Until a few years ago, it was relatively difficult to research Italian ancestry online. Few government websites had useful finding aids and even fewer repositories digitized their records.
Thanks to extensive and recent digitization efforts, it’s easier than ever to explore your Italian heritage. While resources do vary, a good chunk of your family history can be discovered from the comfort of your own home. What’s more, there are a number of Italian translators who can help you decipher any records you find at the click of a mouse.
Whether you are claiming your Italian dual citizenship or simply want to know more about your family in the Old Country, here are 11 simple ways to research your Italian ancestry.
1. Talk to your family
For many people, chatting over a cup of coffee is the start of their Italian ancestry journey!
When I was little, I used to love talking to my grandparents about Italy. My grandma especially knew so much about our family history. She was my go-to when it came to questions about our genealogy. Truly, it’s thanks to her key information that I became a dual Italian citizen in 2009.
So, if you have relatives like my grandmother, talk to them! Older relatives especially may have some excellent information. Try reaching out to grandparents, aunts, cousins, and anyone else who you think might know more about your Italian ancestors. If they don’t, they might know someone who does.
Try to dig in the attic for old documents inherited from Italian ancestors. You might find your ancestor’s town of origin jotted on family papers or on the backs of old photographs. Some Italian immigrants may have kept passports, Italian identification booklets, or military discharge papers—all of which contain key clues about their origins.
2. Cognomix and ItaliaNames
Did you know there are two websites which let you see where your last name occurs most often in Italy?
As you can imagine, your mileage may vary using this resource. The less common your last name, the more targeted the results. Looking for the last name Russo, you’re bound to get hundreds and hundreds of towns. But if you try Noto Millefiori or Cammalleri? Only a handful. Bingo!
On ItaliaNames, view a last name on the map by typing whichever name you’re looking for into the search box. Then click Search and wait for the map to populate. You can search for a last name based on the distribution throughout all of Italy or just whittle it down to an individual region by selecting the appropriate option or clicking directly on the map. Cognomix works roughly the same way. I myself have spent a lot of time looking up clients’ last name distribution in Italy, especially when they have an inkling of where their family is from but aren’t quite 100% sure.
Formatting your search
Keep in mind these rules for a better result:
- Replace a final accented letter with an unaccented letter (eg: Abbà Abba).
- If there’s an apostrophe, delete all blanks between apostrophe and letters (eg: D’ Agostino D’Agostino).
- If there’s a blank, delete all double blanks between words (es: De Agostini De Agostini).
3. Italian newspapers
Newspapers are an excellent source of information because you might find obituaries, marriage announcements, or other articles to bridge the gaps in your family research.
The Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) Archives at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis houses the country’s largest collection of Italian language and Italian American newspapers and periodicals. Because their materials do not circulate, all research must be done on site; contact them to see what arrangements you can make for off-site research.
4. Italian Genealogical Group
Though based in New York, the Italian Genealogical Group boasts a worldwide membership of people looking to learn more about their Italian ancestry. Their website has a database of surnames and Italian localities that members are currently researching. Try to find a name and place that matches your interests, click the e-mail link, and ask for the name of the submitter.
The group also holds several databases of records (mostly for New York). These include vital records indexes—including New York City deaths 1898 to 1948 and New York City births from 1878 to 1909—as well as naturalization indexes. Their website also lets you print forms to request these records from New York city’s Municipal Archives.
Don’t forget to also browse their newsletter articles on Italian genealogy. But since not all newsletters go online, you may want to consider joining the group to get future issues. As a bonus, members of the group get access to a 25-year archive of POINTers, a (now defunct but very informative) quarterly journal filled to the brim with articles on Italian genealogy.
5. Church records
Churches in Italy are known to keep meticulous records chock full of good information. Therefore, you should definitely concentrate some effort on finding parish and diocese records if you want to get serious about researching your Italian ancestry.
A delightful grassroots effort, Italian Parish Records includes (you guessed it) parish records from every region in Italy. The website also has links to other websites with transcribed records as well as links to digitized images.
Church records versus civil registrations in Italy
In Italy, Church records go back further than civil registrations. Once you’ve identified your ancestor’s parish or diocese, you can search for birth, baptismal, confirmation, marriage, death, and census records.
Baptismal records (Battesimi):
These records document the date your ancestor was baptized, parents’ names (usually the mother’s surname is not given), and godparents’ names.
Confirmation records (Cresima/Confirmazione):
You may find these records for children between ages 8 and 12. These records contain the date of confirmation, the child’s name, age, and father’s name. Most of these records are not digitized, so you may have to take a trip to Italy to find them (The horror! A trip to beautiful Italy for genealogical research 😉 ) or get someone to perform on site research for you.
Marriage records (Matrimonio):
These records are proof that the couple married within the church. Parents’ names are not always included, so your mileage may vary.
Death/burial records (Sepolture):
Usually, these records are very minimal and provide only the name, date of death, and the sacraments given. Depending on the age of the record, it may read more like a burial record than a death record. Just like confirmation records, not many are digitized.
Parish census records (Status Animarun/Stato delle Anime):
These “State of the Soul” documents are basically a parish census and are an excellent source of family information. They’re especially vital for people researching in parts of Italy that ceased civil registrations from 1816 to 1865. These records include vital statistics for all members of a family unit as well as any sacraments received. In Sicily, these records are called Riveli di Beni ed Anime and contain slightly less information.
6. Italian military records
Military records can be an excellent resource if you know your ancestor’s province of origin, but not the exact town. Kept at the provincial or state archives, military records might exist for male ancestors born after about 1850 (though conscription wasn’t universally enforced until 1865). Military records include:
Conscription records (registri di leva, also called liste di leva)
These records are a wealth of information because they include the man’s name, date of birth, place of birth, current residence, parents’ names, occupation, and even a physical description! You’ll also find out whether your ancestor was deemed eligible to serve and the regiment he was assigned to.
Service records (registri dei fogli matricolari or ruoli matricolari)
These records are amazing because they include your ancestor’s regiment and military campaigns. They even show injuries sustained and medals earned.
Extraction lists (liste di estrazione)
Sometimes difficult to find, these records can help to bridge the gaps in information about your ancestor especially when other information has been lost. They were kept in most areas of Italy between 1855 and 1911, and usually include your ancestor’s name as well as the order their number was assigned.
Discharge papers (fogli di congedo illimitato)
Just like in the US, these document your ancestor’s discharge from the military. Immigrants would sometimes bring these records with them when they came to the US as proof they already served in the military, in case of conscription.
FamilySearch’s Family History Library is the largest microfilm collection of Italian records outside Italy.
To get started and see a list of all Italian records available, click on the Search tab and select “Records.” Then, select Europe on the map and choose “Italy” from the pop-up window. Then, you can browse the online records.
Thanks to an agreement made with the Italian government, FamilySearch can digitize records in every provincial and state archive. In turn, these records are available for researchers to consult on FamilySearch.org. Do note that due to contractual agreements with certain archives, you can only access some digital Italian records while researching in person at FamilySearch Affiliate Libraries, Family History Centers, or the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Other documents are on physical microfilms for the same reason. However, Antenati (which we talk about below) can be a workaround: some records under privacy restrictions on FamilySearch are actually free to look at on Antenati.
FamilySearch also contains a few church and military records, including military records for eight provinces, the Aosta region, and the city of Messina. Additionally, some military record are available from the source—for example, the Cosenza province’s digitization project is one of the largest and is free for everyone to view (simply register on the website). Additionally, the province of Gorizia maintains a PDF index to service records as well as a database on conscription records.
Along with FamilySerch, Ancestry.com is the other big player in the world of genealogy. Boasting more than 150 databases of Italian records, it should be one of your first stops for information about your Italian ancestry.
Ancestry mostly separates records by town and province, but they’ve combined and indexed some according to record type. Some interesting databases on Ancestry include Order Sons of Italy in America Lodge Records, Order Sons of Italy in America Mortuary Fund Claims, and Italy Historical Postcards.
If you’re looking for immigration records, you can search for New York arrivals in the Index to Castle Garden Records (1820-1892) or Ellis Island Records (1892-1924). Immigration records for other large arrival cities like Boston and Philadelphia are available on Ancestry and FamilySearch as well.
Antenati means “ancestors” in Italian and, boy, does this website live up to its name! It’s by far my favorite website for Italian ancestry research.
Do note, however, that the site is in Italian. Even though it has an English option I suggest you just use it in Italian, since they don’t update the English site as regularly and you may miss key records.
Antenati contains records a huge amount of clearly organized records, from province to civil registration period to type of record, year, and town. Though Antenati doesn’t have all provinces’ records, they add more all the time.
Start by clicking “Il territorio e le fonti” (“The territory and the sources”) on the home page and then scroll down to your specific area of interest. Then, the map will show whether the site includes digitized records for that area. Another way of searching is to click “Sfoglia i registri” (“Browse the registries”) to view archives which have digitized records.
You can also search the records by your ancestor’s name (click the “Trova i nomi” section). However, note that you can only select the registries which Antenati has indexed. As a result, you might not see your ancestor’s name if you do this. But don’t despair! You may still view the record on the website by using the alternative methods above.
10. Transcribed vital records of Italian towns
If you’re lucky enough to have Italian ancestry from one of the towns listed on this website, congrats! You’re able to find the work of a rare group of people that have transcribed Italian vital records to bring obscure microfilms written archaic Italian handwriting to all.
This resource contains websites and e-mail addresses that represent the transcription of hundreds or thousands of records from all over Italy, including birth records, marriage records, death records, and baptismal records.
11. Italian Dual Citizenship Facebook group
A great way to start researching your Italian ancestry is to ask for help from an online forum. There are many available, filled with people who are willing to share the tricks, tips, and resources that have helped them most—all for free!
We recommend you start with our Facebook group, Italian Dual Citizenship. It’s chock full of more than 12,000 members ready to lend a helping hand, and not only for Italian citizenship. If you’re researching your family’s history, you’ll find tons of people willing to tell you where to start (and how).
Take your research… and become an Italian citizen!
Want to take your Italian genealogical research to the next level and become an Italian dual citizen? We can help. Contact us today to get started.