All posts by Lynn Serafinn

Not Just a Nickname: Understanding Your Family Soprannome

Not Just a Nickname: Understanding Your Family Soprannome

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn explains the role of the soprannome in Trentino and other parts of Italy and shows how to recognise them in genealogical records.

Sooner or later, anyone working with Italian genealogy will encounter something called a soprannome’ (plural: soprannomi).

And if you’re working specifically on Trentino family history, you might also hear or read the word scutum’, which is the Trentino dialect word for soprannome.

Despite the fact that EVERY family of Italian origin has a soprannome, many people researching their Trentino (or other Italian) ancestry either don’t know anything about them or fail to recognise them when they see them. And of those who DO know something about them, they often misunderstand the meaning and ‘behaviour’ of their family’s soprannome over time.

I’ve mentioned soprannomi within the context of other articles on this website but have never spoken about them in detail. As this subject is such an important part of Trentino genealogy, I thought it would be helpful to devote an entire article to the subject.

In this article, I will discuss:

  • What soprannomi are and why they are used
  • Why I think the word ‘nickname’ is not an appropriate term for them.
  • The various ways soprannomi are recorded in parish registers
  • How soprannomi are ‘born’, change, and what they might mean
  • Why soprannomi can be both a blessing and a curse for genealogists
  • How to record soprannomi in your family tree

Recording Data – The Computer as an Analogy

Think back to the days when you first started using a computer. Imagine you’ve just created your first Word document.  You probably just saved it to the default ‘Documents’ folder without thinking about it. You might not even have given it a title, just calling it something like ‘Document 1.’

But over time, you made lots and lots of Word documents. Perhaps some were business letters. Perhaps others were letters to the family, stories you wrote or genealogy research notes. After a while, it became difficult to find the documents you had written in the past because they weren’t labelled clearly, and they were all in one big folder called ‘Documents’.

So, what did you do? Well, first of all, you probably started renaming the documents, so you knew what was what. But then, you might also have started creating folders inside the main ‘Documents’ folder. Perhaps one folder was called ‘Business Letters’, and another ‘My Research’, etc.

But soon, you created still MORE documents. For example, perhaps your research diversified, and now you wanted to separate your notes for different branches of the family. So, you started to create subfolders inside the folder called ‘My Research’.

By labelling your files clearly and creating a system of folders and subfolders, it became easier for you to identify and find the correct files when you needed them.

In simple terms, we can say that creating a structure is fundamental to being able to identify things and to distinguish one thing from another.

Name, Surname, Soprannome – An Increasing Need for Accuracy

If you think about it, names, surnames and soprannomi serve much the same purpose as the filing system on our computer:

  • Our personal names are like the documents, in that each document is an individual entity.
  • Our surnames are like the folders in which our documents are stored, in that they group many individuals into different categories.
  • And, in the case of Trentino and other Italian ancestry, our soprannomi are like the subfolders within those folders, in that they create sub-groups within the group.

Just as your system for naming files was less complex when you started out using your computer, naming people was also less complex in the past, when the population was smaller, and most people were living in small, rural hamlets or homesteads.

Indeed, in the beginning, people were known mainly by their personal names along with their father’s name and/or their village of origin. Thus, in early records (and sometime even after surnames were already in use), you will see things like ‘Sebastiano of Sesto’, or ‘Nicolo’ son of Sebastiano of Sesto’.

But just like when you created folders because you had created so many documents you could no longer find what you were looking for, people started using surnames.

The Italian word for surname is ‘cognome’ (plural = cognomi):

Con = with

Nome = name

When the words are joined together, the ‘n’ in ‘con’ is changed to a ‘g’, which creates the sound ‘nya’ (like the ‘gn’ ‘lasagne’).

Thus, cognome means ‘with the name’, implying it is a kind of partner to the name.

While some surnames on the Italian peninsula appear in records as early as the 1200s or so, you don’t really see them becoming the norm until around the 1400s, and even then, they are often a bit ‘fluid’ and still in the state of change/clarification.

The ‘Black Death’ (1346-53) dealt a severe blow to the European population, wiping out an estimated 50% of the population. But gradually, and additional outbreaks of plague notwithstanding, the population not only restored itself, but eventually expanded by the 1600s.

Then, we see a situation where there was a limited number of cognomi within a small community, but lots of sons were being born, all naming their sons after their fathers. Just like your research documents, things started to get confusing.  This is when soprannomi became necessary.  

Like cognome, the word soprannome is also comprised of two Italian words:

‘Sopra’ = above or ‘on top of’

‘Nome’ = name

When the words are joined together, the ‘n’ is doubled.

Thus, together, the term means ‘on top of the name’.

What are Soprannomi and Why Are They Used?

As you might have already surmised:

A soprannome is an additional name used that is used to distinguish one branch of a family from others who share the same surname.

I think it is useful to think of a soprannome as a kind of ‘bolt on’ family surname, an idea that is also consistent with literal meaning of the word (‘on top of the name’).

Just as creating subfolders can be extremely helping in helping organise and identify individual files on our computer, soprannomi can be extremely useful in identifying the correct people – both during their own lifetimes, and in our family trees – especially when many people seem to have the same name and surname.

And, although I have NOT seen this mentioned in any of my research resources, I would assume that soprannomi might also have been considered useful (if not necessary) tools in helping ensure close bloodlines didn’t intermarry. As I mentioned in an earlier article (see link below), marriages between 3rd cousins or closer were only permitted via a special church dispensation.

MORE READING:   Kissing Cousins: Marital Dispensations, Consanguinity, Affinity

Why I Think ‘Nickname’ is a Misleading Term

I have frequently seen the word soprannome translated into English as ‘nickname’. However, I believe this is a misleading term, and it doesn’t really reflect the true purpose and behaviour of a soprannome.

When we use the term ‘nickname’ in English, we usually mean:

  1. A shortening/adaptation of a person’s personal name (such as ‘Charly’ for ‘Charles’ or ‘Peggy’ for ‘Margaret’) OR
  2. An individual ‘pet name’ given to someone reflecting a personal trait or characteristic; alternatively, it may be associated with an achievement or event unique to them. Almost everyone will have had at least one ‘pet name’ in their lives, if not various ones from parents, schoolmates, spouse, friends, etc., according to their relationship with them.

While a soprannome might share some obvious similarities with one of these criteria, its historical origins might be so obscure that even the families who ‘inherited’ it may no longer know where it came from or what it means. Moreover, the original significance of the soprannome may have no relevance whatsoever to the family in the present day. This is quite different from what we associate with the term ‘nickname’, which is usually something intentionally given to someone to create a sense of intimacy and familiarity.

The function of a soprannome is also quite different from a nickname, as its purpose is to identify a specific lineage of people within a larger group, rather than one particular person. Perhaps the English word ‘clan’ might be a bit closer in meaning, but I don’t know enough about clans in other cultures to make a true comparison.

How Soprannomi Are Recorded in Parish Registers (or not!)

After analysing hundreds of thousands of Italian parish records from at least five different provinces, I can conclude:

There is NO consistently used system for recording soprannomi.

Soprannomi appear in all manner of ways in the records, depending on the era, the parish and the individual style of the priest. You can sometimes read decades worth of records in some parishes, and never stumble across a single soprannome. In fact, I have NEVER seen the soprannome for the branch of our Serafini family in any record, despite the fact it has most likely been around since the beginning of the 19th century. I only know the soprannome anecdotally, via my cousins in Trentino.

That said, there are some common practices for recording soprannomi, including:

‘Detto’ or ‘Dicti’

Perhaps the most commonly seen way of recording a soprannome is with the word detto’ (if the record is in Italian, usually after 1800) or the word dicti’ (if the record is in Latin, as is almost always the case before 1800). Without going into the grammar too much, these words are derived from the verb ‘to say’. You will often see them in documents with the meaning of ‘the aforesaid’, but in the context of surname/soprannome, they can loosely be translated as ‘called’ or ‘otherwise known as’.

For example, consider this baptismal record from 1705:

1705 Baptismal record for Antonio Buschetti, soprannome 'Caserini'

Click on image to see it larger

Here we see the name of the baptised child is Antonio, and his father is referred to as ‘Giovanni, son of Francesco Buschetti, called (dicti) Caserini. In other words, the surname is Buschetti, and the soprannome for that branch of the family is Caserini.

Be aware, however, that these words are FREQUENTLY abbreviated, e.g. ‘dtofor detto, or ‘dtifor dicti. Here’s one example from a 1768 marriage record from Tione di Trento:

1768 marriage record from Tione di Trento.

Click on image to see it larger

Here, we see the groom is referred to as ‘Antonio son of the late Francesco Salvaterra called Borella’ (i.e. surname Salvaterra, soprannome Borella), and the bride is ‘Cattarina, daughter of Giuseppe Salvaterra called Serafin’ (i.e. the surname is again Salvaterra, and the soprannome is Serafin or Serafini). In both cases, the soprannome is indicated by the word dicti in its abbreviated from.

‘Vulgo’

Recently when I did some research in Valvestino in the province of Brescia (Lombardia), I encountered another method of recording in soprannomi in Latin records, using the word ‘vulgo’. This word loosely means ‘commonly’, but in this context can be translated as ‘commonly known as’.

Consider this baptismal record from 1839 (during an era when I would have expected to see the record written in Italian):

1839 marriage record from Valvestino in the province of Brescia, Lombardia, Italy

Click on image to see it larger

Here, the child’s father is referred to as ‘Giovanni Grandi, vulgo Ecclesia’ (the priest had actually omitted the surname at first and inserted it above the line). Thus, the surname is Grandi, and the soprannome is ‘Ecclesia’. However, in this particular case, the family’s soprannome is actually Chiesa (which means ‘church’ in English), as the priest has used the Latin word for church (Ecclesia).

Surname Followed by Soprannome

Some priests don’t bother to use an indicator such as detto, etc. for the soprannome, preferring simply to write the two names one after the other. Consider this baptismal record from 1760, again from the parish of Tione di Trento:

1760 baptismal record for Francesca Failoni of Tione di Trento.

Click on image to see it larger

Here the priest refers to the father of the child as ‘Felice, son of Francesco Failoni Battaia’. It is understood from this context that the surname is Failoni, and the soprannome is Battaia – at least we HOPE that is what he means.

I say ‘hope’ because, in my experience, priests will occasionally REVERSE the surname and soprannome, making it difficult to know which is which. A perfect example is this same document, in the name of the godmother. She is described here as ‘Maria, widow of the late Vittorio Seraphin (Serafin or Serafini) Salvaterra’.

Having done a fair amount of research on the families of Tione, I am fairly certain the Vittorio’s surname was Salvaterra, and his soprannome was Serafin(i), not the other way around (in fact, we saw an example of this combination in a previous record in this article). I couldn’t say that this was definitely the case, however, without future research.

‘Equal’ sign

Sometimes soprannome is preceded by an ‘equal’ sign (=). I have seen this system used most frequently in 19th century records. Usually, this sign will be between the surname and the soprannome, but not always. Consider this 1838 death record from the parish of Cavedago in Val di Non:

1838 death record for Tommaso Viola of Cavedago

Click on image to see it larger

Here, this 86-year-old deceased man is called ‘Tommaso Viola, son of the late Giovanni = Rodar’. In other words, his surname was Viola, and his soprannome was ‘Rodar’.

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Where Do Soprannomi Come From?

Much like Italian surnames, many (but not all) soprannomi may be derived from:

  • The personal name of a patriarch or matriarch
  • A place of origin of either a patriarch or matriarch
  • An historic profession of the family
  • A personal characteristic or attribute of a family or individual

Personal names

Some examples soprannomi I’ve encountered which mostly likely came from patriarchal personal names include: Stefani (from Stefano), Battianel (from Giovanni Battista), Vigiolot (from Vigilio), Gianon (from Giovanni), Tondon (probably from Antonio), and many others too numerous to count.

Sal Romano of the ‘Trentino Heritage’ blog told me that one of the soprannome for his Iob family was ‘Sicher’, which he theorises may have come from the personal name of a man named Sichero (Sicherius in Latin) in the 1670s.

Occasionally, you will see a soprannome that is derived from the name of a female ancestor, especially if the name is not so common. For example, one of my clients’ trees had the soprannome ‘Massenza’ because that was the name of one of the matriarchs for that line back in the 1700s.

Notice how I am expressing different levels of certainty here. That is because, of the above soprannomi, the only one for which I have definitely identified the origin is ‘Massenza’. The origins of the others are only hypothetical until research proves (or disproves) the theory.

Place of Origin

Some soprannomi indicate a connection with another place somewhere in the ancestral line. My friend and client Gene Pancheri, author of Pancheri: Our Story, told me that one of the Pancheri soprannomi is ‘Rumeri’, which means ‘a person from the village of Rumo’. He traced the origins of that soprannome to one of the female ancestors (who married a Pancheri of Romallo) who had come from Rumo.

Similarly, my own Serafini branch has the soprannome ‘Cenighi’ because my 4X great-grandmother, Margherita Giuliani (married to a Serafini in Santa Croce parish), came from the frazione of Ceniga in the parish of Drò (near Arco).

When making a tree for a client last year whose ancestors came from Tione di Trento, I noticed one of the soprannomi for the surname Salvaterra was ‘Ragol’. While I haven’t yet traced it back to its source, it is highly likely to have originated with female who came from the nearby village of Ragoli, which was often included within the parish of Tione in the past.

Notice how all of the examples above are linked to matriarchal lines. In my observation, most soprannomi that are linked to a place of origin tend to come from a female line. This is because women tended to move to the village/parish of their husbands (unless the woman was wealthy or had inherited property from her father).

There are exceptions, of course. On a list I recently received for Villa Banale in Val Giudicarie via Daniel Caliari at Giudicarie Storia, one of the soprannome for the surname Flaim was ‘Nonesi’, which means, ‘from Val di Non’. I found this interesting because Flaim is not indigenous to Villa Banale, and ALL the Flaim from that parish are descended from one man (named Bartolomeo Flaim) who came from Revò in Val di Non, who migrated there in the 1700s. Thus, all the Flaim there are technically ‘Nonesi’; it made me wonder how they figured out which branch got to ‘keep’ this soprannome as a memory of their origins.

Family Profession

Most soprannomi I have found that relate back to profession will refer to a ‘family’ profession rather than one for an individual. In this regard, the many variants on the word for ‘blacksmith’ spring to mind: Ferrari, Frerotti, Frieri, Fabro, Fabroferrari, etc. While most of these are also surnames in their own right, you will also see them crop up as soprannomi, telling you that, at least at some point in your family’s history, the blacksmithing was the family occupation.

Perhaps one of the most curious soprannomi I have ever encountered was when I was researching the Etro family of the Bassano del Grappa area of the province of Vicenza (Veneto), who migrated to the mountains of Madonna di Campiglio near Pinzolo in Trentino in the 1860s.

Their soprannome was ‘Rollo dei Mori’, which means ‘Rollo of the Moors’. In this era, the term ‘Moor’ referred to dark-skinned people from the Iberian Peninsula who were of north African descent, and usually Muslim.

It his book Guida ai Cognomi del Trentino, Aldo Bertoluzza stressed that the surnames/soprannomi derived from this word were most likely used to describe someone with black hair or very dark complexion, NOT someone who had Moorish background.

Bearing that in mind, there was something about the Etro family that MIGHT explain this curious soprannome: THEY WERE CHARCOAL MAKERS (carbonai).

Charcoal making was a ‘whole family’ operation, requiring the family to spend many months of the year in the woods, away from their main village. Children learned the skills of the profession from a young age, and sons often followed in their fathers’ footsteps, also becoming carbonai when they grew up.

In my mind, I imagine the family would often have been seen with blackened hands and faces as a result of their occupation. Perhaps ‘Rollo dei Mori’ was an affectionate or teasing term given to (or adopted by) the family because they were charcoal makers.

Of course, this is JUST my own theory.

Moorish style chandelier at Castel Stenico, Val Giudicarie

SIDE NOTE: Interestingly, Moorish themes and motifs were very popular in Trentino, and indeed throughout Italy between the 17th and 19th centuries. Consider this amazing ‘Moorish’ chandelier in Castel Stenico in Val Giudicarie. I’ve seen many such artefacts in many places in the province. It also brings to mind the ‘Dance of the Moors’ in Verdi’s opera Aida.

Character or Attribute of Family or Individual

Recently I stumbled across the soprannome ‘Piccolo Vigiloti’, which suddenly cropped up after several generations of seeing ‘Vigilot’. This is an example of a patriarchal soprannome differentiating to reflect an attribute of either a branch of the family or an individual. We can safely assume that the ‘Vigiloti’ branch got too big for the soprannome to be useful, and rather than create a new soprannome, they called one of them ‘Piccolo’, meaning ‘small’. As this branch was not the main focus of my research at that time, I didn’t trace it back to its roots, but my guess would be it either means ‘the smaller branch of descendants of Vigilio’, or ‘the descendants of the YOUNGER Vigilio’ (which I think is more likely).

Another soprannome I encountered that might be connected to a personal attribute (although, again, I haven’t yet excluded other possibilities) is Papi, which I have seen in connection with the surname Rigotti in San Lorenzo in Banale in the 19th century. The word ‘papi’ is the plural of the word for ‘pope’ (papa), not to be confused with the word papà, which means ‘father’. Both Papa and Papi are surnames in other parts of the province, but the soprannome MIGHT have no connection with these. Rather, as Aldo Bertoluzza theorises in Guida ai Cognomi del Trentino, it might have been used as a nickname for a man (again, perhaps in an affectionate way) who was said to have the demeanour or ‘presence’ of a pope.

There are a lot of ‘mights’ here, of course, and I prefer NOT to speculate too much, lest it blind me to the truth later. I think soprannomi that are derived from attributes are often the most difficult to identify with confidence, as we have no way of knowing much, if anything, about the personality of the people or families in question.

Soprannomi Taken from the Surname of a Matriarch

I’ve put this topic under its own header because I didn’t want it to get lost amongst the other categories.

Some soprannomi are actually other SURNAMES. Some examples I’ve personally encountered include:

  • Serafini/Serafin (a common surname in Ragoli and Santa Croce) was a soprannome for a branch of the Salvaterra in Tione in the 19th century (as we saw earlier).
  • Armanini (a common surname in Premione) was a soprannome for a branch of the Scandolari in Tione in the 19th century.
  • Conti (a surname in many parts of the province, but it also means ‘Counts’), was a soprannome for the Pancheri of Romallo in the 20th century.
  • Bondi (a common surname in Saone, and later in Santa Croce) was is a soprannome for a branch of the Devilli of Cavrasto in the 1600-1700s.
  • Bleggi (a common surname of Tignerone/Cilla’) was a soprannome for a branch of the Duchi in Sesto in the 1500-1600s.

Now, while I cannot say categorically this is true across the board, my ‘educated guess’ is that most of these surname-derived soprannomi are the surnames of a matriarch in the ancestral line.

In the case of the older lines, I probably will never be able to prove this theory, as the records won’t go back far enough to find the origins. Moreover, the further back you go in time, information about women in general becomes increasingly scant.

The fact that some soprannomi are identical to surnames can be a real bother – especially if a priest writes the soprannome before the surname in the record, as you have no way of knowing which is which without cross-referencing lots of other records.

Even worse is when a priest suddenly decides to use the soprannome INSTEAD of the surname, leaving the surname out altogether. That is definitely NOT fun.

When Soprannomi Become a Nightmare

On that note, consider this 1708 marriage record, where the groom is clearly identified as Giovanni Battista, son of the late Vigilio Bondi:

1708 marriage of Giovanni Battisa 'Bondi' Devilli and Domenica Farina

Click on image to see it larger

As Giovanni Battista is also called Bondi in his 1690 baptismal record, I originally took this at face value, and assumed ‘Bondi’ was the family surname.

However, for the longest time I couldn’t figure out who this Bondi family were or how they connected to the rest of the tree. They just sort of ‘popped up’ out of nowhere, like time travellers.

Then, and only by a great stroke of fortune where the priest made a correction in the records, I saw another marriage record for the same Giovanni Battista (he had been widowed twice at this point), where the priest had ORIGINALLY written ‘Bondi’, and then crossed it out and wrote ‘Villi’ (one of many spelling variants for the surname ‘Devilli’) above it:

1730 marriage record for Giovanni Battista Devilli and Margherita Caliari

Click on image to see it larger

Only then did I realise that the ‘Bondi’ family and the ‘Devilli’ family were one and the same – which was really handy, as Giovanni Battista Devilli happened to be my 6X great-grandfather.

Now consider this record of a double marriage in 1583, in which two siblings married two other siblings:

1583 Reversi Ballina double wedding, Santa Croce del Bleggio.

Click on image to see it larger

Now, I know many of you will find this challenging to read, so let me just identify the key people:

  • Benedetto REVERSI (son of the late Antonio) married Lucia BALLINA (daughter of Vincenzo)
  • Silvestro BALLINA (son of Vincenzo, hence brother of Lucia) married and Maddalena REVERSI (daughter of the late Antonio, hence sister of Benedetto)

In this record, the priest (don Alberto Farina) has apparently recorded the surnames for the couples, without and mention of soprannome.

But now have a look at this baptismal record from 1588, written by a different priest (Nicolo’ Arnoldo) of the same parish:

1588 baptismal record for Antonio 'Tacchel' Reversi, Santa Croce del Bleggio

Click on image to see it larger

The child’s first name is Antonio, and his surname (or so we assume) is underlined in the first sentence. It looks like ‘Tacchel’, but I have also seen it spelled ‘Tachelli’ in other records. I also found a record for Antonio’s elder sister, ‘Margherita Tacchel’, born in 1568.

Like the ‘Bondi’ family, this ‘Tacchel/Tachelli’ family were kind of floating in space on my tree for the longest time because I just couldn’t figure out who they were. But the answer was staring me right in the face (you can probably already guess it, as I’ve already shown you the document with the answer).

As you can see in Antonio’s baptismal record, his parents’ names are ‘Benedetto’ and Lucia’, and they lived in Cavaione. Now, remember we are talking about tiny hamlets, especially back in 1588. Only a handful of extended families would have been living in each frazione.

Add to that, the name ‘Benedetto’ is not a super common. But the combination of Benedetto AND Lucia in Cavaione in the 1580s? What are the chances of there being more than one such couple?

The answer is: none. There was indeed only one couple with those names in that village at that time.

As my tree is pretty large, I ran a few filters in my Family Tree Maker programme to find a ‘Benedetto’ living in Cavaione in this era and found Benedetto Reversi and Lucia Ballina, whose marriage I had already entered into the tree. What’s more, I knew that Benedetto’s father’s name was Antonio, and it was the usual practice back then to name the first son after the paternal grandfather.

All this made a very strong case for concluding that these were one and the same couple, and that ‘Tachel/Tachelli’ was a soprannome for this branch of the Reversi family (a surname that is still in use to this day in that parish).

MAIN ‘TAKEWAY’: If you see a surname that just sort of ‘appears’ in the records, and no mention is made that the family came from someplace else, consider the possibility that you are looking at a soprannome and that this family may already exist in your tree.

SIDE NOTE: The surname for the ‘Ballina’ family here eventually become ‘Fusari’. But I digress…

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The Ever-Changing Nature of Soprannomi

While the linguistic conventions for creating soprannomi might be similar to those for surnames, there is one BIG difference between them:

While surnames tend to stay the more or less the same for a long time (often for centuries), soprannomi will CHANGE whenever they need to, sometimes from one generation to the next.

Whenever a branch of a family gets very large, with lots of male descendants carrying the family surname, new soprannomi will suddenly spring up to differentiate these various male lines. This is why you might sometimes see a father with one soprannome, and his son with another.

So, if a relative tells you that your family’s soprannome is such-and-such, don’t just accept it something ‘cast in stone’. It might be so, but then again it might not. It’s essential to know WHEN they are talking about. If that person saw that soprannome in a book or in some parish records from the 1600s …well… it is highly unlikely this will be your family soprannome TODAY. Many soprannomi will be used only three or four generations (sometimes less) before they morph into something else.

Remember, it’s just like creating subfolders (and sub-subfolders) on your computer. There is no way to keep everything straight without continual, dynamic change to adapt to new situations and needs.

And sometimes, but less frequently, these adaptations may result in a more radical change, where a soprannome will replace the surname altogether. In my father’s parish of Santa Croce, for example, the family now known as ‘Martinelli’ used to be called ‘Giumenta’ before the 1630s, adopting their soprannome (apparently derived from a patriarch named Martino who was born around 1515) as their surname. Similarly, the present-day surname ‘Tosi’ in the same parish came from the soprannome of a branch of the noble Crosina family of Balbido.

Unless you are aware of these shifts from soprannome to surname, it can seem like your ancestral family has vanished into dust when you are trying to trace them backwards.

Tracing the Origins of Your Family’s Soprannomi

As you can see, origins and behaviour of soprannomi are highly varied, often unclear, and constantly changing.  As such, tracing the origin and meaning of a soprannome can range from really obvious to doggedly elusive.

But if we are to have even the slightest chance of understanding them, and to using them as genealogical tools, we must make it a practice to keep a record our family soprannomi whenever we encounter them. They are not just colourful names, but important clues as to our ancestral lines, which can help us identify specific people, places and/or occupations of the past.

If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend that you start keeping a list of soprannomi, taking care to record: 

  • The SURNAMES they are connected to
  • The VILLAGES in which they appear
  • The DATES (both the earliest AND the most recent) you have seen them in a record

I keep an ongoing list of soprannomi for my father’s parish, mostly from the 1500-1700s. I keep it as a ‘general task’ in my Family Tree Maker programme, and refer to it frequently. For me, those years are the most crucial to record, because (as already illustrated) there are so many instances of the priests using soprannomi instead of surnames. Without this ‘road map’ I could easily get lost.

Recording Soprannomi in Your Family Tree

I believe it is important to record soprannomi in your family tree, not only because they are an important part of your family history, but also because doing so will also help you keep track of your ancestral lines.

So, what is the ‘best’ way of doing this? I think it ultimately comes down to personal choice. I’ve used a variety of methods in different trees,all with their own advantages/disadvantages. Below are a few options you might consider.

TIP: Whichever method you choose, BE CONSISTENT. Try to use the same method throughout the same tree. My oldest tree (now around 26,000 people) has a patchwork of styles, which I am gradually trying to standardise.

OPTION 1: Soprannome as a MIDDLE NAME

Sometimes I put soprannomi in ALL CAPS as a middle name just before the surname.

This has the advantage of making things visible for me to find them quickly in the index when using a programme like Family Tree Maker or searching for that person on Ancestry.

However, it can also be confusing, as I also use the same method with middle names that are used as the primary name by which the person was known.

OPTION 2: Using ‘Also Known As’

Both Ancestry and Family Tree Maker have an option for ‘also known as’ (AKA).

This might seem like a good choice for a soprannome, but I feel that is better used for when someone is known by one of their middle names OR an actual NICKNAME as we think of it in English.

OPTION 3: The ‘Double-Barrelled’ Surname-Soprannome

In some parishes, the surnames are SO repetitive, and the priests CONSISTENTLY used soprannomi in just about every record, I have occasionally opted to HYPHENATED the surname with the soprannome. This was a method I used when making a tree for someone with family from the parish of Tione di Trento, as the soprannome in that parish are almost always see in conjunction with the surname.

The advantage of this method is it immediately organised everyone with the same surname-soprannome combination alphabetically in the person index for the tree, which is actually very useful.

The disadvantage is that, if you don’t know a person’s soprannome because it wasn’t recorded in the record, they might look like they are disconnected from their branch of the family.

OPTION 4: Create a Custom Fact or Event Called ‘Soprannome

Although sites like Ancestry and programmes like Family Tree Maker don’t have a ‘soprannome’ in their default settings, it is possible to create a ‘custom fact’ (in Family Tree Maker) or ‘custom event’ (in Ancestry) and label it ‘soprannome’.

Personally, I believe this the BEST option, as it makes it absolutely CLEAR that this name is a soprannome and not something else. When using Family Tree Maker, it gives you the additional advantage of being able to create filtered lists or custom reports for specific soprannomi (which can be really informative). Equally important, you can also write NOTES about the soprannome ‘fact/event’, where you can discuss how it was derived, when it started, where it was recorded, or any other relevant information.

UNBREAKABLE RULE: Record WHERE You Found It

Regardless of which method you choose or devise to record your family’s soprannomi, there is one ‘unbreakable rule’ I strongly advise you include in your research practice:

After the soprannome, make a note of where you found it – preferably the earliest record.

For example, if a soprannome is in Giovanni’s baptismal record, put down ‘as per Giovanni’s baptismal record’ or something to that effect.

But what if it’s NOT in the baptismal record for Giovanni, but in the baptismal records of two of his children? Then, write ‘as per the baptismal records of his children, Antonio and Maria,’ etc. This helps you remember that the soprannome MIGHT have started with that generation, and not earlier. Later, if you find an earlier record, change the notation to reflect that.

Please trust me on this point. In the past, I neglected this important ‘rule’, which resulted in me not being able to identify where the soprannome first entered the tree, which can potentially create some confusion as you move backwards in time.

How NOT to Record Soprannomi (or Nicknames) in Your Tree

Two things you should NEVER (ever!) use in the name field for people in your tree are:

  1. Quotation marks (AKA inverted commas)
  2. Parentheses (AKA brackets)

I’ve seen these on so many trees on Ancestry, I’ve lost count. They are especially common in trees where people changed their names after immigration.

SIDE NOTE: While not on the subject of soprannomi, I really want to stress that married surnames should NEVER be part of a woman’s name – neither in the name field, and not in the ‘also known as. It is already understood that she would possibly have been known by her husband’s surname if she lived in the US or UK. Besides, when we are talking about Italian women, many, if not most, retain their maiden names throughout life.

So, let’s have a look at what a MESS all these variables can create. I’ll use my father’s eldest sister as an example (both she and my dad are deceased):

  • My dad’s sister was born Pierina Luigina Serafini,
  • She was known as Jean Serafinn in America.
  • She was sometimes called ‘Gina’ in the family and ‘Jeannie’ by American friends.
  • She was married to a man whose surname was Graiff who died young.
  • Later she remarried a man with the surname Watson (he is also deceased).
  • Oh, and just for the heck of it, let’s go ahead and throw in our family soprannome, ‘Cenighi’.

Using the ‘quotation mark’ and ‘parentheses’ methods, and inserting her married surnames, my poor aunt’s name might end up looking like this:

Pierina Luigia “Gina” (Jean Serafinn) “Jeannie” Serafini “Cenighi” Graiff Watson

Please DON’T do this!!

Not only is this only horribly confusing to as to what her name actually IS, but all those quotation marks and brackets can cause errors in software programmes.

The best policy is to record the person’s name AT BIRTH in the name field, and then put alternative names in the ‘also known as’ field. And, as mentioned, the husbands’ surnames stay with the husbands, not the wife.

Thus, here is how my aunt SHOULD be entered into the tree:

  • NAME: Pierina Luigina Serafini
  • ALSO KNOWN AS: Jean Serafinn
  • SOPRANNOME: Cenighi (not in records, but via verbal info from Serafini cousins)
  • HUSBAND 1: Albino Graiff
  • HUSBAND 2: Gary Watson

If you really wanted, you could put additional ‘also known as’ to put her nicknames ‘Gina’ and ‘Jeannie’, but I think those are unnecessary, as we already know she was known as ‘Jean’.

Also, if you wanted (and if you knew enough information), you could write some notes about the historical origins of the soprannome in the notes for that fact in Family Tree Marker…. something I am again only just starting to integrate into my own trees. Here are some notes I’ve entered about the Cenighi soprannome:

The soprannome ‘Cenighi’ originates with Margherita Giuliani, who married Alberto Serafini in 1803, as she came from the frazione of Ceniga in the parish of Drò (near Arco). Their descendants are thus known as the ‘Cenighi Serafini’. I have not yet seen this soprannome in any records; rather, I was told the soprannome by Luigina Serafini (daughter of Luigi Paolo Serafini and Gemma Gasperini). Apparently, the family were unaware of the origin of the soprannome prior to my researching the family history.

Closing Thoughts

Thanks so much for taking time to read this article on soprannomi. I do hope you enjoyed it, and found it informative and useful to your research. It’s an article I’ve been wanting to write for some time now. It’s a complex topic – in many ways more complex that surnames.

I also hope I have presented a convincing argument AGAINST the word ‘nickname’ as a translation for the word soprannome. It really doesn’t do the term justice, nor does it reflect its important social function.  Perhaps we can all agree to stick to using the original word – soprannome. 

I would mean so much to me (and you would really help me know if these articles are explaining things clearly enough), if you could take a moment to leave a few comments below, sharing what you found most helpful or interesting about the article, or asking whatever questions I may not have answered.

Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
6 Oct 2019

P.S. My next trip to Trento is coming up in November 2019. My client roster for that trip is already full, but if you would like to book a time to discuss having me do research for you on a future trip in 2020, I invite you to read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. Then, we can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: As I’ve had so many other projects lately, I have still not finished the edits for the PDF eBook on DNA tests, which I will be offering for FREE to my blog subscribers. I will send you a link to download it when it is done. Please be patient, as it will take a month or so to edit the articles and put them into the eBook format. If you are not yet subscribed, you can do so using the subscription form at the end of this article below.

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Kissing Cousins: Marital Dispensations, Consanguinity, Affinity

Kissing Cousins: Marital Dispensations, Consanguinity, Affinity

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn explains canon law regarding consanguinity and affinity, and how dispensations in marriage records can help us in our research.

When we think of our genealogical ‘pedigree’ we often imagine it to be an ever-expanding ‘fan’ of ancestors, multiplying by two at each generation. After all, we have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on, so it makes perfect sense that this doubling would continue ad infinitum, right?

Well… no. While it makes sense in theory, in reality this doubling at each generation is both a mathematical and practical impossibility.

The Mathematics of Why Our Ancestors Did Not Double Every Generation

If our ancestors had doubled at every generation, they would eventually exceed the total population of the earth. And I mean by a LOT. For example, if we allow for around 30 years per generation, by the time we get back to around the year 1,000 C.E. we would have gone back about 32 generations (more if you are younger than I am). If we double our ancestors at every generations, we would end up with over 4 billion ancestors. Well, the problem with that is that the entire human population of the earth for the year 1,000 is somewhere between 250-350 million peopleroughly 93% LESS than the total number we would need if our ancestors actually doubled at every generation.

And the further back you go, the more our calculations contradict the actual figures. By the time we got back to time of Julius Caesar, for example, we would have reached an astronomical one quintillion ancestors (that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000) – a figure so large it is doubtful our planet would be able to sustain us. In reality, there was an estimated total 200-400 million people alive on the planet at that time: only 0.000000000002% of the number of people needed if we were to double at every generation.

To understand these figures better, it is important to bear in mind that population growth in the past was not as linear as it is today. Infant mortality was high. Young women died in childbirth, and young men died in accidents and wars. Poor sanitation, infections and malnutrition claimed the lives of many others, sometimes before people were old enough to marry and have children. The plague and other epidemics were a recurring presence, often wiping out huge chunks of the human population. Overall, the population of the human species, although going up and down repeatedly through the centuries, didn’t really ‘explode’ and rise consistently until around the beginning of the 19th century.

The Practical Reasons Why Our Ancestors Did Not Double at Every Generation

People in the pre-industrial era tended to stay – and marry – within a small geographic parameter. Those of us who have researched our families will probably have discovered that most of our ancestors married within their community of birth, or at least not far from it.

The reason for this is twofold:

  • Long-distance travel wasn’t as easy or available as it is today.
  • Most people were subsistence farmers, whose survival was dependent on the land; thus, moving around was not usually a practical option.

In one genealogy course I took, the lecturer said the ‘rule of thumb’ was that, for countless millennia, until the introduction of the bicycle (and later the railway), people chose spouses who lived no further than a day’s walk away from their own home. In my own research, I would estimate at least 90% of people married much closer than that, i.e. usually within their own parish, and often within their own tiny frazione (hamlet). I would bet most couples knew each other their whole lives before marrying.

Considering again the mathematical calculations, if I trace my father’s Trentino ancestry back to the beginning of the parish records in 1565, it would reach back around 14 to 15 generations. If my ancestors had doubled at each generation, the figure would be somewhere between 8,000 to 16,000 people. The problem with this is that, at any given era in the past, there never were more than around 1,500 people alive in my father’s parish, and of those, maybe only 25-35% would have been of child-bearing age. And while some people certainly married outside the parish, those marriages were in the minority.

Endogamy and Pedigree Collapses

So, what is the explanation for these anomalies between biology, practicality and mathematics?

Two terms are needed to answer this question: ‘endogamy’ and ‘pedigree collapse’.

Endogamy is a term used to describe the tendency for people to marry within their own community. I have often seen writers use this term with reference to ethnic minority groups living within larger ‘majority’ societies. However, in my experience, the term really is applicable to ALL communities throughout history. Every one of us is the ‘end product’ of an endogamous ancestry because, until the past century or so, nearly all of our ancestors chose spouses within their own communities of origin.

Because people tended to marry within their own communities, it was inevitable that some (if not most) husbands and wives would end up being related by blood in some way. In other words, they would share a common ancestor (or pair of ancestors). When we have couples in our ‘pedigree’ (list of ancestors) who share a common ancestor, it creates what we call a ‘pedigree collapse’. We call it a ‘collapse’ because our ancestors do NOT double at the point where the couple shares a common ancestor. For example, if your grandparents were 2nd cousins, it means they shared great-grandparents (your 3X great-grandparents). Thus, instead of having 32 great-great-great-grandparents, you would only have 30.

Due to the mathematical and practical reasons already discussed, pedigree collapses happen repeatedly in our family trees. If you dig deeply enough into your family history, you are likely to find that nearly all of your ancestors had common ancestors at some point in the past. In fact, once you get back to the beginning of the parish records in the mid-1500s, you are quite likely you are to discover you are related to virtually everyone who was alive in that parish at the time, and that most of these ancestors are related to you via multiple branches. Some of my ancestors from that era are related to me at least 10 different ways!

That is how ‘pedigree collapses’ reconcile the anomaly between theory and practice.

Consanguinity versus ‘Inbreeding’

When my clients first find out they have ‘pedigree collapses’ in their trees, some become alarmed. Isn’t this what people call ‘inbreeding’? Doesn’t that cause all kinds of genetic problems? And isn’t ‘inbreeding’ forbidden by the church?

To address these concerns, we need to introduce another term: ‘consanguinity’.

Consanguinity means two people are related by blood (in Italian, con = ‘with’ and ‘sangue’= blood). We can also say they have a ‘consanguineous relationship’.

‘Inbreeding’ is consanguinity in the extreme. It refers to when people who are very closely related marry generation after generation, usually within the same ‘line’. For reasons I will touch upon later in this article, this happened more frequently in the upper classes than the ‘peasantry’. And, yes, true inbreeding can cause serious genetic health issues.

But normally, the degree and frequency of consanguinity most of us have in our family trees do not create a significant genetic weakness. If that were the case, the entire human race would have died out long ago. Moreover, as we’ve seen, consanguinity was actually a practical necessity: without it, our ancestors wouldn’t have been able to FIND any marriage partners.

That said, as we’ll explore next, the Church (and more recently, civil governments) created many rules about the degrees of consanguinity permitted between a husband and wife, to ensure families did not become too ‘inbred’.

Marriage and the Church

Something I find interesting is that the Christian sacrament of marriage as we think of it today wasn’t clearly defined until the year 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council. Before that, anyone could claim they were ‘married’ simply by cohabiting. In ‘Canon 51’ (a canon is a mandate or church law) from that council forbid the practice of ‘clandestine marriages’, even if witnessed by a priest. From this point, it became church law that all those who intended to marry were required to announce their intent publicly by publishing banns in their parish church.

One of the reasons for making marriage a public was to ensure there were no legal impediments to it. One obvious impediment would be if either party was already married or promised in marriage to someone else. But another impediment, defined more clearly in Canons 50 and 52, was the issue around consanguinity and affinity.

Canon Law Regarding Consanguineous Marriages

The Fourth Lateran Council decreed that a marriage between persons who had a consanguineous relationship at the ‘fourth degree’ or closer was prohibited.

‘Fourth grade’ grade means they shared a common ancestor (or pair of ancestors) four generations back, i.e. great-great-grandparents. To make this easier to understand, here is a table I’ve made showing 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade consanguinity:

CHART – Consanguineous Relationships According to Canon LawCHART - Consanguineous Relationships According to Canon Law

Click on image to see it larger

Note that I have written ‘common ancestor(s)’ rather than ‘common ancestors’. This is because a couple might share only one common ancestor. For example, if a woman died in childbirth and the husband remarried, the children of the second wife would be the half-siblings of those of the first. In this case, the husband might be the only common ancestor, as the bride and groom might be descended from a different mother.

Interestingly, prior to this ruling, marriages were actually prohibited back to the 7th degree (6th cousins!). Eventually, the church realised this rule was impossible to monitor (especially as there were no official records of births before the mid-1500s, and it was unlikely most people could trace their ancestry that far back), but it also made it virtually impossible for people to find an eligible marriage partner in their community who was not related to them in some way.

English Thinking Versus Italian Thinking

The ‘grades’ of consanguinity are sometimes confusing for an English speaker because a ‘second grade’ relationship in terms of canon law is what we would call ‘1st cousins’. Similarly, ‘third grade’ is what we would call ‘2nd cousins’ and ‘fourth grade’ is what we would call ‘3rd cousins’. For this reason, I find it useful to shift my thinking to a more visual way of seeing the relationships (as in the chart above) rather than trying to think in English terminology.

Also, when you are communicating with Italian speakers, trying to translate from English doesn’t always work. For example, some time back, before I fully understood how Italian speakers thought about cousin relationships, I used the term ‘cugini di secondo grado’ (‘cousins of the second grade’, which I took to mean ‘2nd cousins’) when I was explaining to a parish priest how I shared great-grandparents with my Serafini cousins. The priest was quite insistent that I meant ‘cugini di terzo grado’ (‘cousins of the third grade’), which confused me until I realised he was thinking in terms of canon law.

Canon Degrees Versus Civil Degrees

Something else that English speakers might find confusing is that the grades in canon law are substantially different from those defined by CIVIL law. In America, for example, the degrees of consanguinity are calculated by counting up and down the lines (rather than back to the nearest common ancestor), without including the two starting individuals.

For example, my grandparents, Pietro Luigi Serafini and Maria Giuseppa Onorati, shared common a pair of 3X great-grandparents:Relationship Chart: Maria Giuseppa Onorati and Pietro Luigi SerafiniClick on image to see it larger

This means:

  • They were 4th cousins, in our English language way of thinking.
  • They were ‘cugini di quinto grado’ (cousins of the fifth degree) in Catholic church (canon) law.
  • They had a 10th degree relationship according to US civil law (i.e. there are 10 people between them if you count up and then down the tree).

No wonder the terminology is confusing for so many!

Affinity – A ‘Spiritual’ Relationship

Sometimes a couple were not related by blood but via a marriage in the family. This is referred to as ‘affinity’. For example, if a man’s first wife died and he wanted to marry his late wife’s sister (i.e. his sister-in-law), they had a ‘first grade affinity’; if he wanted to marry his late wife’s first cousin, they had a ‘second grade affinity’.

I have seen some genealogists refer to affinity relationships as ‘spiritual’ relationships’. In my view, they are, at least, ‘emotional’ or ‘psychological’ ones. A sister-in-law, for example, may be treated as and viewed as a ‘sister’. As such, the same prohibitions regarding affinity marriages applied in the church.

This law of affinity was, in fact, the logic Henry VIII used (or abused) when he rationalised his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Henry based his claim on the grounds that Catherine was the widow of his late brother (who died at age 16). Thus, Catherine was (in terms of canon law) Henry’s ‘spiritual sister’, even if she was not his biological sibling.

Much to Henry’s annoyance, the Pope refused his request to have the marriage annulled, reminding the King that he had granted the couple a DISPENSATION to marry in the first place, back in 1509 (more about dispensations in a minute). But Henry wasn’t about to take no for an answer, and he went ahead and dissolved his marriage to Catherine, married Anne, split from the Roman pope, set himself up as the spiritual leader of the new Church of England, and forever changed the course of British (and European) history.

Marital Dispensations – The Legal Loophole

While canon law regarding consanguinity and affinity in marriage was the ‘official’ ruling of the church, in practice, couples were frequently given permission to marry despite such ‘impediments’, provided they obtained an official church dispensation, usually granted by the Bishop of the diocese or his representative.

When a priest records a marriage in the registry, he also provides details (or, at least, he’s supposed to) about any dispensations that may have been granted to the couple. Mention of a dispensation is always of interest to a genealogist, as it can provide important clues as to how a tree will progress as you move backwards in time. Understanding what they mean can sometimes make work faster, and also help you break through barriers when records are ambiguous or missing.

The reasons why the church might grant a dispensation will vary according to circumstance. Occasionally, it is deemed a matter of moral necessity, such as when the couple are already known to have had an intimate relationship (and especially if the woman is already pregnant). More commonly, however, a dispensation may be granted because there simply wasn’t another suitable (and available) partner within the parish. This is especially understandable when we consider how small and isolated many rural parishes were in the past.

Although I’ve never seen this discussed, one would assume that various other factors may have been taken into consideration, such as whether similar dispensations had occurred in the previous generation, within the same branch(es) of the family. But while that may have been the case, I am continually amazed at just how commonly marital dispensations were given in the past.

Moreover, while dispensations for affinity relationships were governed by the same guidelines as consanguineous ones, I have seen markedly fewer of these in marriage records, which makes me think that many of them sort of ‘slipped through the cracks’ as they were considered to be less important.

More Frequent Dispensations Among the Noble Classes

Many of my clients are surprised when I discover a line of noble ancestors in their tree; but, in my experience, you’d be hard pressed NOT to stumble upon a noble line or two if you go back far enough.

During the Holy Roman Empire (and later during the Austrian and Austro-Hungarian Empires), there was a plethora of ‘rural nobility’ in the province of Trentino. Some of these families were ennobled by the Emperor himself (imperial nobility), while others were ennobled by the Prince-Bishop (ecclesiastical nobility).

In my research, I’ve often noticed more frequent marital dispensations noble families than for ‘ordinary’ contadini (farmers). In some noble families, you will find a dispensation at almost every generation, often at a close level of consanguinity (2nd and 3rd grade).

Funnily, some of those same clients who were first delighted to discover they had noble ancestors, later became alarmed to find out how much they had intermarried! To understand why we might see so many consanguineous marriages amongst nobility (and even more amongst royalty), we need to consider how society was organised in the past.

During the feudal era, the ‘peasantry’ constituted at least 90% of the population, with the church and nobility comprising the other 10%. When choosing a ‘suitable’ marriage partner, it was considered essential that you select someone within your own ‘class’. Thus, nobles married other nobles (or at least someone who is descended from a noble, even if he/she no longer had the official title). As the noble families comprised a small minority of the local population, if they kept on marrying within the tiny geographic parameter of their local parish, the ‘pickings’ were going to get slim pretty quickly with each successive generation.

For this reason, rural nobility almost NEEDED to look beyond their own villages for spouses every now and then, lest they become too ‘inbred’ (which is what eventually happened to the royal Habsburgs). Being wealthier and less tied to the land for their survival than the poorer classes, they at least had greater means to do this.

Recognising and Understanding Dispensations in Marriage Records

As a family historian, it’s important to:

  • Remember to LOOK for marital dispensations in marriage records
  • Be able to RECOGNISE a marital dispensation when you see one, and
  • Be able to UNDERSTAND what the dispensation means, and what it can tell you.

Looking for dispensations becomes a matter of habit the more you work with parish records.

Recognising them is not as hard as you might think, even if you don’t understand Italian or Latin. Keep your eyes open for words that look like ‘impediment’ (impedimento) dispensation (‘dispensa’), ‘consanguinity’ (consanguineità) or ‘affinity’ (affinità).

Understanding them will require you to look for key words like grade (grado), ‘fourth’ (quarto), ‘third’ (terzo) or ‘second’ (secondo) and then referring to the chart above called ‘Consanguineous Relationships According to Canon Law’.

Below are a few examples illustrating a variety of dispensations in church marriage records, and how they reflect the relationship between the husband and wife.

EXAMPLE 1: 1836 – Third Grade Consanguinity

1836 marriage record of Giovanni Brocchetti and Cattarina Grazia Bleggi.

Click on image to see it larger

This marriage record, dated 17 Sept 1836, is from the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio in Val Giudicarie. The groom is Giovanni Brocchetti of Cavrasto (age 20), son of Basilio Brochetti and Rosa Andreolli. The bride is Cattarina Grazia Bleggi (also age 20), daughter of Francesco Bleggi of Cavrasto and Grazia Armani of Fiavè (then part of the nearby parish of Vigo Lomaso).

Below the groom’s entry, the priest has noted that the groom had obtained a dispensation from the Ordinario of Trento (i.e., the office of the Archbishop), as he had a third-grade consanguineous relationship with his intended bride. He also records the number (100) of the ‘protocol’, which refers to the registry in which the parish priest records permissions, dispensations, etc.

So, if we refer to our chart showing consanguineous relationships, we see that ‘third-grade consanguinity’ means they had a shared ancestor(s) three generations back, i.e. at the level of great-grandparent. In ‘English language’ thinking, this means they were 2nd cousins.

We can see this consanguineous relationship illustrated in the following relationship chart. Here, we see the paternal grandparents of Giovanni’s father are also the maternal grandparents of Cattarina’s father (Bartolomeo Brocchetti and Elisabetta Pellegrinati):

Relationship chart of Giovanni Brocchetti and Cattarina Grazia Bleggi

Click on image to see it larger

When I first obtained this marriage record, I hadn’t yet traced the ancestry for both Giovanni and Cattarina back to their shared great-grandparents. The priest’s notation about the dispensation provided me with valuable information that sped up my research considerably.

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EXAMPLE 2: 1883 – Second and Third Grade Consanguinity

1883 marriage record of Cesare Viola and Angela Viola

Click on image to see it larger

Here’s a really interesting record I found recently when doing research in Trento for a client. This record, dated 28 April 1883, is from the parish of Cavedago in Val di Non.  The groom is Cesare Viola (age 24), son of Giacomo Viola and Angela, whose surname is also Viola. Perhaps a bit confusingly, the bride’s name is ALSO Angela Viola (age 20), daughter of Bartolomeo Viola and Maria Melchiori (it says Merchiori in the record).

Now, with all those common surnames, you might guess the couple would have had a consanguineous relationship – and you’d be correct. If you at the fifth line in the section about the groom (on the left), you’ll see the words:

‘senza scoperta d’altro impedimento che dal dispensato di II e III grado di consanguineità’

This means, ‘without discovering any impediment other than the (already) dispensed (i.e. having been granted a dispensation) 2nd and 3rd grade consanguinity’. The priest then goes on to cite the details of the dispensation, as well as the civil license.

Now, what do you supposed ‘2nd AND 3rd grade consanguinity’ means here? Does it mean they were related in two ways? Well, I suppose it could, but more often than not it means the couple’s common ancestor(s) was at two different generational levels.

In this case, Cesare’s maternal great-grandparents, were the same people as his wife Angela’s paternal grandparents. If you look at the following relationship chart visually, you can understand why they priest called their relationship ‘2nd and 3rd grade’: the common ancestors are two generations before the bride, and three generations before the groom:

Relationship chart of Cesare Viola and Angela Viola

Click on image to see it larger

Now, in our English-language way of thinking, the couple were 1st cousins 1x removed, as Angela’s father was the younger brother of Cesare’s grandfather. Frankly, I find this way more confusing than thinking in ‘canonical’ terms.

I must confess, this particular family tree has a LOT of pedigree ‘collapses’ and so many recurring surnames it was really confusing at first. But the clarity with which the priests have notated the marital dispensations helped me a LOT when piecing it all together.

EXAMPLE 3: 1778 – Third and Fourth Grade Consanguinity

Another example of ‘mixed’ consanguinity is in this marriage record (now in Latin, rather than Italian) dated 6 May 1778, again from the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio:

1778 marriage record of Bonifacio Blasio Furlini and Maria Levri

Click on image to see it larger

The couple here are Bonifacio Blasio Furlini (son of Antonio) and Maria Levri (daughter of the late Bartolomeo), both from the frazione of Balbido. In lines two and three, the priest alludes to a dispensation granted for ‘third and fourth grade consanguinity’. Again, this refers to the fact that the couple shared a pair of common ancestors at different generational levels. In this case, Bonifacio’s great-grandparents (three generations back) were the great-great-grandparents (four generations back) of his intended bride, Maria:

Relationship chart for Bonifacio Blasio Furlini and Maria Levri

Click on image to see it larger

When I had entered this particular marriage into my Santa Croce tree, I had already pieced together a good deal of the Furlini line. The information I gleaned from the marriage record enabled me to place Maria Levri in the right place, despite the fact that over 30 years of 18th-century marriage records are missing for this parish.

EXAMPLE 4: 1873 – First Grade Affinity1873 marriage record of Giovanni Battista Speranza and Luigia Scalfi

Click on image to see it larger

This marriage record, dated 27 Jan 1873, comes from the parish of Saone in Val Giudicarie.

Here, the 29-year-old groom Giovanni Battista Speranza (son of Pietro Speranza and the late Maria Cappellari) is described as the ‘widower of Giulia Scalfi’. After the information about the banns, the priest has said Giovanni Battista had obtained a dispensation for 1st grade affinity from the Curia of Trento on 23 Nov 1872, and for 2nd grade affinity on 28 Dec 1872.

I haven’t yet identified the 2nd grade affinity relationship but let’s have a look at the dispensation here for 1st grade affinity, as it’s quite interesting.

I almost NEVER see the term ‘1st grade’ in dispensations, because it would mean we were taking about siblings (who would never be permitted to marry in the Catholic church). But here, it clearly specifies ‘AFFINITY’ referring to a sibling relationship at an in-law level.

Well, as the 19-year-old bride’s name here is Luigia Scalfi (daughter of the late Ignazio Scalfi and the living Elisabetta Battitori), it seemed pretty likely that Luigia was the sister of Giovanni Battista’s late wife, Giulia Scalfi.

At the time I found this record, I hadn’t yet traced all the siblings for Luigia (who was actually baptised ‘Emma Luigia Perpetua Scalfi’ on 25 Jan 1854); but, sure enough, using Nati in Trentino I found she had an older sister Giulia Virginia Scalfi, who was born 31 Jan 1850.

MORE READING:   Searching Online for 19th & 20th Century Trentini Ancestors

Also using that site, I found Giulia and Giovanni Battista had two children in 1870 and 1872, meaning they most likely married around 1869 (I haven’t looked for their marriage record yet). The birth date of their second child was heart-rending – 29 May 1872, just 8 months before Giovanni Battista married Giulia’s sister. This means Giulia had to have died sometime during those 8 months, most likely shortly after giving birth (again, I haven’t looked for her death record). She would have been only about 23 years old when she died. Such a tragedy!

These days, remarrying so quickly after the death of a spouse is difficult to imagine, as it would barely give the family a chance to grieve and recover. But back then, it was actually not an uncommon practice. And remarrying a sibling of the late spouse was also not uncommon; after all, it meant a blood-relation (an aunt or an uncle) would be the new ‘step-parent’ of the children left behind, if any. They were more likely to have an emotional connection to – and natural inclination to care for – their late sibling’s children.

What is even more heart-rending about this family’s story is that, after having two children together (one of whom died in infancy), GIOVANNI BATTISTA himself then dies on 7 Sept 1875, at the age of 32. Now, poor Luigia has become a widow at the age of 21! Four years later, she remarries a man named Luigi Buganza, with whom she has 8 more children. (Side note: they had no ‘impediments’ cited in their marriage record).

THIS couple (Luigi Buganza and Luigia Scalfi) were the great-grandparents of the client whose tree I was making when I ‘met’ this family. To me, I find it poignant to think of all the deaths that had to come before this couple finally got together. Had not BOTH Giulia and GB passed away at such young ages, my client would never have been born.

EXAMPLE 5: 1859 – Dispensation for Time of Year

There is another kind of marital dispensation that warrants mention, and this one has nothing to do with any kind of familial relationship. It is a dispensation to be married during one of the ‘ferial times’ (feria) in the Catholic calendar, namely during Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas, through to the Feast of the Epiphany) and the Lenten season (from Ash Wednesday through to the first Sunday after Easter).

The reason why couples needed a dispensation to marry during Lent or Advent is that these are supposed to be times of austerity and prayer. Because of this, they would have to have had a simple marriage, without any elaborate celebration. When I first learned about this, I reflected on how, when I was a child, we traditionally associated May and June as the most common wedding months.

But just because ‘feria’ was not the traditionally most desirable time for a wedding didn’t mean nobody got married during those periods. Consider this marriage record from the parish of Moena in Val di Non, dated 2 March 1858:

1858 marriage record of Fioravante Giacomuzzi and Margherita Damolin

Click on image to see it larger

Here, the groom, Fioravante Giacomuzzi, and his Margherita Damolin were granted a dispensation for marrying during ‘ferial time’, as the date fell during the season of Lent (it was the 2nd Tuesday of Lent, to be precise; Easter that year fell on Sunday 4 April).

When I see things like this, I’ve got to ask, what would compel a couple to marry during a period (which was probably a bit wet and chilly, too) when they could not have a nice big celebration?

Well, in this case, I am pretty sure I figured out the reason. Five months earlier, Margherita had given birth to their illegitimate son, whom she named Fioravante, after his father. The child was born in a maternity home in the city of Trento called ‘Istituto delle Laste’ (one day I’ll write more about this interesting place). And while he was under the care of the Institute, there was a possibility he would be fostered out to another family.

In so many of these cases, the child’s father is not cited in their birth records. But in this case, the elder Fioravante acknowledged he was the biological father of his son of the same name. For whatever reason, he and Margherita did not marry before the child was born, but not it seems they were making haste to legalise/sanctify their union, so they could legitimise their 5-month-old son as quickly as possible.

Closing Thoughts

As a genealogist, I find the appearance of pedigree collapses in our trees to be of continual interest. Whenever I see a dispensation mentioned in a marriage record, not only do I get excited about trying to figure out the puzzle of how the couple is related, but I also know this valuable information may also help me verify other data that may be elusive. But most of all, I find it fascinating to see the ongoing relationships between specific families over time.

I hope this article has been useful to you as you progress in your research, and helped make it a little easier to understand the ‘sea of words’ you may feel like is in front of you when you open a new record. Although most of the records I have looked at in this article were from the 19th century, older records will contain pretty much the same degree of information (if you’re lucky!). Knowing ‘the basics’, as I’ve aimed to demonstrate in this article, can really help to make advances in your family history.

If this article gave you any ‘ah ha’ moments, I’d love to hear about them. And, as always, do feel free to ask questions or share interesting discoveries about your own family in the comments box below.

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
12 Aug 2019

P.S. My next trip to Trento will be in November 2019. I am only just starting to compile my client roster for that trip, so if you are considering hiring a genealogist to do your Trentino family history, I invite you to read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. Then, we can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: I am still working on the edits for the PDF eBook on DNA tests, which I will be offering for FREE to my blog subscribers. I will send you a link to download it when it is done. Please be patient, as it will take a month or so to edit the articles and put them into the eBook format. If you are not yet subscribed, you can do so using the subscription form at the end of this article below.

Join our Trentino Genealogy Group on Facebook: http://facebook.com/groups/TrentinoGenealogy

Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

Without Prejudice. Honouring All the Heroes in Our Families


Without Prejudice. Honouring All the Heroes in Our Families

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn shares a story from her own Trentino family history, and proposes we shed a different light on what it means to be a ‘hero’.

In honour of Memorial Day in the US, I wanted to share some photos and the story of a member of my family who fell during World War I: LUIGI GIUSEPPE PARISI (1866-1917), the beloved younger brother of my great-grandmother Europa Parisi (she was the mother of my grandfather, Luigi Pietro Serafini).

1910 - Luigi Parisi of Duvredo, Bleggio, Trentino
Circa 1910 – Luigi Parisi of Duvredo, Bleggio, Trentino. Photo taken in Pennsylvania, when he was working in the coal mines.

But here’s the catch: Luigi Giuseppe died while fighting with the Austro-Hungarian army – the proclaimed ‘enemy’ of the US during that war. And Luigi’s story is even more complicated than that, as you’ll see as you read this article.

Luigi the Trailblazer

Luigi Parisi was born on 27 February 1866 in Duvredo, a small frazione (hamlet) in the rural parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio in Val Giudicarie in Trentino. My father was born in the same frazione. Although he was not my ancestor, I feel a strong debt to Luigi, as he played a huge role in the destiny of our family, as well as the Trentini community.

He was the first in our family to travel to America in search of a better life, after devastatingly hard economic times had fallen on his ancestral homelands, leaving his life as an Alpine farmer to work in the coal mines of Brockwayville (now Brockway) and Brandy Camp Pennsylvania. Regarding Brandy Camp, on page 231 of the book A Courageous People from the Dolomites (1981), author Father Bonifacio Bolognani says:

‘The first settler in Brandy Camp as a Parisi from Santa Croce del Bleggio. He is also the father of the present pastor of Santa Croce, Father Leone Parisi.’

Although he does not give the first name of said ‘Parisi’, the author is referring to Luigi, whose son Leone served as pastor of Santa Croce del Bleggio for many years. The presence of the Bleggiani in Brandy Camp had a permanent affect on the local culture. The clearest example is in the choice to call their local church ‘Holy Cross’ (which is what ‘Santa Croce’ means), to honour the memory of their home parish.

Families Separated By An Ocean

Many people mistakenly assume our ancestors never went back once they had left the ‘old country’, but many (if not most) of the early Trentini immigrants had no intention of staying permanently in the US. Luigi was no exception to this. Gleaning what I can from immigration records, Luigi seems to have gone back and forth to America four times, crossing the ocean eight times between 1890 and 1911.  (His young nephew Emmanuele Giuseppe would eventually make the trip 12 times before he ‘retired’ with his Trentino family at the age of 51).

During those years, Luigi managed to father 10 children (only six of whom survived to adulthood), with two wives in between his stays in the US. The mother of his first five children was Emma Bleggi, who died in 1898 at the young age of 34 from tuberculosis – a disease that claimed the lives of so many young adults in their 20s and 30s. After Emma passed away, Luigi married Emma’s younger sister, Ottavia. He and Ottavia called their first daughter ‘Emma’ to honour the memory of their late wife/sister. Aside from Emma, they had four other children, one of whom died in infancy.

Mentor and Guardian of the Next Generation

In 1906, my grandfather, Luigi Pietro Serafini, who was then 18 years old, followed in his uncle’s footsteps and joined him to work in the mines. Later, his younger brother Angelo Serafini would join them, along with an equally young cousin named Emmanuele Giuseppe Serafini. Their uncle Luigi was both their mentor and their guardian as they adapted to this strange new land and dangerous new occupation.

ca. 1907, Luigi Pietro Serafini of Duvredo. Photo taken in Shawmut, Pennsylvania.
ca. 1907, My grandfather Luigi Pietro Serafini, around age 19. He was born in Duvredo in Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trentino, but this photo was taken in Shawmut, Pennsylvania, when he was working in the coal mines.

Around 1910, leaving my grandfather in charge of the younger boys, Luigi made a short trip back home to Duvredo. He made his fourth (and what would be his final) trip to the US in November 1911, a few months after the birth of his last child.

According to Aldo, the 98-year-old son of my grandfather’s brother Angelo, my grandfather and the other younger men were enjoying the ‘freedom’ of their young bachelor lives in Pennsylvania. But Luigi was no longer a young man, and was surely tiring of his trans-Atlantic journeys and harsh existence in the mines. He also felt a sense of responsibility for the younger men. So, early in 1914, Luigi, who was now nearing 50 years old, told his nephews that he missed his wife and children and wanted to return to Trentino.

He also advised that it was about time my grandfather, now 26 years old, went home to find a bride.

The young men did as their uncle bid, and returned with him to Trentino, albeit half-heartedly. That April of 1914, my grandfather did indeed get married to my grandmother Maria Onorati. His brother Angelo and cousin Emmanuele Giuseppe, being a several years younger, decided to wait a few years before settling down.

The Great War Arrives

But as we all know, later in 1914, the world was shaken up when the Great War – which we now call World War 1 – began that summer. In those days, Trentino was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; for many centuries before it fell under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire, which was essentially by Germanic/Austrian. However, most Trentini (including most of my own family) had Italian names and spoke Italianate dialects.

When the war first broke out, Italy wanted to remain neutral. But later, they joined the Allies in 1915. One of their main reasons for doing so was because the Allies promised to give Italy the Austrian ruled provinces of Trentino and Alto-Adige if they won the war.

The Great Political Divide

All of these factors meant that there were many varying loyalties in the region: many Trentini wanted to become part of Italy, while many others wanted to remain part of Austria. Sometimes divided loyalties could even be found within the same family. For example, my great-uncle Luigi Parisi is reported to have been pro-Italy, while both of my grandparents were very much pro-Austria.

While none of us can possibly know what he truly felt, Luigi’s purported political leanings are mentioned on page 100 of the book Ricordando by Luigi Bailo, who says Luigi Parisi was reputed to be a friend and political sympathiser of the priest don Giovanni Battisti Lenzi. 

Don Lenzi was labelled an ‘irridentista’ (an advocate for the unification of Italy) by the Austrian government and was exiled from Trentino by the Austrian government during the war. So, if Bailo is correct and Luigi Parisi was also pro-unification, does it mean his being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army compelled him to fight on ‘the wrong side’ from his perspective?

Sadly, although pardoned in 1917, don Lenzi died in Innsbruck before he could return to his homeland. His remains were later returned to Santa Croce, where there is a memorial to him outside the parish church.

Memorial to don Giovanni Battista Lenzi, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trentino
Memorial to don Giovanni Battista Lenzi, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trentino. He died in exile in 1917.

Trentini Soldiers in Russia

Because Trentino was so split in loyalty, the Austrian government feared that if they sent Trentini soldiers to fight on the Western front, they would ‘turn coat’ and defect to the Italian army. So, instead, most of the Trentini men – including my grandfather, his brother Angelo and his uncle Luigi Parisi – were sent to the Eastern front to fight in Russia. The battles there were notoriously brutal, as was the bitter weather and harsh living conditions.

My grandfather and his brother spent a significant period of time in Siberia as prisoners of war (1915-1917), along with an astonishing 2.3 million other Austro-Hungarian troops, most of whom were captured after the battle of Galicia. The majority of those who managed to survive ended up WALKING home across Europe, after the Russian revolution caused their entire infrastructure to collapse, resulting in the release of the POWs.

Luigi Parisi: ‘Missing in Russia’

But their uncle Luigi Parisi was still fighting on the Eastern front in 1917. Then, one day he and his regiment were crossing a river under fire. When they took roll call on the other side, Luigi never replied.

At age 51, Luigi Parisi had vanished and was never seen again. His military record says ‘disperso in Russia’ (missing in Russia). He is listed in the Tyrolean ‘honour roll’ in Innsbruck as having fallen in battle, as he was presumed dead.

A photo of his memorial card appears on page 100 of Ricordando:

Memorial card for Luigi Parisi, cited as 'lost in Russia' in 1917.
Memorial Card (santina) for Luigi Parisi. MY TRANSLATION: ‘In loving memory of Luigi Parisi, born 27 Feb 1866, died in war. Beloved Lord Jesus, give him rest. His children (ask) all those who knew him to remember him in their prayers.’

The Family Left Behind

As mentioned earlier, one of Luigi Parisi’s six children, a boy named Leone (who was only 7 years old when his father fell in the war), grew up to become the parish priest of Santa Croce, known to all as ‘don Leone’.

Until his death in 1986, don Leone was highly influential and widely loved in the community and played a role in the lives of many people in the parish. Below is a photo of don Leone as a young priest, with many members of his extended Parisi-Bleggi family. His mother, the widowed Ottavia Bleggio, is the elderly lady seated behind and to his right.

Circa 1931, Duvredo, Trentino. Extended Parisi-Bleggi family.
Circa 1931, Duvredo, Trentino. Extended Parisi-Bleggi family. Don Leone Parisi, son of Luigi Parisi, is the young priest seated in the middle. His widowed mother, Ottavia Bleggi, is the elderly lady seated behind to his right.

After the war, my grandfather and his brother returned to America. A few years later, they were followed by their wives and children, including my late father Romeo Fedele Serafini (Ralph Raymond Serafinn). Between them, these two brothers went on to have 8 children and dozens of grandchildren (and now a new generation of great-grandchildren), who all grew up in America.

I truly doubt these young men and their families could have settled as quickly and successfully as they did had they not been mentored by their late uncle Luigi before the war. I doubt I would even be alive had he not blazed the trail for the rest of us back in the late 19th Century.

What Do We Mean By ‘Hero’?

While his country has dubbed him ‘hero’ because he fell in battle, I see my great-grand uncle Luigi Parisi through a different lens.

Politics do not define him to me. It doesn’t matter to me that he fought for the ‘enemy’ of the US, or that he might have secretly been ‘an enemy’ of the Austrian empire, or that he might have been ‘pro’ Italy. None of that matters to me.

To me, he is a hero because he was a guiding light for his family and his community – on BOTH side of the Atlantic. His story and photos reveal an intensity of character that was demonstrated by his actions throughout life. I know I owe my life to him, although I never met him.

My personal belief is:

If everyone could embrace their ancestors and family members from the past as ‘heroes’ in this way – without any prejudice or political bias – the world will become a much more loving and forgiving place.

I encourage and invite you to remember and celebrate all of your family heroes, whatever ‘side’ they might have been on. We owe so much to all of them.

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Please feel free to share your own ‘family hero stories’ in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
27 May 2019

P.S. My next trip to Trento is coming up from June 29th to July 27th 2019. My client roster is currently FULL for that trip. But if you would like to ask me to do some research for you on one of my future trips, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: I am still working on the edits for the PDF eBook on DNA tests, which I will be offering for FREE to my blog subscribers. I will send you a link to download it when it is done. Please be patient, as it will take a month or so to edit the articles and put them into the eBook format. If you are not yet subscribed, you can do so using the subscription form at the top-right of your screen

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View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
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References

BAILO, Luigi. 2000. Ricordando… Dedicato ai Caduti della Prima Guerra Mondiale dell Giudicarie Esteriore.

NOTE: Ricordando is also out of print, but you can sometimes find it in Italian bookshops. The book is about all the soldiers from Val Giudicarie who perished in World War 1. While a goldmine on some levels, I have found many errors in it. Men frequently had the wrong birth date or the wrong age at time of death listed. In at least one case, the author had listed the grandparents of the man, instead of the parents. I ended up noting all the errors I found and writing to the archdiocese to double check whether the error was in the book or with my own data. In every case it was an error in the book. Unfortunately, the author is now deceased and an updated printing of the book is almost surely never to happen. Still, even with the errors, the anecdotal information he had gathered via postcards and letters he had gathered from the families made it a rich and invaluable resource.

BOLOGNANI, Bonifacio. 1981. A Courageous People from the Dolomites: The Immigrants from Trentino on U.S.A. Trails. 

NOTE: This book is out of print and is VERY expensive when you find it used. There are a few sites that offer a downloadable PDF version of the book for free, but you do have to give them your email address. One such site can be found at:  https://www.e-bookdownload.net/search/a-courageous-people-from-the-dolomites . I cannot vouch for its quality, as I haven’t downloaded it myself from them.

DNA Ethnicity Reports. Who You Are Vs. What They SAY You Are

DNA Ethnicity Reports. Who You Are Vs. Who They SAY You Are
My impressionist rendering of the sometimes mythological world of ethnicity estimates.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn tackles DNA test ethnicity estimates, showing how and why they might contradict each other and genealogical research. Article 4 of 4.

Today’s article is actually the only one I had planned to write when I first decided to tackle the subject of DNA tests. My original intention was to look at my own ethnicity reports from various companies and show you how their ethnicity estimates stacked up against my own genealogical research.

But as I began writing earlier this year, I  realised there were so many underlying factors that needed to be explained before my original ideas would make any sense. Thus, I decided to turn this into a 4-part series, this being the final segment.

If you haven’t yet read articles 1-3 (or you wish to refresh your memory on any of the topics), you can find them at these links:

  1. ARTICLE 1: In which we examined (TOPIC 1) the different kinds of DNA tests and (TOPIC 2) some basics about autosomal DNA.
    MORE READING:   DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity
  2. ARTICLE 2: In which we discussed (TOPIC 3) how DNA tests can often point us in a direction, but (usually) cannot give us specific answers about our ancestry or blood relations.
    MORE READING:   Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research
  3. ARTICLE 3: In which we discussed (TOPIC 4) cultural identity and how it shapes who we believe ourselves to be and (TOPIC 5) what history can tell us about northern Italian ethnicity.
    MORE READING:   Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?

About Today’s Article

In this final article of the series, we’ll at last come to TOPIC 6, which is all about ‘ethnicity reports’ or ‘ethnicity estimates’, i.e. what DNA testing companies like AncestryDNA, 23AndMe, etc. say you ‘are’ in terms of ethnic makeup, primarily based on autosomal DNA testing (if you don’t know what this means, I explain it in Article 1).

It is my observation that DNA ethnicity reports are often a source of confusion – and even emotional upset – for many users, as they are often at odds at what they know or have been told about their own ethnicity. It is my hope this article can help explain why your ethnicity report might contain information that makes no sense to you and share my own thoughts on how we can try to improve the ‘system’ to make these reports more accurate in the future.

TIP: I will be compiling all four articles from this series (editing out the repetition) into a PDF eBook, which I will be offering for FREE to my blog subscribers. If you would like to receive this free eBook, simply subscribe to this blog using the form at the top of this page. If you are reading this on a mobile phone, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Advertising and the Truth About ‘Reference Panels’

I believe there are two primary causes for the confusion many people experience when they get their ethnicity estimate back from their DNA testing company.

One, which I’ve mentioned earlier in this series, is misleading advertising wherein companies explicitly say these tests will tell you who you ARE. As I have previously expressed, people who are descended from immigrant families are especially desirous to know ‘who they are’ because they have been cut off from their ancestral past and feel a strong desire to reconnect.

But misleading advertising gets compounded by a second cause for confusion: a general lack of understanding on the part of consumers about how DNA testing companies create their ethnicity estimates. The truth is:

Ethnicity reports from DNA testing companies do not – and CANNOT – tell you ‘who you ARE’, but only who you are most similar to in COMPARISON to other test takers in their system.

To generate your ethnicity report, DNA testing companies compare your DNA to data gathered from ‘test groups’ of living people (Ancestry calls them a ‘reference panel’) who have known, documented ethnicities. The members of these reference panels are grouped according to ‘ethnicity’ or, in 23AndMe jargon, ‘populations’.

These reference sets provide DNA testing companies with the comparative foundation for their data. And this is the crucial detail that many people don’t seem to understand. The ethnicity reports you receive from DNA tests are not based on some ‘ethnic gene’ sitting in a vault with the name of an ethnic group neatly labelled on it. The reports you receive are COMPARATIVE, not ‘absolute’.

Journalist Ruth Padawer, in her revealingly entitled article in the New York Times,  ‘Sigrid Johnson Was Black. A DNA Test Said She Wasn’t’, commented on this topic, saying:

‘Each testing company builds its own reference data set, drawn primarily from its own customers, and each company also creates its own algorithm for assigning heritage. In other words, customers’ results are based on inferences and are merely an estimate, often a very rough one — something many test takers don’t realize and testing companies play down.’ (my emphasis added)

In the same article, Padawer adds:

[The DNA from the test group] ‘becomes the company’s reference data set for that geographic area. When a segment of your DNA closely matches the data for that location, the company assigns you that ancestry. The more segments on your genome that match that genetic pattern, the larger your estimated percentage will be for that ancestry….’

In other words, the DNA companies are comparing your DNA to the information they have in their ‘pool’. Theoretically, the bigger and more ethnically diverse the group, the more accurate the results would be. The smaller the pool, and the fewer ethnic groups represented, the less accurate the results would be.

However, while larger numbers in the sample group ‘theoretically’ mean a better change at accuracy and precision, in practice, it isn’t exactly that simple.

Competition and Lack of Uniformity Between DNA Testing Companies

One reason for this lack of simplicity is the inconsistency with which DNA testing companies label their ethnic populations. The crucial thing to remember is that, despite how they are marketing themselves to us, DNA testing companies are NOT scientific organisations, but commercial competitors. Some of the implications of this are:

  • No two companies have the same test people in their reference panels.
  • No two companies have the same number of ‘populations’/ethic groups.
  • No two companies label their ‘populations’ with the same names.
  • No two companies define these populations with the same geographic boundaries.

Thus, the accuracy of your ethnicity report depends COMPLETELY upon who the test company is comparing you to. This means:

Because ethnicity reports are comparative, the results you will receive from one DNA testing company is likely to be different (sometimes radically) from what you receive from another.

Ethnic Populations Represented in DNA Test Groups

In their 2018 white paper on ethnicity estimates, AncestryDNA explained how they chose the people who formulated their DNA reference panels, which (in 2018) contained 16,638 samples, broken into 43 overlapping global regions a big leap up from their previous DNA test group, which had 3,000 samples, and represented only 26 global regions.

While they say they drew upon samples from the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) and the 1000 Genomes Project, they clarified, ‘it was not possible to confirm family trees’ for people from these groups. I take this to mean the ethnic groupings were not based on ‘documented’ (i.e. genealogical) evidence.

They then explained that they ‘examined samples from a proprietary AncestryDNA reference collection as well as AncestryDNA samples from customers’, most of whom were selected because their online trees ‘confirmed that they had a long family history in a particular region or within a particular group.’ They said their aim was to use only ‘single-origin individuals’ for their reference panel, i.e. people who are known to be ‘100% of a single ethnicity’, based upon documentation (again, genealogical evidence).

As a genealogist, this in itself is interesting to me, as I believe many people have the mistaken impression that DNA exists as a science independent of genealogy (something I discussed in Article 2). These statements by AncestryDNA confirm they can only work when used hand-in-hand.

How Far Back in Time Do Ethnicity Reports Reflect?

But what exactly do AncestryDNA mean by ‘long family history’?

In that same white paper, AncestryDNA express the challenges of finding suitable candidates with well-documented ancestry. They explain:

‘When asked to trace familial origins, most people can only reliably go back one to five generations, making it difficult to find individuals with knowledge about more distant ancestry. This is because as we go back in time, historical records become sparse, and the number of ancestors we have to follow doubles with each generation.’

‘Five generations back’ is great-great-great-grandparents (3X GGP). My 3X GGPs were born in the late 1700s, less than 250 years ago.

Well, I don’t know who they mean by ‘most people’, but most people I know who are serious about genealogy can trace their roots back further than that. A span of five generations isn’t exactly what I would call ‘deep history’.

But, alarmingly (to me, anyway), they go on to say:

 ‘Ideally, we’d use people with all of their grandparents from the same country, but due to low numbers for some countries we sometimes use parents or even the customer’s birth location.’ (my emphasis added)

Seriously? These are their criteria for their reference groups?

I myself have traced my own Trentino ancestry back to the early 1400s (and some lines beyond that, via additional historical references), and my Cimbri/Veneto ancestry to the mid-1600s. Moreover, I’ve traced the lineages of many of my Trentino clients back to the 1500s, as we Trentini are fortunate enough to have access to our parish records in digital format at the Diocesan Archives of Trento, plus a wealth of other archives throughout the province.

Given the disparity between the genealogical evidence and what Ancestry DNA (and presumably other companies) are currently using as criteria for comparison, how could their ethnicity estimates possibly represent an accurate ethnic profile of anyone who has traced his/her ancestry back several hundred years?

Again, the facts hardly reflect the promises made in their marketing campaigns.

Under-Represented Ethnicity Groups

AncestryDNA admit that some ethnic groups are less well represented in the database, and that these can cause anomalies in their reporting. They say:

‘For example, individuals from Spain might get some assignments to France and Portugal, while individuals from Norway and Sweden might get some level of assignment to each other.’

I might add to this that a large number of people whose ancestors came from Trentino and other parts of northern Italy are now being labelled ‘French’ (as we’ll look at in a few minutes).

But apart from under-represented ethnic groups, the BIG issue for me is that geography on its own – and especially the name of a COUNTRY – does not define ethnicity. ‘Nations’ have little to do with ethnicity. The Americas and Australia surely give testament to that. And the fluctuating boundaries throughout the history of the Italian peninsula – including Trentino – also demonstrate this. Any given geographic region can also contain a rich blend of ethnic groups. For example, the Cimbri people (who are of Germanic descent) have lived in many communities in northern Italy for hundreds of years. But what are the chances someone of Cimbri descent will be labelled as such in a DNA test?

Until such ethnic groups are adequately represented in DNA test groups, the answer is ‘virtually nil’.

Sadly…

Ethnicity reports from autosomal DNA tests will frequently CONTRADICT what you know about your own ancestry via genealogical research – especially if your ethnic population is not represented (or under-represented) in their reference panels.

If an ‘ethnic population’ is absent, under-represented, or defined too broadly within a given reference panel, it is unlikely that DNA test will identify these groups with precision (if at all).

In fairness to Ancestry, on page 33 of their white paper, they add some notes about what they call their ‘Ethnicity Improvement Cycle’:

‘Currently, we are working to further expand our global reference panel for future ethnicity updates. We have already begun genotyping and analyzing samples for a future update which we expect will provide even better estimates. We have also begun a new diversity initiative to gather DNA samples from underrepresented regions around the world in order to expand the number of regions we can report back to customers.’

CASE STUDY: My Ethnicity Reports

So how does someone like me show up in commercial DNA ethnicity reports? First, I need to explain what I KNOW about my own ancestry, so you can see the reports in context:

  • My mother was (to the best of my knowledge) of 100% Irish background, with ancestors primarily from County Cork and Kerry. I have documented evidence for most of her family only back to the early 1800s, as many records for their towns/parishes are missing.
  • My father and both of his parents came from Trentino, and I have traced nearly all his ancestry there (hundreds of ancestral lines) back to the 1400s.
  • HOWEVER, my father’s mother’s mother (one of my great-grandmothers) came from Badia Calavena near Verona in Veneto, known to be an ancient Cimbri community. I have traced nearly all her ancestry there back the early 1600s.

Knowing this about me, you would EXPECT my ethnicity report to look something like this:

  • 50% Irish
  • 50% Northern Italian OR some other combination of ethnicities (central and northern Europe, for example), depending on how they divide and label things.

Let’s see how the DNA reports reflect the genealogical data (or not).

EXAMPLE 1: AncestryDNA

As AncestryDNA recently undated their algorithm, I’d like to show a ‘before and after’ comparing their old report to their revised one.

AncestryDNA’s OLD Ethnicity Report

Here is a snapshot of my estimated overall ethnicity, taken from the ethnicity report I received from AncestryDNA a few years ago:

AncestryDNA Ethnicity Estimate from 2015
Click on image to see it larger

This report shows 49% Irish, which is close enough to the 50% I would have expected for my mother’s side. I assumed the 1% Great Britain probably made up the remainder.

So, if that was the case, it meant the other mishmash of ethnicities represented my dad. Back then, I tried to make sense of these baffling figures.

Let’s look at the reference to Scandinavia, for example. If I actually DID have 4% Scandinavian ancestry, and that percentage referred to a single ancestor, it would have to mean that ancestor was no further back than one of my 3X GGPs. This is because, unlike mitochondrial or Y-DNA, autosomal DNA gets cut by AT LEAST half with each generation. I say ‘by at least half’ because, while we inherit 50% of our DNA from each of our parents, the percentage of DNA we inherit from earlier ancestors becomes less mathematically predictable with every passing generation.

But the thing is, I happen to know my Trentino-born father’s ancestry, and I have traced ALL of his lines hundreds of years past the point of 3X GGPs. In fact, I have been transcribing ALL the parish records for my father’s parish of origin and connected all the families onto one tree. After tracing over 23,000 people so far, every single one of these people WITHOUT EXCEPTION came from Trentino or adjacent regions/provinces like Veneto, Verona, Lombardia or Alto-Adige/Bolzano – for the past five to eight centuries.  

Nope. Not a Viking in sight.

So, Am I Really Scandinavian?

So, if I knew for SURE I don’t have any (recent) Scandinavian ancestors, the question was still how that figure of 4% Swedish got into my ethnicity report.

I started hypothesising that it might reflect very ANCIENT Scandinavian ancestry via the LONGOBARDS (whom I discuss in Article 3), whom I knew inhabited my father’s homeland of Val Giudicarie in the Middle Ages.

My hypothesis expanded as I started to study how autosomal DNA is transmitted throughout the centuries. While our inherited autosomal DNA from each individual ancestor decreases by half every generation, something peculiar – and quite interesting – can happen to our autosomal DNA over long periods of time.

Back in Article 1, I talked about ‘pedigree collapses’ and ‘endogamy’, wherein one ancestor (or a pair of ancestors) is related to us via more than one line. Just as this phenomenon can create ‘false positives’ for close living DNA matches, it can ALSO show up as a possibly misleading finding in our ethnicity report. Why? Because the further back you go in time, there is an ever-increasing chance that EVERYONE (especially those living within a given radius) is your ancestor, and probably in multiple ways. This means that, when you get to, say, 1,200 years or more, that probability of being related to ANYONE alive at the time  increases to pretty much 100% certainty.

TIP: This idea is more fully explained in an excellent article called: ‘Autosomal DNA, Ancient Ancestors, Ethnicity and the Dandelion’, which you can find at https://dna-explained.com/2013/08/05/autosomal-dna-ancient-ancestors-ethnicity-and-the-dandelion/.

With enthusiasm, I spent a lot of time and energy developing this ‘hypothesis’ of my ancient Longobard ancestry. But then, it all came to a crashing halt in September 2018.

Bye Bye Scandinavia

Well, apparently, all my theories about ancient Longobard roots were simply a waste of time because, when AncestryDNA revealed their new ethnicity reports late last year, and every drop of my Scandinavian ancestry vanished without explanation.

‘Word on the street’ was that Ancestry had realised they had gotten it just plain wrong. In fact, after their new algorithm was announced, I did a bit of digging and found more than one blog article from 2012-13 in which AncestryDNA was criticised for the fact that almost everyone’s DNA results showed Scandinavian heritage!

OK, admittedly they did say that part of the report was ‘low confidence’, but surely this quirk was downplayed to their customers.

AncestryDNA’s NEW Ethnicity Report

So, aside from my vanishing Vikings, what is different in my new, ‘improved’ ethnicity report? Below is a screenshot of what currently greets me on my AncestryDNA landing page. Imagine my bewilderment when I first saw this:

AncestryDNA Ethicity Estimate 2018
Click on image to see it larger

70% Irish? How is that even possible? That would attribute at least 20% of my paternal ancestry to Ireland – meaning my dad was about half Irish, which 500+ years of documented evidence demonstrates he was certainly NOT.

And 30% FRENCH? That would mean my father was more than half French (and the other half presumably Irish).

I took a closer look at the ‘updated estimate’ and saw this map of their ethnicity regions:

AncestryDNA ethnicity map 2018
Click on image to see it larger

Ironically, the detailed breakdown for Ireland, is much MORE accurate and detailed than my earlier report, showing my Irish ancestors were primarily from Munster (which is indeed correct).

But 70% Irish and 30% French? Seriously?

Frankly, when I saw this, I found myself pretty riled. I couldn’t understand how any company could advertise so aggressively, make so many promises (and so much money) and deliver product that was just so…ODD.

What Does Ancestry DNA Mean By ‘French’?  

Trying to make sense of their new ‘labels’, I wanted to understand just what Ancestry meant by ‘French’. So, I expanded their report to see this more detailed map:

AncestryDNA 2018 - What is French?
Click on image to see it larger

We can see that Ancestry’s ‘French’ designation actually encompasses many other countries, including Spain, parts of Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria – and northern Italy.

That’s a lot of different countries, and only two of them (apart from France itself) even speak French. Moreover, if you read it carefully, it indicates the actual country of ‘France’, comprises less than 1/3 of the total area of the region being labelled as ‘France’.

So, I’ve got to ask: whose bright idea was it to label all these DIVERSE ethnicities as ‘French’?

The ‘French’ (DNA) Revolution

AncestryDNA might see ‘French’ as an arbitrary designation to label the place (not the people) where THEY have found the highest concentration of this genetic data, but the fact is, this label is anything but arbitrary to their customers.

The public reaction to these new labels became abundantly clear when I visited some of my genealogy groups on Facebook, and read dozens (if not hundreds) of impassioned comments. In fact, people are STILL commenting about them. Here are a few representative highlights:

  • READER 1: I just realized that I received 37% French in the new update, where none existed before. This would account for 2/3 of my mother’s admix, a first-generation northern Italian American, genetic makeup. Even if there was a previously unknown French ancestor in the mix and the paper trail indicates none, for my mother to be 75% French is ridiculous. (My father is of 100% German heritage, a mix of regions, which is accounted for). #BonjourNo
  • READER 2: Something is definitely not right. My dad is half northern Italian and half Polish, yet the “updated results” show that he’s 93% Eastern European/Russian and 7% Western European. That cannot be right especially when my updated results show 2% Sardinian and my mother’s side is all German.
  • READER 3: I just updated! I’m French??? My mother’s family is from Filecchio near Barga near Lucca. My cousin traced them back to 1400-1500. This is northern Italy, not France. If anything, it is more Celtic. My father was 1/2 Irish, 1/2 English (OK, maybe some Scot) My Irish increased, English vastly increased, and Greece popped in the picture. Italy was down (Ancestry assume “Italy” means SOUTHERN Italy). No longer Middle Eastern or other traces. Sure, I took French in high school and I like France, but I know my Italian heritage, and it is not French. Makes me doubt the whole Ancestry DNA analysis…

Clearly, AncestryDNA are upsetting many of their customers. By using a ‘blanket label’ of ‘French’ for northern Italians and other European ethnic groups (even when they have a map explaining what they mean by it):

AncestryDNA are challenging (if not invalidating) the cultural identities of many of their users.

When ‘The French Revolution’ hit the Facebook groups, many people who have purchased these tests in good faith seemed to want to find a reason to believe the new label, despite the fact it went against the grain of what they believed (or KNEW) about their own ethnic origins. Seemingly desperate to make sense of it all, some even suggested our ‘Frenchness’ may have been due to the Napoleonic era. To such musings, I pointed out that, as Napoleon was around only 200 years ago, for 18th century France to change our ethnic identity to such a degree, every one of our Trentino female ancestors would have to have been impregnated by a French soldier roughly between 1805-1815 (which I assure you didn’t happen). This is how much people wanted to trust Ancestry, and to give them the benefit of the doubt.

And when people TRUST you that much, you have an immense MORAL RESPONSIBILTY. But, from my angle, AncestryDNA’s new labelling seems is definitely insensitive, and verging on morally irresponsible.

I do not believe AncestryDNA truly understand the EMOTIONAL impact of their decision, nor the underlying desires of their users. I would be willing to bet a high percentage of their customers are American descendants of European immigrants, who are trying to reconnect to a lost part of themselves. And, as I expressed in Article 3, ‘Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?’, many such people are ALREADY unsure – and often confused – about their own ethnic identity. For them, labels are far from arbitrary; they are VERY important.

Perhaps had AncestryDNA called this group something like ‘Alpine European’, it would probably have been more emotionally acceptable (and respectful) to all those who fall into this category.

Perhaps they’ll read this and reflect on what they’ve actually taken upon themselves.

EXAMPLE 2: 23AndMe Ethnicity Report

Looking at 23AndMe, here is what they told me back when I first bought their test in 2015:

23AndMe ethnicity stats from 2015
Click on image to see it larger

Once again, the Irish side of my ethnicity is pretty accurate, and my dad’s ancestry is a hotchpotch of ethnicities, including a rather intriguing ‘low confidence’ referent to what they said was Yakut in Siberia (‘East Asian’ in chart above).

Their new 2019 stats are interesting, as they SEEM to be trying to ‘fine tune’ different regions at a more granular level:

23AndMe - Ethnicity estimate 2019
Click on image to see it larger

As you see, they’ve assigned subregions for their ‘British & Irish’ and ‘Italian’ categories. They haven’t yet defined the regions include under ‘French & German’ (they say they’re working on it), and the ‘Broadly’ northwestern and southern European are indeed ‘broad’ designations.

Here’s a look at the Irish subregions, reflecting my mom’s Irish ancestry:

23AndMe - Irish subgroups 2019
Click on image to see it larger

The darker areas (especially Kerry, Cork and Limerick), they say, are those which my ancestors ‘may have lived’ in the last 200 years. In this case, their estimate CONFIRMS what I already know about my mother’s family.

Now, here’s the map of the regions they’ve mapped out for my ‘Italian’ ancestry, which, they say, comprises 4.5% of my DNA:

23AndMe - Italy subgroups - 2019
Click on image to see it larger

What is interesting is it shows the strongest ‘likelihood’ of my ancestors coming from Veneto. This, I would ASSUME comes via my great-grandmother, who came from Verona area, and whose ancestry I have traced back about 400 years in that area. My own genealogical research has shown me that Abruzzo and Lazio are definitely not in the picture (at least not in the last 500 years). While a great-grandparent can contribute as much as 12.5% of your total DNA, it isn’t necessarily going to show up that high, so it’s not completely contrary to my genealogical research to see a lower percentage. Besides, I know her family came from a Cimbri community, which means some of her DNA could get flagged up as ‘German’ rather than ‘Italian’.

But if we accept this ‘Italian’ percentage as belonging to my Veronese great-grandmother, and the Irish as belonging to my Irish mother, what about my dad’s Trentino ancestry? What’s THAT mess about?

According to their estimates, 43.2% of ‘me’ is so broad a to be practically useless, except to say I am some sort of ‘European’.

What can I possibly learn from such ambiguity?

I’ll tell you what it tells me. It tells me they have a LOT of people of Irish descent in the 23AndMe database. That’s why the information about my mother’s side is getting more accurate.

It also tells me they have a growing pool of Italians in their database, but possibly NOBODY from Trentino. That is why the ethnicity reports for my father’s side is still a long way from showing anything useful.

So, for now, I can only take from 23AndMe what it gives me, rather than trying to make sense of what it cannot. I feel encouraged by they increased ‘granularity’, and hope to see more detail in the future. And, for now, I’m not going to speculate what their ‘French & German’ category means, as they say they are still expanding it.

EXAMPLE 3: MyHeritageDNA

I haven’t taken a DNA test directly from MyHeritage; rather, I uploaded my ‘raw’ DNA from 23AndMe to their website, when they offered this as a free option a few years ago. Here is their ethnicity breakdown:

MyHeritageDNA - ethnicity estimate 2019
Click on image to see it larger

As you can see, my mom’s DNA is still showing up as 50% Irish (this time lumped in with Scottish and Welsh), and my dad’s side shows yet another odd potpourri of ethnicities, albeit this time with more emphasis on ‘Italy’.

I won’t say more about this particular report, but I thought you might find it interesting to compare it to the others.

EXAMPLE 4: CRI Genetics

And finally, here are the results of my tests from a company called CRI Genetics, who tout themselves as being ‘genetic scientists’ rather than big business. I ordered both an autosomal AND mitochondrial DNA test from them, with high hopes these ‘scientists’ would reveal more accurate results than their competitors. On a lark, I also bought their ‘Famous People Analysis’, which allegedly identifies some famous people who share your DNA.

But then I got the results. And let me tell you, I think they are the most bizarre I’ve received to date. Here are the results from their autosomal test:

CRI Genetics Ethnicity Report - 2019
Click on image to see it larger

According to them, not only is my father ‘French’, but so is my Irish mother! In fact, according to them, I’m 75% French.

Their mitochondrial test (for which I paid an additional fee) was certifiably underwhelming. If fact, it was less informative than what was included in 23AndMe’s autosomal test, where they identified my maternal haplogroup.

And their ‘Famous People Analysis’? A complete joke. While claiming I am related to modern-day people like actors Meryl Streep and Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, they also claim I am related to the 5000-year-old mummy knowns as ‘Ötzi the Iceman’ via my mother’s mtDNA:

CRI Genetics says I am related to Otzi
Click on image to see it larger

There’s just ONE teensy problem with this:

Ötzi’s maternal haplogroup is currently believed to have DIED OUT a long time ago. His mitochondrial DNA does not fit into any known subclades from modern Europe.

Now, the thing about Ötzi is that just about anyone of European descent IS most likely related to him (but not necessarily a descendant), by simple statistics. But actually saying I am related to him via mitochondrial DNA is just plan LYING. 

To rub salt into an already festering DNA wound, CRI Genetics has something they call an ‘Advanced Ancestry Timeline’. According to them, one of my ancestors from around the year 1850 was from Sri Lanka, another from Peru around 1625, and yet another from Gujarat, India in 750 A.D.! Of these claims, they say ‘Statistically we determined this to be 99% accurate.’

Science? More like mythology. And definitely a huge rip-off.

How We Can Improve the Future of DNA Testing

I think you might have deduced by now, that I feel it is important NOT to put too much stock in – or get too hung up about – an ethnicity report from ANY company, including those I have not mentioned in this article. Always remember that the results you are getting are all COMPARATIVE based solely on the size of their database, and the picture they paint of your ethnicity is on an ever-expanding canvas.

But please don’t leave with the impression I am suggesting you should NOT do a DNA test, or that I have given up hope on ‘big’ companies like AncestryDNA. Actually, I believe those of us who are passionate about our family history can do much to help IMPROVE the accuracy and precision of ethnicity profiles in these larger companies.

How?

By providing DNA testing companies with more data from currently under-represented ethnic regions.

In other words, TAKE a DNA test, not so much to discover information, but to provide information that can (hopefully) improve the accuracy and precision of genetic science.

Surely Trentino is one such under-represented region, but I am sure many of you reading this can identify hundreds of others. As a genealogist, I would love to present a ‘Trentino contingency’ to both AncestryDNA and 23AndMe, so we are finally represented in their test groups.

Despite my extensive genealogical research into my own ancestry, I might not be the ideal test subject, due to having a ‘mixed’ ethnicity within recent generations. But those of you who are Trentino on both your paternal and maternal sides, and who have well documented family history, would be excellent candidates. If you fall into this category, I would love to hear from you.

Of course, if you are of Trentino descent but you have not yet researched your family very far, you might consider hiring me to help you in this regard (more information about this is below).

In either case, I invite you to connect with via the Contact form on this site.

Closing Thoughts

I hope this series on DNA testing has helped you better understand what DNA tests are, how genealogy works in tandem with DNA testing, and how ‘ethnicity estimates’ are generated.

Equally, I hope these articles have encouraged you to look more deeply into your own cultural identity, and increased your confidence as you try to make sense of your DNA test results — even when they seem to make NO sense at all.

Many thanks to all of you who have read this entire series, especially those who have left comments on this site. It is truly encouraging to me when I hear your feedback and learn from your experiences.

Now that the series is complete, I will be compiling the articles (editing out the repetition) into a PDF eBook, which I will be offering for FREE to my blog subscribers. If you would like to receive this free eBook, all you have to do is subscribe to this blog using the form at the top of this page. If you are reading this on a mobile phone, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Please be patient, as it will take a month or so to edit the articles and put them into the eBook format.

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento is coming up from June 29th to July 27th 2019.

If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

Join our Trentino Genealogy Group on Facebook: http://facebook.com/groups/TrentinoGenealogy

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Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

References

AncestryDNA Science team. 2018. ‘Ethnicity Estimate 2018 White Paper’. Accessed 13 May 2019 from  https://www.ancestrycdn.com/dna/static/pdf/whitepapers/WhitePaper_2018_1130_update.pdf

Estes, Roberta. 2013. ‘Ancient Ancestors, Ethnicity and the Dandelion’. Accessed 13 May 2019 from the DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy blog at https://dna-explained.com/2013/08/05/autosomal-dna-ancient-ancestors-ethnicity-and-the-dandelion/.

Genovate Laboraties. 2016. ‘Compare Your DNA to Ötzi the Iceman – a 5000-year-old mummy’. Accessed 13 May from  https://www.dnainthenews.com/human-history/otzi-iceman/

Padawer, Ruth. 2018 (19 Nov). ‘Sigrid Johnson Was Black. A DNA Test Said She Wasn’t’. New York Times online. Accessed 13 May 2019 from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/19/magazine/dna-test-black-family.html

Wikipedia. 2019. Ötzi the Iceman. Accessed 13 May from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_haplogroups_of_historic_people#Ötzi_the_Iceman

Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?


Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn discusses cultural labels and personal identity, and explores the ethnic history of northern Italy. Article 3 of 4 on DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity’.

In the first two articles in this 4-article series on DNA tests, we focussed on the more technical aspects of genetics, and how it relates to genealogy. If you missed those articles, you can catch up by clicking on the links below.

ARTICLE 1: In which we examined (TOPIC 1) the different kinds of DNA tests and (TOPIC 2) some basics about autosomal DNA.

MORE READING:   DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity

ARTICLE 2: In which we discussed (TOPIC 3) how DNA tests can often point us in a direction, but (usually) cannot give us specific answers about our ancestry or blood relations.

MORE READING:   Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research

In today’s article, we’ll be shifting focus slightly as we explore:

  • TOPIC 4: Cultural Identity in a New World
  • TOPIC 5: What Does History Tell Us About Northern Italian Ethnicity?

While the subject of cultural identity might at first seem a bit off the topic of DNA tests, I believe we cannot clearly understand the findings of any DNA test without first examining who we BELIEVE we are. And, as what we think we are and can sometimes conflict with what other people think we are, knowing more about our historic and ethnic background is also crucial to being able to make sense of what we might receive from DNA testing companies.

In today’s article, I will also address the moral responsibility DNA testing companies have in putting ‘labels’ on different ethnic groups. Just HOW those DNA companies decide what to ‘label’ us will be the subject of the fourth and final article in this series.

TOPIC 4: Cultural Identity in a New World

Nationality vs. Local Identity

For anyone of northern Italian descent, the whole notion of what it means to be ‘Italian’ is challenging, from both a cultural and historical perspective.

‘Italy’ as we know it today was comprised of independent pockets of cultures, republics and city-states for a lot longer than it was ever called ‘Italy’. The regions of Liguria, Lombardia, Veneto and Piemonte were not integrated into the emerging nation called ‘Italy’ until the second half of the 19th century. And the region of Trentino-Alto Adige – comprised of the two provinces of Trentino (AKA Trento) and Alto-Adige (AKA Bolzano or Bozen) was not officially integrated into Italy until 1919*, at the end of World War 1. The people of Trentino, the southern province of that region, are predominantly Italian-speaking (albeit there are many regional dialects), while the people in the province of Alto Adige are predominantly German-speaking (although most will also speak Italian today).

* Emperor Charles I of Austria relinquished his control on 11 November 1918 (what we English speakers refer to as ‘Armistice Day’), upon which Italian forces moved into Trentino-Alto Adige, but the official treaty of Saint-Germain was signed on 10 September 1919.

While independent from one another, most of these northern states were under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire for about 1,000 years, since the time of Charlemagne (ca. 800 AD). Then, after a very brief period roughly between 1790-1814 when Napoleon was busy stirring things up, these states came back under the control of the Austrian and (later) Austro-Hungarian Empires. These empires, by whatever label, were dominated by the royal Hapsburg family for many centuries.

All the regions of modern Italy have rich cultural histories that long predate the idea of a unified nation. Pick up any book on European history and you will read about the power, importance and influence of northern Italian cities – all independent – such as Genova (Genoa), Milano (Milan), Mantova (Mantua), Venezia (Venice), Verona and Padova (Padua). Even Shakespeare used many of these northern cities as the settings for his plays.

But amongst the northern provinces, Trentino, Bolzano and parts of Lombardia were somewhat different. These provinces were known as a ‘bishoprics’ (vescovile), and each was ruled by a ‘Prince Bishop’ (Principe Vescovo) until the Napoleonic era when the government was secularised. During the reign of Prince Bishop Cristoforo Madruzzo, the famous ‘Council of Trent’ (Concilio di Trento) took place in the city of Trento in the mid-1500s.

The office of the Prince Bishop was exactly what it sounds like: he was BOTH royalty AND an ordained bishop of the Catholic church. As a priest, the Bishop could not pass on his property and title to his children (as he was supposed to be celibate and childless), but we frequently see power passing from an uncle to one of his nephews, thus creating dynasties of bishops throughout history. As royalty, the Prince-Bishop was – just as the Emperor was – able to confer titles of nobility to outstanding citizens in his bishopric. Many of my own Trentino ancestors were ennobled by Prince Bishops. Such titles helped strengthen ties of loyalty between the state, the church and its people. It also helped to forge a sense of pride in – and identification with – the greater area known as ‘Trento’.

In addition, the people of Trentino (especially in rural areas) have always had their own localised cultural identities. For example, people typically think of themselves as belonging to a particular valley (Val di Non, Val di Sole, Val Giudicarie, etc.). These valleys, delineated by the glacial mountains, lakes and rivers of Trentino’s breath-taking natural terrain, embraced pockets of rural communities who spoke local dialects and had surnames often specific to a relatively tiny geographic area. In other words, it wasn’t just the bishopric creating a sense of cultural identity, but the land itself.

Given such history and geography, it is unsurprising that the people of Trentino and other provinces in northern Italy did NOT unilaterally adopt a new cultural identity of ‘being Italian’ when national boundaries and governments changed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even today, many still think reject the ‘label’. Others accept it, but nearly all still tend to identify more strongly with their local culture than with their ‘nationality’. You cannot simply wipe out millennia of local, cultural identity by slapping a new label on it. This is not just true of Italy, but of ALL modern countries, everywhere on the planet.

Unfortunately, the ‘labels’ people receive from DNA tests don’t make things any easier; we’ll come back to this point later in Article 4 of this series.

The Fragile Identity of Youth

When I was 14 (now 50 years ago!), I was invited to a birthday party for one of my male classmates. Now this boy (let’s just call him ‘B’) was arguably the handsomest in our class, and I had had the fiercest crush on him for more than a year. And to be honest, I am pretty sure B had felt some puppy love for me too.

The party was in the basement at B’s house (on Long Island, where I grew up, nearly all of us had finished basements, and these were perfect party places). When the party was over, I was coming up the stairs to go home, and was greeted by B’s father.

Being the 1960s, I always dressed in the ‘mod’ fashion of the times, which meant mini-skirts, fishnet stockings, go-go boots and love beads. And, I had a head of very long, straight, dark brown hair.

As I got to the top of the stairs, B’s father decided to tease me, asking, ‘How do you get that long hair of yours so shiny, Lynn?’

My heart fluttered a bit, because B’s father obviously knew who I was, and I suspected his son had mentioned me as someone he liked.

I replied, ‘Easy. I rinse it with vinegar after I wash it.’ (Believe it or not, that was a common practice back then, especially for dark hair).

He laughed and countered, ‘Ha! Leave it to a nice Italian girl to wash her hair with salad dressing!’

Then, without even a moment’s hesitation, I replied, ‘Oh, I’m not Italian. I’m Austrian.’

He looked at me with perplexity. ‘But your name is Serafinn.’

Again, without even thinking, I said, ‘It’s an Austrian name. My father was born in Austria, but it was taken over by Italy.’

(Side note: When I was 14, I didn’t know that Trentino had already become part of Italy when my dad was born there in 1919).

B’s father looked at me oddly. At the time, I thought it was just confusion over what I had just said. But years later, I realise I was probably insulting him. You see, B’s father was a first-generation Italian-American (their surname was most likely Calabrian).

I hadn’t intended to insult him. I was making no judgment or political statement about Italy. I was simply parroting what my father and my grandparents had programmed me to say since I was a child.

But now, half a century later, I realise that in replying to him the way I did, I was actually distancing myself from him. Not only was a drawing a line of distinction between us, I was probably sending out a subtle vibe that I was rejecting Italy and the idea of being Italian.

B’s father made no reply to me after that, but my words had definitely made some sort of impact on him. After that, his son no longer seemed to be interested in me, and I soon learned he had found a ‘nice Italian girl’ as his girlfriend.

My first case of teenage puppy love ended in heartbreak over a case of cultural identity.

Fuzzy Labels. Fuzzy Sense of Self.

Most of us of Trentino descent who were raised in America referred to ourselves as ‘Tyroleans’. I never even HEARD the word ‘Trentino’ until decades later.

I’m pretty sure my dad had originally told me I was ‘Austrian’ when I was little because it was easier for ‘outside’ people to understand than the more perplexing label of ‘Tyrolean’. Other Americans really had no idea what we meant by ‘Tyrolean’, and it always required some explaining – a skill I learned only as I got older.

Even after I started referring to myself this way, I wasn’t really quite sure what the heck I meant by ‘Tyrolean’. Although my dad had been born in the ‘old country’ and spoke dialect fluently, he had come to America when he was very young and didn’t remember much about his homeland.

When I asked him where he came from, he merely said, ‘Near Trento’.  When I asked him if he could be more specific, he said the village he came from was so small, you wouldn’t even find it on a map (perhaps true back then, but that was before Google maps!).

Despite such fuzziness, when I was growing up, my father’s culture was unavoidable. I constantly heard my father speaking dialect with members of his family, as he called them on the phone just about every night after work. And whenever we visited my grandparents, aunts and uncles, everyone spoke dialect. I got used to sitting in a roomful of adults speaking a language I couldn’t speak myself, while somehow following the gist of what was being said.

When I asked my dad the name of the language he spoke, he said ‘Tyrolean’. In my teens, I was a classical musician and an opera singer, so I had become familiar with many Italian words. Eventually, I realised the dialect my father spoke (which I now know was Giudicaresi) had a lot of similarities with Italian. But I was told unequivocally it had nothing to do with Italian. It’s Tyrolean. Period.

When I asked him to teach my how to speak ‘Tyrolean’, he refused, saying he only spoke it, but didn’t know how to explain it. Besides, he argued, why would I need it? He wanted me to ‘be American’. Better to speak English.

So, while I inherited a strong sense of being ‘Tyrolean’, I was also being discouraged from trying to ‘go backwards’ to my ancestral roots. The ‘old country’ was in the past. It was almost like those things were ‘dead’ and gone, and I wasn’t allowed to touch them. I strongly feel this kind of mixed message was one of the strongest factors in my DELAYING my ancestral journey or visiting my father’s homeland until after he passed away.

But what my grandparents and father did not (and probably could not) understand at the time was how this severing of ties with the past would leave me with a very hazy and tenuous sense of self.

Much as they wanted me to feel ‘American’, I didn’t.

Much as I wanted to feel ‘Tyrolean’, it was too vague for me to understand in any satisfactory way.

And ‘Italian’? Are you kidding? Just the idea of such a notion seemed completely taboo.

And now, after working with dozens of genealogy clients over the years – all descended from immigrant families – and have seen this same sense of haziness over and over. It’s heart-breaking to watch.

Losing A Surname – The Cruellest Cut of All

Perhaps the biggest vagary in my cultural upbringing – which, sadly, I now realise was a deliberate lie – had to do with our surname.

Back at the birthday party, I had told B’s father that my surname ‘Serafinn’ was Austrian. This belief was forged by my father, who told me the surname ‘Serafinn’ with two ‘ns’ was specifically a ‘Tyrolean’ name. I remember him telling me, ‘If you ever meet anyone with that name, they are related to you.’

Well, he was partially right. If I ever meet anyone with the surname ‘Serafinn’ with two ‘ns’ they ARE indeed related to me. But it’s not because it’s a Tyrolean name. It’s because my grandfather made it up. Historically, there IS no such surname as ‘Serafinn’. The only people called ‘Serafinn’ were my grandparents, my father, his siblings and their children. Other than us, the surname doesn’t exist.

I found out decades later – well after my father and all his siblings had died – that my father’s surname was ‘Serafini’, not ‘Serafinn’. At first, I rejected the idea my father might have deliberately misled me. I theorised that perhaps he hadn’t known Serafini was the family surname, and that he had grown up thinking ‘Serafinn’ was his real name, just as I had. But then, when I started to dig more deeply, I discovered documents listing my dad as ‘Serafini’ through his teens. While I am not sure of the precise date, the official change seems to have been made sometime in the late 1930s, not long before my dad enlisted in the US Army.

Thus, there was no way my dad and his siblings could have been unaware of our original surname. Yet, all of us kids – me, my sister and my cousins – were never told this when we were growing up. Obviously, it had been a family decision to ‘break’ us from the past.

And because the change of surname was one of those proverbial ‘family secrets’ that died along with my father’s family, the actual reasons for the change can only be hypothesised. Was it simply a matter of simplifying the name for Americans, without changing it altogether? Was it an attempt to make the surname look less Italian and more ‘Austrian’ (which, as we saw in the story with B’s father, didn’t exactly work)? Perhaps it was a bit of both, but we’ll never know for sure.

I must confess, when I first discovered my grandfather had changed our surname, I felt a combination of anger and grief. I was angry for being lied to. But I was also deeply aggrieved for having LOST my ‘true’ surname. Even today, I still find myself having to explain my surname to people, especially when I am in Trentino. Sometimes I just say my name is ‘Serafini’ to make it clearer.

Similarly, I have worked with many genealogy clients whose families changed their surnames after emigrating to the Americas. Sometimes the changes are minor – like a change in spelling to make it easier for people in their adopted country to pronounce the name. But the surnames of many of my clients have been radically changed, sometimes with no rhyme or reason as to how they are connected to the original name. Naturally, they ask many of the same questions and go through the same roller coaster of emotions as I did when I discovered my father’s original surname.

For any of us who have experienced a ‘loss’ of name, finding out about our ancestors is often an integral part of healing that wound. Now, after many years of ‘speaking to my ancestors’ through genealogy, I have finally embraced this change of surname to ‘Serafinn’ as a crucial part of my own cultural identity. It is a poignant and important chapter in our family’s history – the story of what happened to us after we left our ancestral homeland.

Austrian, Tyrolean, Italian?

Something I found remarkable when I started digging into my father’s US documentation after he died was his own sense of confusion about what to call himself.

In many documents he says he was born in Austria. However, technically, this isn’t true. He was born in Trentino in October 1919, after the province had become part of Italy. In one US census, it says he was born in Italy and that his elder sister was born in Austria. Now, technically, this IS true; however, the fact is they were actually born in the same HOUSE (my cousins still own it) in Val Giudicarie. What I found even odder, though, was that in his military registration, he cites his place of birth as ‘Tyrol’ – which isn’t a country at all. In fact, trying to define ‘Tyrol’ is kind of like trying to define the molecules of water in a flowing stream.

If my father, who was BORN in Trentino, had so much difficulty deciding how to describe where he came from, what chance did I have of being any clearer about my ethnicity when I was growing up? And what chance of clarity can there be for grandchildren or great-grandchildren of Trentini emigrants who were not exposed to their ancestral culture in childhood as I had been?

I want to address this label ‘Tyrolean’ because I believe it’s crucial to this whole topic of cultural identity when we are talking about people who came from Trentino-Alto Adige. Tyrol (Tirol or Tirolo) was originally a county, headed by the ‘Counts of Tirol’. When the original dynasty of counts died out in 1363, control of the Tyrol was taken over by the royal Habsburgs. In fact, from that point, the title of the ‘Count of Tirol’ was sometimes assumed by the Holy Roman Emperor himself.

Over time, ‘Tyrol’ no longer referred to a single county, but to a much wider collective, whose connection was often more ideological than administrative. On one of my recent trips to Trento, my friend and colleague Daiana Boller – an historian and local politician – showed me this beautiful painting  entitled ‘Aquila Tirolensis’ by 17th-century Austrian historian and cartographer, Matthias Burglechner. First printed in 1609, this version is dated 1620 in the lower right-hand corner. A highly stylised map, it contains the ‘Aquila’ (eagle) of Tyrol – its stemma, or coat-of-armsand all the key places considered part of it at that time:
1620 painting of Aquila Tirolesi and the provinces of Tyrol in the 17th century.

If you look closely at the borders of this picture, you can see ‘Trient’ (Trento) and ‘Bozen’ (Bolzano), as well as many other familiar places such as ‘Brixen’ (Bressanone), ‘Arch’ (Arco), ‘Clauzen’ (Chiusa), ‘Meran’ (Merano), ‘Rofriet’ (Rovereto), as well as parts of present-day Austria, such as ‘Insbrugg’ (Innsbruck).

This stunning image gives us an historical snapshot not only of the official designation of ‘Tyrol’ during this era, but also of the diverse cultural identity of the people who thought of themselves as ‘Tirolesi’.

However, let us bear in mind that this painting is 400 years old, and what it depicts is not necessarily what people meant by ‘Tirol’ when our ancestors left the province, nor indeed what most people mean by the term today.

The fact is, the ‘official’ boundaries of Tirol were constantly changing. Frankly, if I try to figure it all out, it just makes my head spin. Rather than attempt to explain it, I refer you to this website with maps showing how these designations shifted after this painting was make, between 1766 and the present day: http://www.zum.de/whkmla/region/germany/tyroladm.html.

But while official boundaries of any administrative entity come and go like tides, the cultural identity of the people from these entities are far more resistant to change.

How Cultural Identities Get ‘Frozen’ in Time

Most descendants of Trentino ancestors know that their ancestral homeland was once under Austrian rule and was incorporated into Italy after World War 1. But, in my observation, fewer of them seem to know that, while the province of Bolzano is still known as ‘South Tyrol’ (Sud Tirol), the province of Trentino hasn’t been known by the term ‘Tirol’ for the past 100 years.

These days, if you say ‘Tyrolean’ to anyone living anywhere in Europe, they always take it to mean Bolzano and/or Austria. And this INCLUDES the Trentini themselves. I have yet to meet a living native Trentino who refers to him/herself as ‘Tirolesi’. In fact, the first time I visited the province and used the word ‘Tyrolean’, people looked at me with bewilderment, if not a bit of amusement.

‘No, Trentino is not Tirol,’ they said. ‘You are confusing it with Bolzano’.

One person who had family abroad said to me, ‘No, we do not call ourselves Tirolesi. But I’ve heard there are some Americans who think like that.’

So, at the risk of ruffling a few of my readers’ feathers, I have to say that all my experiences and observations have led me to conclude that:

The ONLY people today who use the term ‘Tyrolean’ to describe someone from Trentino are descendants of 19th and 20th century emigrants.

In fact, in 1923, an organisation called the ‘Legione Trentina’ actually made it ILLEGAL to use the word like ‘Tirol’ and its variants (Tyrol, Tyrol, Tiroler, Südtirol etc.) to refer to the land now known as Trentino and its people. One leaflet says that by 1931, fines were issued of ‘up to 2,000 lire (about three average monthly salaries) and three months in prison’ for anyone who used these terms. 

After all, when most of our ancestors came from Trentino, the  province was either still under Austrian rule, or had only just become part of Italy. When they migrated to their new, adopted homelands, the culture – and cultural identity – they brought with them was from THAT era. We, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, inherited all those things.

BUT the thing is:

When cultures become displaced, the old traditions and ways of thinking do not evolve the same way they would have if they had stayed in their native homeland.

In fact, if anything, they tend to get ‘frozen’ in time. I believe this happens because people who live in places far removed from their ancestral homelands desperately need to feel a connection to their past. And, as they don’t always have any living, breathing connection to those homelands, they will hold onto whatever they’ve got like a life raft.

Moreover, to relinquish that label or change the way of thinking brought across the sea by their emigrant ancestors is seen as a kind of disloyalty – or even betrayal. For this reason, thousands of descendants of Trentino emigrants around the world staunchly retain the a ‘Tyrolean’ (if not ‘Austrian’) cultural identity, despite the fact the label is no longer used by most present-day Trentini.

And no ‘official’ change in nomenclature is going to nullify those powerful feelings.

So, does that mean it’s ‘wrong’ to think of yourself as ‘Tyrolean’? Of course not. Just as my surname ‘Serafinn’ has its own cultural significance, the label ‘Tyrolean’ has its OWN meaning and cultural significance. It doesn’t need to mean what it means in Trentino today or even what it used to mean to our ancestors. It stands on its own as what it is.

For myself, I prefer to use the label ‘Trentina’. And that doesn’t make me ‘wrong’ either. I prefer this term because I have lived in Europe for 20 years, and I go to Trentino frequently. People understand what I MEAN when I use it. So, that designation makes more sense in my situation. But for me, it also carries great meaning. To me, the word represents the thing that makes me feel most connected to my ancestors – the land itself. When I say I am ‘Trentina’, I become part of those glacial mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and waterfalls. Through that word, I feel connected to every ancestor and blood relation whose very existence was owed to that majestic land.

But that is simply MY cultural label. It has meaning for me, but perhaps not for you. Never EVER in my life would I ever suggest that someone should reject or change the word they use to identify themselves if that word fills them with joy and makes them feel alive.

Schisms Triggered by Cultural Identity

Challenging another person’s chosen cultural designation is, in fact, a sure-fire way to get yourself into an argument.

One such argument within my own family sticks clearly in my mind even after nearly half a century. I was in my teens visiting at the home of one of my father’s sisters, when an argument broke out between my aunt and her cousin (son of my grandmother’s brother, with the surname Onorati).

Our cousin was complaining that he was tired of having to explain to people that he was ‘Tyrolean’, and that now he just told people he was ‘Italian’.

He argued, ‘I look Italian. I have an Italian name. I’m Italian. What’s the big deal?’

At this point, my aunt entirely lost it. She flew into a rage and shoved our cousin against the wall. She started pounding her fists on his chest and screaming, ‘How could you possibly betray our family by saying such things?’

In hindsight, what is most interesting to me about this incident is the fact that this aunt (my dad’s youngest sister) was actually born in America (in Brandy Camp, Pennsylvania) after my grandparents had emigrated with my dad and two other sisters. At the time of this incident, she was in her mid-40s, and had never even been to her parents’ homeland. In fact, she was apparently confused about where they actually came from, as evidenced by a story she wrote about her parents’ mythical home in Merano (in the province of Bolzano) – a place where they never lived.

I bring this up not to criticise my late aunt (I actually adored her), but to underscore how cultural identity has nothing whatsoever to do with cultural awareness. It lives and breathes in complete independence from historical or geographical accuracy.

One of my father’s 1st cousins (whom, unfortunately, I never met) was the late author Marion Benasutti, who wrote a book called No Steady Job for Papa. Marketed as a ‘novel’, it really is a memoire of her experiences growing up in a Trentini immigrant family in the early 20th century (the family emigrated before World War 1). A strong, recurring theme in that book is the ‘Austrian/Tyrolean’ versus ‘Italian’ cultural identity, and how her father used to argue with friends and family members over their chosen designations.

Lest you think these schisms were limited to first-generation Americans, this ideological divide is still very much alive amongst Trentini descendants today. For example, I recently received this message from a prospective member of my Trentino Genealogy Facebook group:

‘I am 100% Tirolean-American. I am interested in tracing our roots back to the days before the Fascist Italianization of our land when it was Austria-Hungary, of which my grandparents were citizens.’

While Austria-Hungary died 100 years ago, and Mussolini died over 60 years ago, the passion contained within these words is still palpable. You can certainly feel how this person would find it challenging – if not impossible – to think of himself as ‘Italian’. To expect (or force) him to do so would not only be highly insensitive, but utterly futile.

Arguably one of the strongest spokespeople for ‘Tyrolean’ cultural identity is Lou Brunelli, founder and editor of Filò: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans. In his editor’s introduction to volume 20 of that magazine (January 2019) he says just as ‘the one and only Tyrol… was ‘usurped’ and ‘annexed to Italy’, the magazine therefore:

‘…usurps the authentic right and privilege to ignore the line and draw a circle embracing, engaging and uniting us to what we were as affirmed by our emigrants who, over and over, declared themselves Tirolesi, Tyroleans and, for us, Tyrolean Americans.’

As you can see, the debate over the cultural identity of Trentino is far from ‘settled’ even after a century has passed.

An Unaddressed Moral Responsibility

I’ve taken this time to talk about cultural identity because I think it has tremendous implications for companies who offer DNA tests.

Whether or not we choose a specific cultural ‘label’, we cannot simply dismiss or ignore them. In my work as a genealogist, most of my clients come from the US, with a handful from South American, Australia and New Zealand. Many of them come to me with a feeling of longing or even emptiness. They are searching for a missing piece of themselves and are often (quite understandably) confused about where their ancestors came from.

Most of the people I know who have taken a DNA test did not embark on their genetic journey just for ‘fun’, but to find answers to deeply personal questions that have been challenging their happiness and/or sense of belonging – sometimes for their entire lifetime.

And, as we’ve just seen, cultural ‘labels’ can often have a powerful – if not EXPLOSIVE – impact on people. You cannot just call people something and expect them to embrace it (or even accept it).

This is something I believe the big companies who handle DNA tests have yet to understand. Knowing how delicate and emotionally charged cultural identities can be, companies who provide DNA ethnicity reports have a HUGE moral responsibility. You cannot play with people’s sense of self – especially not for profit. The labels these companies choose to put on people in their ethnicity reports can sometimes only INTENSIFY the confusion people had that led them to take the DNA test in the first place. 

I will be returning to this point in the final article in this series, but for now I want to suggest three crucial shifts that need to occur if we are to increase the value – an minimise the damage – of ethnicity reports offered by DNA testing companies:

  1. Testing companies need to become more educated about cultural identities around the world, so they can create profiles that are more sensitive and relevant to their customers.
  2. There need to be greater numbers of DNA test-takers in under-represented cultural groups.
  3. DNA  test-takers need to be more educated about the  wider story of the ethnic history of their ancestral homelands.

Only when all three of these things are met can DNA testing truly serve the purpose for which so many people turn to them.

TOPIC 5: What Does History Tell Us About Northern Italian Ethnicity?

Building upon what we’ve discussed so far, the next crucial question we need to ask is:

Does our CULTURAL IDENTITY as ‘northern Italians’, ‘Trentini’ or ‘Tyroleans’ (or whatever) have any foundation in GENETICS?

In other words, are the people from northern Italy genetically ‘different’ from other people, including those from the more southern regions of the Italian peninsula? Or are all these designations simply things we’ve ‘made up’ in order to feel a sense of belonging? Do the DNA tests currently on the market support what northern and southern Italians believe about themselves? Moreover, are their findings consistent from company to company?

We’ll look at the last of those questions in Article 4, when we look at DNA ethnicity reports. But in order to understand what we’ll discuss in that article, let’s first consider northern Italian ethnicity through an historical lens.

Just who were the people who populated Trentino and other parts of northern Italy over the centuries? Below is a short, whistle-stop tour through the millennia.

The Rhaeti and the Celts

About 2,600 years ago, and through the first centuries of the Common Era (A.D.), much of northern Italy was inhabited by Rhaetian and central European Celtic tribes.

Once hypothesised to be related to the Etruscans (ancient people of present-day Tuscany), many scholars today believe the Rhaeti were indigenous Alpine tribes (‘indigenous’ itself being an admittedly vague term). The precise origin of the Celts is much less clear to historians, and many preconceptions about who they were and where they came from are being challenged (although they are most widely believed to have from somewhere in central Europe).

Languages in Iron Age Italy, ca. 6th c. BC
Languages in Iron Age Italy, ca. 6th c. BC By Dbachmann, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3336779

Above is a map showing which languages were spoken around the Italian peninsula circa 600 B.C.

Notice ‘Raetic’ in the orange area at the top, which overlaps with the modern provinces of Trentino and Veneto. The term ‘Gaulish’ in the upper left is another term for Celtic languages. Later, some Rhaeti in south Tyrol (Alto-Adige), Trentino and Veneto, as said to have adopted the Celtic language, at least in part.

Some scholars say that the Alpine language Ladin (NOT the same as ‘Latin’) which is still spoken by an estimated 30,000-60,000 people today (mostly in South Tyrol, Trentino, Belluno and Friuli) is has roots in both Rhaeti and Celtic.

The Romans

Between around 100 B.C. and 400 A.D., Romans were certainly present in places like the city of Trento. There are, in fact, the remains of the old Roman city beneath Trento, but some historians suggest Trento was kind of a ‘holiday spot’ for the Romans rather than a true settlement. Thus, some historians believe the Romans may not have played a huge part on changing the ethnicity of the area, although others dispute this theory.

What is indisputable, however, is that they brought the Latin language, permanently changing the linguistic landscape of northern Italy. The majority of Trentini speak dialects and have names based on Latin roots.

The Longobards (Lombards)

After the fall of Roman (ca. 400 A.D.), we start to see invasions (and settlement) from Germanic and/or Scandinavian tribes. The most notable of these were the Longobards (called ‘Lombards’ in English), from which the northern region of ‘Lombardia’ (or ‘Lombardy’, in English), gets its name. Today, most scholars believe they originated from somewhere in Scandinavia.

circa 700 AD, the Longobards (Lombards) in Italy
Aistulf’s Italy-it.svg: Castagnaderivative work: InvaderCito [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Above is a map showing the Longobard Kingdom (in blue) when it was at its peak in the mid-700s. Although defeated as a political force by Charlemagne around 800 A.D., their nobles lasted in some parts of southern Italy until the 11th century.

A formidable political force, they also influenced many other Germanic tribes – including the Saxons – to settle in Italian lands during their reign. Note: Many people associate the word ‘Saxon’ with England, but they originally came from central Europe; the Germany state of Saxony was once their settlement, before they were defeated by Charlemagne.

The Cimbri and Other Germanic Tribes

During the middle ages (1,000-1,200 A.D.), new waves of Germanic tribes, such as the Cimbri people, migrated and created communities in various parts of Trentino and Veneto. My great-grandmother’s parish of Badia Calavena in the province of Verona is a known Cimbri settlement and, until recently, the people there spoke Cimbro, which, while a distinctly Germanic dialect, also sounds like ENGLISH to my ears. One Veronesi historian I know says he believes this is because Cimbro is related to Old English as spoken by the Saxons. Linguistic connections do not always indicate a genetic connection, but sometimes they might.

What I find so interesting about my great-grandmother’s ancestry, however, is that so many of their surnames – even back to the 1500s – are of Latin/Italian origin, despite their being German speakers. I suppose this is evidence of how long they had lived in that valley, and how thoroughly they had become assimilated into the local culture over the centuries, but again this is pure speculation.

Later Germanic Migrations

Much later, when under Austrian rule in the 1700s-1800s, you will see other scattered Germanic surnames appearing in the church records of the northern provinces, but in a more organic (and less invasive) fashion. As these migrations are relatively recent, you can more easily identify Germanic ‘blood’ through these lines through genealogy alone.

The Ethnic ‘Soup’ of Northern Italy

So, based on what we know about the history of northern Italy, what conclusions can we draw about northern Italian ethnicity?

The truth is, nobody seems to agree.

For example, some historians believe the Longobards, (who comprised an estimated 10% of the population of northern Italy at their peak) had minimal impact the genetic profile of northern Italy because they chose to breed amongst themselves without mixing with other ethnic groups present in the region at the time.

But I’m not so sure. I don’t see how any culture can be in a region for half a millennium and create no impact on the genetic landscape. The Longobards were known to have adopted Roman customs and dress and, although they were always at loggerheads with the Pope, the did actually convert to Christianity.

Given that the Longobards had assimilated, at least in part, to local culture, it seems implausible to me that there was NO inter-breeding between cultures over all that time. My logical brain says at least SOME of that Scandinavian Longobard DNA (and that of all the other ‘imported’ peoples) surely must have mingled – at least to some degree – with that in other ethnic groups in the region.

Moreover, while Charlemagne conquered the Longobard leaders in northern Italy, I cannot imagine they simply ‘vanished’ as an ethnic group. I have seen dozens of Longobard artefacts in many churches and museums in in Trentino. Even the church of my father’s parish in Santa Croce del Bleggio (Val Giudicarie) was built upon the ruins of an old Longobard church.

Even after a political coup, if people have lived in an area for a long time, they tend to stay put, unless they are forced to leave by economic, environmental or political circumstances. And while Charlemagne ousted the Longobard leaders, I have read nothing about any kind of wholesale exodus of the Longobard people from Italy.

At this point, it seems to me the next logical question must surely be:

Can DNA testing shed light on how – or IF – these medieval tribes intermingled?

And if it can…

Will our that DNA profile look different from those of other Italians?

And finally…

What kind of ‘labels’ will DNA testing companies like Ancestry DNA slap on people like us in their ethnicity reports?

Coming Up Next Time…

Those are the questions we’ll address in fourth and final article in the series on DNA tests.

In that article, we will finally look in depth at ethnicity reports – how they come up with their data, what the data means, and how we genealogists – from ALL ethnic backgrounds – can help improve the future of DNA research.

I will also share examples from my own reports, so you can see how data can be interpreted (and misinterpreted) in context.

You can now read that article here:

MORE READING:   DNA Ethnicity Reports. Who You Are Vs. What They SAY You Are

I invite you to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog, to make sure you receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing, as well as all our future articles. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all these articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing online, you will find the subscription form on the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento is coming SOON 18 February 2019 through 14 March 2019). If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: Whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

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Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research


Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn explains why DNA tests alone cannot tell us everything about our ancestry. Article 2 of 4 of ‘DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity’.

This article series has been written in response to the hundreds of questions and comments I have personally received or read on social media around the matter of DNA tests. More specifically, it is a response to the many discussions – often impassioned and angry – about recent changes in AncestryDNA’s algorithms, which caused many people to receive ethnicity reports that made no sense to them, and were at odds with what they knew and/or believed about themselves.

As this is a complex subject, I decided to break it into FOUR articles (I originally thought I could do it in three, but in writing this instalment, I realised four were necessary). 

Last time, in Article 1, we covered:

  • TOPIC 1: Our Unrealistic Expectations About DNA Testing, in which we discussed how and why people often develop misunderstandings about the purpose and value of DNA tests due to misleading presentations in the media, and

  • TOPIC 2: Entry Level Genetics for Genealogists and Family Historians, in which we looked at the different kinds of DNA tests and why it is essential to know what you want to gain before deciding to do one. We also examined how autosomal DNA is passed down through the generations and introduced the concepts of ‘endogamy’ and ‘pedigree collapses’.

If you missed Article 1, or you would like to re-read it, you can catch up by clicking the link below:

MORE READING:   DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity

Today, Article 2, our topic will be: 

  • TOPIC 3: Why DNA Testing is NOT a Substitute for Genealogical Research

In this article, we will examine some of the misconceptions people have about DNA tests, how relationship estimates are formed to identify ‘DNA Matches’, and the many the challenges around identifying your connections with DNA matches. We’ll also look at the technique of ‘triangulation’, as well as how ‘endogamy’ can sometimes blur relationship estimates.

NOTE: Be sure to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog using the subscription form at the right so you can receive Articles 3 and 4 in the special series on DNA testing. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all these articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

DISCLAIMER. Once again, as you read this article series, I ask you to remember that I am a genealogist, not a scientist or academic historian. All opinions and observations are based on my own research both personally and within the context of my professional experience in genealogy.

What Many People Imagine About DNA Tests

Earlier this week I was in a computer repair shop returning a refurbished unit that was defective (I ended up having to buy a new computer, which I am using now). During my conversation with the shop owner – who was of southern Italian descent (Puglia) – I described some of the genealogy software programs I use, so I could illustrate why the computer wasn’t working properly.

Suddenly, he shifted the topic from computers to genealogy and blurted out, ‘I’m thinking of getting my DNA done. What’s the best one out there?’

‘It’s interesting you asked me that,’ I replied. ‘I’m writing an article series about this very topic. But to answer your question, it all depends on what you want from it. What is it you want to find out?’

‘I just want to know my ancestry,’ he said.

‘OK. But what do you mean by that?’ I queried. ‘Do you want to know your ethnicity, meet living relatives or find out who your great-grandfather was?’

‘Yes. I want to know ALL of that.’

I explained to him that these are all very different objectives, and that DNA testing might shed light on some of them, but not all – and not consistently from company to company.

After making a few more enquiries, I learned he knew little about his own Puglian ancestors and had never done any kind of research to find them. Based on what he had seen in the media, he had formed a belief that DNA testing was the key to unlocking all these mysteries.

But he is not alone in thinking this. In my experience, most people who are new to the idea of DNA testing seem to have developed similar misconceptions, largely based on misleading suggestions (which verge on promises) in advertising and television programmes. 

In fact, many people I meet also have the impression that ‘science’ (i.e. DNA testing) can give them answers to genealogical questions, i.e. names and details about specific ancestors.

But barring a few exceptions, which we’ll look at shortly, this simply isn’t true.

Finding Close Relations Through DNA Tests

One group of people for whom DNA testing has proven to be a godsend is adoptees. We see many heart-warming success stories in the media where DNA testing has helped to adopted children, parents and/or siblings to find each other. And for these kinds of close biological relationships, DNA testing can be extremely effective.

As we discussed in Article 1, parents and their children share 50% of their DNA, and full siblings can also share up to 50% of their DNA. Half-siblings share roughly half the amount of DNA as full siblings, i.e. up to 25%. When it comes to DNA, these percentages are extremely high and there would be no mistaking such a relationship if it popped up in a database (unless the family were severely inbred, such as in the case of the royal Hapsburg family*, wherein the inherited DNA of Charles II was actually MORE ‘collapsed’ than if his parents had been brother and sister).

All these close relationships – probably up to 2nd cousins – are fairly easy to identify using DNA tests. But there is one important condition without which none of this would be possible: BOTH parties need to have done a DNA test through the SAME testing provider.

And therein lies the fly in the ointment. When we are seeking to connect (or reconnect) with close family, no DNA test can help us unless the other party (or someone closely related to that person) has their DNA in the same database as ours.

And if that isn’t the case, the only alternative we have is to use traditional ‘paper trail’ genealogical research.  

* The genetic history of the Hapsburgs is discussed in detail in Chapter 3 of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford.

DNA Relationship Estimates

When we take an autosomal DNA test from one of the big companies, our results will be added to their database and compared with other test takers. From these comparisons, we will receive a list of ‘DNA Matches’ or ‘DNA Relatives’, depending on which company you use. Next to each person on the list you will see an estimated relationship, derived from the number of ‘centimorgans’ (cM) shared between you.

I’m not qualified (nor am I going to attempt) to explain centimorgans, but on the AncestryDNA site, you can find tables showing the ranges of cMs of different relationships:

AncestryDNA, table of centimorgans

Click on image to see it larger in a new window

What is most striking about this table is how the variability in cMs increases as your relationships get more distant. A parents/child relationship is a fixed number while full siblings have a slight variability of about 7-8%. But once you get to grandparents, uncles, aunts and half-siblings that variability LEAPS up to 30-40%. And then, when you get to 2nd cousins and beyond, the statistical variability is actually greater than the number of cMs they are likely to share. Ancestry has even put a disclaimer at the bottom of the table saying the exact amount of shared DNA can go beyond the ranges shown in the table.

The primary reason for these variables is that siblings (except identical twins) do not inherit exactly the same genes from their parents (as we explored in Article 1). Thus, specifying how much genetic information blood relatives will share becomes less predictable and more ‘mixed’ as you move through the generations.

But another reason for these inevitable variables is ‘pedigree collapse’ (also discussed in Article 1); I’ll come back to this point in a few minutes.

DNA Relatives – And THEN What?

Knowing these variables, you can probably get an idea of the challenges of trying to piece together your family through DNA alone. If your DNA results are like mine, the majority of these ‘matches’ will be distant relatives, i.e. 4th to 6th cousins or sometimes more distant, depending on which company you use.

I have hundreds of ‘DNA matches’ on the four sites where my data appears. Every now and then, someone amongst them ‘pops out’ on the list to me, and I feel pretty confident I can connect them to my already extensive tree. Just this morning, in fact, I was able to confirm two new DNA matches as 4th cousins by comparing their genealogical info to my own. The whole process took me only a few minutes, as I already had their ancestors in my personal database. This could never have been possible but for the fact that my research extends well beyond my own pedigree, as I have been transcribing the records for an entire parish for the past few years.

Unfortunately, discovering the link between yourself and a DNA match is rarely a quick or easy process. I cannot COUNT the number of times one of my matches contacted me because I have a large family tree and expected me to be able to tell them about their ancestry, when they have done little (or NO) research of their own. Many of these people have no family tree, or one that is so minimal as to be of no practical help to finding a connection.

While, of course, I feel for these people, it is also frustrating for me to have to explain to them that DNA cannot fill in the blanks without at least having tried to construct a tree – or hiring a genealogist to do the research for them. And even if I do manage to figure out how that person is related to me by blood, DNA is not the tool that will help me solve that puzzle – genealogy is.

Again, I feel this kind of expectation is down to misleading advertising and media representation, wherein DNA is touted as ‘the answer’ to our ancestral mysteries. And given the number of times a year I have to explain this to my DNA matches, I think it’s a BIG ethical issue.

The bottom line is this:

DNA testing can point you in a DIRECTION.
But if you REALLY want to ‘meet your ancestors’,
GENEALOGY is the ONLY way.

SIDE NOTE: AncestryDNA used to show ‘distant cousins’, such as those predicted at 5th to 8th cousin level, but they discontinued this deeming these relationships to be ‘not useful’ and too uncertain. Ironically, I have ‘lost’ some DNA connections to some Trentino 6th and 7th cousins I KNOW personally because we are all avid genealogical researchers. I feel Ancestry should have allowed its users to choose whether they wished to retain all that old information, rather than just wiping the slate clean for us.

How Endogamy Can Blur Relationship Predictions

I’d like to return to the idea of ‘endogamy’ and ‘pedigree collapses’, in which some of our ancestors may be  related to us via more than one line (refer back to Article 1 for a detailed explanation of these concepts).

Let’s say you’ve received a DNA match for someone predicted to be a 4th cousin:

  • If you were indeed 4th cousins, it means you share 3X great-grandparents.

  • Each of you has a possible 32 great-great-great-grandparents – 64 between you – and only one pair (or possibly only one PERSON) of these is common to you both.

  • If both of you have done enough genealogical research to trace ancestry back to those 3X great-grandparents, finding the link between you will be relatively straightforward.

But what if endogamy is blurring the estimate? In other words, what if there were many pedigree collapses in both of your trees? Pedigree collapses are common to all of us, but when they occur repeatedly in subsequent generations, your DNA becomes less varied than if it were ‘new’ every generation. This can sometimes cause predicted relationships to be estimated as being closer than they really are.

For example, back when Ancestry used to show more distant DNA relations, it predicted one of my matches was likely to be my 5th cousin. But when we did the genealogical research to find our connection, we discovered we were actually 6th and 7th cousins – via multiple lines. This was all down to pedigree collapses in both of our trees.

So, let’s suppose you and a DNA match are – unbeknownst to either of you – actually 7th cousins as in my example above:

  • This would mean you share a pair of 5X great-grandparents (or at least one 5X great-grandparent, if a husband/wife died and the widower/widow remarried). 

  • Each of you has a maximum of 128 5X great-grandparents – as many as 256 between you (128 pairs). I say ‘a maximum’ because there could (and most likely ARE) fewer, due to pedigree collapses.

  • Possibly only ONE of these 128 pairs – or possibly only one PERSON – is common to you both.

  • Depending on your age and the ages at which your ancestors had children, your 5X great-grandparents may have been born any time between 1670-1750.

Now, the question is this: have BOTH you and your DNA match traced your pedigree back that far through genealogical research? If not, unless one of you has traced your ancestors FORWARD in time (i.e. traces all of their descendants, even if they are not their own direct family), you are unlikely to make anything more than an educated guess as to how you are connected.

Again, DNA testing can make predictions, but even these predictions can be OFF. They cannot tell you how many times your pedigree has collapsed and at what points in your ancestry they occurred. The only methodology that can tell you these things is genealogy.

Comparing Genes – Triangulation

One method many DNA enthusiasts use to try to establish connections between them is ‘triangulation’. This is where you compare cMs that are shared by three or more people, to see if you can discover the common ancestor. If you wish to try out triangulation, 23AndMe has a DNA comparison tool that allows you to compare a group of up to five DNA matches; GEDMatch also has a tool where you can compare the data from multiple DNA kits.

To demonstrate, here’s a screenshot from the comparison tool on my 23AndMe account, showing how I share the same segment on ‘Chromosome 16’ with four of my DNA Matches:

DNA Triangulation on Chromosome 16, 4 people.

NOTE: Before I continue, I will tell you that I am 50% Trentini/Veronesi via my dad and 50% Irish via my mom. The reason why this is important to know will become apparent in a minute.

About five years ago, when I was new to DNA testing, all of us in this ‘Chromosome 16 group’ were trying to figure out what this triangulation could tell us. Many of us had Irish surnames in our recent history (i.e. great-grandparents), so we assumed our connection was probably via Ireland. Unfortunately, at that time, few of us in the group had done enough research on our Irish sides to find the common ancestor, who was probably born around 1800 or slightly earlier. Again, the answer to the riddle of how we are related lay in genealogy, but none of us had yet found the documentation to prove anything.

The Trouble with Triangles

I kind of ‘parked’ that whole ‘Chromosome 16’ experiment for some time. But then, one day, I decided to run the test again, adding someone ELSE to the test group: one of my 1st cousins on my TRENTINO side.

Imagine my surprise when this image came up on my screen:


DNA triangulation, chromosome 16 - 5 people with 1st cousin
My 1st cousin (represented by the big green segment above) appears to share the same segment of Chromosome 16 as our Ch16 group.  

I was baffled. Could we have gotten it wrong all these years? Were we NOT related by Irish ancestry after all, but rather by a common Trentino ancestor? It seemed really unlikely, but the image seemed to imply it.

I say ‘seemed’ because it turns out I was completely WRONG.

What I hadn’t actually DONE was create a ‘triangle’. Yes, I compared how all these people were related to me; but I hadn’t examined if or how these people might be related to each other. That is the crux of what ‘triangulation’ is.

I already knew all the people in the Ch16 group had been triangulated against each other, and that they were all DNA Matches. But when I compared my Trentino cousin with each individual in the Ch16 group, he shared ZERO DNA with them.

There’s Two Sides to Every Chromosome

So how can it be that my cousin shares nearly all of my 16th chromosome with me, but shares no definable DNA with anyone in the Ch16 group?

What the chart from 23AndMe above does not show is that every chromosome in your bodies has TWO strands. That’s why you sometimes hear of DNA referred to as ‘the double helix’. We inherit one strand from our father and one from our mother.

If my Trentino cousin and I share nearly all of the same DNA on Chromosome 16, and all the other DNA Matches share Ch16 with me but NOT with him, it means my Trentino cousin and the Ch16 group are on different halves of the same chromosome.

In other words, the DNA I share with my Trentino cousin comes from a DIFFERENT parent from the DNA I share with the Ch16 group. And as I know my Trentino cousin is not a blood relation of my Irish mother, this became (to me anyway) ironclad proof that those of us in the Ch16 group WERE connected via a common Irish ancestor after all. So, actually, adding my Trentino cousin to the mix was a way to exclude any alternative theories. 

As of this writing, our Ch16 group has not made any big breakthroughs in discovering WHO our common Irish ancestor is, although one of the members is trying to find a birth record for one of my Irish 3X great-grandmothers. 

In other words…

It’s back to GENEALOGY.

Maybe we’ll break through that brick wall this time.

How DNA Tests Can MISS Known Blood Relations

There is one last, important point I wish to make on this topic of DNA Matches:

You can be related to someone and NOT show up as DNA Matches in DNA test websites.

NOTE: I’m not implying my 1st cousin is related to my Ch16 group; there is nothing to indicate he is. I am talking about people who share a known genealogical connection, but who do not show up as matches on DNA testing databases.

The randomness with which we all inherit DNA from our ancestors does NOT mean we will all inherit the same genetic material, even if we KNOW we are related. Of course, the more closely we are related, the more likely common cMs will show up in our test results. Conversely, the more distantly we are related, the more likely DNA tests will either miss or filter out shared DNA we inherited from our common ancestors.

I have had this happen with numerous known relatives – mostly at the level of 6th cousins (also bearing in mind that AncestryDNA no longer delivers matches at this level). I know of at least three people to whom I am related as 6th cousins – many of them connected to me in more way than one – and we don’t show up as DNA matches.

Whether we don’t actually share any DNA, or the DNA we do share is beyond the current abilities of DNA testing technology, I cannot say. All I know is that we have all done exhaustive, well-documented genealogical research (we often help each other, in fact), and we are 100% certain of our blood connections.

Yes, it would be nice to see a DNA test confirming this, but I am really not concerned. We know we are cousins, and that is all that matters.

Patience vs. Our ‘I Want It Now’ Culture

A few days ago, one of my clients sent me this nice message while he was on holiday in Bora Bora (!):

‘I am very excited, looking at the documents you use to do this is amazing… I don’t know how you do it. You must have incredible patience and be incredibly detailed, and I bet you are a wiz solving puzzles.’

Of course, I smiled a LOT when I received this. But apart from being very kind words, they also contain some important insight into the nature of genealogy, and how it challenges our modern way of thinking.

Genealogy DOES require incredible patience. It DOES require fine attention to detail, and an obsessive passion for solving puzzles. It requires you to be able to hold a great deal of information in your head, and to make connections between those pieces of information – sometimes years after you’ve recorded it.

This kind of thinking truly is in sharp contrast to our modern ‘I want it now’ mentality, where 80% of people click away from a website if it takes more than a few seconds to load. DNA testing companies KNOW THIS about us. They KNOW we are impatient. They KNOW we ‘want it all – now’. They KNOW we want to get stuff, make money, lose weight or whatever with the least effort possible.

And they also KNOW our society, especially those who have lost connection with their blood relations and/or ancestral homelands, suffers from an endemic identity crisis and are searching for ways to heal it – NOW.

And that is how they reel so many of us in.

Coming Up Next Time…

In Article 3 in this 4-part series, we will look at this issue around this delicate issue of ‘identity’. It’s available NOW at the link below:

MORE READING:   Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?

In that article, we’ll move away from the technical side of DNA testing and shift our attention to more ideological questions about who we all are as people. In that article, entitled ‘Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?’ we will explore: 

  • TOPIC 4: Cultural Identity in a New World

  • TOPIC 5: What Does History Tell Us About Northern Italian Ethnicity?

While much of that article will give special attention to people of Trentino and/or northern Italian ancestry, I invite you to read it even if you have no such ancestry in your own tree, as it might give you some ideas about your own beliefs and approaches to ethnicity.

Finally, in Article 4, we will finally look in depth at ethnicity reports – how they come up with their data, what the data means, and how we genealogists – from ALL ethnic backgrounds – can help improve the future of DNA research. In that article, I will also share examples from my own reports, so you can see how data can be interpreted (and misinterpreted) in context.

I invite you to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog, to make sure you receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing, as well as all our future articles. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all these articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing online, you will find the subscription form on the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento will be in February and March 2019. 
If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site.
Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: Whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from
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If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form,
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Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

Join our Trentino Genealogy Group on Facebook: http://facebook.com/groups/TrentinoGenealogy

View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry: https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity

DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity
Ca. 1913. Anna Corona Onorati and her elder sister Maria Giuseppa Onorati, of Bono in Bleggio, Val Giudicarie, Trentino. Maria was my paternal grandmother.

Article 1 of 4. Genealogist Lynn Serafinn discusses fundamentals of genetics, Y-chromosome, mitochondrial and autosomal DNA tests and pedigree collapses.

Over the past few months on social media (especially on Facebook), I have been watching with interest a marked increase in conversations about DNA testing and its relevance to genealogy. This has been especially noticeable in groups exploring their northern Italian and/or Trentino ancestry. Amongst those of northern Italian descent, the ‘heated debates’ were mostly in response to AncestryDNA’s new algorithms for their ethnicity reports, which have suddenly – and seemingly inexplicable – relabelled many of us (including me) ‘French’.

As I watch people’s reactions to their DNA test results and ethnicity reports (from ANY DNA testing service, not just Ancestry) I see they are frequently confused, sometimes disappointed, and occasionally upset. I have often added my own opinions and insights when I see these online conversations, but the nature of social media is that the impact of any kind of complex discussion is often fragmented. 

For that reason, I decided to write this series of articles, where I will do my best to address what I believe are the most common causes of these understandable emotions amongst DNA testers:

  1. Unrealistic expectations about DNA testing (largely due to misleading media hype and advertising).

  2. Minimal or insufficient understanding of genetics in general.  

  3. Insufficient genealogical research of their own ancestry.

  4. Misunderstanding the difference between ethnicity, nationality and cultural identity.

  5. Lack of knowledge of the history of their ancestral homelands.

  6. Lack of understanding of how ethnicity reports are created, and what the information actually MEANS.

My purpose in writing this series is to help you become better informed on the subject, and not to discredit any of the DNA tests currently on the marketer or put readers off the idea of taking a DNA test. Quite the opposite, in fact: I believe that the more people of specific ancestries get tested, the more accurate and USEFUL the results will gradually become. I also believe we can make an impact on the future of research, when we combine DNA with meticulously-documented, traditional genealogy.

How the articles are organised:

NOTE: Be sure to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog using the subscription form at the right so you can receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling the articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

DISCLAIMER: I am NOT a scientist or a geneticist. Nor am I an historian in the academic sense of the word. I am a genealogist and author specialising in the people of Trentino. I was a college teacher for many years, and I still teach workshops in Italian genealogy to various groups. Many years ago, I did post graduate work in social anthropology and world music. I have read a lot, observed a lot and researched a lot within the parameters of my work and my lifelong passion for social and cultural history. Genetics has always been a fascination of mine, as it plays a huge role in our understanding of our family histories, and our personal identities. I have done autosomal DNA testing through both AncestryDNA and 23AndMe, and I have also uploaded my raw data files to both GEDMatch and FamilyTreeDNA. Just this week, I also ordered autosomal and mtDNA tests from CRI Genetics (so I cannot comment on them in this article). Please bear my ‘mixed bag’ background in mind as you read this series. I would not wish to create yet more ‘unrealistic expectations’ for you by posing myself as an expert in genetics. I really am just like most people – learning as I go along.

PART 1: Our Unrealistic Expectations About DNA Testing

As a professional genealogist, I have subscriptions to just about every relevant genealogy website on the Internet. And when you have a lot of web subscriptions, you are also on a lot of mailing lists. So, it came as no surprise to me over the recent Christmas season that I received dozens of marketing emails from every genealogy site to which I subscribe, suggesting I buy their products as Christmas presents for friends and family members. And one of the number one ‘gifts’ being flogged this year by all the major sites this year was DNA testing kits.

Unfortunately, many of these marketing campaigns can create unrealistic expectations in their customers. With regards to ancestry (I’m not considering health reports or those for genetic traits), you will see two main promises:

  1. ETHNICITY: Marked by catch phrases like ‘discover your ancestors’ origins’ or ‘uncover your ethnic mix’.

  2. CONNECTION: Marked by catch phrases like ‘connect with relatives’, ‘discover long-lost family’ or ‘meet a distant cousin’.

The trouble is, NEITHER of these promises is 100% honest, and both are somewhat misleading.

Later in Article 3, when we look at ethnicity reports, we’ll see how and why ethnicity and ancestral origin reports are usually very ‘woolly’, imprecise, and often downright WRONG.

And while the media (and marketing campaigns) love to focus on success stories of people who were reunited with parents, siblings and other close relations after doing a DNA test, for most people, the reality of connecting with blood relations through DNA testing is much more challenging, as we will also see later.

Three Types of DNA Tests

Before you decide to spend your money on any DNA test, I strongly advise getting clear about what you wish to gain from being tested. Knowing what you want will determine which of the tree main types of DNA tests is best for you:

  1. Y-DNA – This test is specifically to trace your patrilineal ancestry (your father, his father, his father’s father, etc.). It is only available to men (as women don’t have a Y chromosome), but a female can explore this by asking her father, brother or a male cousin (he MUST be a son of her father’s brother) to get a Y-DNA test. This test is good if you are interested in tracing the history of a surname, for example. I have one client who is using Y-DNA testing to reconstruct the history of a specific Trentino family throughout the centuries.

  2. Mitochondrial (mtDNA) – This test is for tracing your matrilineal ancestry (your mother, her mother, her mother’s mother, etc.). Both men and women can take an mtDNA test, as we all inherit this from our mothers. Be aware that it does NOT tell you about all your female ancestors (i.e. it cannot tell you about your paternal grandmother, the mother of your maternal grandfather, etc.), but only the direct line of females from your mother back in time.

Both Y-DNA and Mitochondrial DNA change very slowly over time, which means these kinds of tests can reveal more about your ancient ethnicity/ancestry than autosomal testing. If you are interested to see how some scientists have used these tests to trace the ancient ancestry of one man, I highly recommend checking out the 2-part BBC television series ‘Meet the Izzards’. You can find it on YouTube at these links:

Meet the Izzards Part 1 – ‘Mother’: https://youtu.be/DIp_xtQelWA

Meet the Izzards Part 2 – ‘Father’: https://youtu.be/vMHQA2nS7tA

  1. Autosomal – This is the most commonly chosen and widely available DNA test, and only one currently offered by companies like AncestryDNA and 23AndMe. You would choose this kind of DNA test you if you are interested in your more recent ethnicity (the last few hundred years) and/or connecting with living people who are biologically related to you. Autosomal tests are also used by companies (23AndMe is an example) to create health profiles, showing which genes you have that may indicate a higher risk of developing certain diseases or conditions, or sensitivity to certain medications. Autosomal tests can also be used for discovering inherited traits, such as eye colour, the ability to roll your tongue, etc. Autosomal DNA tests are available to both men and women.

*** NOTE: I will ONLY be discussing AUTOSOMAL testing in this article series. ***

Choosing the Right Company

Aside from choosing the right test, your reasons for choosing one company over another should ideally have more to do with what they offer (and how that relates to what you want) than with price:

  • If your primary aim is to trace your patrilineal or matrilineal ancestry, there are currently only a few companies offering Y-DNA and/or mtDNA testing. FamilyTree DNA, National Geographic, CRI Genetics are the ones I know of, but there may be others.

  • If your primary aim is to get a health profile, then you might look into 23AndMe. CRI Genetics also has a health report, but I haven’t had it done, so I cannot say how detailed it is.

  • If your primary aim is to connect with living relatives (bearing in mind the caveats we’ll discuss later in this series), you would do best to go with the company with the biggest database of DNA testers, which is currently AncestryDNA.

  • If you’re really serious about finding living relatives, you would do better to get tested through multiple companies. The bigger the ‘net’ the more likely to ‘make a catch’.

  • If your primary aim is to get an ethnicity profile of your recent ancestry, pretty much all the testing companies will give this to you via autosomal DNA testing. However, as we’ll see later in this series, the results you will get are not always as precise as you might like. Also, as we will see, autosomal DNA (or at least our current understanding of it), by its very nature, cannot show details extending much further back than around 250 years (NOTE: that is an arbitrary figure I am gleaning from AncestryDNA’s ethnicity reports). Based on reviews, companies like FamilyTreeDNA and CRI Genetics seem to have a better reputation for accuracy and precision than Ancestry does, but I cannot yet vouch for either personally.

Rather than trying to review all the tests themselves (and they are bound to change over time anyway), I refer you to two good articles that compare a range of DNA tests available as of this date (albeit the one on the Family DNA site is predisposed towards their own product):

PART 2: Entry Level Genetics for Genealogists and Family Historians

Before dipping your toes into your chromosomes, I think it is important to understand a few basics about genetics in general. I don’t mean the scientific side so much as how it ‘works’ in our ancestral inheritance. To that end, I want to explain a little bit about autosomal DNA and how it is transmitted over time, as autosomal tests are the basis for the ethnicity reports people receive from most DNA testing services.

Autosomal DNA – Understanding the Basics

The following illustration gives us an idea of how autosomal DNA is passed on from parents to a child. It looks very simple; each parent gives 50% of his/her DNA to the child:

Autosomal DNA - 2 Generations

Click on image to see it larger in a new window.

While, in principle, this seems simple, in reality, it is more complex than it looks.

Why? Because Father and Mother are not just ‘all red’ or ‘all blue’. Each of them has inherited 50% of their genes from their OWN parents.

Again, in principle, that sounds like it would be simple. Logically, it would mean the child inherits 25% of their genetic material from each of their grandparents. But, in practice, this is not exactly what happens. We can understand this better if we look at two children from the same couple:


Autosomal DNA, 3 Generations. Diagram by Lynn Serafinn, http://trentinogenealogy.com
Click on image to see it larger in a new window.

(Forgive any slight imprecision in the diagram; I did it by hand in Photoshop, and I’m not a graphic designer).

In the diagram above, we see three generations of autosomal DNA. Now, we see Father has inherited 50% of his DNA from his parents (red and yellow), and Mother has inherited 50% of her DNA from her parents (blue and purple).

But look, now, at the children. Each child has inherited 50% of their DNA from each of their parents. HOWEVER, the percentage of DNA from each ‘colour’ (i.e. each grandparent) is NOT an exact 25%. They receive more from one grandparent, and less from the other, until it adds up to the full 50% from that parent.

Note how Child 1 has a lot more yellow and blue DNA than Child 2, and Child 2 has a lot more red and purple DNA than Child 1 has. This is what makes siblings unique (except for identical twins, whose DNA are identical).

But it gets even more complicated, the more we work through the generations. Here’s a diagram of the same family with their great-grandparents added into the mix:Autosomal DNA, 4 Generations. Diagram by Lynn Serafinn, http://trentinogenealogy.com

Click on image to see it larger in a new window.

From this diagram, we can see yet more diversity entering the ‘gene pool’. At each generation, children have inherited 50% of their DNA from their parents, but now (at least from Father and Mother down) we see how they continue to inherit DNA from their grandparents and the ancestors who came before in varying proportions.

Now, when we look at the two children, we see even greater diversity between them. Child 2, for example, carries a lot more DNA from their father’s paternal grandmother (green) than his/her sibling does.

But the OTHER thing we start to notice is how the slices of DNA are getting smaller, as they combine and recombine to fill in the 50% from each parent. This is an important point:

The AMOUNT of autosomal DNA
we inherit from specific ancestors
DECREASES over time.

Try to imagine, now, if I added another generation to this diagram…and then another, and another, ad infinitum. Not only would some of those colours become so narrow they would be hard to detect (and I would certainly have a rough time drawing them in Photoshop), but SOME of those colours might not appear in DNA tests at all.

This is why:

  • Siblings can sometimes receive slightly different ethnicity reports from the autosomal tests. It doesn’t mean they HAVE different ethnicities. It just means that one of them has genes that appear more in one ‘test group’ than the other (we’ll discuss test groups in the final part of this series).

  • One sibling might have a DNA match on Ancestry, etc. which the other sibling does not share. It doesn’t mean they are NOT both related to the DNA match. It just means that the specific genes they inherited matched the specific genes the ‘match’ inherited. In fact, one sibling could inherit the DNA from an ancestor whose DNA is completely absent in their siblings’ DNA.

  • Autosomal testing CANNOT really tell us our ‘ancient’ or ‘deep’ ancestry. Autosomal DNA is changing EVERY generation, whereas Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA (which CAN tell us our ancient ancestry) are not. So, don’t go into autosomal testing expecting to discover very ancient ancestral roots.

The Mysterious Case of ‘Faded Genes’

Scientists tell us we could indeed be a direct descendant of someone without having inherited ANY of that person’s DNA. The more distant our relation to an ancestor, the more likely this becomes.

While that is the ‘official’ belief amongst scientists, I personally believe we carry DNA of each and EVERY one of our ancestors inside of us, from the beginning of time – even if only in an infinitesimally small quantity.

I confess this is an utterly UN-scientific belief. But having researched so many ancestors for myself and so many others, I have come to believe it to be true, at what I might call a ‘spiritual’ level.

If science cannot yet ‘detect’ the presences of all those ancestors in our genes, I believe it is more a measurement of the current technological limitations than an indication that ancient DNA simply ‘fades away’ over time.

Again, this is simply my personal belief. But I suspect many others (especially genealogists) feel similarly.

Endogamy and Pedigree Collapses

To finish our discussion on autosomal DNA, I feel it is important to touch upon the subject of ‘endogamy’, and how this related to both DNA testing and genealogy.

‘Endogamy’ refers to the practice of small, insular groups intermarrying over many generations – often over many centuries. Intermarriage within one’s own social group occurred amongst ALL human societies, pretty much until the beginning of the 20th century with the introduction of mass transportation. Having researched tens of thousands of families over the years, I would say that around 95% of the time, couples tended to marry within their own parish – and often within their own village/hamlet. Moreover, you will often see them intermarrying with the same families over the generations.

Continual intermarriage within a closed community will ALWAYS lead to the inevitability of some couples marrying who were related by blood. The technical term for a blood relationship is ‘consanguinity’ (literally ‘with blood’).

Many of us have heard stories about royal families intermarrying ‘too much’ (I’ll get to that in a minute), but the truth is consanguineous relationships between spouses occurs in ALL family trees, in all parts of the world, from the simple farmer up to kings and queens.

And the further you go back in time, the more of these ‘consanguineous’ ancestors you will find in your tree. In fact, when you start to plot out all the families in a parish over a long period of time (as I am doing for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio), you will start to see that pretty much EVERYONE alive today who is descended from someone in that parish is related to pretty much everyone else – whether they realise it or not. Moreover, if you look back in time to, say, around 500 years ago, you will see that pretty much everyone who was alive THEN in that parish is your ancestor.

It’s a bit mind-bending.

There isn’t a person on earth who, does not have at least some ancestors who married someone who was related to them by blood. It doesn’t mean they were closely related. 4th cousins, for example, were not considered ‘close’ in terms of canonical (Church) law. And more distant relations than that, people didn’t even CONSIDER were ‘related’ to them at all.

But while the Church and its parishioners might not consider 5th cousins and beyond to be ‘relatives’, from a genealogical perspective – and in terms of DNA – they most certainly are.

Every time you have a pair of consanguineous ancestors, it creates something called a ‘pedigree collapse’. Normally, we expect the number of our ancestors to multiply by two at each generation, as we move back in time. But when there is a consanguineous relationship between a husband and wife, it means they share a common ancestor (or, more frequently, a pair of common ancestors). Thus, when we move backwards in time to the generation at which their common ancestors occur, there will be FEWER than double then number of ancestors (minus two, to be precise).

Here are a couple of diagrams to illustrate what I mean:Autosomal DNA, 2nd grade consanguinity. Diagram by Lynn Serafinn, http://trentinogenealogy.com

Click on image to see it larger in a new window.

In this diagram, Father’s mother and Mother’s father were brother and sister. This means that Father and Mother above are actually 1st cousins (In reality, most consanguineous marriages are more distant than 1st cousins, but this was the simplest diagram I could draw to illustrate a pedigree collapse). The Catholic church calls this ‘2nd grade consanguinity’ because the blood connection is found  two generations back from the couple who are marrying (i.e. Father and Mother’s grandparents).

Look all the way at the top of the diagram, you will see that Father’s maternal grandparents are the SAME colours as mother’s paternal grandparents (yellow and brown). This is because they are the SAME couple.

Thus, a more accurate diagram to show what is going on is this:
Autosomal DNA, 2nd grade consanguinity, pedigree collapse. Diagram by Lynn Serafinn, http://trentinogenealogy.comClick on image to see it larger in a new window.

Instead of the expected eight grandparents for Mother and Father, we have only SIX. This is why we call it a ‘collapse’: instead of the number of your ancestors multiplying by two at every generation, whenever there is a consanguineous marriage, there will be fewer than the expected number of ancestors – two fewer if both ancestors are shared, and one fewer if only one of them is shared (e.g. if Father’s mother and Mother’s father we step-siblings instead of full siblings).

Really, pedigree collapses are a simple matter of statistics: If we look back at the human population of the planet over the millennia, doubling our ancestors at every generation is mathematical impossibility. There simply weren’t enough people living on the planet for us to have two completely unrelated ancestors for every generation in our history.

SIDE NOTE: In the future I will be publishing an article on this site discussing how to recognise consanguineous marriages and pedigree collapses in your family tree, and also how to USE these as clues to piecing together genealogical riddles in earlier generations.

Collapsing the ‘Gene Pool’

Have a look now at the two CHILDREN of the consanguineous couple in the diagram above. Do you notice anything different compared to the earlier diagram were there were eight great-grandparents?

I’ve deliberately exaggerated the results for purpose of demonstration, but if you look closely at Child 1, you might notice he/she has TWO sets of yellow DNA. In fact, the amount of yellow in the diagram (and remember, it’s just my own drawing, and isn’t scientific) is close to 50% of the child’s DNA. This is because Child 1 just happened to get a double whammy of ‘yellow’ from both Mother and Father, via their shared ancestor.

Let’s consider some of the implications for the children in this diagram:

  • Child 1 and 2 are not just siblings; they are also 1st cousins, 1st removed.

  • If Child 1 were to grow up and marry yet another close descendant (another 1st cousin, for example) of the ‘yellow’ great-grandfather, there is a strong chance that their children would inherit and even higher percentage of ‘yellow’ DNA, for the simple reason that there is that much less diversity in the genes to pass on to their descendants. If that DNA happened to contain genes associated for certain health conditions that were normally ‘recessive’, it would make that child more susceptible to developing those conditions. This is what happened to many of the European royal families, including Queen Victoria’s family and the Hapsburgs.

  • Child 2’s genes appear to be a bit more evenly spread out, but there is always a chance that he/she has also inherited the recessive gene for a disease or serious health condition. So if this child marries another closely related descendant of the ‘yellow’ grandfather, there may be a higher risk that the condition will get ‘switched on’ in the next generation.

Even though you might discover many pedigree collapses in your family tree, a marriage between cousins does not automatically mean their children will inherit health risks. Moreover, marriages between more distant cousins (3rd and 4th cousin marriages were fairly common in the past) still allowed for a fairly diverse ‘gene pool’, especially if cousins from the SAME lineage did not intermarry at the next generation. Consanguinity between marital partners only becomes a genetic risk when close cousins intermarry repeatedly throughout the generations, without ever (or hardly ever) introducing ‘fresh blood’ into the gene pool. This was not the case for most of our ancestors

How Pedigree Collapses Affect Your DNA Test Results

Many people do DNA testing to find and connect with living relatives. Sites like Ancestry can sometimes give you lists of hundreds of ‘cousins’, with whom you share at least SOME DNA according to their tests. Sometimes these DNA matches show up as ‘probable’ 2nd, 3rd or 4th cousins. But others might show up as ‘3rd to distant cousins’ or something equally vague.

One of the reasons for such vagueness is the presence of (possibly many) pedigree collapses.

Because endogamy can cause your genes to become more ‘saturated’ (for lack of a better word) with the genes of certain ancestral lines, a cousin might show up who shares enough common genetic material to be your 3rd cousin in theory, but in fact is your 6th (or even more distant) cousin. Thus, if the two of you try to find your common ancestors at the 3rd cousin level (great-great-grandparents), you simply won’t find them, and are likely to become confused (and possibly doubtful about your own family tree) if you try to.

Moreover, the more pedigree collapses each of you has in your ancestry, the more ‘off’ these estimates will be.

The only way to SEE how you are connected is for both of you to have traced your family history – through genealogy, not DNA.

My gut tells me (although this is just a HUNCH based on logic, and not any scientific evidence) that endogamy can also skew our ethnicity reports. In other words, if the genes for one ancestral line are disproportionately pronounced in our DNA due to pedigree collapses, would it not give the ‘appearance’ of us being ‘more’ of something than we actually are? For example, if we had inherited a lot of ‘yellow’, and ‘yellow’ was associated with a particular ethnic or geographic group in a tester’s DNA database, wouldn’t our ethnicity reports show us as being a high percentage of whatever that ethnicity happened to be – even if it weren’t the ethnic group to which we believed we belong?

To get into the heart of such a ‘loaded’ question, we first need to get clear about what exactly ethnicity is – and what it is not – as well as how DNA testing sites ARRIVE at their ‘ethnicity estimates’.

Coming Up Next Time…

This seems like the perfect place to end the first instalment of this article series, as next time, in Article 2, we will be addressing the next topic on our list, namely:

  • PART 3: Why DNA Testing is NOT a Substitute for Genealogical Research

In that article, we will examine some of the misconceptions people have about DNA tests, how relationship estimates are formed to identify ‘DNA Matches’, and the many the challenges around identifying your connections with DNA matches. We’ll also look at the technique of ‘triangulation’, as well as how ‘endogamy’ can sometimes blur relationship estimates.

YOU CAN READ IT NOW AT:

MORE READING:   Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research

I invite you to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog, to make sure you receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing, as well as all our future articles. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all the articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing online you will find the subscription form on the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

(Closing thought: If you are interested to go more deeply into the fascinating world of genetics, I highly recommend checking out the beautifully written book called A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: the stories of our genes by Adam Rutherford. I assure you it is NOT overly scientific; rather it’s extremely engaging and often funny. I think it’s a terrific book title too.)

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento will be in February and March 2019. 
If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site.
Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: Whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

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How Cemeteries Can Help Grow Your Family Tree

How Cemeteries Can Help Grow Your Family Tree
Panoramic view of a section of Trento Monumental Cemetery (Cimitero Monumentale di Trento), Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy.

Trentino Genealogist Lynn Serafinn discusses cemeteries in Italy, and shares tips on how gravestones can help you discover more about your ancestors.

Like so many other genealogists and family historians, I love walking through cemeteries. I don’t see them as morbid or spooky, as so much of our popular culture portrays them. I see them as profound expressions of love, admiration, community and social values.

But cemeteries can also be rich sources of historical information, and catalysts that can help us discover many things we might not have known about our families. Sometimes, a random gravestone can turn out to belong to an ancestor, a distant cousin, or a family member of someone else you may not have met yet.

In this article, I want to give you a taste for how cemeteries can help you in your quest for constructing your family history, so you can start to discover and unlock the treasures they may hold. We will look at:

  • The Pros and Cons of Working with ‘Virtual’ Cemeteries
  • The Limitations and Inaccuracies on Gravestones of Immigrants
  • Why There Are No Ancient Graves in Italian Cemeteries
  • Parish Cemeteries vs. Frazioni Cemeteries
  • How Women Are Recorded on Trentino Gravestones
  • Gleaning Information and Identifying People You Don’t Know
  • Family Groups on Trentino Gravestones
  • How Gravestones Can Reveal More Than Just Dates
  • Expanding Your Research and Leaving a Legacy

The Pros and Cons of Working with ‘Virtual’ Cemeteries

I’ve observed that descendants of Italian immigrants often want to jump right into finding their ancestors in Italy before taking ample time to gather as much documentation as they can in their ‘adopted’ country. When we talk about Trentini descendants, those countries are typically either the US or somewhere in South America. I recently had a client who lived in England but, like me, had moved here from the US about 20 years ago. This client’s ancestors were not actually from Trentino, but from Genova. Since moving away from her birth place of Chicago, and since the passing away of her parents and other elders of the family, she had lost her connection to the family lore and had little information that could help us get to the point where we could start researching her family’s ancestor in the Italian records.

When I took on the project, the first thing I wanted to do was fill in the blanks of her family AFTER they had emigrated from Italy. For that, one of the most valuable resources was Find-A-Grave, a website containing millions of memorials from cemeteries around the world, all submitted by volunteers. It is, if you will, a collection of ‘virtual’ cemeteries viewable to anyone with Internet access.

Using Find-A-Grave immediately opened a floodgate of information for my client’s family tree. Not only did I find death dates, but many people are linked together, showing connections between spouses, children, siblings, etc. This information enabled me to construct entire families, which I later cross-checked with other online sources like Ancestry and Family Search.

Additionally, some of the memorials contained obituaries from local newspapers, which gave me even more information – including information about when my client’s ancestors first came over from Genova. This led me to find immigration documents. Using what I found in these virtual cemeteries, I was able to glean enough information about her family’s Italian origins to make me confident I could start tackling the Italian records. From there, things became much easier for me, and I quickly managed to take her family tree back to the mid-1700s with a day’s work.

*** FREE RESOURCE ***

Click HERE to download a PDF list of cemeteries in North and South America known to have the graves of many Trentini (aka Tyrolean) immigrants, with links to their pages on Find-A-Grave. No sign-up or email address is required.

But while using Find-A-Grave was a great success on this project, the site does have its limitations.

  • All content on the site is provided solely by its users, so the data is as accurate or inaccurate as the people who enter it. TIP: If you see a mistake on a memorial in Find-A-Grave, you can (and should) send a suggested correction to the moderator of that page.
  • Not all cemeteries are listed. TIP: You CAN add a cemetery if it is missing (and I encourage you to do so), but be sure to check it isn’t already listed under a slightly different name.
  • Most cemeteries listed are in the United States. In fact, there are only a handful of cemeteries listed on Find-A-Grave from the province of Trento (CLICK HERE to see what they are). TIP: Again, I encourage you to add cemeteries you know in Trentino, but if you do, it is wise to enter them under their Italian name. Also, you MUST put ‘Provincia di Trento’ after the name of the comune, as that is how Find-A-Grave refers to and recognises locations in the province.

Limitations and Inaccuracies on Gravestones of Immigrants

While cemeteries can provide us with vital pieces of our ancestral puzzle, my observation of gravestones in our ancestors’ adopted countries (especially the US) is that:

  • They often lack detail. Frequently they only have the death date (sometimes only the year), without a date of birth (or at least the year). Even more rarely do they contain much information about who the person was in life, or about his/her relationship within the family.
  • They are full of mistakes. Information on gravestones is supplied by a surviving member of the family. Family members – especially children of immigrants – can be inaccurate about dates, names, etc. Back in their ‘old country’, the family would have had access to the original documents via their local parish priest. But without that historic connection to their place of birth, the family has no such stream of information. People who emigrated at a young age (or were BORN in their adopted country) will often mishear, misunderstand, mix up or COMBINE two places, names or events. This results in a muddle of mis-information and false beliefs that will always be some variation on the truth. My cousins, aunts, uncles – even my own parents – were all prone to these kinds of false beliefs. I had to do a LOT of unlearning, relearning and re-educating when I embarked on this genealogical journey.

Equally (and possibly MORE) prone to errors are the obituaries that may have been published in local newspapers. The original information is provided to the newspaper by the surviving family who, as I’ve already said, can frequently get things wrong. Then the newspapers themselves can (and often DO) compound the errors, especially when it comes to the spelling of names and places unfamiliar to them. Birth, marriage and arrival dates will often be wrong, as well. Hopefully they at least get the death date right!

Why There Are No Ancient Graves in Italian Cemeteries

Now, let’s cross the ocean and go back to the patria to have a look at cemeteries in Trentino (or anywhere in Italy).

One of the first things people comment on when they visit an Italian cemetery for the first time is the practice of putting photographs of the deceased on the gravestones. This can be an exciting discovery for the family historian, as they can finally put faces to some of the names they have been researching.

But once they get over that novelty, the next thing they notice – often with some amount of confusion and disappointment – is the ABSENCE of old gravestones. I mean, some of these parish churches go back over 700 years or more; surely we are going to find plenty of fascinating, ancient gravestones in their cemeteries, right?

Well…no.

Yes, you are likely to find old tombs of priests and patron families inside the church dating back many centuries, and you might also find a few older headstones for priests or patrons (perhaps from the 18th century) affixed to the outer walls of the church or perimeter wall of the cemetery. But other than these:

most gravestones are likely to be no older than about 80 years.

This is because, in many European countries, a coffin is exhumed at some point after burial and the skeletal remains are removed from the grave and placed in an ossuary – typically a box, building, well or wall. Then, the same grave is used to bury someone more recently deceased.

This removal of bones has nothing to do with religious practice, but with practical necessity: if everyone who ever died in the parish were put into a coffin and buried under their headstone forever, the space required for the dead would soon take over the land needed for the living.

Just what ‘at some point’ means seems vary in different parts of Italy. I recently read an account where a person’s grandfather’s remains were exhumed only 10 years after he died (the writer expressed some understandable distress). In my father’s parish, however, they appear to wait a couple generations before transferring the bones. That way, the spouse and children of the deceased (and probably most of the people who once knew the deceased in life) are also likely to have passed away. Certainly, this is a more sensitive arrangement.

SIDE STORY: Once when I was showing the underground crypt in Santa Croce to some American cousins, the lady who had unlocked the church for us found a small piece of (very old-looking) jawbone that had fallen out of the wall in a small alcove. She sheepishly whispered a request for us not to say anything about it to anyone, and she respectfully put the bone back into the wall. At the time, I thought she might have been worried teams of archaeologists would descend upon the church and tear it apart. Later, I realised this was probably the site of an ancient ossuary, and she may have wished to avoid upsetting anyone. The crypt itself is at least 1,000 years old, and it was built on the site of an older, Longobard (Lombard) church.

Parish Cemeteries vs. Frazioni Cemeteries

In larger parishes with many frazioni (hamlets) spread out over a wide area, you will often find small satellite churches serving these communities, some of which might have cemeteries of their own. In these cemeteries, you might get lucky and find a few older graves, especially if the family was prominent in that frazione.

For example, when I first went to the main parish cemetery for Santa Croce del Bleggio, I was disappointed not to find the graves of my Serafini great-grandparents, who died in the 1930s.  But when I visited the cemetery adjacent the little church of San Felice in the frazione of Bono, where my grandmother’s Onorati family had lived for many centuries, I found the graves of my Onorati great-grandparents who had died earlier, in the 1920s. I believe the reason may be partially due to the Onoratis’ historical prominence in Bono; but the frazione is also tiny, and the cemetery is not nearly as crowded as the main parish cemetery. Some frazioni cemeteries are even larger than the main parish cemetery.

Remember also that married women are most likely buried in the parish (or frazione) in which they lived with their husband. Unmarried women will most likely be buried in the parish (or frazione) in which they were raised. So, when you make your trip to Trentino, be sure to ask whether there is more than one cemetery in the parish. You might discover your ancestors in a place different from where you had expected.

How Women’s Names Are Recorded on Trentino Gravestones

Identifying women on gravestones can often be more challenging than identifying men, as the way they appear will vary according to culture.

For example, because women in the US, Britain and many other countries take the surname of their husband when they marry, they are nearly always referred to by their married names on their headstones when they die in their adopted homeland. In such a scenario, a woman’s gravestone might not be very useful for research, as it doesn’t offer much information about her origins.

In contrast, Italian women retain their maiden names throughout life, even if they have been married for decades. Thus, MOST of the time, a gravestone will give some sort of reference to both her maiden and married name.

There are three common conventions for recording a woman’s name on a headstone. Let’s look at each in turn.

‘Nata’ or ‘N.’ (indicating birth name)

Typically, if a woman is buried in the same plot as her married husband and/or children, she will be referred to by her married name, BUT it will usually have the word nata’ (or its abbreviation ‘N.’), which means ‘born’ (feminine gender).

Here is an example from the frazione of Balbido in Santa Croce del Bleggio. The family name is Riccadonna, and you can tell from the photo and the layout of the stone that we are looking at the grave of a husband (Cesare), wife (Colomba) and one of their children (a son named Danielle, born in 1926, although the date is hard to see behind the flowers). Below Colomba’s name it says ‘N. Brunelli’ (nata Brunelli); thus, her birth name is Colomba Brunelli.

Gravestone of Cesare Riccadonna and his wife Colomba Brunelli, Balbido cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino, Italy
Gravestone of Cesare Riccadonna and his wife Colomba Brunelli, Balbido cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino, Italy

Below is another clear example of ‘N.’, from the frazione cemetery in Tignerone in Santa Croce del Bleggio. This is the grave of Ersilia Bleggi, who was born Ersilia Gusmerotti in 1879:

1952: Grave of Ersilia Gusmerotti (married name Bleggi), Tignerone cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino, Italy
1952: Grave of Ersilia Gusmerotti (married name Bleggi), Tignerone cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino, Italy

Lastly, here is another example of ‘N.’ on an older, more weather-worn stone from the parish of Saone. On this stone, they have written the surname before the personal name, i.e. ‘Bondi, Catterina, nata Buganza,’ who ‘died on 20 February 1903 at the age of 60’:

1903 grave of Catterina Buganza (married name Bondi), Saone cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1903 grave of Catterina Buganza (married name Bondi), Saone cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

‘In’ (indicating married name)

Sometimes a woman’s birth name is given first, followed by her married surname prefixed by the word ‘in’. I have noticed this is most frequently used if the woman happened to be buried in the grave or tomb of her birth family (which could be in a different parish or frazione from her husband’s).

For example, the BIRTH name of the woman in the gravestone below is ‘Giustina Parisi’. But if you look beneath her name, it says ‘in Gasperini’. It’s a little worn, so the ‘I’ is a bit hard to see, but it is definitely ‘in’, not ‘n’. The surname is also partially worn off, but it is definitely Gasperini:

1974 grave of Giustina Parisi (born 1894), married name Gasperini, Tignerone cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1974 grave of Giustina Parisi (born 1894), married name Gasperini, Tignerone cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

Here is a clearer example of ‘in’ from an ossuary in the Cimitero Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery) in the City of Trento:

1958 Gravestone for Maria Parisi (born 1920), married name Pisetta, Trento Municipal (aka Monumental) Cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1958 Gravestone for Maria Parisi (born 1920), married name Pisetta, Trento Municipal (aka Monumental) Cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

VIDEO: See a video I took at the Cimitero Monumentale di Trento when I visited it in July 2018 (second on page).

‘Vedova’ ‘ved’ or ‘v.’ (indicating she was widowed)

If a woman’s husband predeceased her, she will be referred to as his widow (vedova in Italian) in records and on her headstone. In this case, the stone will give her birth name, followed by the word ‘vedova’, ‘ved.’ or simply ‘v.’, which is then followed by her late husband’s surname.

For example, this placard for Libera Bondi, widow of (someone named) Marchiori, was attached to the top of the family headstone in the parish of Saone in Val Giudicarie (I took this shot in 2016; it may have since been engraved):

2012 grave of Libera Bondi (born 1919), widow of Marchiori, Saone cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
2012 grave of Libera Bondi (born 1919), widow of Marchiori, Saone cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

The question, of course, is WHO is the late Mr. Marchiori? We’ll come back to that question in a moment.

This next stone is from Cimitero Monumentale in the City of Trento. In this case, the woman’s birth name was Anna Pegoretti and she was married to Giovanni Casotti, whose name is right above hers. You can see he predeceased her by more than three decades. The fact that Anna is cited as his widow indicates she never remarried (and was already almost 60 when her husband passed away):

1995 grave of Anna Pegoretti, widow of Giovanni Casotti, Trento Monumental cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1995 grave of Anna Pegoretti, widow of Giovanni Casotti, Trento Monumental cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

Gleaning Information and Identifying People You Don’t Know

None of the people whose gravestones I shared above are ancestors of mine. In fact, I took those photos out of a sense of curiosity rather than any specific investigative motive.

But as a genealogist, my natural curiosity often leads me to seek out details about a person I find on a gravestone, even if I don’t know them. When I do, I often discover I am connected to them in some unexpected way.

Let’s take Colomba Riccadonna, born Brunelli, from the first gravestone I showed you above. The stone says she was born in 1893.

As she was born between 1815 and 1923, I used the online database created by the Archivio di Trento called Nati in Trentino to find out who Colomba was. All I had to do is plug in her name and year of birth. Luckily, there was only one Colomba Brunelli born that year:

1893 baptismal record listing for Colomba Maria Brunelli, from Nati in Trentino online database.
1893 baptismal record listing for Colomba Maria Brunelli, from Nati in Trentino online database.

I also used Nati in Trentino to try to identify Cesare, but there were actually two Cesares born in 1887, so I needed to find their marriage record to learn which one he was. I also searched for additional children for the couple and found a daughter born in 1923. They probably had other children, but the online database doesn’t go past 1923.

When I entered Colomba into my tree, I discovered she was a distant cousin (7th cousin 1X removed). Not exactly a close relation, but you never know what such a connection might lead to later.

I used the same process to discover the birth information for Ersilia Gusmerotti, Giustina Parisi and Catterina Buganza, and discovered:

  • ERSILIA was my 7th cousin 2X removed.
  • GIUSTINA was my 3rd cousin 2X removed.
  • CATTERINA was the great-grandmother of one of my clients. I hadn’t planned it that way; I just happened to have taken the photo when I was in Saone on a previous trip. Las month, when I was working on that client’s tree, I looked through my photo archive and discovered I had a picture of her great-grandmother’s grave.

You never really know who or what you will discover when you start taking photos of random gravestones. I could never have predicted a photo I took a couple of years ago would end up being the great-grandmother of one of my future clients. But my client was thrilled to see the photo, as she’s never been to Saone, and this took her closer to her roots.

Family Groups on Trentino Gravestones

Many gravestones in Trentino will contain names from an entire family group. To demonstrate this, let’s go back to the widowed Libera Bondi and look at the full image of the stone on which she appears:

Grave for the family of Modesto Marchiori and Elisabetta Bondi, Saone, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
Grave for the family of Modesto Marchiori and Elisabetta Bondi, Saone, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

The primary surname on this stone is MARCHIORI, and the patriarch is Modesto, on the left. To his right, we see ‘Elisabetta Marchiori, born Bondi’. Looking at the dates, we can ASSUME Elisabetta was Modesto’s wife. Of course, we would need to verify that with documentation (I already have, and they were indeed husband and wife).

Moving down the stone, we come to Giuseppe (born 1910) and Antonio (born 1912), with no surname mentioned. The omission of a surname implies they share the same family surname, i.e. Marchiori. Again, looking at the dates, we might guess that Giuseppe and Antonio were the sons of Modesto and Elisabetta. To verify this theory, I looked them up on Nati in Trentino. Sure enough, I found them listed amongst Modesto’s and Elisabetta’s children, along with several other siblings.

But now we have the question of the two women: Emilia (born Biancotto) and Libera (born Bondi). We can assume they were probably married to these two sons. But who was married to whom?

While there is no online resource to answer this question, I was fortunate enough to have access to the family anagraphs for Saone for this era when I was doing research in Trento recently, where I found this entry for Modesto’s family:

Anagraph for the family of Modesto Marchiori (born 1867), Saone parish records, Archivio Diocesano di Trento, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy.
Anagraph for the family of Modesto Marchiori (born 1867), Saone parish records, Archivio Diocesano di Trento, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy.

Anagraphs (called ‘Stato delle Anime’, or ‘State of Souls’ when they appear in the parish records) are records of family groups and contain a wealth of information, including dates of birth, confirmation, marriage and death. They can also include the names of the spouses in the annotations column at the right. In most places, anagraphs were started in the mid to late 19th century. The various comuni also started recording them in the 19th century, maintaining them at the registry of anagraphs; but so far, I have only dealt with those kept by the church.

In the ‘Annotazioni’ (annotations) column in the anagraph above, the priest has recorded that Giuseppe was married to Libera Bondi and Antonio was married to Emilia Biancotto, with dates of their respective marriages (I know it’s difficult to read here, but I have a larger, full-colour image on my computer that shows it more clearly).

So, while the gravestone didn’t give us all the information we needed, it certainly pointed us in the right direction, giving us clues about what we should look for next. Thus, it was a crucial part of our research.

As it turns out, this family group are ALSO related to my afore-mentioned client, as Elisabetta (Elisa) Bondi was the daughter of her great-grandmother Catterina Buganza, and sister of her grandfather. In other words, Elisa was her great-aunt. Tracing this family helped me identify many of her close cousins.

How Gravestones Can Reveal More Than Just Dates

If you analyse every aspect of a gravestone, you will often find it contains a lot more information than dates alone. Sometimes you can discover a person’s occupation, gain insight into their personal character, or get a feeling for their relationship with their family and community.

On a recent visit to Cimitero Monumentale in the City of Trento, I took dozens of photos of graves, many of which contained clues about the kinds of people who had been laid to rest. Here are two highlights:

1933 ossuary gravestone for Secondo Bertoldi, pharmacist, Trento Monumental cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1933 ossuary gravestone for Secondo Bertoldi, pharmacist, Trento Monumental cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

This photo is of the ossuary memorial for a man named Secondo Bertoldi. The stone tells us he was born in Lavarone on 20 Aug 1872 and died in Trento on 20 Feb 1933 (Roman numerals are used for the months). But it also tells us he was a chemist/pharmacist (here in England, pharmacists are also called chemists, but the term is not generally used in the US). Additionally, it says he was a ‘fervent patriot’, and that he lived his life in a loving way and by doing good. It also says that his wife, Anna Maria Bosetti, arranged for this stone to be laid as a ‘loving and tearful memory’ of Secondo. All these words give us a much richer picture of who Secondo was than what we might have learned from documents alone.

Sometimes even the most minimal of headstones can lead to a potentially interesting story. Here’s another photo I took in the ossuary at the Trento cemetery:

Ossuary gravestone for sisters Maria and Giuseppina Vitti of Trento, who died in 1968 and 1974. Cimitero Monumentale di Trento, Trento, Trentino Alto-Adige, Italy
Ossuary gravestone for sisters Maria and Giuseppina Vitti of Trento, who died in 1968 and 1974. Cimitero Monumentale di Trento, Trento, Trentino Alto-Adige, Italy

The stone merely says ‘Vitti Sisters’, and then gives their first names and years of birth/death. A quick search on Nati in Trentino told me that Giuseppina (born 27 Aug 1888) and her sister Maria (born 15 Oct 1890) were both born in the city of Trento in the parish of Santi Pietro e Paolo (Saints Peter and Paul), and were the only two daughters of Andrea Vitti and Santa Tommasi. The sisters also had two brothers, but I don’t know anything other than their dates of birth.

Apart from this, I know nothing at all about this family. But the fact that these two sisters – both of advanced age (78 and 86) – were laid to rest in the same grave AND they were referred to by their birth names leads me to theorise that neither sister married. It also leads me to think they were probably very close throughout their lives. While these are just my own guesses based solely on what I am seeing in the stone, these guesses might help point me in the right direction if I were to research this family in depth.

Expanding Your Research and Leaving a Legacy

Whether you are planning a visit to a local cemetery, or you are hoping to visit some cemeteries when you are in Trentino, be sure to bring a camera and photograph as many graves as you can, even if you have no clue WHO the people are. If the cemetery is very large – or if the thought of dealing with all those photos is a bit overwhelming – focus on photographing stones containing one or two specific surnames.

And remember, when in Trentino, don’t just visit the main parish cemetery; ask if there are other cemeteries in the frazioni where your ancestors may have lived.

Don’t worry about trying to make sense of who is who when you are taking your photos. That will only slow you down and make it less enjoyable. Look at your trip as a kind of ‘treasure hunt’ where your mission is to get as many good photos as you can. Be sure to get the WHOLE stone in your photo, so you can see all the words in context. They may not mean anything to you now, but they may mean something important later.

And don’t forget that graves in Italy don’t stay around forever. A few years from now…

your photo might end up being the only tangible evidence of a person’s grave,
as the remains and headstone for that person may soon be moved – or removed altogether.

Consider SHARING your images on your tree on Ancestry, as well as on Find-A-Grave. That way, you are not only helping yourself, but also making it easier for OTHER Trentini descendants to find the graves of their own family members. Your photo might mean the world to a complete stranger many years from now.

BRIGHT IDEA: Perhaps we could create a ‘virtual party’ for the purpose of creating all the Trentini cemeteries on Find-A-Grave and entering our family’s memorials on there. We could use our Trentino Genealogy Facebook group to coordinate it. What do you think?

I hope this article has helped you understand more about interpreting gravestones in Trentino, and has also inspired you to go out and start recording as many Trentino graves as you can – as soon as possible, before they disappear.

I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento is from 21 Oct 2018 to 15 Nov 2018.
If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site.
Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: Whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

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View My Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author and genealogist specialising in the families of Trentino. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

In addition to her work for clients, her personal research project is to transcribe all the parish records for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (where her father was born) from the 1400s to the current era, as well as to connect as many living people as she can who were either born in Bleggio or whose ancestors came from there. She hopes this tree, which already contains tens of thousands of people, will serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

View the Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES.

Was One of Your Trentino Ancestors a Notary?

Was One of Your Trentino Ancestors a Notary?
1521 legal document drafted and signed by notary Sebastiano Genetti, son of Giovanni, of Castelfondo in Trentino.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn explains role of the notary in Trentino society, and how discover exciting details about your notary ancestors in church and civil documents.

One afternoon in 2014, I was sitting a kitchen in the tiny frazione of Bono, in the parish of Santa del Croce. I had just had the thrill of being reconnected with my long-lost 2nd cousins, the grandchildren of the elder brother (Erminio Onorati) of my paternal grandmother (Maria Giuseppa Onorati). Located in the Giudicarie Valley, Bono has been the home of the Onorati family for at least the past 600 years – probably centuries longer. And this grand, multi-storied mountain house in which we were sitting – although beautifully remodelled and modernised – had been the home of our Onorati ancestors for unknown generations.

As my cousins shared precious old photos of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ families with me, we also shared stories about our childhood families – on both sides of the Atlantic – As we shared our filò, my cousins mentioned that the Onorati were renowned in the Giudicarie because they had been ‘notaries’ for many centuries.

At first, I didn’t understand the significance of being a notary (notaio), as my past experiences with notaries hadn’t made particularly lasting impressions on me.  When I was a teen in the US, I went to a notary at the post office to get an application endorsed for my first passport. Many years later, after I had moved to the UK, I went to a notary who endorsed some legal documents for me. To be honest, I don’t even remember what those papers were anymore! In short, a ‘notary’ was someone so much on the periphery of my daily life that I kind of gave them no thought at all. So, naturally, when my cousins inferred that being a notaio was some really big deal, I realised they were probably talking about something with which I wasn’t actually familiar.

Since then, I have studied and learned a great deal about notai (plural of notaio) and discovered many notaio families in both my clients’ ancestries and my own. Identifying notai in our family trees can be an exciting discovery, as it brings depth to our understanding of their lives, education, social status and even marital customs.

That why I thought it would be a great idea to write an introductory article just about notaries in Trentino. So today, we’ll explore who the notai were in Trentino society, how to find out more about our notary ancestors, and how their presence on our family trees can enrich our understanding of our Trentino heritage.

The Profession of the Notaio

While most of us in English-speaking countries think of a notary simply as someone who endorses signatures on official documents, in Italy they served (and still serve) a much more significant role in government and daily life.

A notaio is a legal professional whose title is granted either by a sovereign or by a local authority. In the past, those appointed by the Holy Roman Emperor (or the Austrian Emperor, after the HRE collapsed) were called notaries with imperial authority.

Performing his duties within an assigned territory/jurisdiction, a notary served the public by giving legal certainty to deeds, contracts, wills, trade agreements, legalization of signatures, etc. for his clients.

From what I have seen, notaries were often a varied mix of scribe, contract lawyer, registrar and (occasionally) tax collector.

The Education of the Notaio

A notaio was a highly-educated man. He was literate in both his native tongue as well as Latin. He was also fully educated in law, contracts and legal requirements. He also had to have very clear handwriting (unlike some of the priests who maintained parish records!) to ensure his contracts were legible. That said, some notaries used special scribes to draft the document, and which they then signed and authorised with their own official mark.

In a time of wide-spread illiteracy, their high degree of education, endorsements from legal authorities, and the vital role they played within their communities meant the notai were especially elevated in social status.

The Notaio in Society

Some the more renowned and experienced notai would work at the regional castles, or as personal assistants to specific government or church officials. I have also seen a few go on to become court judges and law makers.

But the majority of notai worked within their own local communities. This meant that they knew the families for which they performed their duties. Every official document, every official bill of sale or land agreement, every legal dispute, Will, dowry or inheritance settlement would have been drafted and handwritten by a local notary, who would sign the document with his official hand-drawn mark, used only by him.

Our contadini (farmer) ancestors didn’t go to some distant, impersonal government office to get these documents made and signed. Their local notaio would typically meet with them (along with the required witnesses) in a neighbour’s sitting room or courtyard, or sometimes in the rectory of the church (often in the presence of the parish priest). We know this because the notary always records the place in which the document was written and signed.

How Can You Know If Your Ancestor Was a Notary?

If your ancestor was a notaio, there will be obvious indications in any parish records in which he is named.

First of all, a parish record will very often SAY notaio (if the record is in Italian) or notarius (if the record is in Latin). This is especially the case if the person is serving in some official capacity at an event, (such as a witness at a wedding), but it would generally be mentioned even if it is talking about the father of a baptised child, the father of someone who is getting married, etc.

Secondly, the name of a notary is almost always preceded with some sort of honourific term, the most common of which are ‘spectacularus’ (often abbreviated as ‘spec’), egregio and excellentia. Any of these terms would convey a similar meaning to ‘the illustrious’, ‘the honourable’, ‘his excellency’, etc. Be aware, however, that these honourifics may also be used with rural nobility (and sometimes doctors), who may or may not be notaries.

Discovering More About Your Notary Ancestor

If you see such indications in the parish records, you might then wish to see if that person is mentioned in a book called Notai Che Operano Nel Trentino dell’Anno 845 by P. Remo Stenico. This book is widely considered to be the most comprehensive list of Trentino notaries throughout the centuries, although I must confess that I have found several people who are cited as being notaries in the parish records who are not listed in the book.

The names of the notaries are listed in alphabetical order, using Latin spellings. In most cases, Stenico provides the earliest and latest dates he has be able to find during which the notary was actively in practice. This can often help you estimate birth and death dates, if you do not have access to them in the original parish records. SOMETIMES Stenico also mentions the name of the father or other family members of the notary, which can be a real find. Once I even learned the name of my 8X great-grandmother from Stenico’s list, as she was cited as both the wife and the daughter of prominent notaries.

Stenico’s book is a ‘must have’ for anyone researching their Trentino ancestry. You can download the PDF version of this book for free by http://www.db.ofmtn.pcn.net/ofmtn/files/biblioteca/Notai.pdf

Pergamene – Parish and Municipal Parchments

While most of us tend to think of baptismal, marriage and death records as the cornerstones of genealogy, one of the greatest treasures in the archives held both by parishes and comuni are their ‘pergamene’ or parchments.

These libraries of documents – some going back over 1,000 years – contain everything from government decrees, land sales, legal disputes, and even local histories. Whenever these documents were official in nature, you can be sure a notary wrote and signed it. Occasionally, if a document became damaged with time, another notary may have rewritten it; but it is amazing how many of these documents still exist in their original form, with the original notary’s signature and mark.

The Provincial Archives for the province of Trento have been very active in working to digitise pergamene of the parishes and comuni throughout Trentino. If you search for a specific parish, comune or surname in their online catalogue, you might discover pergamene written by your notary ancestor. While most of the digital images are NOT yet available online, you can obtain copies of those of interest if you personally the Provincial Archives in Trento. You can search their inventory at https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/sistema/semplice.

You might also find some ORIGINAL notary records at ‘Sala Trentina’ at the Trento Municipal Library (Biblioteca Comunale di Trento). On my last trip, I found a legal dispute from 1618 over an unpaid dowry between one of my Onorati ancestors and his wife’s brothers. Apparently, their father died shortly after the wedding, and the brothers didn’t bother to make good on their late father’s agreement! I had originally discovered the existence of document in the catalogue at the Provincial Archives, but then learned it was actually kept at the library. It was wonderful to be able to hold the original document in my hands, and for a nominal fee the librarians made a PDF scan of it for me so I could take it home and study it.

The Mark of a Notaio

Finding an original document written by your notary ancestor is especially exciting for a family historian; not only will be able to see your ancestor’s handwriting and his signature, but also his unique notary mark.

A notary mark is a combination of signature and artistic flair. This mark was handwritten, not a stamp, as it would be today. Each mark was as individual as the person using it, making it difficult (if not impossible) to be imitated or forged.

On a recent trip to the Provincial Archives in Trento, I obtained digital images of several interesting notary marks made by my own ancestors, as well as a few of my clients’ ancestors. Personally, I get a thrill when I look at these little works of art, some of which were drawn half a millennium ago.

Notary Mark 11521 notary mark of Sebastiano Genetti of CastelfondoClick on image to see it in full size.

This notary mark is from a document written in 1521 by Sebastiano Genetti, son of Giovanni, of Castelfondo in Val di Non. If you look at the end of the first line of his signature, he specifies he is authorised by the a ‘sacra imperiali’, i.e. he was a notary with imperial authority. In fact, later in his life, Sebastiano was ennobled by the Holy Roman Emperor, Massimiliano II. Sebastiano was my 11X great-grandfather.

Notary Mark 21631 - Notary Mark Marco Campi of Gallio, Santa Croce del BleggioClick on image to see it in full size.

This notary mark is from 1631 and was written by Marco Campi, son of Antonio Campi, of Gallio in Santa Croce del Bleggio in Val Giudicarie. Marco also came from a noble family. Notice Marco’s notary mark is a castle. This is because their family name was originally ‘Castello Campo’, and simply ‘Campo’ or ‘Da Campo’ before that. The Da Campo family built the medieval castles Castello Campo and Castel Toblino in the 13th century. This and other notary documents written by Marco have enabled me to narrow down his death date to within three months (between Feb and April 1636), as his the last document I can find with his signature is dated 28 Jan 1626, and he is cited as deceased in the marriage record of one of his daughters on May 3rd of the same year. This is especially helpful as there are no death records for Santa Croce before the year 1638. It was also very helpful because prior to finding these notary records, I had wondered if Marco had died during the great plague of 1630, but apparently he survived. He was 66 when he died.

Notary Mark 3 1636 Notary mark of Lorenzo Levri of FiavèClick on image to see it in full size.

Signed on 14 July 1636, this notary mark is from Lorenzo Levri of Fiavè, also in Val Giudicarie. The mark looks like a baptismal font to me, but I am not if that is what it is supposed to be. Notice  Lorenzo’s initial (L.L.) in the centre of the mark. Working under the Giudizio di Stenico, Lorenzo operated at least between the years of 1635-1669, (possibly longer), so this was relatively early in his career. The Levri family had many notaries throughout the centuries, at least from 1521 through the early 1800s. In older Latin records you will usually see their surname written as ‘Lepori-‘ (with various endings, depending on the grammar of the sentence).

While not a blood relation of mine (he was distantly connected via marriage), the document from which this came was land sale agreement involving my 9X great-grandfather Sebastiano Sebastiani of Comighello.

Notary Mark 4

1642 Felice Onorati notary mark

Click on image to see it in full size.

This last image is from September 1642, and is an example of one of the dozens of notaries from the Onorati family of Bono, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this article. This notary mark is for Felice, son of ‘the living’ Giovanni Onorati (spelled ‘Honorati’ in Latin). Notice his initials ‘F-H’ (linked together) in the centre of the mark.

Felice was a distant cousin, but was in the same family as many of Onorati notary ancestors. I thought his notary mark was so lovely I had to share it. The record from which this comes is a debt resolution agreement for a man named Bartolomeo Giovanna, who was a distant uncle of mine, and the 8X great-grandfather of a friend/cousin of mine living in California.

Closing Thoughts

I hope this article has given you some information, ideas and inspiration to investigate whether any of your own ancestors were notaries, and to find out more about their lives and their work. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

For those of you who may be seeking some help in researching your Trentino ancestors — notaries or not — I am going back to Trento from 26 June to 10 July 2018. If you would like me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site.

And finally, whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

Until next time, enjoy the journey.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

View My Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author and genealogist specialising in the families of Trentino. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

In addition to her work for clients, her personal research project is to transcribe all the parish records for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (where her father was born) from the 1400s to the current era, as well as to connect as many living people as she can who were either born in Bleggio or whose ancestors came from there. She hopes this tree, which already contains tens of thousands of people, will serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

View the Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES.

Keeping Our Ancestors Alive: Reflections on the Day of the Dead


Keeping Our Ancestors Alive – Reflections on the Day of the Dead
Genealogist Lynn Serafinn and her grandson, Percy, celebrate Il Giorno di Morti (The Day of the Dead), and discover the power of fil
ò family storytelling.

Like many, if not most, people of Trentini descent, I was raised Roman Catholic (although, in my case, I probably owe my religious education more to my Irish mother than my Trentino-born father). For Catholics, the first two days of November are special holy days.

November 1st is ‘All Saints Day’, the purpose of which is to honour the memory of all the saints in Heaven, even those about whom we might never have heard. The name of our modern holiday ‘Halloween’, which falls on October 31st, was derived from the term ‘All Hallows Eve’, i.e. the evening before the day on which all ‘hallowed’ spirits are honoured.

November 2nd is ‘All Souls Day’, the purpose of which is to pray for the souls of all those who have left this world. In Italy, it is called Il Giorno di Morti – the Day of the Dead. While English-speaking people may not be familiar with the Italian term, many may have heard of Dia de los Muertos, which is the celebration of the Day of the Dead amongst Mexican Catholics.

As I write this article, it is November 2nd – the Day of the Dead. As a genealogist, sometimes it seems like every day is the Day of the Dead, as I am constantly researching and thinking about those who walked this planet before us. But for me, the transition from the month of October to November always has special significance, because my father (who passed away in 2001) was born on Halloween – October 31st, 1919 – in the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio, in Trentino. His birth name was ‘Romeo Fedele Serafini’, but it he changed it to ‘Ralph Serafinn’ in the 1930s, after the family emigrated to the United States.

This year, on my dad’s birthday, I thought about posting some photos or stories about my dad on Facebook, but work got in the way and it felt like I had lost the moment. But then, last night, something unexpected happened: my 11-year-old grandson, Percy, called me on the phone. His mom (my daughter, Vrinda) had come up with the idea to celebrate Dia de los Muertos by remembering the family Percy never got the chance to meet. As part of this, she told him to call me and ask me to tell him some stories about my parents.

Ralph Serafinn – Inventor of the First Telephone for the Deaf

1965 - Ralph Serafinn and the 'Sensicall'
1965 – Newspaper advert showing Ralph Serafinn with his invention, the ‘Sensicall’, the first telephone device for the deaf.

I asked Percy what kind of stories he wanted to hear. At first, he said, ‘Anything,’ but then he said his mom had told him my dad had invented the first telephone device for the deaf, and he wanted me to tell him more. I told him how my father was an electrical engineer for the New York Bell phone company. In 1965, the company gave him the assignment to come up with a device that would enable the deaf and deaf-blind to use the telephone. I told Percy how my dad worked in our basement for many months, experimenting with different ideas. He created two different devices – one using a small, red flashing light to communicate in Morse code (for deaf people who could see), and another that used a sensitive, hand-held buzzer that could transmit the code through vibrations (for the deaf-blind). I explained that there was no such thing as home computers in those days, so these were actually cutting-edge technologies even though they might look very primitive to us today.

I told Percy how my dad used to invite me – then 10 years old – to help him with his experiments. He would send me into another room with one of his beta models, and I would report back to him how many lights I saw or buzzes I felt. As the devices became more precise, I had to tell him whether the signals were long or short (as in Morse code). I explained how my father also invented a system that made the lights in the house flash on and off when a call came in, so the deaf and hard-of-hearing knew they had a phone call.

I told Percy how a newspaper came and took photos of my dad working, and even took one of me working alongside him (sadly, those photos have been lost with time). I told him how the story of my dad’s invention – dubbed the ‘Sensicall’ – was covered in newspapers all over the United States, and how we received letters from people all over the world (I remember one very beautiful one from South America) profusely thanking my father for inventing this device. Those days are some of my fondest memories of my dad, and it was such a privilege to share the story with my grandson.

Then Percy made a very astute – and beautiful – comment. He said, ‘You know how you said they didn’t have home computers back then? Well, you might say that without my great-grandfather’s invention, there might not BE any home computers today. It’s like, his invention is the thing that made everything else happen.’

‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘It’s like building a staircase to go from one level to another. Each step is important. You can’t just leap from the ground floor to the second floor. There’s no telling how different the world would be if you took out even one step.’

From this, Percy asked questions about my dad during World War 2. I told him how my dad had fought in Japan, and was on a ship on the Pacific, less than 100 miles from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the US dropped the atomic bomb on those cities. We talked about how my father died at the age of 81 from a rare blood disorder called myelodysplasia, which has been linked to exposure to high amounts of radiation. We even talked about my father’s (sometimes wacky) OCD – a condition both my daughter and Percy inherited (at least in part) from my dad.

Escape from Siberia in World War 1

1915 - Luigi Pietro Serafini, in Austro-Hungarian army uniform during World War 1
1915 – Luigi Pietro Serafini, in Austro-Hungarian army uniform during World War 1

Percy then asked me to tell him stories about my grandfather – Luigi Pietro Serafini, who was born in the same village of Duvredo in 1888.

Percy remember hearing that Luigi had fought in World War 1, but didn’t know much else. I didn’t want to go into all the politics of Trentino being part of the Austro-Hungarian empire (I’ll save that for another discussion), as I thought it would take us off the track of talking about my grandfather. So, I told Percy how my grandfather was sent to fight in Russia, and how he and thousands of others were captured by the Russian army and sent to Siberia, where they were prisoners of war for about two years.

Percy was curious to know what it was like in the prison. He asked me, ‘Did they feed the prisoners? Was it like prison food?’ I told him, yes, they fed them, but it was probably not very nutritious food. I explained that many men died from illness, lack of nutrition and poor sanitation.

‘Didn’t you tell me once that he escaped from the prison camp?’ Percy asked.

I acknowledged this was true. Percy then asked how my grandfather managed to get out.

I told him, ‘Well, actually, there are three different versions of that story, and I’m not sure which is true.’

‘Why not?’ he queried.

‘Because people tend to elaborate when they tell family stories. They’re not necessarily lying, but they will often make up things to fill in forgotten details, or just to make the story more exciting. Would you like to hear all the different versions, so you can decide?’ I asked him.

‘Yes, please!’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘story number one, which my father told me, is that my grandfather was so ill with some disease, he fell unconscious. The Russians thought he was dead (or as good as), so they tossed him into a mass grave with a lot of other dead bodies. Then, something happened (my father never said what), which caused the Russians to leave in a hurry. When my grandfather regained consciousness, he found himself surrounded by dead bodies! At first, he felt panic; but eventually he realised his captors were gone, and he was free to go. Then, he got up and walked home – many hundreds of miles, in tattered clothes and in poor health – all the away from Siberia to Trentino.

‘Story number two is one I heard from my (male) cousins, who said they had also heard it from my father. It’s similar to the first story, except in this version, my grandfather supposedly “faked his own death” so the Russians would toss him outside the camp into the place where they kept the dead bodies. He lay there until dark, and when the guards weren’t looking, he got up and ran as fast as he could until he knew he wasn’t being followed. Then, he walked home.

‘Story number three is less dramatic, but is possibly closer to the truth,’ I said. ‘It’s something I read in a book specifically about the prisoners of war in Siberia in World War 1. In 1917 there was a big revolution in Russia. When that happened, the whole Russian government collapsed, including the army. There was no more money to feed the prisoners, or to pay the soldiers who guarded the prisons. So, the prison guards opened the gates and basically told the prisoners they were on their own now. Many thousands left and made their way home on foot. Some, who were either too ill or too afraid to leave, stayed behind and didn’t go home until the Red Cross came to help almost a year later. My grandfather was one of the men who left.’

Percy asked me, ‘If you were in that situation, would you have left, or would you have waited for the Red Cross to come?’

‘Oh, I would have left and taken my chances,’ I said.

‘Really?’

‘Definitely. After spending so much time in prison, I’d just want to get out of there, and I’d worry about the details later.’

Percy seemed to like my reply.

‘Which story do you think is true?’ I asked him.

‘I like the one about faking his own death!’ he chimed enthusiastically.

That figures, I thought to myself. That’s the version my dad told my male cousins, when the eldest was about Percy’s age. I guess it’s the kind of story boys would like.

‘Yes, it’s very dramatic,’ I acknowledged. ‘But somehow I don’t think the Russian soldiers would have been so easily fooled.’

Percy quickly agreed, and immediately adopted version number 1 as his own.

‘I’m going to tell my friends that my great-great-grandfather escaped from prison because he was tossed into a stack of dead bodies by the Russians,’ he said with great satisfaction.

A FOURTH VERSION: Something I only remembered after my call with Percy is that my father’s sister, Fiorina, wrote a story about her father’s escape from Siberia, in which she says the Russian guards simply opened the gates one day and let them all go. She doesn’t offer an explanation for why, but I am certain it is linked to the timing of the Russian revolution. Fiorina also describes how the Russians used to pile the corpses onto a flat-bed train car. This image is not so unbelievable when you consider that harsh Siberian winters made the frozen ground too hard to dig graves except in the warmest months of the year. I assume Fiorina heard these details directly from her father, but my experience with my father’s stories makes me suspect that Trentini men might sometimes tell ‘softer’ versions of the same story to their daughters than to their sons. After hearing all the family stories, and reading various historical accounts, my own belief is that my grandfather may well have been left for dead by the Russians when they were getting ready to abandon the camp after the 1917 revolution (and was possibly dumped amidst the many unburied dead bodies), but his escape entailed no deliberate trickery on his part.

Percy and I went on to talk about my grandfather’s homecoming, and how my grandmother – after she got over the shock of seeing him alive – made him burn his clothes and scrub down his hair and body with kerosene (Percy thought I had said KETCHUP when he heard this story on a previous occasion!) to kill off all the germs, fleas or whatever else had made its home on him over the past two to three years. When he was finally free of vermin (but probably stinking of kerosene), my grandmother welcomed him into the house, where my grandfather finally got to meet his baby daughter, Luigina (whom I knew as Aunt Jean), who had been born while he was in Russia.

Ancestry and the ‘Butterfly Effect’

1910 - Luigi Parisi of Duvredo, Bleggio, Trentino
Circa 1910 – Luigi Parisi of Duvredo, Bleggio, Trentino. Photo taken in Pennsylvania, where he was working in the coal mines.

After we spoke about my grandfather, I said, ‘There’s someone else I’d like to tell you about – my grandfather’s uncle. His name was also Luigi, but his last name was Parisi. The reason I want to tell you about him is that if he had never lived, you and I would probably never have been born, and we wouldn’t be talking about all these stories today.’

I explained how Luigi Parisi – the younger brother of my grandfather’s mother – had gone back and forth from Trentino to America four times. Each time he went to America, he worked in the coal mines, earning money that he sent back to his wife and children back in Duvredo in the parish of Bleggio. While he was away on one journey, his wife Emma died, leaving their children without anyone to care for them. Luigi came back to Bleggio and married Emma’s sister, Ottavia. Together they had four more children (one died young), and named their first daughter after Emma. I told Percy how Luigi had come home to see his family in 1914, but was sent to war, where he died. I recounted a story I had read in a book where one of his comrades said Luigi simply disappeared when they were crossing a river together somewhere in Russia. One minute he was there, and the next he was gone. Nobody knows whether he was shot, or the current of the river got hold of him and he drowned. To this day – 100 years later – his official status is still ‘missing’.

‘Now, shall I tell you why I said you and I would probably never have been born if it weren’t for Luigi?’ I asked.

‘Go on, then,’ Percy replied.

‘Well, according to a book I have, my great-great uncle Luigi Parisi was the first person from my father’s parish (perhaps even from all of Trentino) to settle in the mining town of Brandy Camp in Pennsylvania. He went there first as a young man, around the time my grandfather was born. Each time he went back to Trentino, he brought more men from his village with him, and helped them to settle into their new surroundings. Over time, almost all the Trentini settlers in Brandy Camp came from Santa Croce del Bleggio. That’s why they named their new church ‘Holy Cross’ (which is what Santa Croce means). When my grandfather was a teenager, his uncle Luigi brought him and his younger brother, Angelo, with him to Brandy Camp. There, my grandfather worked in the mines for several years.

‘Finally, when 1914 rolled around, Luigi told my grandfather that he wanted to go back to visit his wife and children. By this time Uncle Luigi was getting close to 50 years old, so he was probably hoping to settle down and spend his later years in his native homeland. But (or so I heard from my cousin Aldo, the son of Angelo), Luigi also thought it was time for my grandfather, now 25 years old, to go home and find himself a wife. Aldo told me that my grandfather didn’t really want to go back to Bleggio, as he had become accustomed to his life in America. But he respected his mother’s brother, and eventually agreed to go back with him in the spring of that year.

‘My grandfather married my grandmother in May 1914. By August, World War 1 had broken out, and most of the local men – including my grandfather, my great-great-uncle Luigi and my grandfather’s brother Angelo – were sent to fight in Russia. As I told you, Luigi Parisi died, but my grandfather and his brother both survived. After the war, my grandfather spent some time recuperating from the trauma of the war and imprisonment. That’s when my father and his younger sister, Pierina (whom I knew as aunt Ann), were born.

‘After a few years, my grandfather went back to America, to the same place his uncle Luigi had brought him – Brandy Camp. After he got settled in, my grandmother, my father and my dad’s sisters followed. My aunt Fiorina was born during their stay in Brandy Camp. Later, they moved to New York where another child – my uncle Raymond – was born. My mother (who wasn’t from Trentino) lived in New York. She became best friends with my father’s sister, Pierina. Later, she and my father fell in love and got married, and started their own family.

‘So you see, Percy, if Luigi Parisi had never lived, he wouldn’t have gone to Brandy Camp and started a community there. He would never have brought my grandfather to America when he was a teenager, or insisted my grandfather get married in 1914. If that had never happened, my father might never have been born, or the family would never have gone to America. If they had never gone to America, my parents would never have met. If they hadn’t met, I wouldn’t have been born, or your mother, or you. And if neither of us had been born, we wouldn’t be talking on the phone right now!’

Percy became excited. ‘Well, you can also say that if Luigi’s FATHER had never been born, then HE wouldn’t have been born, and we wouldn’t be here either. I mean, you can keep going backwards….’

‘Exactly!’ I said. ‘Every single person in our ancestry has played a part in making us who we are, even if we don’t know them, or we’ve never heard of them.’

I didn’t say this to Percy at the time, but it’s just like that science-fiction concept, the ‘butterfly effect’, where everything in the future changes when you change even one, seemingly disconnected event in the past.

Filò – How Stories Keep Our Ancestors Alive

Mural in Favrio, in the town of Ragoli, depicting the ancient tradition of filò - family storytelling.
Mural in Favrio, in the town of Ragoli, depicting the ancient tradition of filò – family storytelling.

When I first reconnected with my long-lost family in Trentino in the summer of 2014, I visited the hamlet of Favrio in the town of Ragoli, where my Serafini ancestors lived before they moved to the parish of Santa Croce. In the historic quarter of that town, you’ll find many fascinating murals illustrating the history of our Alpine people. One of these murals (see image above) depicts the ancient practice of filò – family storytelling.

Filò was the time – between dinner and bedtime – when families came together to tell and listen to stories. Families would gather, either around a hearth or in the stable (typically on the first floor of their mountain house), where they could benefit from the body heat radiating from their livestock. Traditionally, the storyteller was the head of the household, who wove tales from local legends, family history or his own imagination.

Literally, the word filò means ‘spinning’. Many people say that filò is so-named because women used this time to spin their yarn while listening to the stories. While that may be tree, I also believe it refers to the ‘spinning’ and weaving of the tales themselves.

Filò served as entertainment in an age before radios, televisions and computers. In fact, when I asked my cousins when the tradition stopped, they said it phased out pretty much when radio became popular. It was also simply a time for families to bond and spend time together after a hard day’s work. It was a way of enjoying humour, passing down traditions and instilling cultural values. But, most relevant to what I’ve been talking about today, it was a way bring back to life those who lived before us.

My grandson Percy had no idea that last night – almost instinctively – he and I were sharing filò.

I guess it’s in our blood.

What is ‘true’ in history is only partially made up of facts, dates and evidence. The rest is down to us – our stories, our imaginations, our memories.

We are our stories.

Our ancestors continue to live through our stories. We will continue to live through the stories our grandchildren tell THEIR grandchildren.

Keep telling stories. And don’t wait for the next Giorno di Morti to come for your storytelling hour. Share a story with someone in your family today.

I invite your reflections about family storytelling, or any other topic to do with Trentino Genealogy. Please feel free to express yourself by leaving a comment in the box below, or drop me a line using the contact form on this site.

Until next time, enjoy the journey.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S.: I am going back to Trento to do research in March, 2018. If you would like me to try to look for something while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. I look forward to hearing from you!

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Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author and genealogist specialising in the families of Trentino. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

In addition to her work for clients, her personal research project is to transcribe all the parish records for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (where her father was born) from the 1400s to the current era, as well as to connect as many living people as she can who were either born in Bleggio or whose ancestors came from there. She hopes this tree, which already contains tens of thousands of people, will serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

View the Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES.