering the natural variations (births and deaths) and the changes caused by migration; it registers the changes in the population caused by immigration and emigration. Personal data can be connected to other municipal services, such as taxes, electoral rolls and military service drafts.
Royal Decree number 2105 of December 31st 1864 established the modern Registry. It used the data from the first population census (carried out in 1861). Many City Councils didn’t apply this decree because it wasn’t mandatory. Only after Law number 297 (in 1871), which established a mandatory 10-year census, City Councils were legally required to keep a registry office. This office (regulated by Law 1285, 1954) holds an ensemble of files, composed by family sheets (fogli di familia); each of those corresponds to a number of people linked by kinship that live at the same home; it is also divided by geographical areas. Each section orders alphabetically the streets, the individual cards (by Last name and First name of the registered person). In case of death or emigration a person stops being considered as local resident, and his files are held apart.
To do your own research on the registry office or to request certificates of your forefathers, you have to contact the city hall of your town of origin or residence. Telephone and fax numbers, email addresses and websites of Italian cities are available at Italy National City Hall Association (ANCI, in Italian) (ANCI) or at comuni-italiani.it. The Wikipedia page Comuni d’Italia is also useful.
The descriptions of the local historical archives are available at the Informative Unified System of the Archival and Bibliographical Superintendencies (SIUSA) e and at National Archive System (SAN).
Some city councils send their registries to the local State Archive. But this is the exception rather than the rule, and most of those documents, specially those of the Civil Registry, are held exclusively at the Registry Office. For further information on genealogical sources at the State Archives you may click on the section “The Land and the Sources”.
Before and after 1866 priests were responsible for the registration of baptisms, marriages, deaths and Parish censuses, as well as the preservation of Parish Books or Canonic Books. They undertook this job uninterruptedly since the second half of the 16th century, after the Council of Trento, but some priests already did that in some parishes for longtime.
The Parish Books of the nearly 25.000 Italian parishes and the Parish censuses, drafted by the priests after having visited their parishioners during Easter, are some of the most important documents for the reconstruction of family trees.
Thus, for any document prior to 1866 you have to contact your forefather’s birth parish and residence parish – if the latter was different from the first – to obtain information and eventually request a certificate.
You should also keep in mind that, in some dioceses, the oldest parish archives had been joined at the Diocesan Historical Archive or in bigger parishes. You may find the search engine “Parrocchie” at the website of the Italian Episcopal Conference, in which you will find the addresses, phones and other information of the Italian parishes.
For further information and to check the descriptions of the historical archives of the parishes you may click on BeWeB – Beni Ecclesiastici in web a site developed by the National Directorate for Church Cultural Heritage and religious buildings of the Italian Episcopal Conference.
Only in a few cases you can check the Parish Books at the local State Archive. For further information on the genealogical sources held by the State Archives you may click on “The Land and the Sources”
In theory we could go back in time until Noah’s and his numerous sons and daughters (the Table of Nations?). Notwithstanding the most important cultural traditions of the human civilizations began with genealogies (that were present at the Old and New Testament) the real chances of finding documents that may connect us to so distant ancestors are ridiculously slim.
Going back on time and recover information and documents of your family history requires overcoming two major problems: the scarcity of the sources and the instability of the data, particularly of the Last names, which only at the end of the Modern Age are systematically used, after the first censuses and the Civil Registry were established.
The notary archives don’t contain as many genealogical data as other sources. They were embedded in the Parish Books and they can represent a valid source of information since in some areas those files go back to the 13th century. The notarial acts regarding family and family relationships are very important: children emancipation, marriage agreements and testaments (frequently registered apart from the rest of the files).
For some important noble families or aristocrats it is possible to attenuate, but not cancel, those difficulties, since many information related to these families can be found at the archives of local and governmental public institutions of the Ancien Régime Italian States, in many cases held by State Archives. Furthermore, since last century, many of those families donated or deposited their precious archives, which have been declared of remarkable historical interest, in the State Archives. Those archives held many collections of former diplomas, most of them public and scrolls (see “diplomatic” in the glossary) and the genealogical table of the family, which, during the reorganization of the 18th and 19th century had a central role in the family archive, as they represented the long family history and the relation between that house and royal families.