The Italian Ancestors Project—Connecting Descendants Worldwide
By Diane Sagers
In the 1890s, Giovanni Benvenga, a poor Italian immigrant from the southern province of Salerno, Italy, left his beloved town of Sassano, Italy, where his family had lived for hundreds of years. He eventually married Rosina Garone, another Italian immigrant, in Jersey City, New Jersey.
More than 100 years later, their descendants, now scattered across the United States, know very little to nothing about Giovanni and Rosina. As they experience their own life events, they find themselves wondering about their Italian origin. They struggle to tell adequately the fascinating stories of their Italian ancestors to their own posterity.
Change the names, city of departure, and arrival city or country, and the situation above describes the reality of tens of millions of Italians all over the world. They are fiercely proud or very curious about their Italian roots. They would love to put the pieces of their Italian family history puzzle together but do not know how. They are not sure how to cross the oceans and tackle the language, economic barriers, and other questions to access the historical records that hold the needed keys to unlock the doors to their ancestors in Italy.
FamilySearch’s Italian Ancestors Project is changing all of that. FamilySearch is working with record custodians throughout Italy and the world as well as with online volunteers to preserve digitally and make freely accessible online the historical Italian records that will help connect Italian descendants with their roots. The free online collections are a primary key of hope and a first point of embarkation for those doing Italian genealogical research.
(L to R) Mary, Virginia, and Alessandro Conte,
At the beginning of the 20th century, those who sought their ancestors had little help. For example, 17-year-old Alessandro Conte emigrated from Italy to the United States. When his son William, a first generation Italian American, later married another Italian American, Beverly, they wanted to find their roots. They spent months doing research in available records at the time and, with their parents’ help, wrote letters to various archives in Italy. In time, they managed to put together four generations of their family tree.
Compare William and Beverly Conte’s efforts to when, years later, their son Joel Conte and his wife, Victoria, also wanted to find out even more about their Italian ancestry. The family had been using FamilySearch.org, and one day a critical hint appeared almost magically in their account. The FamilySearch hints feature automatically matches details from the billions of indexed historical records on the site with information contributed by individuals in the free Family Tree—often adding unknown details about one’s ancestors. With this resource, along with the other historical Italian records available on FamilySearch.org, the Contes were able to connect with their ancestors. Because of the work and indexing done by thousands of volunteers over the years, what would have taken years or decades previously, now miraculously required only a short period of time, and the Contes were able to extend their Italian lines back many generations.
A Digital Renaissance: The Rebirth of Historical Italian Birth, Marriage, Death Records
In 1948, the Genealogical Society of Utah—now known as FamilySearch—began microfilming Italian Waldesian Church records through individual local agreements, making the records available through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a network of family history centers. Today, these microfilms are being digitized, and the millions of images of original documents can be found on FamilySearch.org. FamilySearch is doing the same with its microfilmed records of Italian court (tribunale), city (municipale), and township (comune) records.
In 1975, FamilySearch International joined ranks with the Italian government and the Italian State Archives (Direzione Generale per gli Archivi, or DGA) to preserve Italian civil registrations (birth, marriage and death records), storing duplicate archive copies in Italy and Salt Lake City, Utah. In 2011, FamilySearch launched a monumentally ambitious initiative that would prove to be La Stele di Rosetta (Rosetta Stone) for Italians all over the world seeking their family origins. FamilySearch began working with the DGA to digitize and index all the remaining state civil registration records—births, marriages, deaths, and allegati (inserted papers and notes)—from every Italian state for the period 1806–1947. These records are the foundation of the Italian Ancestors Project and FamilySearch’s free Italy genealogical records online.
This project is digitally preserving and unleashing more than 155 million records containing over 500 million searchable names of Italians. It is a veritable gold mine for researchers of Italian ancestors. Records from the state civil registry are being made freely accessible at the Portale Antenati (the DGA website) and on FamilySearch.org. Records from numerous other repositories are also available on FamilySearch.org.
Italy Records Access Limitations
Italian privacy laws prohibit publishing vital records until 100 years after a person’s birth and 70 years after deaths and marriages. FamilySearch is digitally preserving records now that won’t be accessible publicly for years to come. It will, however, add new records each year as allowed by privacy law. Currently, FamilySearch is publishing birth records as late as 1918 and deaths and marriages up to 1948.
(LEFT: Enzo Ferrari's birth act (See 'N.287'), an example of an Italian civil registration record. He was the founder of Ferrari sports cars.)
Another access challenge is making the images searchable by name. Once the records are published digitally as images, thousands of online volunteers help create a searchable database. The database is linked to the images of the original records and helps make the principal names, places, and dates in each record discoverable on any internet-enabled device.
To date, FamilySearch has over 150 million images of historical records that need to be indexed. More online volunteers are needed to hasten the pace.
As the newly indexed records are published on FamilySearch.org, the site’s search engine compares the new data to information in FamilySearch Family Tree. If there’s a high-confidence match between newly published content and a user’s tree online, the hints feature notifies the user that the system has found a possible record about an ancestor. This resource makes research easier and increases the joy and frequency of discovery for those of Italian descent.
The hint that appeared on Joel Conte’s FamilySearch Family Tree quickly led him to other online records. Such successes are possible because the original records have been wonderfully and dutifully maintained for centuries in archives across Italy.
Development of the Italian Ancestors Project
Walter Zafarana, a native Italian and field relations manager for FamilySearch in Italy, works with archivists to create an agreement that meets both parties’ objectives. The archive receives digitized copies of their records, preserving them in the face of inevitable deterioration or possible loss and enabling them to better serve the growing number of genealogical inquiries from abroad. For FamilySearch, its worldwide record collection is expanded, more records are preserved, and broader access is enabled for public genealogical research.
Zafarana describes Dr. Daniela Ferrari, former director of the State Archives of Mantova, as the prime mover of the state civil registration project. “She spent hours and hours with me in creating, correcting, and remaking the agreement,” he said. Dr. Roberta Corbellini, Udine archives director, and Dr. Diana Toccafondi, Toscana regional director, were also instrumental in working out the agreement. They were all determined in their vision to see Italy’s historical civil registration—a literal snapshot of 150 years of Italy’s population by state—digitally preserved and more accessible online to family historians worldwide.
Proliferation and Return of Italian Descendants
Since the Roman Empire, Italy has played a pivotal role in world history. Besides molding countries and governments, Italy is the homeland of millions. Italian records are of worldwide interest because 25 million Italians immigrated to countries around the world during a mass migration between 1861 and 1924. Today, while 60 million Italians live in Italy, 85 million descendants live in Brazil, Canada, Venezuela, Argentina, the United States, France, Australia, and elsewhere.
Dr. Ferrari says the state archives have seen a significant increase in the number of requests internationally from descendants of Italians seeking dual citizenship or wanting to verify the town of origin of their ancestors. With the historical records from her archive in Mantova accessible online, the searches of international patrons are simplified, and she can process more inquiries more quickly.
Types of Italian Records Available
In Italy, churches scattered throughout the country have kept vital records since as early as the 1500s. However, when Napoleon Bonaparte annexed large sections of Italy in 1806, he introduced civil registration, which duplicated birth, marriage, and death records kept by churches. After Napoleon left in 1815, the civil records were kept sporadically in northern Italy, but by 1866, all Italian communities were producing birth, citizenship, residency, marriage, and death records, keeping one copy in the community and sending a second copy to the courthouse (tribunale) having jurisdiction for the area where the records were held. Today, these records are a gold mine for Italian family history researchers, especially as the records continue to become accessible online.
“Civil registration records are created in each town,” explained Suzanne Russo Adams, M.A., A.G., FamilySearch content acquisition specialist for Italian records. “A duplicate copy goes to the tribunale (courthouse) where it is held. After 70 years, the records from the courthouses are transferred to the states’ archives for permanent storage,” Adams said, noting that not all of the civil registration records are located in state archives. In some cases, camera teams have needed to visit courthouses and even some smaller town archives to digitize the needed copies of the civil registration.
Adams praised the skilled Italian archivists who have taken great care to preserve these priceless documents over the centuries. FamilySearch’s efforts in Italy preserve and consolidate genealogically significant records online—essentially opening the doors of the archives to patrons all over the world, 24 hours a day. The digital images are also a safety net against natural calamities and loss because of human handling.
Preservation Is Necessary and Important
“FamilySearch’s work to preserve Italy’s historical documents—previously on microfilm and now as digital images—has proved invaluable,” Zafarana said. He reflected on recent incidents of flooding, earthquakes, and fires that threatened or destroyed some of Italy’s historical records.
In 2008, an inferno raged through stacks of ancient books in a courthouse in Rome, destroying priceless historical documents—vestiges of stories for generations of local populations. Diligent record custodians had preserved these documents over the centuries. Glimpses into millions of lives as recorded in these life events were reduced to ashes in the unforgiving ravages of fire. This 2008 fire would have been a catastrophic loss to future generations seeking their stories were it not for previously microfilmed copies of the records, which were preserved by FamilySearch. FamilySearch converted the microfilm images to digital images and presented them to Italian officials in 2016 at no cost.
Another disaster, an earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, occurred on April 2009 and rated at 5.8 on the Richter scale. The quake killed 297 people and collapsed thousands of buildings, some holding essential records. Zafarana commented, “FamilySearch was ready to deliver about 3 million images microfilmed previously from the courthouse and state archive. [In this case, the records] were not needed because all the original records were recovered.”
(Photos: Before and after pictures of the L'Aquila, Italy, courthouse before and after the 2009 earthquake).
Some of the vast records in Italy’s tribunali (courthouses) are methodically filed in vaults designed for their preservation, but in other cases, the documents are not so carefully preserved. Years of disuse have created degrees of disarray in some collections. Before digitizing the records, FamilySearch camera crews must first sort and clean them.
The Records Preservation Process
Five days a week, FamilySearch record preservation photographers enter a participating Italian archive and prepare for the day’s work. A book is taken from the historical record collections to a small room, where a photographer places it in special lighting under a digital document camera with proprietary software. Some books have pages damaged by time and moisture. With special care, the pages are separated and cleaned for the clearest possible pictures. Page by painstaking page, the workers digitally photograph all the documents in each book. The work is methodical and detailed to preserve records that could otherwise eventually succumb completely to time and elements.
Digital images are sent to FamilySearch headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, where a team specifically dedicated to the Italian records checks for accuracy. The images are then uploaded to FamilySearch.org. The goal is to process at least 15 million newly digitized records and scanned microfilm images each year.
Joel Cole oversees the team that catalogs the millions of new digital images yearly as they are received. “We are working on earlier records at state archives—later records are at tribunali (courthouses). You will be able to view them as soon as they are available,” says Cole, a native-born Italian, who has a deep fondness and respect for the project’s importance. Until volunteers can make indexes so the documents are searchable by name, online patrons can browse the catalogued images of the records by geographic location for their Italian ancestors.
Volunteers: Making Italy’s Historical Records More Searchable
According to Cole, FamilySearch is projected to finish digitizing the civil records of all the state archives (109) in Italy by the end of 2020, and the work of digitizing the records of other archives will continue. But the indexes that make the records easily searchable will take much longer to create. While 155 million images of Italian records have already been published online, less than 10 percent of those images have been indexed to date. Unless more volunteers can be enlisted or emerging technologies can be developed to create name indexes, it could literally take centuries to index these records at the current rate of participation.
(Photo Right: Historical books of genealogical relevance in an Italy archive).
FamilySearch indexing enables researchers to type in an ancestor’s name online and within seconds receive search results. However, search engines require an index to search millions or billions of records to find the one name you are seeking. To create those indexes, human effort is required—lots of it.
FamilySearch online volunteers index records from around the world. Most volunteers hail from North America, with English as their native language. About 80 percent of the records currently being indexed online at FamilySearch.org are English language documents. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of international documents, including Italy’s, await additional volunteer indexers who can read the foreign language documents and handwriting.
In the past, FamilySearch has encouraged fluent, native speakers of languages and those with extensive training in other languages to volunteer in those languages. In recent years, they have discovered that English speakers with no prior foreign language experience can index accurately in another language without becoming fluent. Using online training, these indexers learn to recognize key words in the historical records they are indexing. Very difficult records are still handled by language experts.
Learning How to Index Italian Records
To index Italian records—with or without language skills—interested volunteers can go to FamilySearch.org/indexing for information, guidelines and tutorials.
Italian indexing training in the United States has more than doubled both the number of people working on Italian projects and the speed of the digital publication of records. About 2,000 volunteers have worked on the Italian documents. More than 1,000 indexers are from the United States, with about 500 more in Italy; the rest are from other countries.
Ornella Lepore, a native Italian and an indexing supervisor for FamilySearch, helps teach volunteers the needed skills and keywords. “Within two or three weeks of working with the records online, they become reasonably proficient,” said Lepore of new online volunteers.
She says it can be intimidating at first to index Italian records, but it isn’t hard. It just takes practice. Lepore says once a volunteer learns the Italian numbers, gets familiar with the names and the words they need to know, and learns where on the document to find that information, it becomes second nature to them to index the Italian records.
Lepore says she has noticed an additional benefit to those who volunteer to help index. She explained that for volunteers with Italian ancestors, the time spent indexing improves their research skills. They become more familiar with historical Italian record types as well as the language and handwriting used in the documents over the years. As they use the records to do their own family history research, they become much more efficient.
See the Italian indexing guides at FamilySearch.org/indexing. Go to Projects and find one that interests you.
Italian indexers have a Facebook page—FamilySearch Indexing - ITALIA—where they connect and offer help and encouragement.
What to Look for in Italian Research
Mary Tedesco is a professional Italian researcher, second-generation Italian, and TV celebrity host for PBS’s former Genealogy Roadshow. She says FamilySearch’s Italian archives are very exciting for the world of Italian genealogy. “It's wonderful that Italian genealogical research for many can begin online and that more information about our Italian ancestors is more accessible than ever before!”
Tedesco explained that for each Genealogy Roadshow episode, an expert research team thoroughly researched each guest’s story. This research often included online, microfilm, and on-the-ground genealogical research. She said the research team routinely used the growing digital collection of Italian records available online. Tedesco said, “Italian records digitized by FamilySearch have appeared on several Genealogy Roadshow episodes, including in Em Piro’s story in our St. Louis Union Station episode (season 2). A descendant of an Italian grandmother whose story was perplexing, Piro wrote to the Roadshow and asked for help. The Roadshow was able to give her what she needed.”
Tracing Your Italian Ancestors
With the Italian civil registration and other Italy records becoming readily accessible online—for free—there has never been a better time to begin your family history research.
(Right: Antonio DiNauta, an Italian immigrant to the United States, and his two sons, John and Leonard, born in the US).
Start by creating your family tree online. Consult with your oldest living Italian relatives about what they remember. Ultimately, you want to identify where your ancestors came from in Italy, and then the country they immigrated to. Pay attention to names, dates, and locations from family stories.
In the United States, you can look for your ancestor in censuses. Some censuses can tell you the year of a person’s immigration or naturalization. Then look for the ancestor on a passenger list or in a naturalization record based on what you found in the census. These records often will tell you the place of an ancestor’s birth or origin.
In other countries, look for similar records that trace your ancestors’ movement in and through the country (passenger lists, censuses, church records and birth, marriage, death, and naturalization records).
With this information, you should be ready to “cross the pond” to begin looking for your ancestors in the growing FamilySearch archives of Italian records online.
Buona fortuna (good luck)!
Useful Links or Resources
- Your Italian Heritage
- Italy Immigration: The Who, Why, and Where
- Search FamilySearch's Italy Record Collections
- The National Archives of Italy records search portal
- How to Write for Records in Italy
- Visit the homeland and research in-country
About the Author
Diane Sagers has worked as a freelance writer for about 30 years writing two to four newspaper columns weekly and did regular feature work for the Tooele Transcript for 27 of those years. She has proofread and provided articles for magazines, chapters of several published books, and served as editor for the Utah Community Forest Council's quarterly magazine for the past 27 years. She loves to cook, sew, garden, write stories and spend time with her six children and 25 terrific grandchildren.
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