How to create your Italian family tree

I have spent many, many years tracing my husband Marco’s family tree, a project that started well over a decade ago when I was woking as a restorer, first as an intern and then in the archives of a photography museum in Florence and it struck me on a really personal level how many thousands of photographs (many family portraits) of unknown faces were in the collection. I immediately made my mother in law pull out her black and white family photos and tell me who everyone was – she is the only one these days that knows – and I set about putting a name to the faces and writing everything down. My grandmother in Australia constructed a very impressive family tree in the 1980s (completed with visits to graveyards and travels through the UK) but no one in Marco’s family had ever done a complete one. I knew I would be the one to fill in the blanks.

On our first trip to Puglia in 2011, the archives were not yet digitalised and looking for Marco’s grandfather Mario’s birth certificate meant walking in to the dingy office of the State Archives and asking for it in person. Enormous albums with their spines held together with swathes of silver duct tape (seriously! See the photo below right) were taken off shelves and as the pages were flicked through, I noticed large – like frying pan sized – sections missing. There had been fires and it’s not guaranteed that they will find the records, I was told. And I can imagine how many other natural disasters and wars had affected these delicate records throughout Italy. But we did find them and that was the start of our family history research, which eventually led to the birth of my latest cookbook, inspired by the stories I found.

Luckily, for anyone else interested in tracing their family history in Italy, many archives have now been completely digitalised and placed online for free. An excellent place to start is the website of Antenati” archives of the Ministero dei Beni Culturali. Here, the registries of over sixty State Archives have been uploaded and with just a surname or some rough dates and the name of the town or municipality that you’re interested in, you can find the scans of original, historical birth, death and marriage certificates.

Even if you don’t have Italian language skills, it’s pretty easy to start your search as the main part of the website has been translated into English. Reading handwriting from the nineteenth century is another thing! And on the original certificates you’ll need some basic Italian to know what you’re looking at and deciphering the information but I hope that the tips below will help you know how to get the most out of using this website for your family history research.

Once on the home page, you will find you have an online search with the option of Sfoglia i registri (browse the archives) or Trova i nomi (find the names). I find the latter by far the most useful for starting family tree research.

Here you will find the registries from the following provinces (this includes the towns and cities that make up the municipalities under that province – for example the towns of Martina Franca and Grottaglie but also Taranto itself are in the wider province of Taranto): Agrigento, Asti, Bari, Benevento, Bergamo, Brescia, Caltanissetta, Campobasso, Chieti, Cremona, Enna, Forlì-Cesena, Genova, Grosseto, Imperia, L’Aquila, Mantova, Modena, Mondovì (Cuneo), Napoli, Padova, Pesaro, Pescara, Potenza, Prato, Ragusa, Reggio Calabria, Rieti, Roma, Salerno, Savona, Taranto, Torino, Trapani, Udine, Urbino, Vicenza, Viterbo

How far back can you go?

There are limits to the dates of the registers that you will be able to find. First of all, take into account that Italy was only unified as a country in the 1860s and therefore the archives themselves were only created in or around 1866. Prior to this date, births, deaths and marriages (and baptisms) were usually recorded in the local family parish, in registri parrocchiali. From around the mid-sixteenth century onwards this was the case. In order to have access to pre-1866 records, you will have to visit the family’s parish – if you’re not sure of which one that may be, on later records you will find that the addresses are written on every birth, death or marriage certificate so you may be lucky enough to find out the area the family lived in and hope they did not move around too much. Saying all of this, some provinces kept their records differently (they were like different countries after all) and in some cases you’ll find some certificates that date to the early 1800s so just try and see how you go!

I personally found the Antenati database most useful for searching within the dates 1866 and 1900 – but admittedly, between birth and death certificates you can find a lot of information (names, ages, professions, addresses, spouses, parents names) just within these years – I was able to go back as far as the mid-1700s in terms of family member’s birth years (thanks to a death certificate and a bit of simple subtraction!). For my family tree purposes, I know that the Cardellicchio family moved away from Taranto after the First World War. They moved to Turin for work, and while Turin is one of the provinces that have their archives digitalised, I discovered that many results that are around or less than 100 years old are no longer are considered ‘historical’ and you need to request access to these certificates from the archives in the city in question.

How to start searching:

Once you are in Find the Names section all you need to start is one or more of the following (depending on what you know and how much or how little you would like to find out):

  • name – first or last or both
  • year – start and finish of the search (for example if you know the year of the birth, you can put in just that year, if you’re looking for a parent and can guess the years in which to search based on age assumption, put those years in)
  • type of certificate you’re looking for (birth/death/marriage)
  • municipality – if you know the town or province of the family (and if it is one of the ones mentioned above)

If you don’t even know the exact province where your family came from, what is very interesting to know is that Italian surnames are highly regional (Tuscany surnames for example are easy to spot as they end in an ‘i’). If I type in my mother in law’s surname, Cardellicchio, and put just the dates, but no place, all of the 300 results that come up are from Puglia and almost all happen to be from Taranto – this is definitely a surname that comes from this one town! Very helpful (and absolutely fascinating) is a map of Italian surnames where you can put in the surname and find out where they are currently most concentrated. This is a great starting point if you do not even know the possible locations of the family. I like using this one. While this map gives more precise results by town.

Once you put something in to search, you will get results with some basic typed information (as in the image below) that includes in the first column the name, age, and names of the person and their mother and father (note that in Italy, women keep their maiden names), along with (in the second column) the type of certificate, the date of the certificate and the municipality/city/town in the province. In the third column, if available, is the name of the spouse. What is very handy is that this search will also give you results if one of the parents or the spouse has the name you are searching.

When you find an entry you want to look at, you can click to open the scanned certificate. Double click to enlarge the image and now prepare yourself for squinting, enlarging and deciphering the elegant handwriting! You’ll notice more than one entry on each page so make sure to check you’re looking at the right one.

In a death certificate:

The certificate (atto di morte in Italian) will name the witnesses present (often their age and residency too), the date and hour, the address of where the person lived and, interestingly, his or her job and spouse (you can tell if someone is widowed – and therefore learn some more information about the spouse if you don’t already know their dates – by the description “vedovo” for a man or “vedova” for a woman).

You’ll notice there are two death certificates in the search results above that are related — Francesco Cardellicchio (1890) and Angelo Cardellicchio, his son (1877). In Francesco’s certificate, we learn that Francesco Cardellicchio died at age 71 in 1890, so I can work out his birth year. He was a barbiere, a barber, and was already widowed, his spouse was Rosa Leone, and he lived at Vico Morrutto (the number of the address isn’t indicated, it says “senza”, none). Funnily enough, as I was wandering the streets of Taranto before having done this search, I took a photo of a motorino in a classic, arched Taranto alleyway – a search on google maps when I got home told me that very alleyway was the tiny Vico Morrutto. Amazing to think we walked the narrow street of my daughters’ great-great-great-grandfather’s home without knowing it.

Francesco Cardellicchio was the father of Nicola Cardellicchio, whose death certificate I was able to find easily too. A construction worker (muratore) like his brother Angelo, Nicola also died young at age 35 on August 1, 1885, two weeks before the birth of his son (as I learned from another birth certificate), Nicola Cardellicchio – yes, confusingly they have the same name, and this happens. This younger Nicola was the great-grandfather of my husband – and the husband of Anna, whose polpette are a family heirloom and one of the most treasured recipes in Tortellini at Midnight, a recipe that has made it’s way from 1800s Taranto up to Turin and then to my Tuscan mother in law’s table (the photo below is from the book, taken by Lauren Bamford, I cannot resist her photo of it!).

In a birth certificate:

Nonna Anna‘s birth certificate (atto di nascita), along with her brothers and sisters, were easy to see in a list of names because they had four or five names, not just one – a sign of their noble family heritage, my mother in law says. Anna Michaela Comasia Maria Calianno was born on 13th of May 1889. You’ll see similar information to a death certificate but the information here will round out what else you know about the family. In this certificate, it mentions Anna’s father, Francesco Calianno, age forty, a pharmacist, living in Via Duomo (what a difference an address makes, while Vico Morrutto is a tiny, enclosed alleyway in the rabbit-warren like part of Taranto, Via Duomo is the main street in town, full of elegant palazzi, leading of course to the basilica). So now I have Francesco’s birth year, I can presume his job and his address meant he was extremely educated and well off, which supports the family stories of Anna’s nobility.

Interestingly, on a birth certificate, the mother’s name will also have her residency and her father’s name next to it, for example, “Girolama Melucci di Taranto di Giuseppe di anni trentasei” – so now you know she was born in Taranto and you can also search for “Giuseppe Melucci” to find Anna’s mother’s father and his family. Also you have the information that Girolama was thirty-six years old when she gave birth.

This last tidbit resulted in a thoroughly interesting discovery of the family history where I actually was able to find more information through the lines of all the women in the family than the men, thanks to the way the birth certificates were filled out.

Marriage certificates:

Not all archives have marriage certificates. Taranto is one that doesn’t have them and I speculate that this is because marriage records were kept in the parishes in Puglia. Again, the information that you have from a marriage certificate is interesting, especially as you have the parents names of both husband and wife, ages and more. Flicking through randomly, I found some interesting bits and pieces from records as diverse as Mantova and Agrigento in Sicily. Some were absolutely indecipherable, being entirely handwritten. In one Sicilian wedding certificate I saw the parents of both husband and wife were not named, but referenced, “madre ignota” and “padre ignoto”, unknown parents, which usually means the person in question was an orphan, and your trail might end there!

I hope this is a helpful start to researching your Italian family history. I could – and did – spend countless hours immersed in it and every new discovery had that same satisfaction of finding a piece in a puzzle – until I reached the end where I think I’ll have to visit the parishes to fill in the rest. It will be a good excuse to visit Puglia again. I leave you with some photographs I took of Taranto in film from our last visit there while researching for Tortellini at Midnight. Happy searching!

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Comments

  1. Tammy says:

    My husband and I both have Italian heritage and have been stumped trying to track it down! Thank you for sharing your tips … I’ll use them to see if I can learn more.

  2. Hey there Emiko,
    I finally made some time (after taking heed from you insta post from today re slowing down) to read through your post here on how to create your italian family tree. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this will assist me greatly! I have struggled to obtain information for a long while. I will now use the link you provided and give it a go. Who knows where it may take me – I’m a little excited.

    Un grande grazie e un abbraccio da parte mia!!!
    Ange x

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