Researching Your Family History in Italy: Genealogy 101


Researching Your Family History in Italy: Genealogy 101

By: Michael Cestaro*

 For most Americans of Italian descent, obtaining information about their ancestors can be quite daunting or seem even impossible when they have to reach past Ellis Island and start poking around in Italy.  But truth be told, in most situations, a researcher armed with correct data and a bit of patience, can gain access to an abundance of information that can provide great insight into his family history. 

 Provided that a researcher has the correct spelling of his ancestor’s name and the date and place where the event (i.e., birth, marriage or death) took place, it is possible to obtain copies of documents that are well over a 100 years old.  In a rather ironic way, it is Italy’s history of bureaucracy and the Italian government’s obsession with forms and details that can come back to benefit the individual who is searching his Italian roots tenfold. 

 Generally speaking, most Italian documents that recorded a birth, marriage or death around and prior to the turn of the century, did so in a very formalistic way.  The end result of this method was an inclusion of useful details such as maiden names, street addresses, witnesses to the event, occupations of the parties, and the names of those present at the recording of the event (including even the mayor and town officials) in the document.  In addition, other details, such as whether the parties were capable of reading and writing, were sometimes hand-written onto the documents.  For the individual searching his family history, access to all of this type of information can be like winning the genealogical jackpot.

 So exactly where are these documents kept and what information does a researcher need?

 Italian birth, marriage and death certificates are kept on file at the Office of Vital Statistics of the comune or town where the event occurs. When a document is requested, it is normally provided in an estratto per riassunto form, which is an extract of the most relevant information recorded at the comune.  For those interested in merely obtaining dual citizenship, this is the form that most consulates will require as part of their application process.  

 For somebody doing genealogical research, however, the better form is the copia integrale.  Unlike the estratto, the copia integrale includes the many invaluable details in which the genealogical researcher would most probably be interested.  It is important to note that under Italian law, a copia integrale is only available if the event occurred more than 75 years ago.

 Beyond birth, marriage and death certificates, military records can be fertile ground for genealogical exploration.  Italian military records, for the most part, are kept in provincial archives, unlike birth, marriage and death certificates, which are stored at the local level. If an individual’s ancestor served in the military, conscription and service records are likely to include information such as his physical description, town of residence, parents’ names, profession and educational level, as well as a chronological history of service from conscription to discharge.

 Once an individual has conquered the task of obtaining his ancestor’s document, the next hurdle may be deciphering the handwriting on the document.  Because these documents may predate the invention of the typewriter or were prepared in a town that did not have a typewriter at the time (yes, there was a time when a manual typewriter was considered cutting edge technology), reading the handwriting on the document may present its own challenge.  Still, with a bit of effort and the use of a computer’s zoom function, even this obstacle can be overcome.

 For those seriously thinking of looking into their family history or who are at the point in their research where they must now search in Italy, a basic understanding of the types of documents that are available and where they are stored is essential. Genealogical research into one’s family history can be a fun hobby that may be challenging at times, but is undeniably rewarding on so many levels and for a variety of reasons. 

 *Michael Cestaro is the President and CEO of Your Italian Heritage, LLC.  You can learn more about the company and its services by visiting