This situation occured all over Italy when a couple who were not married had a child that they chose not to abandon. This wording is found on the original document but on certificates and extracts you will see it written as N.N. or ‘genitori ignoti’ (parents unknown).
This can be very frustrating for the researcher especially when this information does not agree with other (foreign) documents. I hear all the time…but his father paid for his ticket, how can he be unknown? But his mother died in the USA, we have her death record. etc.
It is important to understand what was happening in Italy from 1861 to 1870. In 1861 Italy became unified and civil record keeping was slowly inititated in all towns in Italy. The exact year will vary from town to town. By 1871 all 18 year old males were required to register for the military and you will find that all towns have civil records from this year even if they are not all found on microfilm at the LDS. The LDS filmed at the State Archives not in the town so if the records are sparce do not be discouraged. The town will still have its copy assuming there have been no fires or earthquakes to destroy them.
The former Vatican States were slow to adapt to the new civil record system and typically you will find their records did not begin until 1870. Registration of births and deaths was readily accepted but the civil registration of marriages that occurred prior to 1870 for couples still producing children was not considered necessary by most of the population, but the town officials had a strategy to enforce this. They simply refused to recognise as legitimate any children born of a marriage that was not registered civilly. These children were therefore registered with the name of only one parent. Usually the father, so that the surname on the records would not have to be changed later.
Since the parents were illiterate, the act would have been read out to them and they were surely informed of the consequences of not registering their marriage. Still it was usually at least 5 or 6 years later before the understood. About the time they needed a birth certificate to register their child for school. Of course many of the girls never went to school so it might have been their daughter’s marriage that precipitated the shame of being illegitimate. For the boys it might be at age 18 when they registered for the military.
At this point the parents, who, in their minds, had been married for years in the sight of God and Church, went to city hall and registered their marriage. At the same time they would declare the births of their ‘natural’ children and legitimise them. The names and birth dates of the living children would then be noted on the marriage record of the parents, and a notation made on their birth certificate of the date of this legitimization.
Researchers need to remember that often the records on microfilm do not always bear these notations, so if this is supected request a copy of the birth certificate directly from the town. Remember too, that if there are gaps between children there could have been children who died in infancy.
Conclusion: Just because the mother or father’s name is missing from a birth record doesn’t mean your ancestor was illegitimate, especially if they came from around Rome and in the former Vatican States.