Tuesday, January 29, 2008

On-the-Ground Italian Family Research


By “on-the-ground” we mean being in Italy and visiting the places your relatives came from. There is a lot you can do online and via e/mail which isn’t discussed here. A few tips that we developed on an 8 day trip to Piemonte are shown below and broken into two sections: anagrafe and cemetery research. We’ll be doing more family research outside of Rome and in Palermo in the coming months, so we’ll test these ideas furthers to see if they need tweaking.

Anagrafe research:

  1. It helps if you can speak a little Italian. Useful terms are, 'Atto di Nascita' (birth certificate), 'Atti di Matrimonio' (marriage), 'Certifica' (certficate), to ask where the cemetery is ("Dove il cimitero?"), and to describe how a person is related to you, "bisnonno" (grandfather), etc. If you don’t speak any Italian, have good documentation that someone can follow easily or perhaps hire someone to help. In Italian, relatives are “parenti” and parents are “genitori” - so you might want to get them straight when asking. The records are organized by date. So having the precise birthdate or marriage date handy is a real winner. Note that the public records only go back to 1860 or so when Italy was unified as a country. Before then, parish (Parrocchia) records are your best bet (see below.) Also note that these records exist as large, hand written ledgers maintained independently in each town. In other words, you need to visit the anagrafe office in the specific town where the birth or marriage event took place.

  2. The public records offices "uffizzi dello stato civile" are usually located near or in the equivalent of the town hall (e.g. “uffici comunali”) and the specific office for birth and marriage records is typically called the “anagrafe” office. Try to find out the hours before you go. For example, some offices are only open Monday, Wednesday, Friday. And most only from 9am to 12:30. You might take a picture of the office’s sign with the hours so you can remember it later. Don’t walk in 5 minutes before lunch. Give them ample time to find the records even if it only takes a few minutes - it’s about respecting their time.

  3. In many of our experiences, the anagrafe worker simply walked into an adjacent room and took out a huge book and located the information within 2 minutes because we had very precise information on dates and names. By the way, some offices will let you feel and touch the book, maybe even photograph it. If you do, put a sheet of paper over other people’s info out of respect. Other offices won’t let you near the book, but may photocopy the page for you. Ask. Having the full record (as presented in the book) along with the typed-up or extracted information "Estratto", is preferred. There is often interesting information in the margins of the original document. However the 'Estratto' (extraction), signed and sealed by an 'officiale dello stato civile' is what you would need for official purposes.

  4. Usually the anagrafe person will walk through the certificate with you. This is important (and this is where your Italian language skills can really help) because they can elucidate finer points of the information. The records are often written in a fancy script which is hard to read. For example, they helped us clarify information about the “frazione” or district of the city a relative came from. In another case, they knew the terms “celibre” or “nubile” on a marriage certificate that looked mysterious in script lettering. In other cases, they may point out where someone was born or what cemetery they are likely buried in.

  5. One document (like a birth certificate or marriage certificate) often contains valuable information about the person or persons you are researching or their family. For example, on one marriage certificate we obtained, we discovered that the parents had lived in a town that we hadn’t considered. That then informed our cemetery searching.

  6. Allow 1 day for every office or town you wish to collect information in. That includes birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates, baptism records, finding tombs, etc.

  7. Be patient. If you don’t get what you want the first day, you may the next. Be prepared to have the results sent to via mail.
  8. When you walk into any office, don’t present a heaping pile of papers and expect the person behind the desk to figure it out. Be as precise as you can. Write the information down, legibly, on a piece of paper you can hand over. If the person wants other information, be ready to present it. We’ve found that everyone we encountered glad to help and interested in what we were doing and why we were doing it.
  9. Besides anagrafe offices, there are parish offices "parrocchia" which can contain information. In one case in Ceva, we obtained the baptism record of an orphaned relative. The two ladies there were super nice and so pleased that people were looking up their ancestors. We didn't just stop there on a whim though. The anagrafe office had directed us there. So, start with anagrafe office and if you need more info, ask if the parrocchia might have it (if they don't already suggest it).

Cemetery research:

  1. Grab a map of the city when you go into city’s public offices. Almost every anagrafe office we went to had a map of the city which showed churches and cemeteries. This will be useful in your cemetery hunt.

  2. Cemeteries have hours too! It depends on the town/city. Some are open continuously from 8 am to 6pm with no attendants. Some were around lunch – usually these are the ones with a custodian.

  3. A town or city may have many cemeteries. The one of interest depends on many factors like where in the town the relatives were born or lived. Sometimes you just have to guess.

  4. Walking into cemeteries, you may notice the same names over and over. If you don’t see your family name anywhere you could just be in the wrong cemetery. That happened to us in Cherasco which had several cemeteries. We went to a cemetery in the frazione San Bartolomeo of Cherasco because that’s where a relative was born and that’s all we had to go on. In the cemetery (which was small) the names were not at all similar and it became apparent that this particular relative wasn’t here. Later we found other information through marriage records that the correct cemetery was in Ceva .

  5. Be respectful. Be quiet, walk slowly, and don’t touch everything. Yes you have to peek into larger family tombs to look for names, but be courteous. Don’t walk on the grass or on top of graves.

  6. Bring good walking shoes, pen, paper, your documents, and a camera.

  7. If there is a custodian of the cemetery, ask if there is a list or registry of who is buried there. This greatly helped us in Ceva. It shaved hours off our search. You'll need the approximate date of death.

  8. If no one is in the cemetery to assist, organize you search logically. Assuming there are two of you, you might split up and search the big family tombs first by reading the names on top first (without reading the individual tomb names). Then hit the wall tombs, then maybe the ground burials. It depends on the setup.

  9. If you locate a tomb of interest. Pull out your paperwork and either confirm or deny the relevancy. Don’t linger over something trying to decide if it is interesting or not. Take a photo of the tomb and figure it out later. In the beginning, we found that we were so interested in finding anything at all, that we were spending time deciphering tombs which really weren't relavent. Part of this stems from the fact that each town or region tends to have concentrations of specific family names and it was a bit overwhelming at first to see a normally rare family name almost everywhere we turned.

  10. On each tomb or marker, there is usually a photo, take a close up picture of it if you can. Use a ladder to reach high tombs. Ladders are scattered around. Put them back in the correct location.

  11. Take a picture of the cemetery layout (usually published by the front gate) for later reference and perhaps annotate to show someone else where the tomb is. Or record the location or reference number of the tomb.

  12. In space constrained cemeteries - which is most of Italy, bodies may be exhumed after some period of time (20-25 years). If at the time, there was no interest from the family or perhaps money available, the remains may have been placed in a common bone vault. To help determine if this is the case, given a date of death, the cemetery records can help determine when or if the person was exhumed and moved.

Happy researching!

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