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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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How Cemeteries Can Help Grow Your Family Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pros and Cons of Working with ‘Virtual’ Cemeteries

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

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

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

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

*** FREE RESOURCE ***

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

But while using Find-A-Grave was a great success on this project, the site does have its limitations.

  • All content on the site is provided solely by its users, so the data is as accurate or inaccurate as the people who enter it. TIP: If you see a mistake on a memorial in Find-A-Grave, you can (and should) send a suggested correction to the moderator of that page.
  • Not all cemeteries are listed. TIP: You CAN add a cemetery if it is missing (and I encourage you to do so), but be sure to check it isn’t already listed under a slightly different name.
  • Most cemeteries listed are in the United States. In fact, there are only a handful of cemeteries listed on Find-A-Grave from the province of Trento (CLICK HERE to see what they are). TIP: Again, I encourage you to add cemeteries you know in Trentino, but if you do, it is wise to enter them under their Italian name. Also, you MUST put ‘Provincia di Trento’ after the name of the comune, as that is how Find-A-Grave refers to and recognises locations in the province.

Limitations and Inaccuracies on Gravestones of Immigrants

While cemeteries can provide us with vital pieces of our ancestral puzzle, my observation of gravestones in our ancestors’ adopted countries (especially the US) is that:

  • They often lack detail. Frequently they only have the death date (sometimes only the year), without a date of birth (or at least the year). Even more rarely do they contain much information about who the person was in life, or about his/her relationship within the family.
  • They are full of mistakes. Information on gravestones is supplied by a surviving member of the family. Family members – especially children of immigrants – can be inaccurate about dates, names, etc. Back in their ‘old country’, the family would have had access to the original documents via their local parish priest. But without that historic connection to their place of birth, the family has no such stream of information. People who emigrated at a young age (or were BORN in their adopted country) will often mishear, misunderstand, mix up or COMBINE two places, names or events. This results in a muddle of mis-information and false beliefs that will always be some variation on the truth. My cousins, aunts, uncles – even my own parents – were all prone to these kinds of false beliefs. I had to do a LOT of unlearning, relearning and re-educating when I embarked on this genealogical journey.

Equally (and possibly MORE) prone to errors are the obituaries that may have been published in local newspapers. The original information is provided to the newspaper by the surviving family who, as I’ve already said, can frequently get things wrong. Then the newspapers themselves can (and often DO) compound the errors, especially when it comes to the spelling of names and places unfamiliar to them. Birth, marriage and arrival dates will often be wrong, as well. Hopefully they at least get the death date right!

Why There Are No Ancient Graves in Italian Cemeteries

Now, let’s cross the ocean and go back to the patria to have a look at cemeteries in Trentino (or anywhere in Italy).

One of the first things people comment on when they visit an Italian cemetery for the first time is the practice of putting photographs of the deceased on the gravestones. This can be an exciting discovery for the family historian, as they can finally put faces to some of the names they have been researching.

But once they get over that novelty, the next thing they notice – often with some amount of confusion and disappointment – is the ABSENCE of old gravestones. I mean, some of these parish churches go back over 700 years or more; surely we are going to find plenty of fascinating, ancient gravestones in their cemeteries, right?

Well…no.

Yes, you are likely to find old tombs of priests and patron families inside the church dating back many centuries, and you might also find a few older headstones for priests or patrons (perhaps from the 18th century) affixed to the outer walls of the church or perimeter wall of the cemetery. But other than these:

most gravestones are likely to be no older than about 80 years.

This is because, in many European countries, a coffin is exhumed at some point after burial and the skeletal remains are removed from the grave and placed in an ossuary – typically a box, building, well or wall. Then, the same grave is used to bury someone more recently deceased.

This removal of bones has nothing to do with religious practice, but with practical necessity: if everyone who ever died in the parish were put into a coffin and buried under their headstone forever, the space required for the dead would soon take over the land needed for the living.

Just what ‘at some point’ means seems vary in different parts of Italy. I recently read an account where a person’s grandfather’s remains were exhumed only 10 years after he died (the writer expressed some understandable distress). In my father’s parish, however, they appear to wait a couple generations before transferring the bones. That way, the spouse and children of the deceased (and probably most of the people who once knew the deceased in life) are also likely to have passed away. Certainly, this is a more sensitive arrangement.

SIDE STORY: Once when I was showing the underground crypt in Santa Croce to some American cousins, the lady who had unlocked the church for us found a small piece of (very old-looking) jawbone that had fallen out of the wall in a small alcove. She sheepishly whispered a request for us not to say anything about it to anyone, and she respectfully put the bone back into the wall. At the time, I thought she might have been worried teams of archaeologists would descend upon the church and tear it apart. Later, I realised this was probably the site of an ancient ossuary, and she may have wished to avoid upsetting anyone. The crypt itself is at least 1,000 years old, and it was built on the site of an older, Longobard (Lombard) church.

Parish Cemeteries vs. Frazioni Cemeteries

In larger parishes with many frazioni (hamlets) spread out over a wide area, you will often find small satellite churches serving these communities, some of which might have cemeteries of their own. In these cemeteries, you might get lucky and find a few older graves, especially if the family was prominent in that frazione.

For example, when I first went to the main parish cemetery for Santa Croce del Bleggio, I was disappointed not to find the graves of my Serafini great-grandparents, who died in the 1930s.  But when I visited the cemetery adjacent the little church of San Felice in the frazione of Bono, where my grandmother’s Onorati family had lived for many centuries, I found the graves of my Onorati great-grandparents who had died earlier, in the 1920s. I believe the reason may be partially due to the Onoratis’ historical prominence in Bono; but the frazione is also tiny, and the cemetery is not nearly as crowded as the main parish cemetery. Some frazioni cemeteries are even larger than the main parish cemetery.

Remember also that married women are most likely buried in the parish (or frazione) in which they lived with their husband. Unmarried women will most likely be buried in the parish (or frazione) in which they were raised. So, when you make your trip to Trentino, be sure to ask whether there is more than one cemetery in the parish. You might discover your ancestors in a place different from where you had expected.

How Women’s Names Are Recorded on Trentino Gravestones

Identifying women on gravestones can often be more challenging than identifying men, as the way they appear will vary according to culture.

For example, because women in the US, Britain and many other countries take the surname of their husband when they marry, they are nearly always referred to by their married names on their headstones when they die in their adopted homeland. In such a scenario, a woman’s gravestone might not be very useful for research, as it doesn’t offer much information about her origins.

In contrast, Italian women retain their maiden names throughout life, even if they have been married for decades. Thus, MOST of the time, a gravestone will give some sort of reference to both her maiden and married name.

There are three common conventions for recording a woman’s name on a headstone. Let’s look at each in turn.

‘Nata’ or ‘N.’ (indicating birth name)

Typically, if a woman is buried in the same plot as her married husband and/or children, she will be referred to by her married name, BUT it will usually have the word nata’ (or its abbreviation ‘N.’), which means ‘born’ (feminine gender).

Here is an example from the frazione of Balbido in Santa Croce del Bleggio. The family name is Riccadonna, and you can tell from the photo and the layout of the stone that we are looking at the grave of a husband (Cesare), wife (Colomba) and one of their children (a son named Danielle, born in 1926, although the date is hard to see behind the flowers). Below Colomba’s name it says ‘N. Brunelli’ (nata Brunelli); thus, her birth name is Colomba Brunelli.

Gravestone of Cesare Riccadonna and his wife Colomba Brunelli, Balbido cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino, Italy
Gravestone of Cesare Riccadonna and his wife Colomba Brunelli, Balbido cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino, Italy

Below is another clear example of ‘N.’, from the frazione cemetery in Tignerone in Santa Croce del Bleggio. This is the grave of Ersilia Bleggi, who was born Ersilia Gusmerotti in 1879:

1952: Grave of Ersilia Gusmerotti (married name Bleggi), Tignerone cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino, Italy
1952: Grave of Ersilia Gusmerotti (married name Bleggi), Tignerone cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino, Italy

Lastly, here is another example of ‘N.’ on an older, more weather-worn stone from the parish of Saone. On this stone, they have written the surname before the personal name, i.e. ‘Bondi, Catterina, nata Buganza,’ who ‘died on 20 February 1903 at the age of 60’:

1903 grave of Catterina Buganza (married name Bondi), Saone cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1903 grave of Catterina Buganza (married name Bondi), Saone cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
‘In’ (indicating married name)

Sometimes a woman’s birth name is given first, followed by her married surname prefixed by the word ‘in’. I have noticed this is most frequently used if the woman happened to be buried in the grave or tomb of her birth family (which could be in a different parish or frazione from her husband’s).

For example, the BIRTH name of the woman in the gravestone below is ‘Giustina Parisi’. But if you look beneath her name, it says ‘in Gasperini’. It’s a little worn, so the ‘I’ is a bit hard to see, but it is definitely ‘in’, not ‘n’. The surname is also partially worn off, but it is definitely Gasperini:

1974 grave of Giustina Parisi (born 1894), married name Gasperini, Tignerone cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1974 grave of Giustina Parisi (born 1894), married name Gasperini, Tignerone cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

Here is a clearer example of ‘in’ from an ossuary in the Cimitero Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery) in the City of Trento:

1958 Gravestone for Maria Parisi (born 1920), married name Pisetta, Trento Municipal (aka Monumental) Cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1958 Gravestone for Maria Parisi (born 1920), married name Pisetta, Trento Municipal (aka Monumental) Cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

VIDEO: See a video I took at the Cimitero Monumentale di Trento when I visited it in July 2018 (second on page).

‘Vedova’ ‘ved’ or ‘v.’ (indicating she was widowed)

If a woman’s husband predeceased her, she will be referred to as his widow (vedova in Italian) in records and on her headstone. In this case, the stone will give her birth name, followed by the word ‘vedova’, ‘ved.’ or simply ‘v.’, which is then followed by her late husband’s surname.

For example, this placard for Libera Bondi, widow of (someone named) Marchiori, was attached to the top of the family headstone in the parish of Saone in Val Giudicarie (I took this shot in 2016; it may have since been engraved):

2012 grave of Libera Bondi (born 1919), widow of Marchiori, Saone cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
2012 grave of Libera Bondi (born 1919), widow of Marchiori, Saone cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

The question, of course, is WHO is the late Mr. Marchiori? We’ll come back to that question in a moment.

This next stone is from Cimitero Monumentale in the City of Trento. In this case, the woman’s birth name was Anna Pegoretti and she was married to Giovanni Casotti, whose name is right above hers. You can see he predeceased her by more than three decades. The fact that Anna is cited as his widow indicates she never remarried (and was already almost 60 when her husband passed away):

1995 grave of Anna Pegoretti, widow of Giovanni Casotti, Trento Monumental cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1995 grave of Anna Pegoretti, widow of Giovanni Casotti, Trento Monumental cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

Gleaning Information and Identifying People You Don’t Know

None of the people whose gravestones I shared above are ancestors of mine. In fact, I took those photos out of a sense of curiosity rather than any specific investigative motive.

But as a genealogist, my natural curiosity often leads me to seek out details about a person I find on a gravestone, even if I don’t know them. When I do, I often discover I am connected to them in some unexpected way.

Let’s take Colomba Riccadonna, born Brunelli, from the first gravestone I showed you above. The stone says she was born in 1893.

As she was born between 1815 and 1923, I used the online database created by the Archivio di Trento called Nati in Trentino to find out who Colomba was. All I had to do is plug in her name and year of birth. Luckily, there was only one Colomba Brunelli born that year:

1893 baptismal record listing for Colomba Maria Brunelli, from Nati in Trentino online database.
1893 baptismal record listing for Colomba Maria Brunelli, from Nati in Trentino online database.

I also used Nati in Trentino to try to identify Cesare, but there were actually two Cesares born in 1887, so I needed to find their marriage record to learn which one he was. I also searched for additional children for the couple and found a daughter born in 1923. They probably had other children, but the online database doesn’t go past 1923.

When I entered Colomba into my tree, I discovered she was a distant cousin (7th cousin 1X removed). Not exactly a close relation, but you never know what such a connection might lead to later.

I used the same process to discover the birth information for Ersilia Gusmerotti, Giustina Parisi and Catterina Buganza, and discovered:

  • ERSILIA was my 7th cousin 2X removed.
  • GIUSTINA was my 3rd cousin 2X removed.
  • CATTERINA was the great-grandmother of one of my clients. I hadn’t planned it that way; I just happened to have taken the photo when I was in Saone on a previous trip. Las month, when I was working on that client’s tree, I looked through my photo archive and discovered I had a picture of her great-grandmother’s grave.

You never really know who or what you will discover when you start taking photos of random gravestones. I could never have predicted a photo I took a couple of years ago would end up being the great-grandmother of one of my future clients. But my client was thrilled to see the photo, as she’s never been to Saone, and this took her closer to her roots.

Family Groups on Trentino Gravestones

Many gravestones in Trentino will contain names from an entire family group. To demonstrate this, let’s go back to the widowed Libera Bondi and look at the full image of the stone on which she appears:

Grave for the family of Modesto Marchiori and Elisabetta Bondi, Saone, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
Grave for the family of Modesto Marchiori and Elisabetta Bondi, Saone, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

The primary surname on this stone is MARCHIORI, and the patriarch is Modesto, on the left. To his right, we see ‘Elisabetta Marchiori, born Bondi’. Looking at the dates, we can ASSUME Elisabetta was Modesto’s wife. Of course, we would need to verify that with documentation (I already have, and they were indeed husband and wife).

Moving down the stone, we come to Giuseppe (born 1910) and Antonio (born 1912), with no surname mentioned. The omission of a surname implies they share the same family surname, i.e. Marchiori. Again, looking at the dates, we might guess that Giuseppe and Antonio were the sons of Modesto and Elisabetta. To verify this theory, I looked them up on Nati in Trentino. Sure enough, I found them listed amongst Modesto’s and Elisabetta’s children, along with several other siblings.

But now we have the question of the two women: Emilia (born Biancotto) and Libera (born Bondi). We can assume they were probably married to these two sons. But who was married to whom?

While there is no online resource to answer this question, I was fortunate enough to have access to the family anagraphs for Saone for this era when I was doing research in Trento recently, where I found this entry for Modesto’s family:

Anagraph for the family of Modesto Marchiori (born 1867), Saone parish records, Archivio Diocesano di Trento, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy.
Anagraph for the family of Modesto Marchiori (born 1867), Saone parish records, Archivio Diocesano di Trento, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy.

Anagraphs (called ‘Stato delle Anime’, or ‘State of Souls’ when they appear in the parish records) are records of family groups and contain a wealth of information, including dates of birth, confirmation, marriage and death. They can also include the names of the spouses in the annotations column at the right. In most places, anagraphs were started in the mid to late 19th century. The various comuni also started recording them in the 19th century, maintaining them at the registry of anagraphs; but so far, I have only dealt with those kept by the church.

In the ‘Annotazioni’ (annotations) column in the anagraph above, the priest has recorded that Giuseppe was married to Libera Bondi and Antonio was married to Emilia Biancotto, with dates of their respective marriages (I know it’s difficult to read here, but I have a larger, full-colour image on my computer that shows it more clearly).

So, while the gravestone didn’t give us all the information we needed, it certainly pointed us in the right direction, giving us clues about what we should look for next. Thus, it was a crucial part of our research.

As it turns out, this family group are ALSO related to my afore-mentioned client, as Elisabetta (Elisa) Bondi was the daughter of her great-grandmother Catterina Buganza, and sister of her grandfather. In other words, Elisa was her great-aunt. Tracing this family helped me identify many of her close cousins.

How Gravestones Can Reveal More Than Just Dates

If you analyse every aspect of a gravestone, you will often find it contains a lot more information than dates alone. Sometimes you can discover a person’s occupation, gain insight into their personal character, or get a feeling for their relationship with their family and community.

On a recent visit to Cimitero Monumentale in the City of Trento, I took dozens of photos of graves, many of which contained clues about the kinds of people who had been laid to rest. Here are two highlights:

1933 ossuary gravestone for Secondo Bertoldi, pharmacist, Trento Monumental cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1933 ossuary gravestone for Secondo Bertoldi, pharmacist, Trento Monumental cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

This photo is of the ossuary memorial for a man named Secondo Bertoldi. The stone tells us he was born in Lavarone on 20 Aug 1872 and died in Trento on 20 Feb 1933 (Roman numerals are used for the months). But it also tells us he was a chemist/pharmacist (here in England, pharmacists are also called chemists, but the term is not generally used in the US). Additionally, it says he was a ‘fervent patriot’, and that he lived his life in a loving way and by doing good. It also says that his wife, Anna Maria Bosetti, arranged for this stone to be laid as a ‘loving and tearful memory’ of Secondo. All these words give us a much richer picture of who Secondo was than what we might have learned from documents alone.

Sometimes even the most minimal of headstones can lead to a potentially interesting story. Here’s another photo I took in the ossuary at the Trento cemetery:

Ossuary gravestone for sisters Maria and Giuseppina Vitti of Trento, who died in 1968 and 1974. Cimitero Monumentale di Trento, Trento, Trentino Alto-Adige, Italy
Ossuary gravestone for sisters Maria and Giuseppina Vitti of Trento, who died in 1968 and 1974. Cimitero Monumentale di Trento, Trento, Trentino Alto-Adige, Italy

The stone merely says ‘Vitti Sisters’, and then gives their first names and years of birth/death. A quick search on Nati in Trentino told me that Giuseppina (born 27 Aug 1888) and her sister Maria (born 15 Oct 1890) were both born in the city of Trento in the parish of Santi Pietro e Paolo (Saints Peter and Paul), and were the only two daughters of Andrea Vitti and Santa Tommasi. The sisters also had two brothers, but I don’t know anything other than their dates of birth.

Apart from this, I know nothing at all about this family. But the fact that these two sisters – both of advanced age (78 and 86) – were laid to rest in the same grave AND they were referred to by their birth names leads me to theorise that neither sister married. It also leads me to think they were probably very close throughout their lives. While these are just my own guesses based solely on what I am seeing in the stone, these guesses might help point me in the right direction if I were to research this family in depth.

Expanding Your Research and Leaving a Legacy

Whether you are planning a visit to a local cemetery, or you are hoping to visit some cemeteries when you are in Trentino, be sure to bring a camera and photograph as many graves as you can, even if you have no clue WHO the people are. If the cemetery is very large – or if the thought of dealing with all those photos is a bit overwhelming – focus on photographing stones containing one or two specific surnames.

And remember, when in Trentino, don’t just visit the main parish cemetery; ask if there are other cemeteries in the frazioni where your ancestors may have lived.

Don’t worry about trying to make sense of who is who when you are taking your photos. That will only slow you down and make it less enjoyable. Look at your trip as a kind of ‘treasure hunt’ where your mission is to get as many good photos as you can. Be sure to get the WHOLE stone in your photo, so you can see all the words in context. They may not mean anything to you now, but they may mean something important later.

And don’t forget that graves in Italy don’t stay around forever. A few years from now…

your photo might end up being the only tangible evidence of a person’s grave,
as the remains and headstone for that person may soon be moved – or removed altogether.

Consider SHARING your images on your tree on Ancestry, as well as on Find-A-Grave. That way, you are not only helping yourself, but also making it easier for OTHER Trentini descendants to find the graves of their own family members. Your photo might mean the world to a complete stranger many years from now.

BRIGHT IDEA: Perhaps we could create a ‘virtual party’ for the purpose of creating all the Trentini cemeteries on Find-A-Grave and entering our family’s memorials on there. We could use our Trentino Genealogy Facebook group to coordinate it. What do you think?

I hope this article has helped you understand more about interpreting gravestones in Trentino, and has also inspired you to go out and start recording as many Trentino graves as you can – as soon as possible, before they disappear.

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

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento is from 21 Oct 2018 to 15 Nov 2018.
If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site.
Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

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

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.

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.