Understanding Italian Research


In 1809 when Napoleon conquered Italy he instituted Civil Registration.  The birth, marriage and death records had previously been maintained by the Catholic Church.  To differentiate between the numerous Giuseppe’s and Maria’s he made a law that for administration purposes a child could not be given the same name as the father.  In addition all documents must show the paternity of the person.  Therefore Giuseppe became Giuseppe “di” (son of) Domenico etc.  This meant that if Giuseppe fathered six sons who each named one of their sons Giuseppe each of  the grandchildren would be “di” a different father.  While it was possible for a long-living man to have a great grandchild with exactly the same paternal name the age difference was so great as to make misidentification impossible.  For researchers this naming method enables us to maintain the correct line more easily.


Marriage documents show full names of both sets of parents and give both the mother’s surname and the father and if the father is deceased also the grandfathers name. (Unlike English records which give only the father’s name.)  It will also show the town of birth of the couple.  Since all Italian women keep their birth name on marriage this further assists in identifying the correct ancestors.


Death records will give the mother’s and father’s name of the deceased and indicate the wife or husband’s name or if unmarried will often state this. They do not include the cause of death unless it is suicide or firing squad, and occasionally drowning, especially if a child.   Cemetery plots usually go back only 30 years except in unusual cases.  Niches or land plots are leased for periods of up to 99 years and often reused up to three times before the lease expires.  The bones are removed from the niche and either placed in a family bone vault or in the communal bone vault when the space is needed for another family member.


After 1861,(unification of Italy) and sometimes before that in many towns, office staff created indexes covering a 10-year period.  These indexes usually list date of event and occasionally the names of both parents cutting down considerably on the research time enabling the researcher to pull names and dates without pulling the actual documents.  This is useful for sibling records.


Surnames are very localized, for example a name found in Sora will be unknown in Avezzano.  Orphans were given surnames that did not occur in the community.  Usually names that when translated mean Saved (Salvato), Exposed (Esposito), Welcome (Benvenuto), Found (Trovato), Beautiful flower (Belfiore), April (Aprile) etc. making an orphan easy to identify. 


The individual towns maintained these civil records with a second copy being sent to the State Archives.  This means you must know the town of birth of an ancestor to begin the search.  If this information is not known then a search of the military conscription records at the State Archives (depending of the province records may only be available for later years) may identify the town of birth allowing research to continue if the records exist otherwise a search of towns exhibiting this surname will often work.  A quick check on the internet of www.italianancestry.com can give you the surname distribution.  A check at www.paginebianche.it can tell you where this name is most numerous now.


In addition, around 1861 (sometimes earlier) each town did a form of registration of its citizens much like the modern day census (Registro del Popolazione).  It was usually by household and address,  and unless an index was made the address is needed to find the family.  Fortunately the address was often given on pre 1865 documents.  This “census” did not always survive and if it did it is not always available for consultation.


Since the average generation gap is around 30 years this means that a simple search will take the family tree back into an ancestor born in the 1700’s.


In the towns that were part of the Papal States, the civil records required by Napoleon were not kept after his defeat.  Napoleon instituted civil records in 1809 but in 1815 he was defeated and the Papal States stopped keeping civil records even though the rest of Southern Italy (Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) continued to do so. Many of the towns in the Papal States destroyed the Napoleonic records.  It was not until 1871 -1878 or so that the former Papal State towns started keeping civil records along with the rest of Italy and for several years it was sporadic.  In these towns only a search of the Church records will allow you to continue your family tree.  Unfortunately, in some towns many records were destroyed during the heavy bombing in WW2 (around Cassino) including church records, many of which were sent to the Abbey of Montecassino for safekeeping.  As history will tell you, Montecassino was razed to the ground and all these precious records lost.    A Tribunal was set up after the war to reconstruct the civil records.  This involved local people coming forward with documents and re-registering themselves.  Participation was not even 25% from what I have seen and if your ancestor was not even in the country, you won’t find him or her in these reconstructed records.


Church records have only one copy in this part of Italy and can only be searched with the permission of the local priest who has the records in his possession.  The records before 1900 are often written in Latin and the information given in the older documents varies according to the whim of the priest.  For example, some marriage records give only the parents names while others will give also the grandparents for both the bride and groom.  Death records rarely give parents names and cause of death only if unusual (drowning of a child or murder).  Sometimes there are indexes, sometimes not.  In some areas a census of the parish was created (Stato delle anime) for taxation purposes showing complete families but if there is no index, the search is page by page.  As in the civil records a marriage index is usually by surname of groom, making a forward search (for living relatives) through the female line extremely difficult and slow.


On the positive side, many church records go back to 1600’s and in some parishes back to 1430. 


  1. This was so helpful, thanks so much! My Italian ancestors were from San Giovanni Incario and I’ve been puzzled and stymied at every turn in my research, not knowing how and why things were done as they were. Thanks again!


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