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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.

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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:
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CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES.

Preparing for Research: Using Microfilms for Family History


Preparing for Research: Using Microfilms for Family History
Genealogist Lynn Serafinn explains what to do before working with parish records on microfilm, and shares tips for finding your Trentini ancestors’ parish.

IMPORTANT NOTE (June 2019): Since I originally published this article in June 2016, the LDS Family History Centres have DISCONTINUED their microfilm ordering service, and are working on digitising all their microfilms. However, these digital images will only be viewable at one of their Family History Centres, not online. Nonetheless, the tips below might still be useful if you are lucky enough to have Family History Centre centre near you that can give you access to the old films OR the newly digitised images.

If you’re new to genealogy, you’ll notice that family historians talk a lot about parish records (if you’re unfamiliar with parish records and what they can tell you, you might find some useful information in a previous article on this site called ‘Parishes, Parish Records & Genealogy Resources for Trentino’). While parish records are fundamental to nearly every family history, they are old and fragile documents that would not survive being handled by every modern researcher who comes along. The other challenge they present is that the original, handwritten records are kept as archives in their parish of origin, often thousands of miles away from those who would like to access them.

To address both of these problems, back in the 1950s (or so I read somewhere) archivists at the archdiocese of Trento permitted historians at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) to photograph these records and convert them into microfilm. The original films are kept in Salt Lake City, Utah, but copies can be rented (not purchased) by the public for a nominal fee, and viewed at their local Family History Centre (FHC). According to one source, there were more than 4,700 FHCs in 134 countries as of September 2014; it is my guess that this number has probably grown since then. You can find instructions for locating your local FHC by following the above link.

These microfilms are what the majority of English-speaking family historians with roots in Trentino use for their research. However, finding your way around the microfilms is rarely straightforward, and extracting accurate information from them requires an organised approach and regular study. I can remember numerous occasions when I was trawling through microfilms at the National Archives in Kew, London, when a first-time enthusiast came in (probably after having watched a TV show like ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’) and turned on a microfilm reader, fully expecting they would be able to trace their family back 200 years in a single sitting. Nine times out of ten, the person gives up after an hour.

Microfilms themselves are extremely unwieldy tools, and the challenges of using them are only compounded by the fact that the parish records themselves are even more unwieldy. If you’re not ready to commit yourself to many days, weeks or months (or even years, if you’re really serious) of study to master both of these challenges, you are unlikely to find much joy in using microfilms to construct your family tree.

In this article, I will be offering my advice for things you need to do before you attempt to research your Trentini roots via LDS microfilms. We’ll be looking at:

  • What your ancestors may have meant when they said they were ‘from Trento’
  • Finding your ancestors’ parish
  • Understanding how your ancestors’ parishes may have changed over time
  • Locating and ordering the film you need
  • Familiarising yourself with the layout of the film

Did your ancestors actually come from Trento?

So many people of Trentino descent say to me, ‘My parents/grandparents came from Trento.’ But what they don’t always understand is that saying ‘Trento’ is kind of like saying ‘New York’. If you say you’re ‘from New York’, most people assume you mean New York City. However, ‘New York’ could also refer to New York State. So, simply saying ‘I’m from New York’ could lead people to misunderstand where you mean.

The same is true for Trento. You’ve got Trento the city, and you’ve got Trento the province (also referred to as Trentino). Furthermore, you’ve got Trentino-Alto Adige – referred to as an autonomous region – which is comprised of the two provinces of Trentino (Italian speaking) and Alto Adige (largely German-speaking). On top of this, there is the Catholic archdiocese of Trento.

SIDE NOTE: For those who may be unfamiliar, a ‘diocese’ or ‘archdiocese’ is a collection of many parishes under the ‘governance’ of an Archbishop – a high-ranking priest within the church.

In my experience, when our parents/grandparents said they came ‘from Trento’ (or ‘Tirol’/‘Tyrol’ as so many of us heard when we were growing up), they were usually referring to the province of Trento (Trentino). The fact is, the majority of those who emigrated from Trentino to the Americas in the late 19th and early 20th century did not come from the city, but from rural villages (frazioni) scattered around the province. Each of these frazioni belongs to a parish and a single parish may be comprised of a dozen or more frazioni. ALL of the parishes of Trentino (over 400 of them) come under the umbrella of the Catholic archdiocese of Trento.

Through your local FHC, you can rent individual microfilms for any of these 400+ parishes from the archdiocese of Trento. Thus, the very first thing you need to know is the name of your ancestors’ parish (or parishes).

But what can you do if you DON’T have this information?

How to find your ancestor’s parish

Even though my father was born in Trentino, he never told me name of his frazione or parish of origin. Whenever I asked him where our family came from, he would say, ‘Near Trento.’ If I pressed him further for the name of the village, he would deflect my question by answering, ‘It’s not even a village. It’s barely even a hamlet. It’s so small it’s not even worth mentioning.’ And that would be the end of the conversation. To be honest, I’m not even sure he knew.

Perhaps you were luckier that I was, and you know the name of the parish and/or frazioni of your Trentini ancestors. But if you don’t, all is not lost! Even if you have only a bit of information about your ancestors, you have a good chance of finding their parish using the Nati in Trentino website, which I mentioned in a previous article. Sometimes, simply having a surname and an approximate year of birth can reveal a definitive parish of origin. This is because many families lived entirely (or almost entirely) within a specific parish over the centuries.

For example, let’s say I was trying to track down my father’s mother, Maria Onorati, and that I had only a rough idea that she was born in the early 1890s. In this case, if I search simply for females with the surname Onorati born between 1890 and 1895, ALL of the returns are from a single parish – Santa Croce del Bleggio (the Onorati lived almost exclusively in the village of Bono in that parish for many hundreds of years). You might discover that your family name is similarly ‘attached’ to a particular parish.

Of course, many surnames will pop up in various parishes throughout the province. The more information you can put in the search form on Nati in Trentino, the more you will be able to narrow down your results (I recommend reading through my search tips in the previous article). If your search ends up giving you too many options, try to think laterally. Is there someone in your ancestor’s family – a sibling, perhaps – with a more unusual first name than your direct ancestor? For example, one of my grandmother’s sisters was named Rustica. This name is so uncommon I have only ever seen it once (i.e. in the baptismal record of my great-aunt). Searching for a ‘Rustica’ is far more likely to give me definitive results than searching for a ‘Maria’, and can therefore lead me to discovering not only the name of the parish, but also the names of the parents and other siblings.

How your ancestors’ parishes may have changed over time

Another matter that might cause some confusion for you is that parishes are not static entities, and they will probably have gone through many changes over the centuries.

  • Some parishes no longer exist today because they were incorporated into another parish at some point in time.
  • Conversely, new parishes may spring up having separated from another parish as populations changed.
  • Sometimes, smaller villages will be ‘passed back and forth’ between two (or more!) parishes over the years. This means you’ll need to cross-check records in both parishes lest you miss something.
  • Some parishes are actually ‘sub’ parishes of a larger parish. In such cases, records for a specific ancestor may appear in the registers of both

If you hit a ‘brick wall’ in your research, it could be due to this fluidity of parish boundaries. More than once I’ve accidentally stumbled upon a record I never thought I would find when I was browsing through a neighbouring parish. Another thing to remember is that, if a husband and wife in your lineage come from different parishes, it is probable their marriage was recorded in the registers of both parishes. This can be very useful if their marriage record in one of the parishes happens to be missing or unreadable.

How to order a microfilm of your ancestors’ parish records

Once you are confident you have found the parish you want to research, you are ready to order a copy of the microfilm from the LDS website. Sometimes finding the correct film can be a bit tricky, if you don’t know your way around (and, in my experience, few people at the FHC centres understand enough Italian to be able to help you).

Here’s a quick, step-by-step way to find the microfilm you need:

  1. In a new tab on your browser, log into your account at http://familysearch.org (if you don’t have an account, you can create one there for free).
  2. Once logged in, click the word ‘Catalogue’ in the top menu on your screen.
  3. When the search window opens, enter ‘Country, Diocese, Parish’ where it says ‘Place’. That is to say, if you are searching for a parish in the archdiocese of Trento, you should enter: Italy, Trento, Name of the Parish.

TIP: I recommend putting only the main word(s) from the name of the parish as it might be spelled slightly differently on the LDS site from how it appears on Nati in Trentino. Here’s a screenshot of what that could look like:

Family Search website - screenshot of search fieldclick on image to see it larger

SIDE NOTE: Even though Trentino was part of Austria prior to 1918, the records are listed under its current country (Italy).

4. When the search results for your parish pop up, CLICK the arrow next to the name to expand it. Then, click the link that says ‘Registri ecclesiastici’, etc. to open more information about it.

Family Search website search results - archdiocese of Trentoclick on image to see it larger

5. Scroll down the page to see the catalogue number of the film for those parish records. Be aware that many records are spread across more than one film. For example, below you can see that the very early baptismal records for the parish of Drò are on a separate film from the other baptismal records (and marriage records), and that the death records after 1828 are on yet another film. This means, depending on the era you are researching, you may need to order more than one film to get all the records you require:

Family Search website - example of microfilm numbersclick on image to see it larger

6. Once you know the NUMBERS of the films you need, you can order them from the Family Search website at https://familysearch.org/films/. Just enter the number of each film and choose either a ‘short term’ or ‘extended’ loan period. While an extended loan costs slightly more, I strongly recommend choosing that option if it is available so you don’t have to worry about rushing through your research. Otherwise, the usual length of short-term loans is about three months. You can renew them, but some centres will only allow you to renew them once. In my experience, every Family History Centre has its own rules about this, so be sure to check with them first before ordering your film.

Before selecting which FHC you want to use to view the films, be sure to check their opening hours as many of the smaller centres are only open a few hours a week. You might find it better to have the films delivered to a centre slightly farther away, if their opening hours are more convenient for you.

SIDE NOTE: SOME (but by no means all) of the actual images of the Trento parish records are viewable online, but you can only view these when using the site AT a Family History Centre or if you are a member of a ‘supporting organisation’. Also, some of the records have been transcribed and can be searched online using the Family Search site. However, this research is still in its very early stages, and the transcriptions do not give nearly as much information as you will find if you consult images of the original records.

Getting familiar with your microfilm

When your film arrives at your Family History Centre, you’re probably going to be tempted to dive right into it to find specific ancestors. My recommendation is that you try to resist this urge, and spend a session or two simply orienting yourself with how the film is organised. This can save you countless hours of research in the long-term. Here’s how I work whenever I want to get acquainted with a new microfilm:

  1. Locate the relevant Items. Every microfilm has been broken into ‘Items’ to make navigation a bit more manageable. Not all the items on your microfilm might be records of your parish. For example, if you look at the screenshot above of microfilm number 1448235, you will see that only Items 1 through 4 (out of 32) pertain to the parish of Drò. In fact, if I go back to my catalogue search and look up the contents of this film number, I can see it contains images of records from seven different parishes:

Family Search website - how different parishes are on a single microfilmclick on image to see it larger

2. Get a feeling for how the records are organised. Prior to the mid-19th century, priests had no ‘standard’ system for recording events in their parish records. In fact, it was all a bit of an experiment, especially in the early days of record-keeping. While most marriage records tend to be chronological for the whole parish, the chronological organisation of earlier baptismal records can be a bit ‘loose’:

  • Organisation by frazione. Many priests chose to organise birth records by frazione. In other words, they would enter all the births for a particular frazione chronologically during a specific time period, and then start the same process all over again for the next one. The ‘specific time period’ could be anything – 5, 20 or even 50 years. This means you can’t just scroll through the film to find a particular record, you’ll need to know which frazione you’re looking for, and where that frazione and time period is located on the film. Otherwise, you’ll have no choice but to scroll through pages and pages of files, just in case the record you’re looking for is hiding there.
  • Organisation by first name. Even more challenging is when a priest chooses to organise his baptismal records by the child’s first name. This means you’ll see dozens of pages of Antonios and Annas followed by dozens of pages of Bartolomeos and Brigidas. Fortunately, this type of record keeping doesn’t happen too often, but when it does it can be a nightmare for research, unless you happen to be looking for one specific person whose name you already know.

3. Create a ‘map’ for yourself. Once you know which items are relevant to your research, and how the priests have organised them within each of these items, I strongly recommend making some sort of ‘map’ or guide that helps you remember where everything is, and how the information is organised. Sometimes the records have page numbers in the corners of the images (although, these numbers can be confusing, as they are numbers of the original books and not of the films themselves). In such cases, you might find it useful to make a table of where the different frazioni are located, where to find certain first names, and where different years/eras start and end in the records. Armed with this ‘map’, you will find your job much easier and less frustrating when you do your research.

Closing thoughts

I mentioned in an earlier article that, when researching parish records, I prefer to work with the digital image library at the Archives at the archdiocese of Trento. Of course, this requires making the trip to Trento (and it also helps if you speak Italian). For many people, however, going to Trento is not always possible. So, even though working with microfilms can be challenging, it is often the more practical option. Hopefully the guidelines I’ve shared in this article will help you approach those challenges with some sort of plan of attack, so you can build your Trentini family tree more easily and with greater confidence.

Coming up soon on the Trentino Genealogy blog, we’ll be looking at what to expect when working with the Archives at the Archdiocese in Trento (if you do decide to make the trip), how to interpret parish records from Trentino, an introduction to notaries and noble families in Trentino, and how to use church parchments to understand more about your ancestors’ daily lives. I do hope you’ll subscribe to this blog so you can follow along on this genealogical journey, and read all future articles on this site. Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at 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.

If you have any questions or comments about this article, or if you’d like to talk to me about researching your family history, please feel free to drop me a line via the contact form on this site.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

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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.

Searching Online for 19th & 20th Century Trentini Ancestors

Searching Online for 19th & 20th Century Trentini Ancestors
Ca. 1923: Serafini and Franceschi families of Vergonzo in Bleggio, Val Giudicarie

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn explains how to find your ancestors using use ‘Nati in Trentino’, a free online database of baptisms from the Archdiocese of Trento.

Last time on Trentino Genealogy, we started our discussion on parish records. In that article I spoke about what we can learn from church records, and the role of the parish in Trentini life. I also mentioned that there were three primary ways to access parish records from the archdiocese of Trento:

  1. The Nati in Trentino website
  2. Microfilms made by the Latter Day Saints (LDS)
  3. The archives of the Archdiocese of Trento, in Trento, Italy

If you didn’t catch that article, you can read it by clicking HERE.

In today’s article, I’m going to be talking about the Nati in Trentino website, because I believe it is especially helpful for anyone who is just starting to construct their Trentini family tree. It is also highly useful for experienced researchers who quickly want to flesh out parts of the 19th and early 20th century in their tree.

In this article, I’ll be looking at:

  • What Nati in Trentino is and how to access it
  • Advantages of using it for research
  • What the site CAN and CANNOT tell you (compared to the original parish records)
  • Technical limitations of the site
  • Tips and tricks for getting the most out of it

Nati in Trentino – What it is and how to access it

Nati in Trentino is a free, searchable website located at https://secure.natitrentino.mondotrentino.net. This site contains a database of information taken from ALL baptismal records registered in the Archdiocese of Trento between the years of 1815 and 1923. The project was done by experienced researchers at the Archivio dell’Arcidiocese (the archives of the archdiocese).

When you land on the site, select your preferred language. Assuming you’ve selected ‘English’, after you enter the site, look to the right side of your screen and you will see these options:

Screenshot - Nati in Trentino landing page.Click on the image to see it larger.

If you click “Search Database Birth Index”, it will take you to a log-in page. If you already have an account, you can log-in here. If you haven’t yet created your free account, you register from that page as well.

NOTE to Users of Ancestry.com and similar sites: The Nati in Trentino database is owned by the Archdiocese of Trento, and is NOT accessible via other, commercial sites. The only way to access it is to go directly to the Nati in Trentino website.

Advantages of Using Nati in Trentino

It has been made by EXPERTS

I think this is the primary advantage of using Nati in Trentino. The people who made this database are not random volunteers (as is the case with MANY other online databases) but official researchers who work for the diocese. They are native Trentini who speak Italian AND have studied Latin. They are familiar with the parishes and local surnames of the region. They have been trained to read old handwriting. Furthermore, these people (and I know some of them personally) CARE about preserving this history.

It is extremely accurate

Unlike so many other transcription projects you might find on the Internet, Nati in Trentino is clear and accurate. You’ll especially appreciate this if you’ve ever found yourself pulling your hair out trying to make sense of your Trentini ancestors’ names and villages in US census records or Ellis Island documents.

It has an English language option

If you are an English speaker, you will especially appreciate the Nati in Trentino website as you don’t need to have any knowledge of Italian to use it. Also, if you are less experienced in working with parish records, it takes the guesswork out of trying to read the priests’ handwriting.

It can save you time

Lastly, the most obvious advantage is that it can save you hours of research time. Records that might otherwise take you hours to find via microfilm can often be found within minutes. For speed and ease of use, there really is no other Trentino resource like it (not yet, anyway!). I often use the site to do a ‘first draft’ of certain family groups for the 19th Century. Then, when I next have an opportunity to work directly with the images of the baptismal, marriage and death records, I can start to fill in the missing information.

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What The Site CAN and CANNOT Tell You

It is important to be aware of what the site can and cannot tell you, lest you inadvertently assume the wrong person is your ancestor. One thing to bear in mind is that this site does NOT contain the full transcription of the baptismal records. Nor does it contain the images of them. Thus, many things that are probably IN the baptismal record are NOT included in the search results on Nati in Trentino.

To give you an idea of how a search on Nati in Trentino differs from an original parish record, compare these two images. First, is a screenshot of a search I did on Nati in Trentino for my great-grandmother, Domenica Filomena Europa Parisi (who was known in life only as ‘Europa’):

Search results for Europa Parisi, born 1856, on Nati in TrentinoClick on the image to see it larger.

 As you can see, from this record we now know:

  • Europa’s full name
  • Her gender
  • Her date of birth
  • Her father’s first name
  • Her mother’s first name
  • Her mother’s maiden surname
  • Her parish

VERY IMPORTANT (especially for readers in America): European dates are written with the DAY first, followed by the MONTH (the opposite of what is used in the United States). If you see a date that says 06/12/1850, for example, it means December 6th, NOT June 12th.

About the date of birth

Prior to the introduction of printed forms (about 1810), parish records would only record the date of baptism, rather than the date of birth. For this reason, most researchers will use the baptismal date as a date of birth in a family tree, if no other record of birth is available.  In earlier times, due to the high mortality rate, a child was often baptised within hours of their birth anyway (sometimes by the midwife). But by the 19th Century, there might be a gap of one or two days between the birth and baptism of a child; both of these dates are recorded in most Trentino parish records from about 1810 onwards. Wherever both dates have been recorded, Nati in Trentino will give you the actual date of birth.

About parishes

You don’t need to know the parish from which your ancestors came to search the database, but it can really help narrow down your search, especially if the surname is common to several areas of the Province. Fortunately, the search function includes a drop-down menu of all the parishes (which means you don’t need to know how to spell them!).

You can find a complete list of parishes in the Diocese of Trento on Wikipedia. They are grouped into their respective valleys. I don’t know how accurate this list is, as it isn’t an official site for the diocese, but I cannot find a live link on the dioceses site anymore.

Now let’s compare the information we found out on Nati in Trentino to the information you will find in the original parish record. Europa’s entry is the last one in the image:

Example of 19th Century baptismal record from the parish of Santa Croce del BleggioClick on the image to see it larger.

If you look closely at this image, you will see that, in addition to the information you found on the Nati in Trentino website, you now also know:

  • Europa came from the frazione of Duvredo (written in the left margin).
  • She was born at 10 PM
  • She was baptised the day after she was born.
  • The midwife who delivered her was Margarita Furlini (written under Europa’s name). In fact, if you look closely, you will see that Margarita delivered ALL the babies on this record (that’s four babies in within 20 days).
  • Europa died on 24 Feb 1937 (this was inserted by the parish priest many years later)
  • She was Catholic
  • She was the 44th girl baby to be born in the parish that year
  • She was legitimate (i.e. her parents were married)
  • The names of all four of her grandparents (full names of the grandfathers; first names of the grandmothers)
  • That her maternal grandfather (Luigi Troggio) is deceased (signified by the word ‘fu’ in the record)
  • The name of the priest who baptised her
  • The names of the godparents
  • That the godparents were contadini –

As you can see, there is a lot more to be gleaned from parish records than can be discovered through the Nati in Trentino database. I am not pointing these things out to discourage you from using it, but to ensure you are clear on what to expect when you use it, and also to give you something to look forward to when you progress to the stage where you are ready to study the parish records for yourself.

Technical Limitations of the Site

When you begin a search on the site, you’ll see this input form:

Screenshot of search form on 'Nati in Trentino' websiteClick on the image to see it larger.

There are a few technical limitations of this search, namely:

  • Surname is a required field. Let’s say you are trying to find out more information about your great-grandfather’s sister. To do that, you’d have to be able to search by the mother’s surname. But on Nati in Trentino, you are required to enter the child’s surname (ie. the surname of the father). So unless you know the surname of your great-great-aunt’s husband, you’re stuck.
  • The surname MUST be spelled completely and EXACTLY as it is in the record. While this isn’t immediately apparent from this form, unfortunately, you cannot use ‘wild card’ searches on the Nati in Trentino website. This means you need to know the exact spelling of your ancestors’ surname as it appeared in the record, and you will have to try all the variations of it you can think of. For example, while 9 times out of 10 my paternal surname is spelled ‘Serafini’, some priests spelled it ‘Seraffini’. Because there is no flexibility with regards to surname in their search engine, if I search for ‘Serafini’ on the site, I will NOT see any of the ‘Seraffini’ records.
  • Gender is a required field. This means, if you are working on a family, you’ll have to search for brothers and sisters separately. It’s not unworkable, but it can slow down your research.
  • Each search is restricted to a 10-year range. This can also slow down your research, but it’s not so bad once you get the hang of it (TIP: don’t forget, a range from 1900 – 1910 is actually 11 years).
  • You will NOT see the names of parents if the child was born less than 103 years ago. This is pretty much standard privacy policy on any genealogy site. I’ve got a trick below that can help you work around this in many cases.

Tips and Tricks to Get the Most from Your Searches

I’ve worked enough now with the Nati in Trentino site that I no longer worry about these limitations, as I know (to some degree) how to work around them. Here are some of my personal tips and tricks.

CHILD’S (AND FATHER’S) SURNAME

Because the site has no search flexibility with the primary surname, and because different priests may have spelled your surname differently over the years, you will need to search using all the alternative spellings you can think of for your family’s surnames. So, as you’re searching, write down all the alternative spellings of that surname you can think of, so you can check all of the options.

Some surnames have LOTS of different variations. If you click here, you can see a table I made of some Trentino surnames with some of their spelling variations. Look to see if your surname is on the table and take note of any variations it might have. Please note that this table is FAR from complete, so if you know of any variations I might not have included, please let me know via the contact form on this website.

MOTHER’S SURNAME

The field for the mother’s surname is an OPTIONAL field, which means you don’t have to enter it. However, if you already know her surname OR you are trying to find siblings of your ancestor (which you SHOULD), you can enter this information here.

To get the most out of this, I recommend NOT putting in the full surname, but rather that you should enter only 1-3 letters.

For example, a surname like ‘Caliari’, can also be spelled ‘Cagliari’, so I would just put ‘Ca’ in the mother’s surname field. For ‘Serafini’ I would just put in ‘Ser’. You might even enter a few MIDDLE letters of a surname if they are the least variable.

PERSONAL NAMES

Similarly, I find it the site works best if you use ONLY 1 – 3 letters of the personal names: child’s name, father’s name, mother’s name.  THESE fields have much more flexibility when you do your search. In fact, I normally enter only a few letters of a name (or even ONE letter), in these fields, so that I don’t inadvertently miss a record that might be spelled slightly differently.

For example:

  • if you know the mother’s or child’s name is Domenica, it might be written ‘Dominica’. So, just put ‘Dom’ in the mother’s first name field.
  • For a name like ‘Cattarina’, it is spelled SO many different ways, so just enter ‘Cat’.
  • If the father’s or child’s name is something like ‘Bartolomeo’, it could also be spelled ‘Bortolo’. So, I would put ONLY the letter ‘B’ in the search field for the father’s name.

GETTING AROUND THE 103-YEAR PRIVACY ISSUE

If you cannot see the names of the parents of a child because he/she was born less than 103 years ago, try finding siblings who may have been born earlier. This process can often help you work out who the parents are, by a process of elimination.

Process of Elimination Method
    • First, search for any children born with the child’s surname during the five years preceding that child’s birth (presuming that this will take you before the 103-year threshold). If you know the name of the parish, this can really help narrow it down.
    • Write down the parents’ names of all of those children.
    • Then, perform your search AGAIN for the child you are seeking, but this time enter the first few letters of the name of a father and mother of one of the other children.
    • If you choose the RIGHT couple, the child you’re looking for will appear in the search results, even though the names of the parents won’t be visible. If you haven’t entered the right parents, the child you are looking for won’t appear in the results.
What if that doesn’t work? 

If the parents didn’t HAVE any children before the 103-year threshold, you’ll need to use a more ‘trial and error’ method.  This method takes a bit more time, and requires that you have some experience/knowledge of local names.

First, choose one of the parents’ optional fields to work with, i.e. father’s first name, mother’s first name or mother’s surname. Then, go through each letter of the alphabet ONE letter at a time in that field. For example, if I am trying to figure out the father’s first name, I would enter ‘a’. Then, if the search comes up showing my ancestor, it means the father’s first name has at least one a in it. Write down ‘a’ in your notepad. Then go on to b, c, d, etc. until you’ve tested all the letters in the alphabet. If you ended up with something like ‘e, i, g, p, s, u’, his name is probably ‘Giuseppe’. Try the full name (or a portion of it) in the name field to so if that works.

Continue using this method until you have identified the father’s first name, mother’s first name and mother’s surname individually. Then, test all of them in the fields at the same time and see if they show your ancestor. If they do, then you’ve revealed his/her parents’ names.

Finding SIBLINGS of Your Ancestors on Nati in Trentino

Finding siblings is something I do ALL the time on Nati in Trentino. ‘Building’ a family group is the best way to formulate an estimate for the parents’ marriage date, and it can also help you estimate their ages.

This is especially true with women. If the mother of your ancestor had lots of children for many years, you can often get an upper/lower year of birth for her. For example, if the couple’s oldest child was born in 1826, and the youngest in 1846, the mother would surely have been born between 1800-1808; and within that range, she is more likely to have been born between 1804-1806. This is because most women would have married between the ages of 20-22, and they usually are between 42-44 when their youngest child was born (provided she or her husband didn’t die young).

Finding siblings can also help you ‘guess’ at the names of the grandparents, at least on the paternal side. Traditionally, the first son would have been named after one or both of the grandfathers, and the first daughter would have been named after one or both of the grandmothers. This tradition starts to fall OUT of practice the later you go in the 19th century however, as people started to use more ‘creative’ names, rather than the same ones over and over.

So, once you’ve found your ancestor on Nati in Trentino, start finding his/her siblings by SHIFTING your 10-year search period backwards or forward, using ALL the tips and tricks I’ve discussed in this article. KEEP on shifting this 10-year period in both directions until there are no more children using those search settings.

Once you feel you’ve exhausted the possibilities, look over the siblings you’ve found. Do you see GAPS of more than 2 years between siblings? If so, there might be a sibling whose surname was entered under a different spelling. So, this time, plug in an ALTERNATIVE spelling for your surname (if there is one) and run the same search process again.

TIP: The exception to the 2-year guideline would be if it were during World War 1, or you know your ancestor(s) had emigrated temporarily out of the province.

Closing Thoughts…

I hope this article has given you some useful information about how to use the Nati in Trentino website, and has inspired you to use it to work on your family tree. If you have any questions or comments about what I’ve discussed, please feel free to reach out to me via the contact form on this website.

As I showed in this article, there is much more that can be learned about your ancestors if you study the original parish records. So over the next few articles, we’ll be looking at how to find and use the microfilms of those records through your local Family History Centre. Then, in later articles, we’ll explore working at the Archives of the Archdiocese in Trento, and different ways you can take your research beyond parish records.

I do hope you’ll subscribe to this blog so you can follow along on this genealogical journey, and read all future articles on this site. Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at 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.

As always, if you’d like to talk to me about researching your family history, you are most welcome to drop me a line via the contact form on this site.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from Trentino Genealogy! Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at 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 on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

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

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:
http://trentinogenealogy.com/my-tree

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentino SURNAMES.

Parishes, Parish Records & Genealogy Resources for Trentino

Parishes, Parish Records & Genealogy Resources for Trentino
Postcard from 1910, written by parish priest Giovanni Battista Lenzi, with an artist’s rendition of the parish church of Santa Croce del Bleggio. Click image to see it larger.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn tells what you can learn from church records, the role of the parish in Trentini life, and where to look for your ancestors’ records.  

Perhaps the biggest question people have when they want to create their family tree is, ‘How do I START?’ The task of researching your Trentino family history can seem daunting, especially if your Trentini ancestor is more than a generation away from you, i.e. a grandparent or great-grandparent.

In my opinion, the best starting point is to look at parish records. I’ll be talking a lot about the ‘how to’ of parish records in later articles, but today I want to lay the groundwork by explaining what they are, how parishes operated in our ancestors’ lives, and what available resources there are for the parish records of the Catholic Archdiocese of Trento (which covers all of the province of Trentino).

What Are Parish Records and When Did They Start?

Parish records (registri parrocchiali, in Italian) are books kept by the parish priests to record important events that took place in their parish, including (but not limited to) the ‘vital’ records of baptisms, marriages and deaths of all their parishioners. Some church records include confirmations, first communions and church census records, but these are generally only accessible if you go directly to the parish itself and view the original records.

The keeping of parish records was first mandated by the Catholic Church in 1563, at the Council of Trent (Trento), when all Catholic churches were directed to keep records of all baptisms, marriages and deaths within their parish. Some parishes, including Santa Croce del Bleggio where the majority of my Trentini ancestors lived at that time, was one of the early conformists to this new regulation, and you will see baptisms and marriages appearing as early as 1565. Many parishes were late to adopt the practice, although most kept records of births and marriages by 1595. In many parishes, the regular practice of keeping death records appeared slightly later.

Bearing in mind that civil records in Italy began around the time of the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800s (and, even more significantly, Trentino has only been part of Italy since the end of the First World War), Catholic parish records are vital to genealogical research in Trentino.

The Role of Parishes in Our Ancestors’ Lives

The more I research my ancestors, the more I come to respect the role of the parish in their everyday lives. A parish was (and still is) more than the place to go to church. This church was a portal of all rites of passage – coming into the world, unifying for the purpose of procreation and, ultimately, leaving the world. It was the place where people came together on a regular basis, and where everyone knew everyone else. It was also where families in need could find support. In fact, a progressive, rural cooperative movement – aimed at helping poor, farming families – was established in 1890 by the priest don Lorenzo Guetti (of Vigo Lomaso), assisted by don Giovanni Battista Lenzi (of Santa Croce).

Church records are not merely repositories of your ancestors’ vital information. Within them, you can also find evidence of friendships and long-standing alliances between families, as well as clues as to the occupations and reputations of various individuals within the community. Digging really deeply into them, you can see the heartache of loss, and both the fragility and the tenacity of human existence. Some parish records can even provide us with a microcosm of contemporary community life, and the concerns of its people. I read some heart-rending accounts penned by don Lenzi during the first decades of the 20th Century, where he shared his feelings on the tragedy of the First World War and his reflections on the trend of mass immigration to the Americas. I even read an account about a devastating fire that took place in 1916 in the house of my great-grandfather.

Parishes and Life Events – Where Did They Take Place?

Marriages normally took place in the parish church of the bride, or sometimes a smaller church in the bride’s frazione (village). As the vast majority of marriages took place between two people from the same parish (and sometimes even from the same frazione), you can often trace many generations of your Trentini ancestors within a single parish. If you cannot locate a marriage record for a couple, it is often an indication that the wife came from a different parish. In such a case, you might have luck looking at marriages that took place in parishes nearby that of the husband.

After a couple married, they normally went to live in the husband’s frazione of origin. This means any baptismal records of children born from that marriage would be born in their father’s parish. The fact that wives tended to move to their husband’s frazione means that over the generations, each frazione came to be associated with specific families. For example, if you say the surnames ‘Crosina’ or ‘Farina’ in the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio where my ancestors came from, 99% of the time they will have been born in the frazione of Balbido. Knowing these kinds of trends can really expedite your research, especially because some priests organised baptismal records according to the frazione.

Burials, of course, would be registered in the parish in which the person was living at the time of death. Thus, a woman born in one parish will most likely have been buried in her husband’s parish.

Exceptions to the Rule

There are always exceptions to these patterns. Sometimes a bride is the last surviving child from her parents’ marriage, or is the eldest daughter, with no brothers. In such cases (and especially if the groom came from a family where there were many sons), the groom would likely move into the home of the bride and the couple would take ownership of the father’s property upon his demise. Occasionally, if an unmarried man married a widowed woman, he might move into the home in which she had lived with her late husband. Because such exceptions sometimes arise, if you are having difficulty finding the baptismal records for the children of this couple in the village of the father, the most likely place to look would be the village of origin of the wife.

Another exception is when the husband is a person of import – a notary or judge, for example. Such men might be assigned to an official post in another parish. In such cases, the whole family would move to this new parish, which might have no ancestral connection to either the husband or the wife. For example, my grandmother’s line, the Onorati, had several notaries in the family, going back many centuries. Although their ancestral village is in the frazione of Bono (Santa Croce del Bleggio parish), a few Onorati families lived in other parishes for short periods of time, when the heads of the families were posted at castles like Stenico (Tavodo parish) and Castel Campo (Vigo Lomaso parish). Thus, if you want to find the records for children born during those years, they may be in the parish of origin OR in the ‘adopted’ parish. Sometimes, you will find the records in both parishes. On the other hand, if you’re unlucky, they might be missing in both.

SIDE NOTE: All of these habits were the norm in Trentino prior to WW1. While these trends still exist today, the way many people live, marry and work has changed significantly over the past century, as people have become more mobile.

Changes in Parish ‘Boundaries’ Over Time

Parishes are not ‘fixed in stone’ entities. As populations rise and fall, some parishes will merge together, while others will split apart. Some very tiny frazioni have shifted around a lot over the centuries, appearing in one set of parish records for a period of time, and then in another later on. One example is the frazione of Saone, which was originally part of the Bleggio parish, but later became a parish of its own. Another is the frazione of Favrio in the current-day parish of Ragoli, the records of which over the centuries were constantly shifting back and forth between the parish of Ragoli and Thione. As a result, there are significant gaps in the early church records for these villages. Sometimes entire decades are missing.

If you cannot find the records you are looking for, don’t give up until you have exhausted all the most likely possibilities. Look on a map and see which parishes border your ancestors’ usual parish of origin, and check those records before resigning yourself to the fact they may no longer exist (if they ever did). For three years I believed I would never find the marriage record for my 7x Serafini great-grandparents. But a few months ago, I ‘stumbled’ upon the very record (from 1642) when I was searching for something else in a nearby parish.

Click on the image below to see it larger.

1642 marriage record of Antonio Serafini (son of Serafino) and Catharina Floriani, both of Favrio, in Ragoli.
1642 marriage record of Antonio Serafini (son of Serafino) and Catharina Floriani, both of Favrio, in Ragoli. This record was found in the THIONE parish records, although the baptismal records for their children were found in the RAGOLI parish records.

Where Can I Find and Search Trentini Parish Records?

We Trentini are particularly fortunate because we have three excellent resources to access the parish records of our ancestors:

  1. Nati Trentino – a free, searchable website containing basic information from the all baptismal records for the Archdiocese of Trento between 1815 – 1923
  2. Microfilms made by the Latter Day Saints (LDS) – rentable films of all available baptisms, marriages and death records from the Archdiocese of Trento between 1550s – 1923
  3. Archives of Archdiocese of Trento, in Trento, Italy – research facility of digital images of all available baptisms, marriages and death records from the Archdiocese of Trento between 1550s – 1923

While I work regularly with all three of these resources, my favourite is the Archives in Trento. Of course, utilising the Archives of the Archdiocese requires physically going to Trento (as these resources are not available online). This is impractical for many, especially those who live in North America and/or don’t speak Italian. Even if you do make the trip, knowing how to find and understand what you’re looking for is not something easily done if you’re just starting out in your genealogical quest.

That’s why, when someone is just starting out, I normally recommend they use the Nati Trentino website. They have a REALLY long link to get to the English research portal:

http://www.natitrentino.mondotrentino.net/portal/server.pt/community/indice_nati_in_trentino_-_inglese/837/search_database/23738

Coming Up Next Time…

In the next article on Trentino Genealogy, I’ll be giving you a quick tour of Nati Trentino. In that article, I’ll be looking at:

  • What the site can tell you (and what it cannot)
  • Technical limitations of the site and tips for working around them
  • What to do if you don’t know your ancestors’ parish
  • Tips on what to do if you’re not certain of your ancestors’ original name
  • Troubleshooting and strategies to use when you seem to be stuck

After that, I’ll be sharing my tips on finding and using LDS microfilms, working with the Trento Archives, and ways you can take your research beyond parish records.

I hope you’ll subscribe to this blog so you can read all future articles on this site. Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at 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.

Also, if you’d like to talk to me about researching your family history, you are most welcome to drop me a line via the contact form on this site.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from Trentino Genealogy! Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at 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 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

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.

The Science of Finding Your Female Ancestors from Trentino

The Science of Finding Your Female Ancestors from Trentino
Elisa Serafini (b. 1880) of Duvredo, one of many distant cousins. While she died young, her daughter Angelina Painelli lived to be 100 years old.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn discusses the challenges of researching women in parish records, and how to find your great-grandmothers through the centuries.

A note before we begin: Although this article is about finding your female ancestors from Trentino, many of the research strategies discussed can be applied to finding your female (and male) ancestors from anywhere parish records are used to record births, marriages and deaths. If you are not yet familiar with how to find and access parish records from Trentino, be sure to subscribe to this blog, as I will discuss that topic in a later article.

Many of us strongly identify with our surname. Thus, many people will begin their genealogical journey by tracing the lineage of male ancestors with the same last name. However, when constructing a surname lineage, results will be limited. Even if you were to trace your patrilineal surname lineage back to your 11x great-grandparents* (which might take you back to the second half of the 1500s, when parish records in Trentino began), your tree would have a total of only 27 people: you, your two parents, your two paternal grandparents, your two paternal great-grandparents, and so on.

*SIDENOTE: ‘11x great-grandparents’ is shorthand for great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great- great-great-grandparents’ (i.e. the word ‘great’ eleven times).

While constructing a surname family tree is a natural part of exploring our identity, genealogically speaking, it is only a tiny fraction of who you really are. The real ‘juice’ of genealogy is when you start to explore the rich and diverse heritage you have received from your many, many great-grandmothers. After all, 50% of your DNA is from the women in your family tree, and each of those women has a mother and a father. If you do some number crunching, if you trace your complete ancestry back to your 11x great-grandparents, you could theoretically have as many as** 8,192 great-grandparents, half of whom (4,096) are women.

Even if you are not 100% Trentini, and you have only one Trentini grandparent, you could still have as many as** 1,024 female Trentini ancestors who are probably listed somewhere in the parish records.

**SIDENOTE: I say ‘as many as’ because that’s the highest number you get if you multiply each successive generation by two. However, the number is most likely to be somewhat smaller, as Trentini families typically intermarried. For example, let’s say your 10x great-grandparents had two sons who married and had children. Then, many years later, the 5x great-grandson of the first son married the 5x great-granddaughter of the second son. Many years later, you became a descendent of that marriage between the 5x great-grandson and the 5x great-granddaughter. That means your 10x great-grandparents are your ancestors via two different branches of the family. This kind of intermarriage will ‘collapse’ your family tree at various points, meaning it will reduce the number of ancestors you actually have. I’ll talk about this in more detail in a future article.

The Challenges of Finding the Names of Women in the Parish Records

The challenge in Trentino, and I imagine in other parts of the world as well, is that women’s names were not always documented as thoroughly as they are today. From my experience, this is generally what you can expect to see in parish records.

Baptismal Records

In ALL cases, the names of the priest and the godparents are given in the baptismal records, but the names of the parents and other family members are variable throughout the centuries:

  • 1500s – The name of the mother of the child is often completely missing. The name of the father is always given, and the name of the father’s father is frequently given. The father’s frazione (village) of origin is always given.
  • 1600s – The first name of the mother is usually given, but not her surname (remember, Trentini women maintain their father’s surname throughout life). As before, the name of the father is always given, the name of the father’s father is usually given, and the father’s frazione of origin is always given.

Click on the image below to see it larger.

1628 - Baptismal Record of Maria Onorati from Santa Croce parish records
6 Aug 1628. Baptismal record of Maria Onorati, daughter of Domenico (a notary) of Bono and his wife Chiara (spelled ‘Clara’ here, last word on the second line). Note that Chiara’s surname (Burratti) is not given in the record. Maria was my 7x great-grandmother.
  • 1700s – It gradually becomes the practice over the century to include the full name of the mother’s father (hence, you know her surname), and also her frazione of origin, especially if it is different from the husband’s. As before, the name of the father, the father’s father, and the father’s frazione of origin are given.
  • Early 1800s – After 1806, printed templates are used for the parish records, with specific columns for the information. This makes the records far more detailed and consistent. From this point, you will normally find the surnames, fathers’ names and frazione of both parents of a child, but not the names of the mothers of the parents. Sometimes you might see a cross next to a child’s name, indicating they died not long after their birth.
  • Late 1800s into 1900s – From about 1880, you will start to see the names of both parents, as well as the full names and village of origin of both sets of grandparents of the child. Some priests will also list the name of the midwives, and make a note if the child is the couple’s firstborn. As you approach the 20th century, some priests will also go BACK to baptismal records many years later, and enter the person’s marriage date and/or death date somewhere on the baptismal record. If the person emigrated abroad (increasingly common), they might make a note of that date as well.

Marriage Records

In all marriage records, you will find the full name and village of origin of the fathers of both the bride and the groom. As in the case with baptismal records, you will start to see the names of the mothers of the bride and groom appear in the records towards the latter part of the 1800s, as well as the ages (and sometimes date of birth) of the bride and groom.

Click on the image below to see it larger.

Detailed marriage record from 1815, Santa Croce del Bleggio parish records
Example of a detailed marriage record from 1815. In all cases, the names of both sets of parents are given, as well as the ages of the bride and groom. The first two entries also include the date of birth of the brides, and whether they are widowed or single. Entry 3 (29 May 1815) is of Vigilio Aloisio Devilli (widowed, age 40) and Domenica Aloisia Caliari (single, age 36). There is a note that says they were given a special dispensation for 3rd degree consanguinity (further investigation gave me the evidence to show they were 3rd cousins).

Death Records

Prior to the late 1800s, the death record for an unmarried woman typically designates her as the daughter of her father, while that of a married woman will designate her as the wife (or widow) of her husband. Sometimes, if the deceased is a young child, you might see the name of the mother as well as the father. Death records for men tend to provide even less information, as they designate the man as the son of his father, and almost never mention the wife. Thus, unless the priest has written down the age of the person at the time of death (and you already have a good idea of when he/she was born), it can be difficult to know whether you’ve found the record you’re looking for. As in the baptismal records, from the latter part of the 19th century, you will start to see more complete details in the records of both men and women, including the names of their parents and spouse, and the dates of birth and marriage. Be aware, also, that some parishes started keeping death records much later than they started recording baptisms and marriages.

The Science of Genealogical Detective Work

Given these factors, finding your female ancestors further back than the middle of the 19th century can be significantly more challenging than finding your male ancestors (which can be challenging enough!). Still, finding your female ancestors can be done if you take a systematic approach in your research.

Good investigative genealogy is a scientific process. Like all science, it all boils down to a 4-step system:

  1. Looking for clues
  2. Use the clues to formulate a hypothesis
  3. Use your hypothesis to find evidence
  4. Use your evidence to draw a conclusion

4 Step Cycle of Genealogical Research

Once you have drawn conclusions, the cycle starts all over again, as you begin to look for clues to answer the next batch of questions that will inevitably arise.

Let’s take a look at how to apply that system to finding your female ancestors.

Lateral Thinking – How to Uncover Crucial Clues

Looking for clues involves lateral thinking. This means you need to expand your scope of research to include not only your direct ancestors, but also their siblings. There are many important reasons for this. First, the very clue you seek may be in the birth or marriage record of a sibling, and not in the record of your direct ancestor. Second, as I discussed in my previous article, ‘How Much Do You Really Know About Your Ancestors’ Names?’, families tended to name their children after other members of the family, including elders and recently deceased siblings. Thus, the only way to make sure you have found the correct person – and not a dead sibling, cousin or someone unrelated – is to construct the whole family as completely as possible. Once you have the family constructed, you can make some hypotheses to help you locate evidence about your female ancestor.

For example, let’s say you know the name of your 5x great-grandfather in the 1700s, and you are trying to find out more about his mother, your 6x great-grandmother. You’ve managed to find the baptismal record of your 5x great-grandfather, which gives the full name of his father, but only the first name of his mother. In this case, you would need to look for all of your 5x great-grandfather’s brothers and sisters. Go backwards and forwards, continuously looking for children of the same father, where the father is married to a woman with the first name. Statistically, MOST of the time, there will be only one couple with that name during those years. Occasionally, you will encounter the genealogist’s nightmare: two men with the same first/last name married to two women with the same first name, but I’ll talk about how to get around scenarios like that in a later article. For now, let’s assume there is only one possible couple who meet the criteria of your 6x great-grandparents.

Typically, children were born continuously anywhere between one and three years apart. Even those who died soon after birth will be listed in the baptismal records, as they were often been baptised within hours of having been delivered. In fact, when you see two children born only about a year apart, it can sometimes be an indication that the first of these children died in early infancy (as, biologically, a woman cannot ordinarily become pregnant again until she has finished nursing the previous child). If you stop seeing children after five or more years in either direction, it is likely that you’ve reached the beginning/end of the childbirths for that couple.

SIDENOTE: The ‘gap’ theory is NOT always applicable to families after the 1880s. From that time, many men were spending extended periods of time working in the coal mines in the United States, coming home to their families every few years. In those cases, you might see big gaps (sometimes as much as eight years) between the births of children. One example is Elisa Serafini in the photo at the top of this article. Her two children, Angelina and Costante Painelli, were born 7 years apart because her husband Ambrogio was working in the mines in Pennsylvania between 1904 – 1909.

Click on the image below to see it larger.

Family Tree - Amrogio Painelli, Elisabetta (Elisa) Serafini
Family of Ambrogio Painelli and Elisabetta (Elisa) Serafini from the early 20th century. The 7-year gap between their children flagged up the probability that Ambrogio had spent some time working in the coal mines of the US. This clue led me to find him in an immigration document in 1904, when he was on the way to Pennsylvania. I have not found any other children for them. I knew Ambrogio lived a long life, I had a photo of him at an advanced age, and a cousin of his later confirmed his date of death as 1961. This led me to assume Elisa died as a young woman. My next step will be to look for evidence of her death in the parish records.

Forming a Hypothesis from These Clues

Constructing a family group like this can give you a lot of very important clues about your 6x great-grandmother, if you know a few things about how your ancestors lived and married. From my experience, following these generalities can be very useful in forming your hypotheses:

  1. ON AVERAGE, most Trentini couples had their first child about a year after they married. So, if you know the birth of the first child was in February 1707, you can form a hypothesis that the couple married sometime around 1705 or 1706.
  2. ON AVERAGE, most Trentini women tended to be about 21 years old at the time of their first marriage, with a more general norm of anywhere between 18 and 24. Younger than 18 was uncommon. Older than 24 was possible if there were a lot of daughters of marriageable age in her family, or she was widowed and in her second marriage. There was no such thing as divorce in the Catholic families during this period. Thus, if you have formed a hypothesis for her marriage year, you can also form an estimate for her year of birth. In the above example, if your 6x great-grandparents were probably married around 1705, your 6x great-grandmother was probably born between 1681 and 1687, with the most likely date around 1684-5.
  3. The birth date of the LAST child can also tell you a lot about the dates of birth and/or death of your 6x great-grandmother. Before the late 19th century, when the rate of infant mortality was heart-wrenchingly high, it was the norm for women to give birth to 10, 12, 14 or even 18 children. If your 6x great-grandparents had such a ‘normal’ sized family, you can narrow down your 6x great-grandmother’s birth date by looking at the date of birth of the last child. Statistically, it is reasonable to hypothesise she was between 43 and 45 years old when that child was born. If you balance this against the estimate you made when you looked at her probable date of marriage, you might be able to narrow down her birth date to within a year or two. For example, here’s a screenshot of my 4x great-grandparents, which I shared in the previous article. Margherita Giuliani gave birth to 14 children, born between July 1805 and May 1827. From this information alone, I can hypothesise that she probably married in 1803 or 1804 (up to 19 months before the birth of her first child), and that she was born around 1783 or 1784 (as she would have been 43 or 44 when her last child was born). The parish records show that she indeed married in September 1803, and was born in August 1784.
  4. The SIZE of the family can also give important clues. Before the middle of the 1800s, if there are fewer than eight children in the family, it could be an indication of the death of either the husband or the wife. If their children were still young, widowed men and women tended to remarry within a couple years of their spouse’s death. So, if you see a small family followed by a gap in the birth records, and then you start seeing a man with the same name having children with a different woman, it could indicate that the man remarried (of course, it could be referring to a different man altogether). If you suspect your 6x great-grandfather remarried, you can estimate the year of death of your 6x great-grandmother by looking at the date of birth of her last child, and the date of birth of her widowed husband’s first child by the new marriage.

Collating Your Clues to Find Evidence

After having constructed the family, you can collate all your clues. Even if you don’t know her surname yet, here’s what you might now know about your 6x great-grandmother that you didn’t know before:

  1. An estimated marriage year
  2. An estimated year birth
  3. Possibly an estimated year of death

At this point, I recommend you enter these estimates into your family tree. I do NOT suggest you put them as fixed dates; rather, use descriptors ‘about’, ‘before’, ‘after’ or (in some cases when I am less sure of the range), ‘between’. That way, you have a guide to know where to start looking to find your evidence.

Once you have these clues, the first thing you need to do is find the MARRIAGE record. Go the marriage records for your ancestors’ parish and look within the estimated time period to find a marriage between a man with your 6x great-grandfather’s name and a woman with the first name of his children’s mother. This is important because the marriage record is the ONLY document where you know for sure you will find the full name of your 6x great-grandmother’s father and, importantly, her surname. Now you can change your estimated marriage year to an exact date.

Here’s something else VERY important to do at this stage: be sure you record the VILLAGE (frazione) of origin of your 6x great-grandmother’s family. Sometimes, knowing the frazione is the only way you can FIND your ancestors, or distinguish them from another family of the same name. For example, in the parish of Bleggio, there are two distinct branches of the now extinct ‘Pellegrinati’ family. One lived in Bivedo and the other lived in Duvredo. Many of them had the same first names. If you inadvertently identify someone as your ancestor from the wrong frazione, you could end up going down entirely the wrong path and waste months of research time.

Armed with all this information, you can then go back to the baptismal records and look for your 6x great-grandmother, daughter of the man you now know is your 7x great-grandfather, born during the estimated time period for her birth in the frazione you found in the marriage record. When you find someone who seems like a likely candidate, go through all the records in the same frazione before/after her for about 10 years. Look for her siblings and keep a record of all of them. If you’re lucky, you’ll also discover their mother’s (your 7x great-grandmother’s) first name. Make sure there isn’t ANOTHER child with the same name from the same couple who might have been born a few years later, lest you enter the wrong information for your 6x great-grandmother.

TIP: Take a moment to review the things we looked at in the previous two articles, regarding soprannome, spelling variations and middle names. Remember: your 6x great-grandmother might be referred to by her middle name in her marriage record, and both her surname and first/middle names might be spelled differently in the baptismal record.

Once you have exhausted all the possibilities using this method, you are (hopefully) ready to draw the conclusion that you have found the woman you are looking for.

Lastly, if your hypotheses include an estimated death date, you can look for the record in the death records. If the record identifies her husband or father, and/or gives her age at the time of death (which is often rounded-off, and rarely precise), you know you have the right woman.

Repeating the Cycle to Grow Your Tree

After you’ve done this for one generation, you’re ready to go back to the beginning of this process and work through it again to locate your 7x great-grandmothers (there are as many as 512 of them!), and continue back as far back as you can go.

What Can You Do When a Mother Isn’t Mentioned at All in a Birth Record?

As I said earlier, in many of the baptismal records from the 1500s, the mother’s first name isn’t mentioned at all. However, if there is more than one man with the same name during the same period, chances are the records will identify one of these men as ‘the son of so-and-so’. In some cases, the priest might notate his soprannome (see my previous article about Trentini surnames). This information can also help you construct family groups of siblings, even if you don’t yet know the names of the mother (or mothers) for these children. If you’re lucky, all the children will be from a single couple. If that’s the case, you can probably find their marriage record fairly easily using the method we’ve already discussed. But sometimes, due to the proximity of births, it becomes obvious you are looking at two different couples. Solving those kinds of riddles can require much closer scrutiny of the records, something I’ll talk about more in future articles.

Coming Up – Finding Parish Records and Thinking Outside the Box

I hope this article has helped give you some ideas about how to start identifying some of the more elusive women who make up your genetic blueprint. If you found it useful, please subscribe to this blog so you can receive future articles. Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at 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.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, I am aware that some of you reading this might not know much (or anything) about parish records. For starters, WHICH parish records do you need? How do you obtain copies of them, and how can you understand them? We’ll be looking at that in the next article on the Trentino Genealogy blog.

Later, we’ll also be looking at some ways to ‘think outside the box’ to find your ancestors, such as how looking at the godparents of your ancestors, and what you can learn when you see your ancestors showing up as godparents of other people’s children.

Until then, I always welcome your thoughts, comments OR questions, so please feel free to share them in the comments box at the bottom of this article. And if your family are from Bleggio and you’re looking for help with your Trentini family tree, you are most welcome to drop me a line via the contact form on this site.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from Trentino Genealogy! Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at 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 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

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.

How Much Do You REALLY Know About Your Ancestors’ Names?

How Much Do You REALLY Know About Your Ancestors' Names
C. 1909. Anna Corona Onorati and her sister Rustica Fausta Onorati of Bono, Santa Croce del Bleggio. Rustica hated her first name, so she changed it to ‘Lena’ when she grew up. Few family members knew her actual birth name.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn talks about how our ancestors named their children, and gives tips for making sense of names in their often-confusing parish records.

Last time, we took a whirlwind tour around the many idiosyncrasies of the surnames of Trentino. I really just scratched the surface in that article, aiming simply to provide some rules of thumb when researching Trentini family names. Now, as promised at the end of that article, we’re now going to take a look at our ancestors’ FIRST and MIDDLE names. We’ll be looking at how our ancestors’ names changed when they migrated across the ocean, how and why parents chose names for their children, and crucial things to remember when working with old parish records (1500s – 1800s).

SIDENOTE: While I will be referring to my own research (with specific examples from Bleggio in Val Giudicarie), the basic principles I will share here are useful for ANYONE constructing their family history within countries that utilise parish records to record baptisms, marriages and deaths.

Name Changes After Migration

Most of you reading this probably have a family member who changed his/her first name after leaving Trentino for the Americas. If your grandfather was known as ‘Joe’ in America, chances are his birth name was the Italian equivalent, Giuseppe. Antonio would become Anthony or Tony, and Giovanni would become John. In my family, my grandfather was born Luigi, but he changed it to the English equivalent ‘Louis’ about ten years after he migrated (he also changed our surname from Serafini to Serafinn, as I discussed in the previous article).

While many first names were easily translatable into English, some names had no real English equivalent. When that was the case, people often changed their name to something that sounded like their Italian name, rather than a translation of it. That means your Uncle Ned and Auntie Mabel might actually have been Zio Nerino and Zia Amabile.

There are also cases where a person’s name bears hardly any resemblance to the original at all. For example, my father’s first name at birth was ‘Romeo’ – hardly a good name for an immigrant boy in early 20th century USA where ‘men were men’. So, he changed his name to something unquestionably masculine and ‘rugged’ – Ralph. Except for the first letter, it has nothing in common with his original name.

Some people changed their name simply because they didn’t LIKE their birth name. My great-aunt Rustica Fausta Onorati changed her name to ‘Lena’, solely because she hated the name Rustica! Unless you happened to know her birth name was actually Rustica (fortunately, I did), you would never find her in the parish records, as the two names bear no similarity to each other whatsoever.

TIP: I often come across family trees where a person is listed under their ‘adopted’ name rather than their birth name. Personally, I find this very confusing, and I think it can lead a researcher down many dark alleys. I believe it is always best practice to use the name a person was given at birth, and cite any aliases or name changes in your notes about that person. On Ancestry.com, for example, you can write these aliases in a field called ‘also known as’. You can also put them in the ‘person notes’ in software programmes like Family Tree Maker.

Keeping Names in the Family

These days, many parents go out of their way to find unusual names for their children. But most of our ancestors were named after elders – parents, grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides of the family. Knowing this can often help you identify family groups more easily when searching through old records. Just this week, my brain was going into a twist when I was trying to figure out which of two men named Eleuterio Parisi (born about the same time in the same village) was my 9x great-grandfather. The definitive clue was in the names of his children: his eldest son and daughter were named after his parents, Pietro and Maria.

This practice of keeping names in the family can even help you identify the order of children, as the first son was frequently named after their paternal (and, in some cases, maternal) grandfather.

Another common practice was to name a child after a family member had recently died. Sometimes this person was a wife of the father who may have died shortly after childbirth. I have seen many instances where the first daughter of a second marriage is named after the deceased first wife.

The deceased person could also be an older sibling. If you see a couple with three daughters named Margarita, it means the first two died in infancy or early childhood. My 2x great-grandfather was the fourth Matteo in his family, having had three older brothers, all called Matteo, who died shortly after they were born. In fact, of their 14 children, no more than 6 (and possibly only 3) of them lived long enough to have children of their own.

Click on the image below to see it larger.

Family group sheet of Alberto Serafini and Margherita Giuliani. Most of their 14 children died in infancy. My 2nd great-grandfather, Matteo Luigi, was the only one of 4 'Matteos' to survive to adulthood.
Family group sheet of Alberto Serafini and Margherita Giuliani. Most of their 14 children died in infancy. My 2nd great-grandfather, Matteo Luigi, was the only one of 4 ‘Matteos’ to survive to adulthood.

This brings up another important tip: if you find a birth record with the right name and parents, don’t immediately assume it is your ancestor. Keep looking ahead to locate the births of all children of that family, to see if there is a later child with the same name.

Ordinal Names

Something you might find amusing is that you occasionally see names that indicate which number this child was in the family. For example, boys’ names like Primo, Secondo, Ottavio and Decimo would indicate they were the first, second, eight and tenth born, respectively. While you might find these names less than ‘inspired’, they can be great clues in your research.

Spelling? There’s NO Such Thing!

In the previous article on surnames, I already mentioned that the concept of standardized spelling did not exist in Trentino until relatively recently. While surnames are affected greatly by this, first names are even MORE variable. Here are a few common examples (but the list is almost endless):

  • Bartolomeo, Bartholomeo, Bortholamio, Bortolo
  • Margarita, Margherita, Margaretha, Malgarita
  • Elisabetha, Elisabetta, Isabetta or Helisabeta
  • Cattarina, Chatarina, Catherina, Chatalina

See the previous article on surnames for a few general rules of thumb on how spelling can vary.

IMPORTANT: Always remember that variations in spelling do NOT indicate different people. The same woman might appear as ‘Isabetta Rochi’ in her birth record, but as ‘Elisabetha Rocche’ in her marriage record.

Brush Up Your LATIN!

If you work with parish records, you will discover that nearly ALL first and middle names tended to appear in their Latin forms until the 19th century. What’s interesting is that many Latin names actually look like English. You’ll see Joseph (for Giuseppe), Anthony (for Antonio) and Jacob or Jacobi (for Giacomo). Some Latin first names resemble German names, such as Johannes or Johann (for Giovanni) or Joachim (for Gioacchino). You’ll also see some fabulous old names like Hieronymus (for Girolamo) and Aloysius (for Luigi).

When looking at 19th century records, you might start to see the shift from Latin to Italianised spelling. For example, I’ve seen many an ‘Aloisio’ in early 19th century baptismal records who was later listed as ‘Luigi’ on his marriage record. If you’re not aware that this could be the SAME name (and same person), you might miss the record altogether.

Middle Names Are VERY Important

Before the 18th century, middle names were not commonly used, except in the case of noble families (which were more common than you might imagine). Later, especially from the 19th century onwards, giving a child one or more middle names became a more widespread practice. While the shift towards using middle names was probably seen as a practical means of distinguishing one person from another, it’s my belief that it was also a reflection of the shift in worldview spreading throughout Europe from the end of the 18th century, when beliefs about the importance of the individual and personal expressiveness were becoming increasingly popular.

In our modern, English-speaking culture, middle names are often seen as ‘extra’ names. But for the Trentini genealogist, middle names are extremely important when constructing your family tree, because some people come to be known exclusively by one of his/her middle names. For example, everyone in my family knew my great-grandmother as Europa. If you look at her marriage record, she is called Europa. If you look at her children’s birth records, she is called Europa. But if you try to look up Europa Parisi in the birth records, you won’t find her. Why? Because her birth name was Domenica Filomena Europa Parisi. That’s a mouthful!

Sometimes, you might know the name of the parent of a child, but you cannot find the parent’s birth record anywhere. A few weeks ago, I spent four hours looking for a man named Pietro, who was the father of about 10 children. After trawling through every possible baptismal record, I concluded that his birth name was Giovanni Pietro.

I’ve also seen many instances where a child’s baptism was registered in more than one parish, and the first and middle names were recorded in a completely different order in each of them. When such a thing happens, how can you possibly know which one is THE name of the child? The truth is, you can’t. Sometimes the priest will give you a clue by UNDERLINING the name by which the child will be known. But unless he was insightful enough to do this, you’ll find yourself without a clue of how this child came to be known until you dig further down the line to find their descendants. Also, if you are using transcriptions for your research, instead of images of the original parish records, you will never even be aware the priest underlined the preferred name (unless the transcriber was very thorough).

BOTTOM LINE: Using a middle name as one’s primary name is extremely common in Trentino. So, if the father of one of your ancestors is supposedly Luigi, but you cannot find a Luigi in the birth records, try looking for someone with the middle name of Luigi. (Incidentally, the ‘Matteo Luigi Serafini’ in the family tree above, WAS known as ‘Luigi’ throughout life, not Matteo.)

ABBREVIATIONS are Everywhere!

If you work with parish records, you will also encounter many abbreviations of first names. Sometimes these are just shortened versions of the name, such as Bortolo for Bortolomeo, or Gianbatta for Giovanni Battista. But other times, you will see actual abbreviations. You will frequently find Francesco and Domenico written as Fraco and Domco (‘co’ in superscript), and Francesca and Domenica as Fraca and Domca (‘ca’ in superscript). Similarly, Antonio will be abbreviated as Anto (superscript ‘o’) and Antonia as Anta (superscript ‘a’). Needless to say, you have to read very carefully to make sure you’re looking at the record for a male or a female.

One very common (but rather odd-looking) abbreviation is ‘Gua’, which stands for Giovanni. To make things even more confusing, you’ll see Latinized names abbreviated, such as Jo. Bapt for Giovanni Battista, or Domcus (‘cus’ in superscript) for ‘Domenicus’ instead of Domenico.

TIP: The words ‘figlio’ / ‘filius’ (meaning ‘son’) and ‘figlia’ / ‘filia’ (daughter) are almost always abbreviated as figo / figa,  fils / fila or simply fo / fa.

Click on the image below to see it larger.

Baptismal record from 1708 of Domenico Antonio Salizzoni of Cares in Bleggio. The priest has used Latin abbreviations for his first and middle names (using ‘cus’ in superscript), and Salizzoni is spelled with only one ‘z’.
Baptismal record from 1708 of Domenico Antonio Salizzoni of Cares in Bleggio. The priest has used Latin abbreviations for his first and middle names (using ‘cus’ in superscript), and Salizzoni is spelled with only one ‘z’. The word ‘filius’ (‘son of’) is abbreviated with ‘s’ in superscript.

The Link Between Names and WHERE Your Ancestors Lived

Being familiar with the names of the various frazioni (the tiny hamlets) in which your ancestors lived is also crucial to building your Trentini family tree. In a later article, I’ll talk more about frazioni and how they are tied to our ancestral roots. But for now, as we’re talking about first names, it’s relevant to mention that all parishes – and most frazioni – have their own church, and every church has its own patron saint.

It is not uncommon to see many people in a particular frazione or parish with the same first name because they are named after their local patron. For example, you’ll see a lot of boys named Felice in the frazione of Bono in Bleggio, where their patron is Saint Felice. Giustina is a common girls’ name in the frazione of Balbido (also in Bleggio), where Saint Giustina is the patron. On a parish-wide level, the boys’ name Eleuterio was extremely common in Bleggio during the 1500s, as St. Eleuterio was one of the patron saints of the parish at that time (the parish was not known as Santa Croce until after 1624). In the parish of Saone, I recently discovered a glut of boys named Brutius (Latin for Brizio), as their local patron is Saint Brizio.

Click on the image below to see it larger.

The 14th century church of San Felice in Bono, Bleggio.
The 14th century church of San Felice in Bono, Bleggio.

Proximity to Patron Saints’ Feast Days

Aside from village patrons, there are also patron saints for specific days. I came across a record for a Giorgio (George) who was born on April 23rd – the feast day of Saint George. I have seen more than one Giuseppe Maria (Joseph Mary) born during Christmas week. I also found a girl named Epifania born on the day of the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) and many baby girls named Pasqua around Easter time (Pasqua means Easter). Being aware of the various patron saints can help you understand why your ancestors may have been given their specific names.

Closing Thoughts

If you really want to find out who you are, it all starts with the names of your ancestors. Far more than simple designations, these names are drenched in meaning, culture and history. If you’re like me, sometimes you’ll find a particular name that draws you in and gets you really curious. Sometimes, you’ll find yourself loving this great-great-great-grandparent because of their wonderful name. These emotions are what give genealogy the power to connect us with our past and transport our ancestors into the present. If you haven’t yet started to trace your Trentini ancestry (and all the other ancestral roots you might have), I encourage you to make a start.

Coming Up Next Time…

Next time, I’ll be giving you tips on finding your FEMALE ancestors from Trentino. Finding your great-great-great-great-grandmother is not always as straight-forward as you might think! Drawing upon my own research for the ‘One Tree’ project, I’ll be sharing some of my very best ‘genealogical detective’ strategies for finding all the wonderful women who contributed to your DNA through the centuries.

I do hope you’ll subscribe to Trentino Genealogy blog (see the form on the top-right side of this page), to receive that and all future articles on this site.

Until then, I look forward to reading your comments or questions about this article below. And if you have any comments OR questions about Trentini genealogy, I cordially invite you to drop me a line via the contact form on this site.

I look forward to connecting.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from Trentino Genealogy! Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at 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 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

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.

What’s in a Name? A Short Tutorial on Trentini Surnames

1937 - Romeo Fedele Serafini (aka Ralph R. Serafinn), age 17
Born Romeo Fedele Serafini in 1919, my dad’s name changed to Ralph Serafinn around the time this shot was taken in 1937.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn shares tips for researching your Trentino family history, and tells what you need to know about your ancestors’ surnames.

When it comes to family history, all research springs from one thing: a NAME.

Our Trentini ancestors had wonderful names – rich in meaning, culture and history. Having a solid understanding of the names of Trentino is crucial to constructing an accurate picture of your family history. That’s why, over the next few articles on this blog, I’ll be looking at some of the idiosyncrasies of our ancestral names so you can more easily identify your ancestors in historical records, and have a better understanding our colourful heritage. In today’s article, we’ll be taking a look at cognomisurnames.

SIDE NOTE:  I’ve made a searchable database of Trentini surnames on this site. CLICK HERE to view it and see if your surname is currently on our “One Tree” project family tree. 

Changes to Surnames after Immigration

The first thing to remember is that many of our ancestors who immigrated to the Americas changed their surnames to make them sound less “foreign”. Surprisingly, some descendants might not even be aware this change occurred. Such was the case with me. When I was growing up, neither I nor many of my cousins knew our family name was actually Serafini. But after my dad died, I discovered our original name when I started digging into our family history. I even found the official change of name request my grandfather had filed in the 1930s. This meant that my dad had been known by the surname Serafini until he was in his late teens, but (for reasons unknown) he chose not to tell me. It was a bit of a shock to discover that something I had been told since childhood was an untruth. Be prepared for the possibility of unearthing a few of your own skeletons as you do your research!

Natural Evolution of Surnames Over Time

Prior to the 18th century, surnames were still in a state of evolution, and your surname will probably look very different the further back you go in time. One example is the surname Gusmerotti. This name is likely to be written as Gosmero or Gosmeri in records from the 1500s and early 1600s. This is because Gusmerotti comes from the masculine first name Gosmero plus the suffix -otti (meaning large).

Click on the image below to see it larger.

Santa Croce del Bleggio - Example of surname Gusmerotti spelled as Gosmeri in parish records
Santa Croce del Bleggio – Example of surname Gusmerotti spelled as Gosmeri in parish records

Another example is the surname Devilli. Prior to the 19th century, you will typically find it written as either “de Vigili” or simply Vigili. The term “vigili” refers to someone who keeps guard. As a name, it was first used to refer to specific branches of the military during the reign of the Prince Bishops. Thus, knowing the origins of your surname can sometimes give you a clue as to what some of your ancestors did for a living.

Latin Version of Names in Parish Records

Until the late 18th century, Latin was the language used in Trentini parish records, rather than Italian. While this practice was nearly always used in the spelling of first and middle names (which we’ll explore next time), it could occasionally also alter the spelling of surnames. One example is the surname Onorati, which was frequently written in its Latin forms, Honoraty, Honorati or Honorato.

Click on the image below to see it larger.

1596. Baptismal record of Francesco Onorati, son of Valerio and Giustina. The surname is spelled "Honorato".
8 Feb 1596. Baptismal record of Francesco, son of the noble Valerio Honorato (Onorati) of Bono and the lady Giustina. Santa Croce del Bleggio parish records.

Forget About Spelling!

Even after modern surnames began to “stick”, there was no concept of standardised spelling until relatively recently. For example, the surname Caliari can also appear as Calliari, Cagliari or Caliary.

Along the same lines as the Devilli example above, any kind of “conjunct surname” (one that was originally two separate words) could appear either as a single word or two separate words. For example, the name Daldos might show up as Dal Dos or Dal Doss.

Generally speaking:

  • Consonants in between vowels might be doubled or left single (Benassuti, Bennasuti, Bennassuti)
  • The letter “a” is often interchangeable with the letter “o” (Bonomi, Bonami)
  • The letter “e” is often interchangeable with the letter “i” (Rocche, Rocchi, Roche, Rochi)
  • A “g” can sometimes appear before an “ni” or “li” (Cagliari, Caliari, Benini, Benigni)

This flexibility means it is not uncommon to see different surname spellings in the birth, marriage and death records for members of the same family (or even for the same individual). So, it’s important to remember that variations in spelling do not normally indicate the person is from different family, as it would in modern English-speaking culture.

SIDE NOTE: Research become even more complex when you add to this the plethora of variations you will see in first and middle names (which we’ll look at next time)!

Surnames of Women in Trentino

When researching your female ancestors, you need to remember that women in Trentino do not take their husbands’ name when they marry, but retain their fathers’ surnames throughout their lives. So, when researching your female lines, don’t try to find them under their husbands’ names, as you won’t find them. Also, if you use software for your family tree, make sure it is set so it doesn’t automatically change the women’s surnames to their husbands’.

Soprannomi – A Blessing or a Curse for Family Historians

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning “soprannomi” (plural). A soprannome (singular) is an add-on or nickname sometimes given to one branch of a family to distinguish it from other branches. While saying “Giovanni son of Giovanni” can help distinguish that person from “Giovanni son of Pietro”, sometimes there are just too many Giovannis to know who is who. That is where a soprannome can be useful. For example, the branch of the Serafini family from which I am descended was given the soprannome “Cenighi”. This soprannome was chosen because Margherita Giuliani, the wife of my 4x great-grandfather Alberto Serafini, came from the village of Ceniga in Drò parish.

For the genealogist, a soprannome can be a blessing OR a curse. You might come across a baptismal, marriage or death record where the priest used ONLY the soprannome, omitting the person’s surname completely. When that happens, if you don’t know the soprannome (or you’re not paying attention) you might accidentally gloss over the record you’re looking for.

Coming Up Next…

BOOK: Guida cognomi del Trentino, by Aldo BertoluzzaI hope this article has got you interested in knowing more about all the wonderful Trentini surnames that make up your heritage. If you’d like to dive more deeply into the subject, there are many excellent books available in Italian. One I use almost on a daily basis is Guida Cognomi del Trentino by Aldo Bertoluzza.

Next time, we’ll be looking at things every family historian needs to know about our ancestors’ first and middle names. If you subscribe to Trentino Genealogy blog (see the form on the top-right side of this page), you’ll be sure to receive that article via email, along with all upcoming articles.

Until then, I look forward to reading your comments or questions below. And if you have any comments or questions, I cordially invite you to drop me a line with me via the contact form on this site.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from Trentino Genealogy! Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at 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 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

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.

Welcome to Trentino Genealogy by Lynn Serafinn

 

Serafini family in Brooklyn, 1928
Serafini family in Brooklyn, 1928. Luigi Serafini, Maria Onorati and their children came to the USA from Santa Croce del Bleggio after World War 1.

Author & genealogist Lynn Serafinn reveals the ancient roots of the Trentini people, and tells why she prefers the term ‘Trentini’ to ‘Italian’ or ‘Tyrolean’.

Welcome. My name is Lynn Serafinn. A quick hello to welcome you to my new blog, ‘Trentino Genealogy dot com’.

My late father, Romeo Serafini (later known as Ralph Serafinn) is the 9-year-old boy on the right side of the above photo. Romeo was born in the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio, in the Giudicarie Valley in Trentino, Italy in 1919. My genealogical research has shown that our ancestors were present in the Giudicarie at least as far back as the early 1500s, when parish records first were used to record births, deaths and marriages. In all likelihood, if older records existed, we’d probably learn that the roots of our family — and many hundreds of others — can claim ancestry in Trentino possibly for millenia.  In fact, archaelogists have unearthed many paleo-villages in the region, showing the that an argiculturally-based culture, much the same as our more recent ancestors, was present in this region at least as long as 4,000 years ago.

Earlier I referred to Trentino as ‘Italy’ because that is what it is today. However, for many centuries, up until the end of World War 1, Trentino was actually part of the Austrian (and later, Austro-Hungarian) Empire. In fact, many descendants of the Trentini who immigrated to America at the end of the 19th century (or the beginning of the 20th century) don’t think of themselves as Italians, but as ‘Tyroleans’, as Trentino used to belong to the old County of Tyrol. Today, however, it is part of Italy. As this can sometimes create a confusing sense of identify for those who are descended from Trentini immigrants, I prefer to use the term ‘Trentini’ rather than either ‘Italy’ or ‘Tyrolean’ to describe us, as I believe it transcends the political designations, and refers more our ancestors’ connection to the land itself.

In my opinion, the unique history and vibrant culture of the Trentini people make them a truly special people. In fact the more I study about ‘our people’, the more I come to love them and respect their values.

On this site, I will be sharing information, discoveries, videos, and tips on how to weave together the wonderful history of our Trentini ancestors.

I have been an avid blogger on other sites for many years, so I promise you some good stuff in the coming months. Until then, please feel free to contact me via the contact form on this website, if you would like to ask a question or discuss the possibility of working together.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from Trentino Genealogy! Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at 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 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

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.