CLOZ in Val di Non: History, Parish Records, Local Surnames

CLOZ in Val di Non: History, Parish Records, Local Surnames

History, Inventory of Parish Records, Surnames of Cloz. Part 5 of ‘Trentino Valleys, Parishes and People Guide for Genealogists’ by Lynn Serafinn.

In the first article of this special series on the valleys, parishes and parish registers for the province of Trento, we looked how the province of Trento (aka Trentino) and the diocese of Trento were organised, and how those levels of organisation differ. In articles 2-4, we looked specifically at the decanato (deanery) of the city of Trento, i.e. its history, frazioni, parishes, surnames, and local occupations.

Today, we move on to the first of a series of articles I will be writing on VAL DI NON, in the northern part of the province. As a reminder, here is a map I shared with you back in the first article in this series, showing the various valleys of Trentino. I have highlighted Val di Non (number 18) in YELLOW. You can see its relative position to the city of Trento, which is ‘0’ on the map.

Val di Non in the Province of Trento (Trentino)

 

Click on image to see it larger

This map was taken from the book Toponomastica Trentina: I Nomi delle Località Abitate by Giulia Mastrelli Anzilotti (2003). If you wish to review my earlier article about Trentino valleys, you can find it here:

MORE READING:   Trentino Valleys, Parishes and People. A Guide for Genealogists.

TODAY’S SPOTLIGHT: CLOZ

Val di Non covers a very large area and contains many parishes. It would be impossible to discuss all these parishes all in a single article in any detail. Thus, I have decided to spotlight these parishes in separate articles.

Today’s spotlight is the village/parish of Cloz. I chose to start with Cloz only because I just finished working on project for one of my clients, where most of the families came from Cloz, and this parish is fresh in my mind.

In today’s article, I will cover:

  • The geographical location of Cloz within the province, and in relation to other parishes/comuni.
  • A brief history of the village/parish, including a look at the Carta di Regola of 1550.
  • My own commentary on the state of the parish records for Cloz, including start years, how they are organised, where you will find gaps, etc.
  • An exploration of the most common surnames of the parish, i.e. their linguistic and historic origins in the parish, including some that no longer exist.

Armed with this information, my hope is you will have a practical toolkit to help you along with your genealogical research, when looking for ancestors in the parish of Cloz.

RESEARCH RESOURCES

My primary resource are the parish registers for Cloz. These have been digitised by the archdiocese of Trento, and were also microfilmed by the Church of Latter Day Saints. I will discuss these in detail later in the article.

Secondary sources, of which there are many, including research by other historians, are listed under ‘REFERENCES’ at the end of this article.

ALL of these sources are written in either Latin or Italian, so anything you read here will be my own translations of the original texts.

WHERE CLOZ IS LOCATED IN VAL DI NON

At an elevation of 791 metres above sea level, Cloz is located near the Novella River, a few miles northeast of Lago di Santa Giustina, at the base of a kind of ‘land fjord’ (my word) in Val di Non, where a sliver of the province of Bolzano/South Tyrol juts into Trentino.

I have highlighted Cloz in YELLOW in the map below (again, the original map, without highlighting, was taken from the book by Giulia Mastrelli Anzilotti):
MAP: Cloz in Val di Non, province of Trentino in northern Italy.

Click on image to see it larger

According to historian Enzo Leonardi on page 370 of his book Anaunia: Storia della Valle di Non, Cloz covers a territory of 833 hectares, which is only about 3.2 square miles. At the time he wrote that book in 1985, he says the village then had 731 inhabitants; he adds that Cloz had 1,002 in 1915, and 883 in 1837. Thus, the population rose towards the end of the 19th century, but then dropped by 30% after World War 1, surely due to emigration (including to the US). The latest population statistics for Cloz from December 2019 show there are only 654 people living there.

Because of downward population trends (especially in rural areas), civil municipalities in Trentino are frequently changing, so as to make them more practical.

Leonardi says the municipalities of Cloz and Castelfondo were aggregated into the pre-existing comune of Brez in 1928, but it was later reconstituted into an autonomous municipality in 1946. Just this year, however (on 1 January 2020), Cloz, Brez, Cagnò, Revò and Romallo were all merged to form the new municipality of Novella, one of the twenty-nine mergers of municipalities in Trentino-Alto Adige.

TIP: Focus on Parishes, not Municipalities

Because civil jurisdictions are so ‘fluid’ in Trentino (and indeed throughout all of Italy), a Trentino genealogist needs to focus on PARISHES rather than comuni, as they change far less frequently, and often remain the same (or more or less the same) for many centuries.

TIP: Pay Attention to Adjacent Parishes

If you are tracing ancestors from Cloz, you might discover many marriages where the spouses came from adjacent parishes, especially Revò (including Romallo), Dambel, Arsio e Brez, Rumo, and Cavareno, as these parishes ‘embrace’ Cloz on all sides.

Conversely, if you are tracing ancestors from one of these other parishes, and you cannot find a marriage record for them, you might wish to check the Cloz records, especially if you know the spouse has a typical Cloz surname, which we will explore later.

Also, it was not uncommon for spouses of Cloz residents to come from places like Lauregno and Proves, which are today part of the province of Bolzano/South Tyrol, as these places used to be part of the greater parish of Revò in the distant past.

HISTORIC OVERVIEW AND ORIGIN OF THE NAME ‘CLOZ’

Cloz has been inhabited for many thousands of years, as evidenced by a multitude of archaeological artefacts, some dating back to the Neolithic period and Bronze age. Findings include roman urns, knives, coins, various bronze and silver artifacts, gold rings, necklaces and earrings, and many tombs, some dating back to the Roman era of years.

The name of the village is at least 1200 years old. According to Leonardi, Mastrelli and Giangrisostomo Tovazzi (Parochiale Tridentinum published in 1785), the name ‘Cloz’ can be found in various forms in records dating back to Middle Ages, with the earliest version de Clauze appearing in a legal document from the year 845. The spellings ‘Cloz’ and ‘Clauz’ appear in legal documents in the 1180s. Tovazzi says other spellings include Clotz, Clozzo, and Chioz.

Apparently, the spelling of the name was even problematic for German speakers, an investiture of tithes from Prince Bishop Giorgio Hack, 15 May 1447, spells it ‘Glawcz’!

In Latin texts, the most common form of the name is ‘Clautium’, but it can also be found written as Clodium, Clotienses, and Clotium. Linguistically, Mastrelli believes the name is derived from ‘Claudius’ (the Latin form of the male personal name ‘Claudio’), saying also that ‘Brez’ is derived from Braetius, ‘Spor’ from Spurius, and ‘Mori’ from Marius.

Leonardi tells us there were once two castles in Cloz. Castel Fava, the ruins of which still stand, dates back to the 1100s and was so-called for the family of the same name. Leonardi says there was once a castle named Castel Cloz, but that we know nothing about it.

The village is divided into two districts: Santa Maria and San Stefano, the names of their respective churches; in terms of record-keeping, however, Cloz is a single parish, not two.

The church of San Stefano is mentioned in documents as far back as 1183, but the original structure was completely rebuilt around 1440. It was later restored and renovated in 1575, and then expanded in 1772 and again in 1873.

The church of Santa Maria (possibly Maria Maddalena) is mentioned in records dating back to 1485. It was restored in 1616 and again in 1889.

According to Dr Albino Casetti in his Guida Storico – Archivistica del Trento, the parish archives contains several legal documents that can add to our understanding of the local history. For example, there is a series of documents in the years 1412-1415 in which the village of Cloz is engaged in disputes over boundaries issues and resource usage (including a the ‘malghe’, i.e. the dairies) with the villages of Rumo, Cagnò, Revò Romallo, Tregiovo and Lauregno. They seem to have resolved their disputes in 1415.

1550 CARTA DI REGOLA FOR CLOZ

In the past, many (if not most) Trentino communities would create a ‘Carta di Regola’ (‘charter of rules’) for their parish or village, which defined many rules regarding tithing, resource use, calendar of events, etc.

The earliest surviving Carta di Regola for the village of Cloz was drafted on 8 February 1550. Its transcription appears in the 3-volume set by Fabio Giacomoni called Carte di Regola e Statuti delle Comunità Rurali Trentine (1991). What is of special interest to genealogists when studying the Carte de Regola (‘Carte’ = plural form) is that many of the heads of households of the community will be present at the drafting of the document, and their names will have been recorded. Thus, the opening lines of most Carte di Regola can often give us a snapshot of the local population during that era, telling us what surnames were present in the village at the time. They can also sometimes help us identify ancestors whose name may not appear in the parish registers, because the Carta will often mention the names of the fathers of those who were present.

In the case of Cloz, here is a summary of the names of the men who were present on 8 February 1550 (rarely will you see the names of women, unless they were heiresses or land-owning widows):

Where the document was drafted:

  • It took place in the house of Francesco Cat
  • In the presence of Antonio, son of the late Francesco Cat of Cloz

Witnesses from the district of Santa Maria:

  • Bartolomeo, son of the late Angelo Bugnata
  • Romedio, son of the late Nicolo’ Zembrin (Gembrini)
  • Bartolomeo, son of the late Giacomo Cat
  • Dorigho, son of the late Pietro Rauzi.

Witnesses from the district of Santo Stefano:

  • Melchiore Calovino
  • […] son of the late Simone Franco (Franch)
  • Simone, son of the late Pietro Zanon
  • Stefano Carolet

From this information, we can see the following surnames as representing ‘citizens’ of Cloz in 1500: Bugnata, Calovino, Carolet (although I believe this is actually Casolet), Cat, Franch, Zembrin (more commonly spelled Gembrin or Gembrini), Rauzi and Zanon. This is useful information, as it predates the beginning of the surviving parish registers.

TIP: Carta di Regola

If you want to know more about Carte di Regola, with some interesting historical examples of how they were used, you might wish to check out my podcast from 7 April 2020 when I spoke about this topic.  You can find it on the PODCASTS page on this website, or on YouTube at  https://youtu.be/BVEADrtNeI4

RESEARCH: THE PARISH REGISTERS FOR CLOZ

The table below displays the surviving parish registers for Cloz, as per the original books, as well as how they are divided in the LDS microfilms:

PARISH REGISTERLDS MICROFILM NO.MICROFILM ITEMCONTENTS
Baptisms vol 1-61388654Parts 12-17Baptisms: 1565; 1599-1923
Marriages vol 1-61388654Parts 18-23Marriages: 1672-1923
Deaths vol 1-41388654Parts 24-27Deaths: 1662-1923
All'Estero vol 11388654Part 28All'estero (outside of province) births, marriages and deaths: 1845-1923

Sadly, there are many gaps in the Cloz parish records, as well as several cases where the records not organised chronologically. These factors have made the research particularly challenging. Recent research has also led me to conclude that some records are DEFINITELY missing.

Below is an overview of what I discovered about the state of the records for the parish of Cloz, while working on a recent project.

BAPTISMAL RECORDS

  • Although Casetti says the parish of Cloz has 7 volumes of baptisms starting in 1565, on LDS microfilm (and digital format in Trento) there are actually 6 registers, plus an additional BDM from ‘all’estero’ (abroad).
  • In volume 1, there are only 2 baptismal records for 1565, one for 1566 (surnames Catt and Zanon), and then they leap forward 33 years to 1599, which is the year they effectively begin.
  • In 1628, the baptismal records suddenly switch from straight chronological to sections organised by FIRST NAME. This means you pretty much have to look through all of the records if you want to find anyone, as you have no way of knowing whether they used a middle name as their primary name later in life.
  • After 1674, the baptismal records resume chronological order.
  • The baptismal records toward the end of volume 2 (late 1700s into early 1800s) are a MESS. There are many DUPLICATE records, sometimes with conflicting information, and the records are not always in chronological order.
  • Early 19th century baptisms are VERY scanty on information, often only giving the parents’ names and nothing else.
  • Volume 3 of baptisms has a note saying the record of births between 1811-1815 are in the ‘new book’ because that was when it was under the government of Italy, and then it went back to Austria. On the cover of volume 3, it says you will find the baptisms from 1811-1816 in the marriage protocol. This does NOT refer to the marriage records, but to the “Protocollo dei consensi prestato al matrimonio dal padre di sposi minorenni” (a book containing all the consent protocols given by fathers of spouses who were of minority age). This book has NOT yet been photographed; hence the following baptisms are currently NOT available in digital or microfilm format: one record from 16 November 1805; one record from 18 December 1808, and all baptisms between 6 January 1811 and 26 December 1815. This might attribute for the discrepancy between Casetti’s figure of 7 volumes and the 6 volumes that were photographed.

MARRIAGE RECORDS

  • There are 6 volumes of marriage records starting in 1672.
  • Marriages between 1811-1815 are not in volume 3 where they should be, but at the end of volume 2, after 1803. This is also indicated by a notice in volume 3, at the point where the 1811 marriages would normally be expected.
  • There is a short gap in the marriages between July 1803-Dec 1804.
  • Although there is no mention of additional missing records, I am certain several records are also missing circa 1800-1802.

DEATH RECORDS

  • There are 4 volumes of deaths starting in 1662.
  • There do not appear to be ANY death records for infants/children in most of the 1700s.
  • There are very few records between 1780-1798, and I suspect many are missing.
  • As with the baptismal records, some of the death records have not yet been photographed, and thus they are not yet available in digital or microfilm format. The gaps in the death records goes from 4 January 1805 (although I think it actually starts in 1804) and 23 January 1811, and again between 4 January 1816 and 9 November 1825.

ABOUT THE MISSING VOLUMES

I wrote to the archives in Trento about the missing volumes, and they told me that they HOPE to be able to get hold of those registers and photograph them, but they haven’t given me a timeframe for when that might happen. Until then, be aware that you will not find every Cloz record you might wish to find, especially during the Napoleonic era.

SIDE NOTE: Although I mention the LDS microfilms, the LDS Family History Centres have stopped making their microfilms available to the public, as they gradually transfer their libraries into digital format. After they are digitised, you will only be able to view them at a local Family History Centre, not online. However, all of these records were digitised by the Diocese of Trento more than a decade ago, and they are viewable at their archives in the city of Trento (again, not online). Over the years, I have managed to collect many thousands of Trentino parish records, which has enabled me to work from home on many (but not all) projects. This has proved especially fortunate – for me and my clients – during the recent COVID lockdowns and travel restrictions.

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SURNAMES IN THE PARISH OF CLOZ

What I find so interesting (and wonderful) about Trentino surnames is that the names themselves contain stories about our ancestors. They can tell us things like the name of an ancient patriarch, a family occupation, a physical characteristic, or a place from which the family may have come.

Moreover, surnames are often associated with specific parishes, municipalities, or even hamlets (frazioni).

Below is an alphabetical list of surnames I’ve found in the records for Cloz, along with a bit about their meaning and history. While some of these surnames will appear in other parishes, a few of these are unique to Cloz, or are at least most commonly found there.

PLEASE NOTE:

  1. You will notice I use the word ‘patronymic’ in connection to many surnames. This term refers to a surname that has been derived from the personal name of a male head of family (i.e. a ‘patriarch’).
  2. Please note that there ARE other surnames in the parish, but I haven’t included surnames that appear to have been ‘imported’ from other parishes (especially Brez and Revò) sometime after the beginning of Cloz records. The surnames I have NOT mentioned here include (but are not limited to) Clauser, Dalpiaz, Gentilini, Leonardi, Luchi, Ongher, Menghini, Vielmi and Zuech.
  3. There is also a name ‘Taialargo’ that appears frequently in the early Cloz records, but then went extinct. I am still trying to ascertain if this was a proper surname or a For now, I have omitted that name as well, as I just don’t know enough about it.

Angeli

Variants: Agnol; Agnoi; dell’Agnol; (also spelled Anzelini, but NOT in Cloz)

The surname Angeli is generally believed to be a patronymic (derived from the first name of a patriarch/male head of the family) name Angelo, which can also be found spelled ‘Agnol’ in older records.

The personal name Angelo means ‘angel’ in Italian, but its original Greek meaning is ‘messenger’ or ‘messenger or God’. Like many other patriarchal surnames, it appears in various parts of the province, and is not necessarily historically connected to the others. The spelling ‘Anzelini’, is never found in Cloz, for example; rather, it is seen primarily in Brez.

It is interesting to note that Angeli does not appear in the 1500 Carta di Regola for Cloz.

My research has led me to speculate that the Cloz surname may have arisen from a branch of the Bugnati family, possibly descended from a patriarch named Angelo (emphasis on the word ‘speculate’ here!). Indeed, I have found many Angeli boys baptised with the name Angelo in the 17th-century records in Cloz. There are several baptismal records from the first decade of the 1600s,   the earliest being the baptism of Angelo on 20 October 1602, where the surname is ‘dell’Agnol detto or di Bugnati’ (side note: earlier I mentioned the elusive name ‘Taialargo’; Notice the godfather is ‘Pietro Taialargo di Franch’): 

1602 baptismal record of Angelo Angeli of Cloz

Click  on image to see it larger

Normally, such wording would mean the surname was ‘dell’Agnol’ and the soprannome was Bugnati; but as Bugnati appears to predate Angeli as a surname in Cloz, it might indicate that they were a branch of the Bugnati, who were now calling themselves ‘dell’Agnol’. By the end of the 1600s, the surname nearly always appears as ‘Angeli’.

In his book Sacerdoti della Diocesi di Trento dalla sua Esistenza Fino all’Anno 2000, P. Remo Stenico lists dozens of priests with the surname Angeli, hailing from various parts of the province. The earliest of those from Cloz is Giacomo Angeli (spelled ‘del’Agnol’ in his baptismal record), who was born in Cloz on 15 March 1659, and died on 9 November 1724 at the age of 65.

Bugnata

Variant: Bugnati

As already mentioned, this surname was already present in Cloz at the time of the drafting of the 1550 Carta di Regola.

In his book Guida ai Cognomi del Trentino, linguistic historian Aldo Bertoluzza does not mention the surname Bugnata or Bugnati. He does, however, discuss the root ‘Bugna’ (which is also a surname, but not in Cloz), saying it might be derived from a dialect word meaning a pimple or a boil, or any kind of swelling caused by an injury. I suppose it’s like the English word ‘bunion’. He also says it there was an ancient personal name ‘Bugna’ (perhaps with the same meaning?) from which the surname might be derived.

This surname appears to have gone extinct sometime in the 1700s. The most recent baptismal record I found with this surname is a Maddalena Bugnata, who was born 29 April 1699, although I haven’t studied the registers in enough detail to say she was definitely the last of them.

Calovini

Variants: Calovino; Callovini; Calovin

As mentioned, this surname was already present in Cloz at the time of the drafting of the 1550 Carta di Regola; I have found it in Cloz records at least through the end of the 1600s. The earliest surviving parish record I have found with this surname is the baptismal record of Maddalena, daughter of Giovanni Pietro ‘Calovino’ and his wife Cattarina, dated 31 March 1599.

1599 baptismal record of Maddalena Calovini of Cloz, Trentino.

Click on image to see it larger

Despite its ancient connection with Cloz, Leonardi cites it as being a surname associated with Fondo, not Cloz. Indeed, none of the variant forms appear in Cloz in the 19th century records on the Nati in Trentino website, so it appears to have gone extinct  there sometime before the early 1800s.

Bertoluzza offers little about the history or meaning of this surname, saying only that its origins are uncertain. It is tempting to speculate a connection with the village of Calavino, but as ‘Calo-‘ and ‘Cala-‘ are not pronounced the same in Italian, and Calavino is on the other side of the province in Valle di Cavedine, I would be hesitant to jump to that conclusion without some concrete evidence.

Canestrini

Variant: Canestrin; Chenistrino

Bertoluzza says this surname originated in Val di Non, and is derived from the word canestro or canestra, which meansbasket’, and that it probably started as a soprannome referring to artisans who made cesti, cestelli, corbe e panieri (various kinds of baskets). It appears not only in Cloz (I have found it in Cloz records throughout most of the 1600s) but also in Revò. By the 19th century, it also appears in Rovereto.

Leonardi seems to indicate the surname was not native to Cloz came there via a Vincenzo Canestrini of Romallo around 1645, but I have found evidence their arrival in Cloz is further back, and their place of origin is from much farther away.  

Admittedly, it’s a bit tricky to trace them because the surname doesn’t actually APPEAR in the earliest records in Cloz, and you have to cross-reference many records a bit to figure out who they are.

It all starts with a man referred to many times as ‘Maestro Vincenzo Murador/Murator’ (muratore), whose children start appearing in the baptismal records in the early 1600s. The first of these, dated 4 November 1602, was a Maria. In that record, her father Maestro Vincenzo is said to come from ‘Valcamonega’ (Valcamonica) but is living in Cloz.

1602 baptismal record of Maria Canestrini of Cloz, daughter of Vincenzo of Valcamonica

Click on image to see it larger

The alpine valley of Valcamonica is not in Trentino at all; rather, it straddles to provinces of Bergamo and Brescia in eastern Lombardia. The word ‘muratore’ means ‘mason’ and the fact he is referred to as ‘Maestro’ indicates these two men were master masons (a highly respected craft), and not merely a lowly bricklayers.

As we progress through the records, we finally see the surname Canestrini in 1619, with the birth of a Maddalena, daughter of Domenico ‘Chinestrin’, murador (I believe he was an elder son of Vincenzo). From this point on, we see the surname Canestrini always connected to this same family of master builders. In the death record of Vincenzo’s son Giovanni on 7 October 1662, he is referred to as ‘Giovanni Canestrini, ‘faber cementarius’, which again means a master builder/mason. In the 1630s up to 1670, there are numerous baby boys called ‘Vincenzo Canestrini’ born to men who are apparently sons (or grandsons) of the original Vincenzo of Valcamonica.

So, if you are descended from the Canestrini of Cloz, know that you have Lombardian roots. When working with the records, if the surname seems to disappear, look for references to their occupation as builders, and you should be able to trace them.

Stenico lists many Cloz priests with this surname, the earliest being Guglielmo Canestrini (probably the Guglielmo who was born 25 January 1684), who appears in parish records between 1715-1742. Bertoluzza also mentions an Antonio Canestrini of Cloz (1743-1807), who was a prominent biologist.

The name is still extant in Cloz today, although it is actually more commonly found outside the province, especially in Emilia-Romagna.

Casolet

Variants: Casoletti; Carolet

Giacomini says the surname ‘Carolet’ appears in the 1550 Carta di Regola, but I believe this was a mistake in transcription, as the surname is quite clearly ‘Casolet’ in the Cloz parish records, from the early 1600s. We also find it amongst the archives of the Thun family, in a legal document dated 14 December 1517 referring to two brothers named Bartolomeo and Stefano Casolet of Cloz.

Bertoluzza says that the words Casol, Casolin and Casolet were once the names of a type of cheese that was typical in Val di Sole, and that from these words we get various surnames.

Again, this surname appears to have gone extinct, although I haven’t researched it in enough detail to say when it disappeared or if it morphed into something else.

Catt

Variants: Cat; Catti

As seen, the surname Catt appears as far back as the 1550 Carta di Regola. It is also the surname of the child (Cattarina) in the earliest of the surviving baptismal records for Cloz, dated 20 December 1565.

1565. Baptismal record of Cattarina Catt, the earliest surviving baptismal record for the parish of Cloz in Trentino, northern Italy.

Click on image to  see it larger

Now extinct, the surname Catt appears in Cloz records at least through the 1630s, but I haven’t researched it in enough depth to say whether it was replaced by another name or simply died out. I can find no information about the origin or meaning of the surname in any of my resources.

Cescolini

Variant: Cescolin

Bertoluzza says Cescolini is cognate with the surname Ceschi, and that they were both derived from the name ‘Cesco’, which is an affectionate nickname for Francesco. Thus, it is a patronymic surname, indicating an ancient patriarch named Francesco.

The earliest baptismal record in Cloz I have found with this surname is dated 13 March 1648 (Giovanni, son of Francesco), but I haven’t yet done an exhaustive search to determine whether there are earlier records with this surname.

1648 baptismal record for Giovanni Cescolini of Cloz

Click on image to see it larger

Cescolini is still in existence in Cloz today, with a few branches having settled in other nearby parishes in Val di Non.

Dorighin

Variant: Dorighini

Bertoluzza says this is one of dozens of surnames derived from the personal name Rigo, which comes from Old German Od-Rik, and evolved into the Italian personal names Odorico, Odorigo, and Udalrico. He doesn’t address its origins or use in Cloz, but I have seen in pretty much back to the beginning of the surviving Cloz baptismal records, with the earliest appearing 1603.

The variant ‘Dorighini’ is also appears in Molveno, but the more common spelling in Cloz is Dorighin (without the final vowel). The surname appears in Cloz baptismal records through the 1880s.

SIDE NOTE: In the Carta di Regola from 1550, there is mention of a Dorigo Rauzi. This personal name is so unusual it did make me wonder if he was the patriarch of the family later known as Dorighin, but that is merely my personal musing and I have no evidence for this.

Flor

Bertoluzza says this is one of several surnames derived from the personal names like Floriano (male) or Flora/Fiore (female), indicating a patriarch or matriarch in the past with one of these names. He says it is derived from the Latin word ‘florus’, which means ‘bright’, but surely it could equally come from the word flos/flor for flower.

I haven’t done extensive research on this surname, but it does appear in parchments for Brez and Castelfondo from the mid-1500s, and in early Cloz parish registers. It is still in existence, appearing most commonly in these places.

Floretta

Variants: Fioretta; Floreta

Leonardi says this surname is a diminutive form of the surname Flor, but I do not know if there is any historical connection between the two surnames. The earliest reference to surname I have found so far is in a Last Will and Testament of Guglielmo ‘called ‘Floreta’ of Cloz, dated 1 March 1458, in which he leaves a legacy to the churches of San Stefano and Santa Maria.

While the surname is always spelled with an ‘L’ when it appears in Cloz records, the variant ‘Fioretta’ is more commonly used in Mezzolombardo and Malè. I do not know if the Fioretta link back to the Cloz families.

Stenico lists three Cloz priests with this surname (although he enters them under ‘Fioretta’), the most recent being Arcangelo Raffaele Floretta, who was born 8 Dec 1867, and died 10 September 1947.

The surname is still extant in Cloz today.

Franch

Variants: Franc; Franchi; Franco; Frang

We know this surname was present in Cloz at time of the signing of the 1550 Carta di Regola. Tabarelli de Fatis also tells us that the Franch appear on the lists of the noble gentry of Cloz in the years 1529, 1636 and 1730. Leonardi says there were 10 Franch families on the 1529 list. He also says there was a Stefano Franch of Cloz who was exiled following the Guerra Rustica (Rustic War, or Peasant War) of 1525. The earliest reference to a Franch I have found in the Cloz parish records is to a Giorgio Franch, who was most likely born sometime around 1560, and whose grandchildren were born in 1620s, although there are several Franch births (often spelled ‘Frang’) in the first decade of the 1600s

As to the origin of the surname, I have read two contrasting theories, so I will share both.

Bertoluzza says this is a patronymic surname derived from the male personal name Franco (a short form of Francesco), which has the meaning ‘courageous’, ‘ardent’, or ‘free’. This would indicate that the surname is a patronymic indicating an original patriarch with the name ‘Franco’. Evidence that could support this theory is a legal document dated 9 June 1415 where a ‘Giovanni, son of the late Franco of Cloz’ is cited as the mayor (sindaco) of parish of Cloz. If this refers to the Franch family, this might indicate the surname was not yet in use, and evolved into a surname sometime in the 15th century.

Bertoluzza and Leonardi both add that the word ‘franco’ was also used to refer to someone from the Frankish people, i.e. the Germanic tribes from which Charlemagne came, and who later occupied much of France (and from whom we get the name ‘France’). Leonardi specifies that franco referred to a ‘free contadino’, i.e. a farmer who was not a serf subjected to feudal law. One researcher suggests they were once part of the Carolingian court in France; but romantic as they might seem, drawing such a conclusion without supporting documentation is not something I can endorse.

Linguistically, the ‘ch’ at the end, along with the fact it is often spelled ‘Frang’ in early records, suggests Germanic origins (at least it does to me). Surely a Frankish connection one possibility; but given Cloz’s proximity to German-speaking province of Bolzano (aka South Tyrol), and the fact that it can also be found in that province, I would tend to look closer to home. So, for me, the ‘jury is out’ with regards to origins.

Historian P. Remo Stenico lists a good 20 Franch priests who came from Cloz, the earliest being an Antonio Franch (soprannome Taialargo), born in 1622 or 1623. He lists one Franch notary, namely Giacomo Franch of Cloz, who received his notary license on 19 May 1790. In my own research, I have found many members of the Franch family were surgeons, the earliest being Adamo Franch (son of Antonio), who was born 6 Oct 1662, and died sometime before April 1732.

The name still thrives in Cloz today, and it also shows up in other parts of the province (mostly in the north) and in the province of Bolzano.

TIP: Soprannomi

If you are unfamiliar with the term soprannome (plural = soprannomi), you may wish to read my article from 2019 entitled Not Just a Nickname: Understanding Your Family Soprannome’.

Gembrin

Variants: Gembrini; Zembrin; Zembrini; Zembrino; Zambrin

For those who may be less familiar with Italian linguistic idiosyncrasies, the letter ‘Z’ is often used interchangeably with a soft ‘G’ that appears before the vowels ‘I’ or ‘E’. It’s my guess that ‘Z’ used to be a much softer sound in Italian and Italian dialects than it is today, and it was probably very close to the soft ‘G’ in sound. For this reason, while the modern surname is always spelled ‘Gembrini’, you will frequently see it spelled with a ‘Z’ in older records.

As to the origins of this surname, Bertoluzza says it came from a soprannome referring to a locality, but says it is ‘not well defined’. There is a place called ‘Pian di Gembro’ (also known as Passo di Piatolta) in the province of Sondrio in Lombardia, but whether this has any connection to the surname is anyone’s guess. Leonardi suggests the name may have been derived from the word ‘Dicembrino’, which means ‘of/from/in the month of December’.

Whatever its origins, the name dates back at least half a millennium in Cloz. We have already mentioned that this surname appears in the 1550 Carta di Regola for Cloz. Both Leonardi and Bertoluzza mention a Zambrin (or Zombrin) of Cloz who was apparently exiled after the Guerra Rustica in 1525.

The earliest surviving parish record in Cloz with this surname is for the baptism of a Michele Zembrino, son of Romedio and Pasqua, dated 17 July 1599:

1599 baptismal record for Michele Gembrin of Cloz

Click on image to see it larger

We see children of the same couple in later years, where the surname is also found spelled ‘Zembrin’.

Then name appears in Cloz records (spelled both Gembrin and Gembrini) well into the 20th century.

Parolari

Variant: Parolar

‘Parolari’ was the old dialect word for craftsmen who made ‘paioli’, or copper cooking vessels, typically associated with making polenta. Additionally, the word ‘paroloti’ referred to coppersmiths and those who repaired paioli.

Bertoluzza says the surname arose in both Val di Non and Val Giudicarie.

In Cloz, the earliest example of the surname I have found is the baptism of Domenico, son of Giovanni Parolari and his wife Flor, dated 26 September 1599. Apparently, only one Parolari family remains in Cloz today.

Outside of Cloz, I have found the name in Premione back to the late 1600s, in Seo back to the early 1700s (both Seo and Premione are in the parish of Tavodo in the Giudicarie), and in Cloz in Val di Non, back to the late 1500s. A colleague has also reported seeing the surname in Pomarolo (Vallagarina) in the 1500s.

Bertoluzza says the surname appears in the city of Trento as early as 1441 (‘Antonius Parolarius’) and cites evidence of an Ambrogio Parolari(s) of Tione in 1537. Stenico lists several Parolari notaries (none from Cloz), the earliest being a Bartolomeo Parolari from Brevine in Tione, who practiced between 1671-1722.

There was also a noble Parolari family in Campo Lomaso, who owned an historic pharmacy until the line of heirs ran out, passing the business on to another family.

Within the province of Trentino, the surname it is most commonly found in Tione and Arco. Outside Trentino, it is equally common (actually slightly more) in Lombardia, especially in the province of Brescia.

I do know if there is any historical connection between all these Parolari families, or if the Parolari of Cloz originated from any of these other places.

Paternoster

The word Paternoster is Latin for ‘Our Father’, and it is also the Latin name for the Lord’s Prayer.

When I saw this surname in Cloz, I suspected it as an ‘import’ from the nearby village of Romallo (in the parish of Revò) and I was correct. The surname appears to have come to Cloz when a Giovanni Battista Paternoster (son of Domenico) of Romallo settled in Cloz, and then married into the Franch family (Anna Maria, daughter of Guglielmo) on 31 January 1673:

1673 marriage record of Giovanni Battista Paternoster of Romallo and Anna Maria Franch of Cloz

Click on  image to see it larger

IMPORTANT: I have not yet traced the Paternoster in enough detail to say with certainty that  Giovanni Battista was the  original (or only) source of the surname in Cloz, but as I came across this, and the surname is still so prominent in Cloz, I thought I would give this surname a brief mention in this article.

Perazza

Bertoluzza says this is one of many dozens of names derived from the root ‘Per/Ped’, which is from the name Pietro/Pero (Petrus in Latin; Peter in English).

Now extinct in Cloz (although I did find ONE family with this surname currently in Rovereto), the surname appears in the Cloz records in the early 1620s. Apparently some families with this surname settled in Michigan and Pennsylvania in the US.

Rauzi

Variants: Rauz; Rauti; Rauta; Rauzer; Raota

Another ancient surname in Cloz, we have seen that it appears in the 1550 Carta di Regola with a Dorigo Rauzi, son of the late Pietro.

Bertoluzza says Raota is the original form of the surname, but I have never seen it written that way in the Cloz registers. He says it is either derived from the German word ‘raot’, meaning a cleared land, or from the personal name ‘Ruzo’. Either way, the sound of the name certainly leads me to think it has a Germanic origin.

While Bertoluzza says the name ‘Rauta’ came from Valsugana in the 1400s, he says it also appears in Cloz at least by the late 1400s. There may be no historical connection between the two surnames, despite some linguistic similarities. In my own research for Cloz, I have found the surname as early as 1599, among the parish’s earliest surviving baptismal records. The surname also appears within a set of judicial documents drafted between 1531-1542. Spellings will vary widely, but ‘Rauzi’ is pretty much the only spelling used today.

In my research, I have identified these Rauzi whose occupations were of particular interest.

RAUZI PRIESTS:

  • Giovanni Antonio Rauzi (I don’t know his father’s name), born circa 1550, and died 16 Dec 1637. He was the pievano (pastor) of Cloz for many years, and it is assumed he was very old when he died.
  • Guglielmo Rauzi, son of Simone, born 9 Nov 1632 and died 14 Oct 1771 at the age of 78.
  • Adamo Rauzi, son of Pietro, born 3 June 1683, and died 16 May 1762, nearly 79 years old.

RAUZI SURGEONS

  • Pietro Rauzi (son of Bartolomeo) – born circa 1640, died 27 Feb 1711.
  • Bartolomeo Rauzi (son of the above Pietro). Born 10 Nov 1676. Died after 1741.
  • Adamo Rauzi, son of the above Bartolomeo. Born 13 May 1711 and died sometime after 1768.
  • Stefano Rauzi (son of Giovanni Pietro), born 17 Feb 1678, died 8 Jan 1721.
  • Giovanni Pietro Melchiore, son of the above Stefano, born 8 Sept 1709 and died at the young age of 26 on 10 Dec 1735.

RAUZI BLACKSMITH

  • Giovanni Antonio Rauzi (son of another Giovanni Antonio), born 13 Aug 1663, died 7 April 1730.

Rizzi

Variants: Riz; Rizz; Ricci; Ritzi; Ricz

The surname Rizzi is found in many parts of Trentino (not just in Val di Non), as well as in many other parts of the Italian peninsula. Bertoluzza says it first appears as a nickname as early as 1188. Because it is so old and so common, trying to draw a straight line to its point of origin is probably next to impossible.

For example, many linguistic historians believe the surname comes directly from the Italian word ‘rizzi’, which means ‘curly-haired’, and that it started as a nickname for someone who curly hair. If that is the origin of the surname, it’s not dissimilar to how the people here in England might call someone ‘Ginger’ if they have red hair. Really, the nickname could apply to anyone, anywhere.

Other historians (including Leonardi) believe it is a patronymic surname, derived from a name such as Riccio, Riccardo, Rizzo or Odorico. Again, I have seen identical patronymic surnames crop in different places, without any historic connection to each other.

In the case of the Rizzi from Cloz, however, we at least know their point of entry. The surname first came to Cloz by way of Cavizzana in Val di Sole. The first indication I have found of this is the baptismal record of Nicolò Rizzi, born in Cloz 16 October 1609, where his father is referred to as ‘Magistri Francesco Ricz of Cavizzana, living in Cloz’:

1609 baptismal record of Nicolo' Rizzi of Cloz.

Click on image to see it larger

NOTE: I have found earlier records for this family, back to 1599, but they do not mention Francesco’s village of origin.

Thus, the surname Rizzi would have ‘arrived’ in Cloz around the end of the 1500s; it thrives there still to this day.

Seppi

Variants: Sep; Sepp; Seppo

Derived from the name ‘Isepo’ or ‘Josep’ (Joseph or Giuseppe), I normally associate this surname with the village of Ruffré, which was long part of the parish of Sarnonico. However, the surname appears in Cloz back to the earliest surviving records.

The earliest Seppi in Cloz I have identified so far are Nicolò and Isepo, who (based on the birth dates of their children) would have been born circa 1575-1585. None of the records in which they are mentioned suggest they came from someplace else, which seems to indicate the surname was present in Cloz by the end of the 1500s.

We do not see them in the 1550 Carta di Regola, however, which might  mean they hadn’t yet arrived in Cloz, or they had arrived recently, but were not yet considered full ‘citizens’ of the village. Again, this is just speculation, as I don’t have enough evidence at this time.

Wegher

Variants: Beger; Begher; Bregher; Weger

Another surname of Germanic origin, we find it amongst the earliest surviving records in Cloz, the earliest baptismal appearing in November 1599.

In early records, it often written ‘Beger’ or ‘Begher’. Because there is no ‘W’ in the Italian language, Italian speakers will often change the letter W to B when recording names of people and places.

The German root of the name is ‘weg’ which means ‘way’ (as in a path or road). The suffix ‘-er’ indicates an action or an attribute of the person being described, much like ‘baker’ in English means ‘someone who bakes’, and ‘New Yorker’ means ‘someone from New York’. Thus, the word ‘Wegher’ (the ‘h’ is added to preserve the hard ‘g’) could mean ‘someone how lives by or who comes from the path/road’. Bertoluzza likens it in meaning to the Italian surname ‘Dallavia’.

Appearing (as ‘Wegher’) in Cloz records up to the 1890s, it appears not to be in that parish anymore, but can still be found in many other Trentino parishes, as well as in the province of Bolzano/South Tyrol.

Zaffon

Variant: Zaffoni

Bertoluzza offers two possible origins for this surname. He says it may be a soprannome given to someone who came from the eponymous locality called Zaffon that exists near Noriglio in the comune of Rovereto). Alternatively, he says it could be an expansion of the word ‘zaf’, a dialect term to indicate a ‘birro’, which referred to a guard who protected public order).

Whatever the linguistic origin, the surname is extremely old, appearing in notary records as far back as 1289. Based on these, the earliest identifiable place of origin of the name is Cagnò (also in Val di Non), which was part of the parish of Revò.

‘Zaffon’ appears amongst the earliest surviving parish registers for Cloz, with the first Zaffon baptism appearing on 2 July 1601. The following year, in the baptism of Maria Seppi mentioned earlier, we see her godfather is ‘Zen (Giovanni), son of the late Sisinio Zaffon, placing the birth of the late Sisinio sometime in the mid-1500s. The name Sisinio was a recurring personal name in the Zaffon family during this era. We continue to see it in the parish records for Cloz through the 1880s.

Zanoni

Variant: Zanon

Zanoni belonging to the series of surnames (including Zanini, Zanolini, Zanotelli, Zanol, etc.) which are all are derived from the root ‘Zan’, which is a short from of the personal name Giovanni. It is an extremely common name (think ‘Johnson’), not just in Trentino, but in many other parts of Italy, especially Lombardia and Veneto.

We have already mention that the name appears in the 1550 Carta di Regola for Cloz. We also see it in one of the rare very early surviving baptismal records for Cloz, with the birth of a Domenica, daughter of Cristoforo Zanon and Cattarina, born 22 December 1565:

1565 baptismal record of Domenica Zanoni of Cloz, Trentino.Click on image to see it larger

This surname is still extant in Cloz today.

CLOSING THOUGHTS AND COMING UP NEXT TIME…

I hope this article has given you some insight into the history, surnames, and available genealogical research materials for the parish of Cloz in Val di Non. If you have any questions, feedback, or you have any information from your own research, I would love to hear from you. Please do share your thoughts in the comments belong.

Next time, we’ll move on to the parish of REVÒ in Val di Non, the home parish of some many of my clients’ ancestors, and a place I have researched extensively over my years as a genealogist.

In that article (or perhaps in the subsequent one, if it gets too long!), I’ll also touch upon Romallo, Cagnò, Tregiovo, and Marcena di Rumo, which historically were part of the parish of Revò.

I hope you’ll join me for that.  To be sure to receive the next article in this series ‘Trentino Valleys, Parishes and People: A Guide for Genealogists’ – and ALL future articles from Trentino Genealogy –  just subscribe to this blog using the form below.

Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
3 September  2020

P.S. As you probably know, my spring and summer trips to Trento was cancelled due to COVID-19 lockdowns. I am also not sure when I will be back in Trento. I was hoping to go in November 2020, but now it might be a bit later, after the New Year. There  is no way to know for sure right now.  

However, I do have  resources to do a fair bit of research for many clients from home, and I now have some openings for a few new client projects starting in October 2020.

If you would like to book a time to discuss having me do research for you, 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.

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

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

View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://trentinogenealogy.com/my-tree/

REFERENCES

ANZILOTTI, Giulia Mastrelli. 2003. Toponomastica Trentina: I Nomi delle Località Abitate. Trento: Provincia Autonoma di Trento, Servizio Beni librari e archivistici.

ARCHIVI STORICI DEL TRENTINO website. III, 401, Constituzione di Censo, 1517 dicember 14, Cloz. Accessed 2 September 2020 from https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/3562058.

ARCHIVI STORICI DEL TRENTINO website. 5. Testamento, 1458 marzo 1. Accessed 2 September 2020 from  https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/1483883.

ARCHIVI STORICI DEL TRENTINO website. 4. Elezioni di arbitri. 1415 giugno 9. Accessed 2 September 2020 from  https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/1483873.

ARCHIVI STORICI DEL TRENTINO website. 203. Atti giudiziari 1531 febbraio 7- 1542 settembre 1. Accessed 2 September 2020 from https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/49780

BERTOLUZZA, Aldo. 1998. Guida ai Cognomi del Trentino. Trento: Società Iniziative Editoriali (S.R.L.).

CASETTI, Albino (dottore). 1951. Guida Storico – Archivistica del Trento. Trento: Tipografia Editrice Temi (S.R.L.).

GIACOMONI, Fabio. 1991. Carte di Regola e Statuti delle Comunità Rurali Trentine. 3 volume set. Milano: Edizioni Universitarie Jaca.

LEONARDI, Enzo. 1985. Anaunia: Storia della Valle di Non. Trento: TEMI Editrice.

SERAFINN, Lynn. 2019. ‘Not Just a Nickname: Understanding Your Family Soprannome’. Published 6 October 2019 at https://trentinogenealogy.com/2019/10/nickname-soprannome-soprannomi/

STENICO, P. Remo. 1999. Notai Che Operarono Nel Trentino dall’Anno 845. Trento: Biblioteca San Bernardino. Can be downloaded for free in PDF format from http://www.db.ofmtn.pcn.net/ofmtn/files/biblioteca/Notai.pdf

STENICO, P. Remo. 2000. Sacerdoti della Diocesi di Trento dalla sua Esistenza Fino all’Anno 2000. Can be downloaded for free in PDF format from http://www.db.ofmtn.pcn.net/ofmtn/files/biblioteca/Preti-Indice-Preti.pdf

TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. 2005. Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine. Trento: Società di Studi Trentini di Scienze Storiche.

TAVOZZI, P. Giangrisostomo. 1970. Parochiale Tridentinum. Originally published in 1785. 1970 version edited by P. Remo Stenico. Trento: Edizioni Biblioteca PP. Francescani.

TRENTINO DOT COM website. ‘Cloz’. Accessed 31 August 2020 from https://www.trentino.com/en/trentino/val-di-non/novella/cloz/

TUTTI ITALIA website. ‘Popolazione Cloz 2001-2019’. Accessed 1 September 2020 from https://www.tuttitalia.it/trentino-alto-adige/34-cloz/statistiche/popolazione-andamento-demografico/

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Decanato of Trento: Parishes, Curates and Parish Registers

Decanato of Trento: Parishes, Curates and Parish Registers

Inventory of the parish registers in the parishes and curates of the decanato (deanery) of the city of Trento. Part 4 of ‘Trentino Valleys, Parishes and People: A Guide for Genealogists’ by Lynn Serafinn.

LAST TIME in this special series on the valleys, parishes and genealogical records (parish registers) for the province of Trento, we looked at the various frazioni of the municipality of the city of Trento, as well as demographics (population, languages, occupations) and surnames of the people in that city in the year 1890.

If you haven’t yet read that article (or you would like to read it again), I invite you to check it out at https://trentinogenealogy.com/2020/04/trento-city-surnames-1600/ .

As you read today’s article, you might also find it useful to refer to the MAP of the frazioni of Trento I shared with you last time.

MORE READING:   Trento in the 1800s. Frazioni, Occupations, Surnames

WHAT I WILL DISCUSS IN THIS ARTICLE

TODAY, I want to shift away from looking at the city of Trento as a civil entity, and consider how it is organised into PARISHES.

As we do so, I will also give you an INVENTORY of the currently surviving parish registers for each PARISH, to help guide you in your genealogical research.

My primary resource for this information is the book Guida Storico – Archivistica del Trento by Dott. Albino Casetti (published 1961), which has been the ‘bible’ reference book for Trentino historians of all kinds (including family historians) for nearly 60 years.

This monumental work (over 1,100 pages), published only in Italian, is an inventory of ALL the archived materials in every comune and parish in the province of Trentino. As the focus of this blog is specifically Trentino Genealogy, I will be summarising ONLY the information that is most relevant to genealogists and family historians.

In this way, over the course of this series, I aim to provide you with a ‘go to guide’ of the available parish registers in all of the parishes in the diocese, adding my own insights when I happen to have worked with that parish.

ABOUT the PARISH RECORDS

  • Nearly all of the baptisms, marriages and death records for the entire DIOCESE of Trento were photographed by the LDS church (Latter Day Saints) and put on microfilm. Because of this, I have included the microfilm numbers/contents below (although they are in the process of digitising these).
  • The diocese of Trento digitised all these records about 10 years ago, and they are freely viewable at their Diocesan Archives in Trento. Most of the records that the LDS church missed have also since been digitised by the diocese (the parish of Andalo is one example); these are also available at the Diocesan Archives in Trento.
  • Confirmation is a Catholic sacrament, which can be delivered only by a Bishop. As such, ceremonies tended to be done in large groups, often for many parishes at once. The Italian word for ‘Confirmation’ is ‘cresima’ (plural = cresime). You may sometimes see the word ‘cresima’ and a date scribbled next to someone’s name in their baptismal record. Confirmation in the past was often combined with the sacrament of First Communion, and could sometimes take place when a child was quite young.
  • An ‘anagraph’ is a record for a family group, listing the head of household, wife (or wives), and their children. Typically it will include all birth, marriage and death dates of everyone in the family group, and sometimes Confirmation dates.
  • Although I have listed anagraphs and Confirmation records in the charts below, NEITHER of these is normally included in the LDS microfilms or digital images at the Trento Archives. However, in the case of the Duomo, being the seat of the bishopric, I did find many Confirmation records mixed in with the baptismal records in the 1500s (more about this shortly).
  • Most parishes also contain many other kinds of archived materials, such as pergamene (parchments, often of legal documents), taxes, inventory of goods, visits from the bishop, etc. I have not included those in these lists, as there are just too many of them, and they are not usually of much interest to family historians (except possibly some of the more experienced researchers).

REMINDER: This article is only about the CITY of Trento, NOT the rural parts of the province of Trento (also called ‘Trentino’). After we finish our discussion of the city, we’ll start our exploration of the many rural valleys and parishes of the province in detail, spread across at least 20 upcoming articles in this special series.

The DECANATO of TRENTO

As a reminder, the Catholic Church organises its churches hierarchically like this:

Diocese –> Deanery –> Parish –> Curate

Or, in Italian:

Diocesi –> Decanato –> Parrocchia (Pieve) –> Curazia

All of the parishes we will explore in this series are in the DIOCESE of Trento. Technically, Trento is an ‘archdiocese’, which just means it covers a large area, including one urban centre, i.e. the city of Trento.

There are 25 decanati (deaneries) in the archdiocese of Trento. One of these deaneries is the CITY OF TRENTO itself.

Within the decanato of Trento, there are different parishes, and within each parish there are several ‘curates’ (curazie). Curates are like ‘satellite’ parishes, which are subordinate to the ‘mother’ parish church. Curates do not always have the authority to hold their own baptisms or maintain their own records. 

Presently, there are FIVE ‘mother’ parishes in the DECANATO of Trento, most with one or more curate parishes dependent upon them. According to Casetti (page 820), these are:

MOTHER PARISHCURATE PARISHES
Cathedral of San VigilioVillazzano
Santa Maria MaggioreMattarello; Sardagna; Vela
Santi Pietro e PaoloSanta Maria Maddalena; Gardolo, Cognola, Villa Montagna, Montevaccino, Garniga (see notes)
PiedicastelloRavina; Romagnano
Povo(None listed by Casetti)

ADDITIONAL NOTES:

Some of these parishes have changed their status over time.   For example, some curates have become parishes in their own right, while others have been  ‘incorporated’ into other parishes or deaneries.  I will point these variables out as we go along.

PARISH of TRENTO: Cathedral of San Vigilio (Duomo)

A ‘cathedral’ is not just a large church; it is a church associated with a resident bishop. Moreover, in ecclesiastical terms, for a place to be called a ‘city’ it had to have a cathedral.

This medieval Cathedral – or ‘duomo’ – of San Vigilio has long been the symbol of the bishopric of Trento, if not an icon of the province itself. San Vigilio (d. ca. 397 AD) was not only an early Christian martyr but the first bishop of the province. His tomb can be visited in the underground crypt beneath the Cathedral.

INVENTORY of Parish Registers for San Vigilio

REGISTERNO. OF VOLUMESSTARTING YEAR
BAPTISMS271565
MARRIAGES191565
DEATHS161620
CONFIRMATION8 (see notes)1759
ANAGRAPHS?1830; 1840

LDS Microfilms for Duomo of San Vigilio

MICROFILM NO.ITEMSCONTENTS
144830016-20Baptisms 1564-1685 (the start date they list is slightly from Casetti’s).
1448301entire filmBaptisms 1685-1824; Index of baptisms 1824-1879; Baptisms 1824-1883; Index of baptisms 1880-1921; Baptisms 1884-1886.
1448302entire filmBaptisms 1886-1923; Marriages 1565-1780; Index of marriages; 1813-1872; Marriages 1816-1923; Deaths 1620-1701.
14483241-15Deaths 1701-1780; Index of Deaths 1793-1828; Deaths 1780-1813; Index of Deaths 1810-1873; Deaths 1810-1887; Index of Deaths 1886-1921; Deaths 1887-1923.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

Here are a few things I noticed on the occasions I have worked with the records for this parish:

  • CONFIRMATION RECORDS. Although Casetti says the register of Confirmations starts in the year 1759, in my own research I discovered that many pages of CONFIRMATION records from the mid to late 1500s are mixed in with volume 1 of the baptisms (1564-1577). As the Duomo in Trento was the home parish of the Bishop, some parents sent their children to be confirmed there, rather than waiting for the Bishop to come to their local parish/deanery. For example, I found several children from families who lived in my father’s PARISH of Bleggio in Val Giudicarie were confirmed at the Duomo in 1596. You might wish to check volume 1 of the baptisms to see if anyone in your own family tree had travelled to Trento to have their children confirmed at the Duomo, rather than wait for the bishop to come to their local parish/deanery.
  • BAPTISMAL REGISTERS VOLUMES 2 and 3 (and possibly others) are organised according to FIRST NAME of the child. For me, this is the WORST and most frustrating system of organisation because, unless you know exactually what you are looking for, it can be very difficult to find a particular record. For example, you might be looking for someone named ‘Antonio’, but he was actually baptised ‘Tommaso Giovanni Battista Antonio’; how would you KNOW to look under ‘T’?
  • SURNAMES IN EARLY BAPTISMAL RECORDS ARE OFTEN MISSING. I would estimate a good 60% of the baptismal records in Volume 2 at the Duomo don’t have a surname at all.  Instead, you’ll find things like   ‘Barbara, daughter of Valentino of Val di Sole’, ‘Gregorio of Rovereto’ or ‘Lorenzo of Arco’ (these are all examples I wrote down in my notes the last time I was perusing those records).
  • BUT…YOU MIGHT BE PLEASANTLY SURPRISED.  Despite the other frustrations,  if you are really patient (and a bit lucky), you just might stumble across random baptismal records for families from rural parishes who either had relocated to the city, or who were staying there temporarily. For example, amongst these registers, I found the baptismal records for many children of the noble Tommaso Crosina, a renowned medical doctor who had relocated from Balbido (in Val Giudicarie) to the city, as well as baptismal records for children of the Buratti family of Comano, and the Girardi family of Vigo Lomaso (both in Val Giudicarie).

CURATE of VILLAZZANO

Located in the southern part of the city of Trento, Villazzano is the site of two churches: a small church dedicated to San Stefano, already in existence by the year 1567, and a much older church dedicated to San Bartolomeo, which appears in documents as far back as 1183. Indeed, this whole neighbourhood of South Trento is called ‘San Bartolomeo’, and there is also a train station of the same name not far from Villazzano.

After many demolitions and reconstructions, the present curate church is San Stefano, and the old church of San Bartolomeo is solely a cemetery church.

Despite its long history, Villazzano was not elevated to the position of a parish until 1907.

INVENTORY of Parish Registers for Villazzano

REGISTERNO. OF VOLUMESSTARTING YEAR
BAPTISMS71804
MARRIAGES81620
DEATHS71714
CONFIRMATION?1827
ANAGRAPHS?1895

LDS Microfilms for Villazzano

MICROFILM NO.ITEMSCONTENTS
144829930Baptisms 1825-1852.
14483001-15Baptisms 1852-1923; Marriages 1620-1923; Deaths 1714-1923.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

  • I cannot explain the disparity between the start year of the baptisms (1804) as cited by Casetti and the start year cited on the Family Search website, as I haven’t personally worked with this parish. I know there are some volumes (in various parishes) that the LDS didn’t photograph when they made their microfilms; most of these have since been digitised by the diocese of Trento, and are thus viewable only through their archives, not through the Family History Centres.
  • Casetti doesn’t specify the number volumes of for Confirmation records or anagraphs; I assume  there is a single volume of each, but I have put a ‘?’ as I don’t know.
  • While I have not done research in this parish, I would PRESUME earlier records for Villazzano will be found in its ‘mother parish’ of the Duomo of San Vigilio.

PARISH of TRENTO: Santa Maria Maggiore

Not far from the Duomo is the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, a parish which has been documented back to the year 1147. In the 19th century, Monsignor Giovanni Battista Zanella (the parroco at the time) put the archives for the parish in order and created an inventory for them. But due to events sustained during the First World War, the archives were again put in disarray. Casetti says the current parroco is again putting the archives in order; I would assume progress has been made since he made this comment some years ago.

INVENTORY of Parish Registers for Santa Maria Maggiore

REGISTERNO. OF VOLUMESSTARTING YEAR
BAPTISMS271548
MARRIAGES161581
DEATHS171620
CONFIRMATION131825
ANAGRAPHS31828; 1857; 1951

LDS MICROFILMS for Santa Maria Maggiore

MICROFILM NO.ITEMSCONTENTS
144832416-22Baptisms 1548-1630.
1448325entire filmBaptisms 1630-1832.
1448326entire filmBaptisms 1833-1923; Marriages 1581-1836.
1448327entire filmMarriages 1836-1923; Deaths 1620-1847.
14483281-4Deaths 1847-1923.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

Casetti says the parish archives also contain many ‘urbari’ (collection of taxes) from the 1600s onwards, as well as many diplomas of doctorates and diplomas of nobility, but I have no details on these.

CURATE of MATTARELLO

Located about 4 miles south of the city centre, the curate church of Mattarello, dedicated to San Lorenzo, was built in 1454. After centuries of being a curate parish under Santa Maria Maggiore, it was elevated to the status of a parish on 21 November 1906.

INVENTORY of Parish Registers for Mattarello

REGISTERNO. OF VOLUMESSTARTING YEAR
BAPTISMS111657
MARRIAGES91657
DEATHS51657
CONFIRMATION11840
ANAGRAPHS1?

LDS MICROFILMS for Mattarello

MICROFILM NO.ITEMSCONTENTS
144825936-37Index of Baptisms 1657-1805; Baptisms 1657-1665.
14482601-22Baptisms 1665-1923; Marriages 1657-1923; Deaths 1657-1805, 1845-1923.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

  • Apparently, there are some additional marriages and deaths from between the years 1682-1684 amongst the first volume of baptisms.
  • Casetti says there are ‘recent anagraphs’ but gives no date.
  • Casetti actually says the marriage records start in 1748, with the exception of a few from the 1680s; the LDS index says the marriages start in 1657, however. I asked the archivist in Trento , and they confirmed they do indeed start  in 1657.
  • There is a gap in the death records between 1806-1844.

CURATE of SARDAGNA

Across the River Adige directly west of Trent city centre,  Sardagna is a tiny village perched on top of Monte Bondone. Dedicated to Saints Filippo and Giacomo, the curate church of Sardagna was opened on 10 November 1679. It was elevated to the status of a parish on 11 February 1910, under the deanery of Trento.

INVENTORY of Parish Registers for Sardagna

REGISTERNO. OF VOLUMESSTARTING YEAR
BAPTISMS61788
MARRIAGES71742
DEATHS61742
CONFIRMATION21859
ANAGRAPHS?1747
BIRTHS, MARRIAGES AND DEATHS ALL'ESTERO?1892-1926

LDS MICROFILM for Sardagna

MICROFILM NO.ITEMSCONTENTS
144836812-33Index of Baptisms 1788-1922; Baptisms 1788-1923; Index of Marriages 1742-1921; Marriages 1742-1923; Index of Deaths 1742-1923; Death 1742-1923.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

  • Sadly, Casetti tells us that all of Sardagna’s older documents were destroyed by a fire caused by lightning that hit the church in 1724. I do not know if any duplicates were kept in the mother parish of Santa Maria Maggiore.
  • Note that there is a register of births, marriages and deaths ‘all’estero’, i.e. events that occurred outside the parish, particularly those of families who emigrated outside the province (such as to the Americas, etc.). LDS does NOT list them on the inventory for their microfilms. As of this writing, I do not know if they have since been digitised at the Diocesan Archives in Trento.

CURATE of VELA

North of Sardagna, and northwest of  the city centre, is the curate of Vela. Dedicated to Saints Cosma and Damiano, the church at Vela is relatively new compared to many others in Trento (1794), and it did not have permission to perform baptisms until 1833. Before then, all events would have been recorded in the registry of its mother parish of Santa Maria Maggiore. It was elevated to the rank of parish on 24 Sept 1942, under the deanery of Trento.

INVENTORY of Parish Registers for Vela

REGISTERNO. OF VOLUMESSTARTING YEAR
BAPTISMS41834
MARRIAGES21904
DEATHS31844
CONFIRMATION11924
ANAGRAPHS?1884; 1905

LDS MICROFILMS for Vela

MICROFILM NO.ITEMSCONTENTS
14483682-7Baptisms 1834-1923; Marriages 1904-1923; Deaths 1834-1923.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

I haven’t worked personally with these records, so I cannot comment on the discrepancy in the dates of the death records (LDS says they start in 1834, while Casetti says 1844).

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PARISH of TRENTO: Santi Pietro e Paolo

Located in the heart of the city centre, this church is dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul. Although its records go back to the mid-1500s, Santi Pietro e Paolo  is relatively ‘new’ a parish,  as it was originally a curate of the Cathedral of San Vigilio.

INVENTORY of Parish Registers for Santi Pietro e Paolo

REGISTERNO. OF VOLUMESSTARTING YEAR
BAPTISMS251548
MARRIAGES171630
DEATHS121598
CONFIRMATION41825
BAPTISMS ALL'ESTERO31883
MARRIAGES ALL'ESTERO21883
DEATHS ALL'ESTERO21883
ANAGRAPHS?"Recent"

LDS MICROFILMS for Santi Pietro e Paolo

MICROFILM NO.ITEMSCONTENTS
144832815-16Baptisms 1548-1617.
1448353entire film1617-1871
1448354entire filmBaptisms 1872-1923; Marriages 1630-1843.
1448355entire filmMarriages 1843-1923; Deaths 1598-1893.
14483561-5Deaths 1894-1923; ALL'ESTERO: Baptisms 1883-1895; Deaths 1883-1918; Marriages 1883-1916; Baptisms 1858-1923; Deaths 1890-1918; Marriages 1891-1923; Baptisms 1871-1923.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

Again, the term ‘all’estero’ refers to events that took place outside the province, typically referring to families who emigrated outside the province at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. Casetti does not say what years are covered for these records, but we find them listed in the catalogue for the LDS microfilms (which, happily, means they HAVE been photographed/digitised, which is not always the case).

Casetti does not give the years for the anagraphs, saying only they are ‘recent’.

CURATE of Santa Maria Maddalena

Operating since 1500S, the curate parish of Santa Maria Maddalena was incorporated into the parish of Santi Pietro e Paolo in 1808. Thus, the mother parish of Santi Pietro e Paolo will have all records for Santa Maria Maddalena since that date.

INVENTORY of Parish Registers for Santa Maria Maddalena

REGISTERNO. OF VOLUMESYEARS
BAPTISMS41580-1798
MARRIAGES31581-1808
DEATHS21650-1808

LDS MICROFILM for Santa Maria Maddalena

MICROFILM NO.ITEMSCONTENTS
1448328Items 5-14Baptisms; 1580-1808; Marriages; 1581-1807; Deaths 1650-1808

ADDITIONAL NOTES

I cannot explain why Casetti says the baptisms end in 1798, whereas the LDS catalogue says they go to 1808, as I am unfamiliar with the records for this parish.

CURATE of GARDOLO

Situated north of the main city, and dedicated to the Visitation of the Virgin Mary by Saint Elisabeth, the present-day church at Gardolo, was opened in 1722. The curate was elevated to the status of a parish in 1897.

INVENTORY of Parish Registers for Gardolo

REGISTERNO. OF VOLUMESSTARTING YEAR
BAPTISMS111722
MARRIAGES101704
DEATHS81704
CONFIRMATION11837
ANAGRAPHS219th century

LDS MICROFILMS for Gardolo

MICROFILM NO.ITEMSCONTENTS
14483566-28Baptisms 1722-1923; Marriages 1704-1923; Deaths 1805-1909.
14483671Deaths 1909-1923.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

Earlier records for this curate should be found in the ‘mother’ parish of Santi Pietro e Paolo. Regarding anagraphs, Casetti simply says they are from the 19th and 20th centuries, without any specific years.

CURATE of COGNOLA

Built in 1633 and dedicated to Saints Vito, Modesto e Crescenzia, the curate of Cognola, northeast of the main city centre, was granted permission to have its own baptismal font on 29 January 1677.

INVENTORY of Parish Registers for Cognola

REGISTERNO. OF VOLUMESSTARTING YEAR
BAPTISMS101659; 1677
MARRIAGES71637
DEATHS71654
CONFIRMATION11850
ANAGRAPHS11852

LDS MICROFILMS for Cognola

MICROFILM NO.ITEMSCONTENTS
144829819-23Baptisms 1659-1838 (see notes)
14482991-17Baptisms 1838-1923; Marriages 1637-1923; Deaths 1704-1923.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

Regarding the baptismal records, Casetti says there are only 4 records from the year 1659; otherwise, they start in the year 1677.

CURATE of VILLA MONTAGNA

About 3 miles northeast of the city centre, this curate was founded in 1672, but only started keeping its own registers in 1775. The church is dedicated to Saints Fabiano and Sebastiano. It was elevated to the status of parish in 1919. It is sometimes seen written as a single word, i.e. ‘Villamontagna’ or even ‘Vilamontanja’.

INVENTORY of Parish Registers for Villa Montagna

REGISTERNO. OF VOLUMESSTARTING YEAR
BAPTISMS41775
MARRIAGES31775
DEATHS41775
CONFIRMATION11833
ANAGRAPHS21885; 1911

LDS MICROFILM for Villa Montagna

MICROFILM NO.ITEMSCONTENTS
144829921-29Baptism 1775-1923; Marriages 1775-1923; Deaths 1775-1923

ADDITIONAL NOTES

I would presume that records prior to 1775 would be found in the mother church of Santi Pietro e Paolo.

CURATE of MONTEVACCINO

In the north-eastern outskirts of the city, the frazione of Montevaccino was incorporated into the comune of Cognola in 1900. The church, dedicated to San Leonardo, was erected in 1742 (although the baptismal records appear to have started a bit earlier). The curate of Montevaccino was elevated to the status of parish in 1919.

INVENTORY of Parish Registers for Montevaccino

REGISTERNO. OF VOLUMESSTARTING YEAR
BAPTISMS41740
MARRIAGES41743
DEATHS41742
CONFIRMATION11894
ANAGRAPHS11900

LDS MICROFILM for Montevaccino

MICROFILM NO.ITEMSCONTENTS
144829918-20Baptisms 1741-1821; Deaths 1742-1822; Marriages 1743-1822; Baptisms 1821-1870; Deaths 1821-1870; Marriages 1821-1870; Baptisms 1871-1923; Marriages 1872-1922; Deaths 1871-1923.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

Again, I would presume that records prior to 1740 would be found in the mother church of Santi Pietro e Paolo. I cannot comment on the slight discrepancy in the start dates between Casetti’s inventory and the LDS catalogue.

CURATE of GARNIGA

West of Mattarello, well south of the city centre, is the curate of Garniga. An ancient parish dedicated to Sant’Osvaldo, it had a long history as a curate under the mother parish of Santa Maria Maddalena. A century ago, on 26 January 1920, it was finally elevated to the rank of parish, from which point it was transferred to the decanato of Villa Lagarina (which we explore in a future article).

As it came under the banner of the decanato of Trento for most of its history, I will list its inventory here.

INVENTORY of Parish Registers for Garniga

REGISTERNO. OF VOLUMESSTARTING YEAR
BAPTISMS61614
MARRIAGES51615
DEATHS41635
CONFIRMATION11827

LDS MICROFILMS for Garniga

MICROFILM NO.ITEMSCONTENTS
144827020-23Baptisms 1614-1824; Index of Baptisms 1817-1886; Baptisms 1817-1854.
14482711-11Baptisms 1854-1923; Marriages 1615-1822; Index of Marriages 1817-1873; Marriages 1818-1923; Deaths 1817-1890; Index of Deaths 1635-1890; Deaths 1891-1923.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

Casetti says there are also ‘legati pii’ (i.e. ‘legacy’ gifts donated to the parish as part of someone’s Last Will and Testament) from the year 1646. He also mentions the Confraternity of the Most Holy Sacrament from 1792, but he doesn’t say what specifically this includes (minutes of their meetings, lists of members, etc).

PARISH of TRENTO: Piedicastello (Sant’Apollinare)

Dedicated to Sant’Apollinare, the ancient parish of Piedicastello is mentioned in documents back to the year 1183. If I understand Casetti properly, he says it was traditionally used as the residence of the parish priest of the Cathedral (not the Bishop). Located just across the bridge from the city centre on the opposite bank of the River Adige, Piedicastello was occasionally used as a place to quarantine plague victims during outbreaks, so as to isolate the disease from the main part of the city.

INVENTORY of Parish Registers for Piedicastello

REGISTERNO. OF VOLUMESSTARTING YEAR
BAPTISMS121577
MARRIAGES51586
DEATHS71639
CONFIRMATION21825

LDS MICROFILMS for Piedicastello

MICROFILM NO.ITEMSCONTENTS
14483672-24Baptisms 1577-1923; Marriages 1586-1923; Deaths 1639-1895.
14483681Deaths 1895-1923.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

Again, Casetti says there are also ‘legati pii’ (i.e. ‘legacy’ gifts donated to the parish as part of someone’s Last Will and Testament) from the years 1833 and 1877, and reportedly another from 1769.

CURATE of RAVINA

Erected in 1794, and dedicated to Santa Marina, the curate of Ravina was a curate of the parish of Piedicastello until it was elevated to the rank of parish in 1944. It is situated on the western side of the River Adige, southwest of the city centre.

INVENTORY of Parish Registers for Ravina

REGISTERNO. OF VOLUMESSTARTING YEAR
BAPTISMS51795
MARRIAGES51819
DEATHS21819
CONFIRMATION11850
ANAGRAPHS11882

LDS MICROFILMS for Ravina

MICROFILM NO.ITEMSCONTENTS
144827112-18Baptisms 1795-1923; Marriages 1819-1923; Deaths 1819-1923.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

As these records start quite late, I would assume earlier documents will be found in Piedicastello. As with some of the previously mentioned parishes, Casetti says some ‘legacy gifts’ via Last Wills and Testaments can before here from the year 1700.

CURATE of ROMAGNANO

South of Ravina lies the curate of Romagnano. Its church, dedicated to Saint Brigid of Scotland, was built in 1711. Historically a curate of Piedicastello, it was granted permission to perform baptisms in 1728 (when its baptismal registers begin) and was eventually elevated to the position of a parish in 1920.

INVENTORY of Parish Registers for Romagnano

REGISTERNO. OF VOLUMESSTARTING YEAR
BAPTISMS51728
MARRIAGES41819
DEATHS41756
CONFIRMATION21874
ANAGRAPHS11850

LDS MICROFILMS for Romagnano

MICROFILM NO.ITEMSCONTENTS
425654719-25Baptisms 1728-1923; Marriages 1819-1923; Deaths 1756-1781.
14482721-3Deaths 1781-1823, 1854-1923.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

Again, for earlier records, I would assume they will be found in Piedicastello.

Note there is apparently a GAP in the death records 1824-1853.

PARISH of POVO

East of Trento city centre, the sprawling suburban comune of Povo, which includes many frazioni mentioned in the last article, is also an ancient parish whose name appears in records dating back to the year 1131. Often seen written as ‘Paho’ in older records, the parish church here is dedicated to Saints Peter and Andrea (Santi Pietro e Andrea).

INVENTORY of Parish Registers for Povo

REGISTERNO. OF VOLUMESSTARTING YEAR
BAPTISMS111612
MARRIAGES81629
DEATHS71723
CONFIRMATION31832
BAPTISMS ALL'ESTERO?1785-1913
MARRIAGES ALL'ESTERO?1862-1915
DEATHS ALL'ESTERO?1877-1916

LDS MICROFILMS for Povo

MICROFILM NO.ITEMSCONTENTS
1448273Aug-16Baptisms 1612-1869
1448298Jan-18Baptisms 1869-1923; Marriages 1629-1923; Deaths 1723-1923; Baptisms (all'estero) 1785-1913; Marriages (all'estero) 1862-1915; Deaths (all'estero) 1877-1916.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

Casetti does not mention the ‘all’estero’ registers (i.e. those that took place outside the province); I have gleaned the information from the LDS inventory, but I don’t know how many volumes these registers span.

Note that the baptisms abroad start very early, in the year 1785. I haven’t studied those registers, but I am sure they would make for some very interesting reading.

Sadly, Casetti tells us that the Povo registers are fraught with irregularities, with many gaps and duplicates. Apparently, many of the marriage were copied over from earlier registers.

NEWER PARISHES IN THE CITY OF TRENTO

Additionally, there are many newer parishes in Trento, all established in the 20th century. I mention them here only for the sake of thoroughness, but they are less likely to be relevant to the genealogical research of most readers:

  • Trento: San Giuseppe – founded in 1943.
  • Trento: Cristo Re –founded in 1953.
  • Trento: S. Antonio da Padova – in Bolghera, founded in 1955.
  • Trento: Sacratissimo Cuore di Gesù – in San Bartolomeo, founded in 1957.
  • Trento: Santi Martiri Anauniesi Sisinio, Martirio e Alessandro (The Holy Martyrs Sisinio, Martirio e Alessandro of Val di Non) in Solteri, founded in 1955.
  • Trento: Sposalizio di Maria Vergine – founded in 1960.

About the PARISH of MEANO

Although part of the civil municipality of the city of Trento since 1926, the PARISH of Meano has never been part of the decanato of Trento. Rather, it has part of the decanato of LAVIS since 1901, and before that date it was part of the decanato of CIVEZZANO. Thus, I will discuss Meano in a later article when I look at the deanery of Civezzano.

CLOSING THOUGHTS AND COMING UP NEXT TIME…

I hope those of you who have ancestors who came from within the municipality of the city of Trento found this article useful to your research.

I much confess, of ALL the parishes in the province I have researched, those within the city of Trento are probably the LEAST familiar to me. This is because the majority of my clients are descended from families from the rural valleys, not the city. For that reason, I not been able to offer much in the way of personal commentary in this particular article.

I hope to change next time, when we shift directions and move our eyes northwards, when we begin our exploration of…

VAL DI NON!

A significant percentage of my clients came from Val di Non families, so I have had the opportunity to work with many of its parishes. Thus, I hope to go a bit deeper into the subject, sharing what I have learned from using those records.

Over the next few articles, we will explore:

  • The physical layout of the comuni in Val di Non
  • The frazioni within each comune
  • The deaneries, parishes and curates in the valley
  • The inventory of the parish registers in these parishes
  • Some of the most common surnames appearing in the various parishes.

I hope you are as excited as I am to get going on this rather substantial ‘stop’ on our tour of the province.

To be sure to receive the next article in this series ‘Trentino Valleys, Parishes and People: A Guide for Genealogists’ – and ALL future articles from Trentino Genealogy –  just subscribe to this blog using the form below.

Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
11 July 2020

P.S. As you probably know, my spring trip to Trento was cancelled due to COVID-19 lockdowns. I am also not sure when I will be back in Trento (hopefully by October 2020, but who knows?). 

However, I do have  resources to do a fair bit of research for many clients from home, and I now have some openings for a few new client projects starting around the end of August  2020.

If you would like to book a time to discuss having me do research for you, 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.

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

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

View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://trentinogenealogy.com/my-tree/

REFERENCES

CASETTI, Albino. 1961. Guida Storico – Archivistica del Trento.

FAMILY SEARCH.  List of all Trento parishes available  on microfilm via LDS Family History Centres:  https://www.familysearch.org/search/catalog/results?count=20&query=%2Bauthor_id%3A858191

Trento in the 1800s. Frazioni, Occupations, Surnames

Trento in 1800s. Frazioni, Occupations, Surnames.

Surnames and occupations in the city of Trento in 1800s, and frazioni of Trento today. Part 3 of ‘Trentino Valleys, Parishes and People: A Guide for Genealogists’ by Lynn Serafinn.

Last time in this special series on Trentino valleys, we looked at the CITY of Trento before the year 1600, including an examination of the fascinating Libro della Cittadinanza of 1577. We also looked dozens of surnames from that era, and considered how their spelling has changed over the centuries.

If you haven’t yet read that article, I invite you to check it out at https://trentinogenealogy.com/2020/04/trento-city-surnames-1600/

MORE READING:   Trento - The City and Surnames Before the Year 1600

What I Will Discuss in this Article

Today, I’d like to continue our exploration of the city of Trento by leaping forward a few centuries to the 1800s.

In this article, we will explore:

  1. The various FRAZIONI (hamlets/villages) that are now part of the civil municipality of Trento.
  2. A demographic overview of the city of Trento in 19th century, including POPULATION, LANGUAGES, LITERACY and OCCUPATIONS.
  3. A list of SURNAMES in the city at that time, as per the 1890 survey.

My reason for choosing this era is twofold. First, there was a detailed SURVEY of the city of Trento made in 1890, which provides us with a fascinating snapshot of life in the city at that time. And secondly, as this was the era when so many of our ancestors started to emigrate from the province, this information helps put some historical context about what life was like at that time (in the city, at least).

REMINDER: This article is only about the CITY of Trento, NOT the rural parts of the province of Trento (also called ‘Trentino’). After we finish our discussion of the city, we’ll start our exploration of the many rural valleys and parishes of the province in detail, spread across at least 20 upcoming articles in this special series.

The Municipality of Trento TODAY

Courtesy of Google Maps, the image below will give you a rough idea of how the greater municipality of Trento is laid out TODAY.

Please note that I couldn’t manage to get Meano (which is north of the visible area of this map) or Villazzano (which is south of the visible area) to show up without the labels of many of the others disappearing.

MAP - Municipality of Trento in 2020

Frazioni of the Municipality of Trento

Below is a list of frazioni and their subdivisions, which are currently part of the municipality of Trento.

I have organised most of these frazioni according to how they appear in the book Toponomastica Trentina: I Nomi delle Località Abitate by Giulia Maistrelli Anzilotti; I’ve added a few that she did not include in her book.

Note that, in the 19th century, many of these were classed as independent comuni; the villages Cadine, Cognola, Gardolo, Mattarello, Meano, Povo, Romagnano, Ravina, Sardagna and Villazzano, for example, were not aggregated into the municipality of Trento until 1926. Moreover, some of these were classes as frazioni of some of these former comuni. Gabbiolo, for example, was once considered part of the comune of Povo.

FRAZIONESUB-FRAZIONI AND NEIGHBOURHOODS
BolleriBolleri vecchia; Bolleri nuova
Cadine
Campotrentino
Candriai
Centochiavi
Cimirlo
CognolaMaderno; Martignano; Tavernaro; Villamontagna
Cristo Re
GabbioloGionghi
GardoloPalazzine; Spini; Steffene
Lamar
Man
MattarelloMattarello di Sopra; Mattarelli di Sotto; Acquaviva; Novaline; Palazzi; Ronchi; Valsorda
MeanoVigo Meano; Camparta Bassa; Cirocolo; Cortesano; Gorghe; Gazzadina; San Lazzaro
Moia
Montevaccino
Piedicastello
PovoCasotti di Povo; Celva; Dosso Moronari; Mesiano; Oltrecastello; Pante'; Ponte Alto; Sale'; Spre'
RavinaBelvedere
Romagnano
San Martino
San Nicolò
Sardagna
Settefontane
Solteri
SopramontePra della Fava
Spalliera
Valle
Vela
Vigolo Baselga
VillazzanoCastello; Negrano

Trento in the First Half of the 19th Century

You might recall that, in the last article, I spoke about a book by Aldo Bertoluzza called Libro della Cittadinanza di Trento: Storia e tradizione del cognome Trentino, which he published in 1975. In that article, we looked at Bertoluzza’s analysis of the 1577 document called ‘Libro della Cittadinanza di Trento’. Today, we move forward in the book (and in time) to pages 46-58, where Bertoluzza discusses various surveys that were carried out by the civil authorities of Trento in the 19th century.

It’s worth remembering that the taking of censuses or demographic surveys was not a regular practice prior to the beginning of the 19th century. Surely these surveys existed, but they were inconsistent and certainly not standardised. From 1809, after Napoleon invaded the province and abolished the office of the Prince Bishop, we start to see some regularity to such records. While Napoleon’s personal political victories were short-lived, the maintaining of a civil registry is still practised throughout the province.

As civil records were still in their infancy in the early 1800s, the parameters for their body of statistics are often unclear and inconsistent. A demographic survey of the city of ‘Trento’ might not always include the same areas, which often makes it difficult to compare one set of statistics to another.

Trento in 1809

To illustrate that point, a survey of Trento taken in 1809 included not just the area within the city walls, but also the frazioni of Cognola, Povo, Ravina and Sardagna, resulting in a total population of 15,204 people.

Trento in 1821

In contrast, in 1821, in addition to Trento, Cognola, Povo, Ravina and Sardagna, the survey included statistics from FIVE MORE frazioni: Mattarello, Gardolo, Romagnano, Montevaccino and Villamontagna.

Despite these additions, the population seems to have declined since the earlier survey, now showing only 10,863 residents. I don’t know if this reflects a true decrease, or the parameters of who they decided to count had changed (I am inclined to think the latter).

Trento in 1842

By the year 1842, the greater municipality had grown by more than 14% to 12,408, with 8,556 of these living within the city walls.

Although Bertoluzza does not say which frazioni were included in that survey, he does provide us with some interesting statistics regarding possidenti – property owners – both within the city and in its outlying, rural areas. According to the 1842 survey, there were 437 possidenti who owned property within the city walls that year, whose total real estate include 2,200 urban properties and houses. But now, we also learn that there were 201 contadini (farmers) who owned property, spread across 700 units of land – presumably, this included farmland, pastures, and meadow land.

Aside from the possidenti, the survey counts 2,100 ‘mercenary individuals’ (presumably referring to military in residence there) and an additional 2,656 people who were either part of the Church (priests, nuns, etc.) or merchants. (I have no idea why they decided to lump those two categories together!)

What I found most interesting about this survey is how it shows the number of family homes within each of these areas. Below is a table showing them in descending order:

PLACENO. OF FAMILY HOMES
Trento (presumably, within the city walls)1,118
Cognola212
Mattarello179
Gardolo175
Ravina105
Sardagna94
Romagnano63
Montevaccino46
Villamontagna42

This brings the total number of family homes to 2,034 in that year. Using this data, Bertoluzza calculates the average size of the family household was between 6-7 people in that era.

I find it interesting to see how small some of these frazioni were, even though they were part of a ‘city’. Even the population within the city walls itself is surely not exceptionally large.

1890 Survey of the City of Trento

Finally, in the year 1890, we begin to see some more rigorous statistics – and useful information for genealogical research. I am sure this is why, on pages 48-58 of Libro della Cittadinanza di Trento, Bertoluzza provides us with a COMPLETE transcription of the population survey made by the municipality of Trento in the year 1890, followed by many pages of his own and demographic analysis of the same.

Bertoluzza presents most of the findings in paragraph format, which can sometimes make it difficult to assess and compare the key data. Below, I’ve compiled some of the demographics into tables for your perusal.

1890 Demographic Overview

According to the 1890 survey, in less than 50 years, the population seems to have exploded to 21,486 residents – and increase of 9,078 people (over 73%). Unfortunately, I cannot say for sure that this covers exactly the same geographic area as the 1842 survey, as Bertoluzza doesn’t specify; perhaps it isn’t even specified in the survey, as the information was presumed to be known. Again, this means we cannot do a precise comparison between this survey and those of previous years, but it does give us a general picture of overall urban growth.

Here are some general statistics about who was living in Trento at the time:

TOTAL POPULATION OF THE CITY21,486
NUMBER OF FAMILIES3,313
FULLY LITERATE12,327
SEMI-LITERATE960
ITALIAN SPEAKERS18,957
GERMAN SPEAKERS2,350
SPEAKERS OF OTHER LANGUAGES169

Two details especially stand out to me:

  • Nearly 60% of the urban population was fully literate. I would be willing to guess the literacy rate here is significantly higher than in the rural parishes during the same era, most likely due to the kinds of occupations urban citizens tend to have compared to the valley dwellers (we’ll look at these in a minute).
  • Over 88% of the population said Italian was their first language (but we can surely assume many native Italian speakers could speak German, and vice versa). As all the records I have ever seen from the province during this era are written in Italian, I am not particularly surprised at this, but I find it interesting considering how many people who emigrated from the province (which was steadily increasing around this time) identified themselves as ‘Austrians’.

Occupations in Trento in the Year 1890

Bertoluzza goes on to give a full breakdown of the professions of the people of the city of Trento in that year. He puts them in a paragraph in alphabetical order, which is a bit hard to wade through, so I’ve copied in some of the highest figures along with some of the more interesting professions on the list, and organised them according to their number, in descending order. I haven’t included every single profession he listed, but I did end up listing most.

PROFESSIONNO. OF PEOPLEPROFESSIONNO. OF PEOPLE
MILITARY1,821RUGMAKERS36
DOMESTIC SERVANTS1,511MECHANICS31
FOREIGN STUDENTS1,081CAFÉ OWNERS27
AGRICULTURAL/ FARMING1,070JEWELLERS26
TAILORS676HOTELIERS26
DAY WORKERS (odd jobs, etc.)627WEAVERS19
PRIESTS/ NUNS, etc.455CLOCK/ WATCHMAKERS18
MASONS/ BRICKLAYERS333SADDLE MAKERS17
PUBLIC OFFICIALS AND SERVICES321CARVERS/ ENGRAVERS16
CARPENTERS318LITHOGRAPHERS14
STONECUTTERS269ARTISTS13
COBLERS / SHOEMAKERS261SALAMI MAKERS13
POOR (so, no job listed)215UMBRELLA MAKERS12
PERSONAL TEACHERS198WOODCUTTERS/ SAWYERS9
RETIRED176CHAIRMAKERS6
HOSTS (at tavern or hotel)163CHIMNEYSWEEPS6
BLACKSMITHS149ENTREPRENEURS6
SEAMSTRESS/ NEEDLEWORK132GLASSMAKERS/ GLAZIERS5
SILK WEAVERS123WOOL WEAVERS5
BAKERS108CEMENT MAKERS4
HEALTHCARE PERSONNEL96GOLD AND SILVERSMITHS4
BUTCHERS58STRING/ TWINE MAKER4
WINE MAKERS58KNITTERS4
BOOKSELLERS48GLOVE MAKERS3
PAINTERS (house/ buildings)47HARMONICA AND ORGAN MAKERS3
BARBERS46PASTA MAKERS3
LAWYERS AND NOTARIES46SOAP MAKERS3
RAILWAY WORKERS45MATCHSTICK MAKERS3
ENGINEERS AND SURVEYORS42BRICKMAKER1
COPPERSMITHS39BROOM MAKERS1

Some Comments and Context

  • MILITARY: I do find it interesting that the profession with the highest number is the various military personnel. There are no details given about who they were, but we know they would have been from the Austro-Hungarian Army, and possibly originating from outside the province.
  • DOMESTIC SERVANTS: During this era, it was extremely common for young WOMEN to become domestic servants prior to marriage. Sometimes their duties included being governesses to young children; my grandmother and her sister were governesses when they were in their late teens. Sadly, there are many accounts of abuse of young women when they were in service in the 19th century – a topic I will address in a later article.
  • FOREIGN STUDENTS: While not a paid occupation, I include this number on the list, as students constitute a significant percentage of the population counted. While compulsory education was already in effect in the Austro-Hungarian Empire during this era, ‘students’ here is surely referring to adult students, not children. This would most likely include seminary students. Here, they are recorded as ‘foreign’, but it doesn’t specify if this means they were from outside the city, outside the province, or from another country (perhaps it was a combination of all three). Also, no mention is made regarding local students.
  • AGRICULTURAL: The number given is a cumulative one, including agricultural landowners, farmers, tenants, and agricultural labourers/assistants. Thus, it is hard to know how many of these were actual farmers. We can presume that the bulk of these were from the frazioni on the periphery of the city.
  • ECCLESIASTICAL: Of those in ecclesiastical professions, 343 were priests, and 112 were nuns.

Comparison to Rural Communities

Clearly, the demographic profile of the city of Trento is significantly different from what we see when we look at the parish records for our Trentini ancestors in rural parishes. In those places, when professions are listed, they nearly always say ‘contadino’ (feminine = contadina), meaning a subsistence farmer. While I have no official statistics, based solely on my own observations, I would hazard a guess that a good 90% of the population would have described themselves a ‘contadini’ until the 20th century, even if they did other jobs to provide additional income (especially during the winter).

Poverty Level

One thing I find remarkable about this breakdown is that 215 people of the total number are described as ‘poor’ (and thus have no profession listed).

If we are to take this figure at face value, only 1% of the population of the city was living in poverty in 1890, a figure that most modern cities have never come close to attaining. For example, New York City – a place where so many Trentini immigrants settled only a generation after this survey of Trento was taken – released its annual report on poverty in May 2019, saying their poverty level had ‘dropped’ to from 20.6% (in 2014) to 19% in 2017.

It certainly makes me wonder as to the accuracy of the statistics and, if they are indeed accurate, as to the reasons for such a stark difference between poverty levels then and today.

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Some Surnames in the City of Trento in 1890

There is no way I could possibly list all the surnames on the 1890 survey, as there are just so many, but to give you a TASTE of some of the surnames in the survey, I’ve gleaned some from the list that I think might be recognisable to many of my readers. Please note that the original list contains no surnames starting in E, Q, X or Y. Also, Bertoluzza stresses that he has not ‘fixed’ any spelling errors, so the surname might again be spelled somewhat differently from how you might usually see it (I’ve tried my best to catch any typos of my own):

  • A: Altemburger, Ambrosi, Andreatta, Andreis, Andreotti, Anesi, Angeli, Avancini.
  • B: Baldessari, Beltrami, Benedetti, Benigni, Benuzzi, Berlanda, Bernardelli, Bertini, Bertoldi, Bertolini, Bonazza, Bonenti, Bortolotti, Bresciani.
  • C: Cagliari (Caliari), Callegari, Cappelletti, Carli, Cattoni, Catturani, Cesarini, Ceschi, Chiappani, Chistè, Chiusole, Ciani, Cognola, Conci, Corradini, Covi.
  • D: Dallago, Dallachiesa, Dallapiccola, Dalrì, Dante, Decarli, Degasperi, Depaoli, Donati, Dorigatti, Dorigoni, Dossi.
  • F: Fachinelli, Faes, Falzolgher, Fedrizzi, Felin (Fellin), Ferrari, Filippi, Fogarolli, Folghereiter, Fondo, Formenti, Fracalossi, Franceschini, Frizzera, Frizzi, Fronza, Furlani.
  • G: Garavaglia, Garbari, Gennari, Gentilini, Giacomelli, Giongo, Giordani, Giovannini, Girardi, Giuliani, Gius, Gnesetti, Gottardini, Gressel, Grossi.
  • H: Hamberger, Hochner, Hoffer, Huber.
  • I/J: Innocenti, Joriatti, Juffmann.
  • K: Kaiser, Kargruber, Kettmajer, Kein, Knoll, Koch, Kofler, Krautner.
  • L: Laner, Larcher, Largaiolli, Lazzeri, Lenzi, Leonardelli, Liberi, Lisimberti, Lodron (specifically Count Carlo), Longhi, Lorenzi, Lucci, Lunelli, Lutterotti.
  • M: Maestranzi, Maffei, Magnago, Maistrelli, Majer, Malfatti, Manara, Manazzali, Manci, Marchetti, Marconi, Margoni, Marietti, Martignoni, Mattasoni, Mattivi, Matuzzi, Mazzi, Menapace, Menestrina, Menghin (Menghini?), Mensa, Massenza, Michelloni, Monauni, Monegaglia, Moratti, Moser, Mosna.
  • N: Nadalini, Nardelli, Nardoni, de Negri, de Negri Pietro, Negri, Negriolli, Nichellatti, Nicolussi, Nones.
  • O: Oberzzauch, Oberziner, Olivieri, Olneider, Onestinghel, Ongari, Oss.
  • P: Palla, Panato, Panizza, Paoli, Paor, Paris, Parisi, Parolari, Pasolli, Pedroni, Pedrotti, Pegoretti, Peisser, Penner, Perghem, Pergher, Permer, Pernetti, Perzolli, Peterlongo, Petrolli, Piccinini, Piccoli, Piffer, Pintarelli, Pisetta, Pisoni, Planchel, Pligher, Podetti, Pollini, Pollo, Postinghel, Proch, Pruner, Puecher.
  • R: Ranzi, Ravanelli, Recla, Redi, Rella, Rigatti, Rohr, Rossi, Rizzieri, Rungg.
  • S: Salvadori, Salvotti, Sandri, Santoni, Sardagna, Sartori, Schmalz, Schreck, Scotoni, Secchi, Segatta, Sforzellini, Sicher, Sidoli, Sironi, Sizzo, Sluca, Stanchina, Stenico, Stolziz.
  • T: Tabarelli de Fatis, Tagini, Tamanini, Tambosi, Taxis, Tecilla, Thun, Toller, Tommasi, Tommasoni, Tonioni, Tononi, Torrelli, Torresani, Tranquillini, Travioni, Trentini, Turrini.
  • U: Untervegher (that’s the ONLY letter ‘U’).
  • V: Vais, Valentini, Vanzetta, Veronesi, Viero, Visintainer, Vitti, Volpi, Voltolini.
  • W: Waldhart, Webber, Widessot, Wolkenstein, Wolff.
  • Z: Zambelli, Zambra, Zamboni, Zampedri, Zanella, Zanini, Zanolini, Zanolli, Zanollo, Zanotti, Zanzotti, Zatelli, Zeni, Zippel, Zottele, Zotti, Zucchelli.

As you read through this list, please bear in mind:

  • Although the survey counted all the residents, the NAMES in the survey are only of the property owners.
  • If you do see your surname here, it does not necessarily mean these specific individuals are related to you.
  • Seeing your surname here also does not necessarily indicate an ancestral link to the city of Trento. Many (if not most) city dwellers have their origins in other parts of the province (or beyond).
  • ALL names containing the letters ‘K’ or ‘W’ are Germanic in origin, as these letters are not used in the Italian language.

Bertoluzza’s Study of the History of Trentino Surnames

As I’ve drawn the information for this article primarily from Bertoluzza’s Libro della Cittadinanza di Trento: Storia e tradizione del cognome Trentino, it would be remiss of me not to mention what constitutes the lion’s share of the book, even though it is not directly connected to today’s topic.

Bertoluzza’s forte is as a linguistic historian of names. Indeed, on pages 31-41 of Libro della Cittadinanza, he illustrates how different surnames have their origins in personal names, nicknames, place names, animal names, occupations, etc. Then, from pages 63-211, he gives a detailed study of the history of specific Trentino surnames. Interestingly, virtually none of these surnames appear either in the 1577 Libro della Cittadinanza or in the 1890 survey of the city of Trento. In fact, the majority of these surnames appear in various valleys around the province, and not in the city at all.

It does make me scratch my head a bit because it is difficult to understand why all these disparate pieces of work appear in the same book. But I’ve found this kind of ‘patchwork’ approach to be the case in several other Trentino histories, to be fair.

I cannot help but feel that this 1975 publication was a precursor to Bertoluzza’s ‘bible’ of surnames, Guida ai Cognomi del Trentino, which he published in 1998. That book has long been my ‘go to’ source of information on the history and evolution of Trentino surnames. Still, Bertoluzza’s study of surnames in his (perhaps misleadingly titled) Libro della Cittadinanza di Trento has some details that appear to have been edited out and streamlined for his more well-known Guida; I think it really is a goldmine of information.

If you can read Italian and you’re a serious researcher, I do recommend trying to find a copy of this now out-of-print gem of a book.

Coming Up Next Time: The DEANERY of Trento

This article has focused on looking at the city of Trento since the beginning of the 19th century through the lens of its nature as a municipality, governed by a civil administration.

But while this information is surely useful in helping us understand everyday lives of the citizens of Trento and its frazioni, for us as genealogists, it is far more important to understand the ecclesiastical organisation of the deanery of Trento.

So, next time, we will look in detail at:

  • The CATHOLIC PARISHES that come under the DECANATO (deanery) of Trento.
  • The CURAZIE (curate parishes) within each of these parishes.
  • FRAZIONI that are part of the municipality of Trento , but NOT part of the deanery of Trento (e.g. Meano).
  • The SURVIVING PARISH REGISTERS that are available for research in each of the above.

Once we’ve finished our genealogical tour of the city of Trento, we’ll move on to our tour of the rest of the province – starting with an exploration of VAL DI NON.

I hope you’ll join me for the upcoming instalments in this series ‘Trentino Valleys, Parishes and People: A Guide for Genealogists’. To be sure to receive these and all future articles from Trentino Genealogy, simply subscribe to the blog using the form below.

Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
22 May 2020

P.S. As you probably know, my spring trip to Trento was cancelled due to COVID-19 lockdowns. However, I do have the resources to do a fair bit of research for many clients from home, and will have some openings for new clients from 15 June 2020.  If you would like to book a time to discuss having me do research for you, 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.

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

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

View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://trentinogenealogy.com/my-tree/

REFERENCES

ANZILOTTI, Giulia Maistrelli. 2003. Toponomastica Trentina: I Nomi delle Località Abitate. Trento: Provincia Autonoma di Trento, Servizio Beni librari e archivistici.

BERTOLUZZA, Aldo. 1975. Libro della Cittadinanza di Trento: Storia e tradizione del cognome Trentino. Trento: Dossi Editore.

And Google Maps. 

Trento – The City and Surnames Before the Year 1600

Trentino Valleys, Parish and People: A Guide for Genealogists. Part 2: Trento before 1600..

The people and surnames of the city of Trento before the year 1600. Part 2 of ‘Trentino Valleys, Parishes and People: A Guide for Genealogists’ by Lynn Serafinn.

Last time, in Part 1 in this special series on Trentino valleys, I gave you an overview of the CIVIL and CHURCH structures in Italy, as well as the VALLEYS in the Province of Trentino (sometimes called the Province of Trento). We also explored the political history of the province, looked at the former office of the PRINCE BISHOP of Trento, and discussed how the Catholic Church has been the most stable institution in Trentino throughout the centuries.

If you haven’t read that article, or if you are unfamiliar with these topics, I invite you to check it out at https://trentinogenealogy.com/2020/01/trentino-valley-parishes-guide/

MORE READING:   Trentino Valleys, Parishes and People. A Guide for Genealogists.

What We’ll Look at Today

Today, I want to start a detailed discussion on the CITY of Trento. As there is a lot of material to cover, I have split the subject into 3 different articles:

  1. In TODAY’S ARTICLE, we’ll look at Trento before the year 1600, including a bit of history and an interesting examination of the SURNAMES present in the city up to that year.
  2. In the next article, we’ll look at Trento in the 19th century, including its population, surnames, occupations and other demographics. We’ll also look at how the city is divided into various municipalities (comuni).
  3. Then, in the article to follow, we’ll look at the PARISHES that come under the DECANATO (deanery) of Trento, and the records that are available for research in each.

Getting Oriented – Trentino vs Trento

Last time, I shared a map with you from the book Toponomastica Trentina: I Nomi delle Località Abitate by Giulia Maistrelli Anzilotti, in which she organised the province of Trentino into 23 areas, largely defined by their valleys:

 

MAP: Valleys of the Province of Trentino (Trento)

Click on map to see it larger

If you look closely at the map, you’ll see there’s a big ZERO in the centre, which refers to the greater metropolitan area of the CITY OF TRENTO:

I’ve chosen the city of Trento as our starting point as we explore the province for these important reasons:

  1. Many beginning researchers CONFUSE the city itself with the PROVINCE; I would like to highlight how it is different.
  2. Many descendants of Trentino emigrants are LESS FAMILIAR with the city of Trento than with their specific ancestral parishes. This is surely because the vast majority of those who immigrated from the province in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came from RURAL valleys.
  3. The city of Trento was a HUGELY important religious, political and cultural influence in our ancestors’ lives – even those who lived in the most rural parts of the province.

A Snapshot of Trento Before 1600

Situated on the River Adige in Val D’Adige, the area we know as Trento has been settled for thousands of years. Originally home of the Rhaetian people and other tribes, the ROMANS also loved Trento, calling it ‘Tridentum’, meaning ‘three teeth’, referring to the three mountain peaks within which the city is situated. In fact, beneath the present-day city can visit the ruins of the ancient streets and homes dating back to the Roman era.

During the medieval era, Trento blossomed into a cathedral city – the seat of the Bishopric of Trento. There was once a quarry on the north side of the city, which was the source of the distinctive pink and white stone that was used for pavement and flooring in every part of that medieval city. From the floors in the Duomo of San Vigilio, to those in the magnificent Castello del Buonconsiglio, to the city streets themselves, to the ‘Tre Portoni’ archways leading to Palazzo delle Albere, you will see these pink and white stones everywhere. If you look closely at this stone, you will notice the fossils of ammonites, indicating this entire area had been under the sea many millions of year ago.

When I first started looking at old maps of Trento (such as the one in the image at the top of this page), I was baffled because the River Adige seemed to curve around and ‘embrace’ the city in such a way that it does not do today. I also knew from historical source that the 12th century Badia di San Lorenzo (Abbey of Saint Anthony) – which is now just a short walk from Trento railway station – was originally built on the opposite bank of the River Adige, away from the rest of the city. But according to an article published in Journal of Maps in 2018, ‘the Adige River was subjected to massive channelisation works during the nineteenth century, to ensure flood protection, to reclaim agricultural land, and to facilitate navigation and terrestrial transportation.’ Thus, the layout of the city today is not exactly how most of our ancestors would have seen in it the past.

Historically, Trento is perhaps most famous as the site of the Concilio di Trento (Council of Trento), which took place in the mid-1500s. The Council of Trento was an especially significant event to us as genealogists, as it was here that the keeping of parish registers was mandated by the Catholic Church.

If you want to find out more about the Concilio di Trento, I refer you to this video of one my past ‘Filò Friday’ podcasts, where I talk about the council in some detail – including how the managed to fit thousands of delegates and their servants into a relatively small urban centre:

CIVIL RECORDS – Libro della Cittadinanza di Trento (1577)

One of the first things many family historians do when starting their family tree is look for census records. From these, we can get a snapshot of family groups and their neighbourhoods, often learning names, ages, places of birth, occupation, date of immigration (especially in US docs), etc.

Early forms of census records (although they weren’t called this) existed in Trentino, but rarely did they look like the kind of census records with which we are familiar today. With specific reference to the city of Trento, one good example is the Libro della Cittadinanza (Citizenship Book of Trento), written in 1577 – only a few years after the Concilio di Trento (Council of Trento).

Below is an image of the original cover, with its metal cornices:

Frontspiece of 'Libro della Cittadinanza' (Citizenship Book of Trento), from 1577.NOTE: Before I continue, I should mention that all the images and information I have gleaned about the 1577 Libro della Cittadinanza has been taken Aldo Bertoluzza’s work Libro della Cittadinanza di Trento: Storia e tradizione del cognome Trentino (Citizenship Book of Trento: History and tradition of the surnames of Trentino), published in 1975.

Compiled by a specially selected panel consuls, the purpose of the 1577 Libro della Cittadinanza was to create an official register of the ‘citizens’ of the city of Trento.

Page 1 of the book, printed on parchment, and decorated in gold, is a fascinating piece of art showing the stemmi (crests / coats-of-arms) of these 10 consuls. In the centre is the famous L‘Aquila di S. Venceslao (Eagle of San Wenceslaus), which has been the stemma, and indeed the symbol, of the province of Trento since 1339:

Cover of 1577 Libro della Cittadinanza di Trento, showing the coat-of-arms of the 10 consuls.

For the sake of the artwork, the names of the 10 consuls are abbreviated, but they are spelled out on page 2 of the book. Here they are from top to bottom and left to right:

    1. NIC : BAL = His Excellency Dr Nicolo’ Balduino
    2. ODO : PAU = His Excellency Dr Odorico Paurenfaint
    3. GUI : SAR = Guglielmo Saracino
    4. THO : CA = Thomio Cazuffo
    5. EVA : FIG = Evangelista Figino
    6. GIO : REN = His Excellency Dr Giovanni Rener
    7. HIL : PI = Hiliprando Piber
    8. VIC : CON = Vincenzo Consola, Attorney
    9. HIE : BALD = Hieronimo Baldirone, Collector
    10. IOB : IOB = Iob de Iob, Councillor

The Idea of ‘Citizenship’

The consuls expressed the desire to bring back the original concept of ‘citizenship’ as it had been perceived by the ancient Romans, i.e. that it was not a title given to anyone who decided to live in the city, but to those who actively contributed to the welfare of the city in some way. Thus, criminals or vagrants (they mention murders, etc.) could not be ‘citizens’; nor could people who had only recently moved to the city or who were just passing through.

They also said ‘stranieri’ (foreigners) could not qualify as citizens, a word that makes me raise my eyebrows. ‘Stranieri’ could be a long-term label, linked to ethnicity. In other words, a family of a race/ethnic group who were socially deemed as ‘outsiders’ could have been living in the city for centuries, but never given the privilege of citizenship. I haven’t looked into what this definition meant specifically in Trento (so I don’t want to make any suggestions), but it certainly makes me curious.

With those guidelines in mind, the Council decided to collate and organise data from earlier documents (one from 1528 and others from the 1400s), that listed the families who had owned property in the city of Trento, and then combine this information with the names of those who had purchased property in the city since those dates. The idea was that any time someone bought property (including ‘tavernas’ or other places where guests could stay) they would be added organically to the list, thus keeping an ongoing picture of the so-called ‘citizens’ of the city.

Once the initial book was completed, they declared this ‘Citizenship Book’ would forever be faithfully guarded by the City Council, and that anyone who was not listed in the book would not be entitled to any benefit or privilege of the city.

Thus, while historically fascinating, from a genealogical perspective, the Libro della Cittadinanza cannot be seen as a ‘census’ in the true sense of the word, as it doesn’t give us the full picture of the population of the city.

Some Trento Surnames Before 1577

On pages 16-23 of Bertoluzza’s book from 1975, he lists ALL the names from the 1577 Libro della Cittadinanza di Trento. As there are hundreds of names, I cannot possibly list them here; moreover, it is difficult to ‘scan’ through them, as they were entered as and when new landowners were recorded.

Here’s a random sampling of some of the surnames that were obviously entered from pre-1577 entries:

Alberti, Alessandrina, Approvina, Balduino, Banali, Berlina, Betta of Arco, Bomporta, Bona, Brunora, Caleppina, Calvetto, Cazuffa, Chiusola, Colomba, Del Libera, Galla, Gaudenta, Gelpha, Gentilotta, Gratiadea, Guarienta of Rallo, Hibinger, Hilipranda, Hilti, Ianona, Lodron, (the family of Casa) Marazzona, Marchetti of Cadene, Mathioli, Mazzola, Micheletta, Mirana, Morella, Mozzatti, Nigra called ‘Usbalda’, The Family of Paho, Paurinfaint, Ponchina, Pratta, Pronsteter, Raino, Rochabruna, Romagnana, Rovereta, Saracina, Serena, Sizza, Sratimpergera, Tabarella, Ticina, Tiler, Tonello of Vezzano, Toner, Trilacha, Worema, Zello.

It is important to bear in mind that standardised spelling was simply NOT a consideration until the 20th century. And, when you also consider the fact that formal surnames really had only come into common practice around the 1400s, we might begin to understand why these surnames might look so unfamiliar to us. Names were usually written phonetically, according to how the person recording the record heard it, which surely explains why so many Germanic names are spelled weirdly by Italian-speaking priests.

But even when working solely within Italianate surnames, there are a number of permutations you are likely to see from one record to another:

    • Final vowels might differ.
    • Internal vowels might differ.
    • Double/single consonants might differ.

These permutations in older records do NOT signify a different surname as they might today. Some of the names in the above list might look more familiar if we apply these permutations ‘rules’ to find its more modern form. For example:

    • Balduino = Balduini
    • Calvetto = Calvetti
    • Cazuffa = Cazzuffi
    • Chiusola = Chiusole
    • Colomba = Colombini (maybe)
    • Guarienta = Guarienti
    • Micheletta = Micheletti or Micheletto
    • Mirana = Marana
    • Morella = Morelli
    • Nigra = Negra
    • Tabarella = Tabarelli
    • Ticina = Tecini
    • Pratta = Prati

Moreover, certain consonants were more or less interchangeable in the past. A ‘z’, for example could be replaced by a ‘ci’, ‘gi’ or ‘ti’ (and vice versa) depending on the preference of the writer. For example, these names on the list might be more commonly seen thusly (although I must stress that I am only hypothesising here):

    • Gaudenta = Gaudenzi
    • Gratiadea = Graziadei
    • Zello = Celli

Lastly, some people appear not to have be recorded by a surname at all; rather, they are identified by their place of origin. For example:

    • ‘(The family of the Casa) Marazzona’ surely refers to the frazione of Marazzone in Bleggio (Val Giudicarie). There really is only a handful of families living in this village during that era. I haven’t yet tried to figure out who this might be referring to, but I am sure this is what it means.
    • ‘Rovereta’ is most likely referring to someone who came from Rovereto.
    • ‘Raino’ is most likely referring to someone from that frazione of Raina in the parish of Castelfondo (Val di Non). It is the ancestral home for families like the Genetti.
    • ‘Chiusola’ (Chiusole) is both a surname and a place name in Villa Lagarina. The place is the indigenous home of that family. It’s impossible to know from this document alone if it was already used as a formal surname in the early 1500s.
    • ‘Paho’ is an early form of the name of a comune now called ‘Povo’, which is in the south-eastern part of the present-day city. A curate parish in existence at last as far back as the year 1131, it was well beyond the city walls when this record was made. The entry refers to them as ‘the family or house(hold) of Paho’. Thus, this label appears to be referring to a property owner in that village.

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Some Trento Surnames Between 1577-1600

As we progress through the list chronologically, names become slightly more familiar to those of us who had worked with Trentino records. Here’s a random sampling of some of the surnames that were entered later, between 1577-1600. I’ve omitted names that were also in the earlier batch, even if they were spelled a bit differently:

Baldessar, Baldino, Baldiron, Basso, Belotto, Bennasu’, Bertello, Bevilacqua, Bonmartino, Brissiani, Busetto, Capri of Vigol Vatta, Cestar of Cognola, Chalianer, Crosino, Cusano, Dori of Oltracastel de Poho, Figino, Galliciolo, Gerardi, Giordani, Gottardo, Guidottino, Iob, Luchio, Malacarne, Martini of Terlago, Migazzi, Montagna, Nassimbeni of the Zudigaria, Novello, Particella, Piber, Ropelle, Sarafin of Villaza de Poho, Tessadri, Torre, Trentini, Vida of Zuzà di Tion, Voltolino.

These names start to ‘feel’ more familiar to me, as they resemble more closely (and in some cases are the same as) the forms of these surnames as I have seen them in the parish records, which started not long before this in the 1560s.

Surnames in the above list that are identical to how I’ve typically seen them written include:

    • Bevilacqua
    • Dori
    • Gerardi
    • Giordani
    • Iob
    • Malacarne
    • Martini
    • Montagna
    • Tessadri
    • Torre
    • Trentini

Many others need only a slight tweak to see their more well-known forms. If we apply the same ‘permutation rules’ we used for the previous batch to some of these names, we see can see:

    • Baldessar = Baldessari
    • Belotto = Belotti / Bellotti
    • Bennasu’ = Benassuti (see more below)
    • Bertello = Bertolli
    • Busetto = Busetti
    • Cestar = Cestari
    • Crosino = Crosina (see more below)
    • Gottardo = Gottardi
    • Guidottino = Guidottini
    • Luchio = Luchi (perhaps)
    • Ropelle = Ropele
    • Voltolino = Voltolini

One linguistic permutation we did not see on the earlier list is the interchangeability between ‘ss’ and ‘sc’, if followed by the letter ‘i’. If we apply this along with other needed shifts, we see:

    • Brissiani = Bresciani / Bressiani
    • Nassimbeni = Nascimbeni

In modern Italian, the combination ‘sci’ is pronounced like ‘shi’; a double ‘s’ makes the consonant soft, like the last letters in the word ‘hiss’. It seems likely, these two consonant combinations were pronounced much the same when they appeared before the letter ‘i’ the middle of a word.

Notable Citizens from the Rural Valleys

What I find exciting about this later batch of ‘citizens’ is that I actually recognise a few of the individuals, as they cross into my own family history (although not as direct ancestors). Specifically:

  • Messer Thomio Bennasu’ (the accent is part of the name), entered into the book in 1576, refers to Tommaso Benassuti, who came from the noble Benassuti family of Tignerone in Bleggio (Val Giudicarie). Although the record does not give his village of origin, I know it from several other sources, where Tommaso has been cited as a notary who worked in Trento throughout his adult life.
  • His Excellency Messer Thomio Crosino, ‘phisico’, who was entered into the in 1585 refers to Dr Tommaso Crosina, a medical doctor from the noble Crosina family of Balbido (also in Bleggio). Again, his village of origin is not mentioned in the book, but his life and ancestry are well documented by many historians and descendants, going back to the 1200s when the Crosinas fled Padova to take refuge in Val Giudicarie.

I am distantly related to both of these men, via lines of their families that stayed behind in Bleggio in rural Val Giudicarie, which is the primary focus of my personal research. As such, I’ve done a fair bit of research on both of these families, albeit not so much after these migrations to the city of Trento.

People and Places

As they started to enter the names of more recent citizens in the Liber, the Consuls became more precise about recording places of residence and/or origin.

Three on the above list are specifically said to come from villages that lie on the outskirts of the city of Trento, and which are today included as part of the greater municipality of the city. I think it’s worth looking at them, as we’ll be talking more about these places in the next article. These are:

    • Dori of Oltracastel de Poho. ‘Poho’ is another antiquated spelling for the comune (town) of ‘Povo’. ‘Oltracastel’ is a variant spelling for ‘Oltrecastello’, which is a frazione (hamlet) of Povo.
    • Sarafin of Villaza de Poho. Here we see the comune of Povo again, but this time the person is from a different frazione: Villaza, which is an antiquated spelling for Villazzano. Villazzano was originally considered to be part of Povo, but it has now been its own comune for some time.
    • Cestar of Cognola. Cognola is another comune of the city of Trento. It is a bit north of Povo, on the eastern side of the city.

Other people on this list who are said to have come from places outside the city include:

    • Capri of Vigol Vatta, i.e. Vigolo Vattaro, a comune east of Trento, about midway between Mattarello and Lago Caldonazzo.
    • Martini of Terlago, a comune in Valle dei Laghi.
    • Gerardo Nassimbeni (Nascimbeni) of the ‘Zudigaria’, which is an antiquated spelling for (Val) Giudicarie. This surname does appear in Val Giudicarie during this era, but it’s a pretty big valley, and I wouldn’t be able to guess at where he was from. He is described as a ‘host’ which means he owned a taverna or some other kind of accommodation for travellers and pilgrims. As this list of citizens refers to property owners, it is possible he owned the property in the city but kept his home in the rural valley.
    • Vida of Zuzà di Tion. ‘Zuzà’ is an antiquated spelling for the comune of ‘Giugia’ in Tione (Val Giudicarie). Although ‘Vida’ is a surname, it’s not one I’ve seen in Tione. My hunch is this man’s surname may actually have been Bonavida, which was present in the villages around Preore and Tione during this era.
    • A word about Francesco Brissiani (i.e. ‘Bresciani’) who appears in the book in 1577: Although no place of origin is mentioned for him, we can infer from the name itself that his family originally came from the province of Brescia in Lombardia. This surname appears in many parts of the province, especially those areas in the southwest, which are adjacent to the border with the Brescia. It’s a very old name in Trentino, so how long Francesco’s family had been in Trentino at this time is not something I could possibly guess.

The Fate of the ‘Liber’

In Bertoluzza’s rendition, there is a cross in the left margin next to the names of families that have since gone extinct, which appears to include just about everyone. But, while Bertoluzza doesn’t specify, it seems clear he means the descendants of these families are no longer property owners in the city of Trento, and not necessarily that these families have gone ‘extinct’ altogether.

Sadly, the original intention of the book itself appears to have had a limited impact, as it was not used as fastidiously as the Consuls had mandated. By the 1800s, we see only a handful of names listed, which certainly do not represent all the property owners of the city in that century. Bertoluzza says the Liber appears to have devolved into a register of ‘honorary’ citizens than a true, comprehensive list, even if only of property owners.

Thus, as a source for genealogists, the Liber might be useful to those whose families lived or owned property in the city in the 1500s and early 1600s, but for those whose families were farmers and/or stayed in other parts of the province, it may only hold some historical interest.

Coming Up Next Time

In the next article, we’ll move forward in time, and examine the 1890 Survey of the City of Trento, which is a goldmine of information about the city during the era when many of our ancestors will have migrated from the province.

In that article, we’ll look at the population, surnames, occupations, languages and other demographics of the people living in the city at in the late 19th century. We’ll also explore the civil comuni and neighbourhoods within the municipality of Trento.

Click HERE to read that article now:

MORE READING:   Trento in the 1800s. Frazioni, Occupations, Surnames

After that, we’ll conclude our discussion on the city of Trento with a discussion on the parishes that come under the DECANATO (deanery) of Trento, with details about the records that are available for research in each.

Once we’ve finished our genealogical tour of the city of Trento, we’ll start to move on to our tour of the rest of the province – moving first to an exploration of Val di Non.

I hope you’ll join me in the upcoming stops on the tour of the province in this series ‘Trentino Valleys, Parishes and People: A Guide for Genealogists’. To be sure to receive these and all future articles from Trentino Genealogy, simply subscribe to the blog using the form below.

Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
28 April 2020

P.S. As you probably know, my spring trip to Trento was cancelled due to COVID-19 lockdowns. However, I do have the resources to do a fair bit of research for many clients from home, and will have some openings for new clients from 1 June 2020.  If you would like to book a time to discuss having me do research for you, 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.

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

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

View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://trentinogenealogy.com/my-tree/

REFERENCES

ANZILOTTI, Giulia Maistrelli. 2003. Toponomastica Trentina: I Nomi delle Località Abitate. Trento: Provincia Autonoma di Trento, Servizio Beni librari e archivistici.

BERTOLUZZA, Aldo. 1975. Libro della Cittadinanza di Trento: Storia e tradizione del cognome Trentino. Trento: Dossi Editore.

SCORPIO, Vittoria; SURIAN, Nicola; CUCATO, Maurizio; DAI PRÁ, Elena; ZOLEZZI, Guido; COMITI, Francesco. ‘Channel changes of the Adige River (Eastern Italian Alps) over the last 1000 years and identification of the historical fluvial corridor’. Journal of Maps. Volume 14, 2018, Issue 2. Published 19 Nov 2018.  Accessed 27 April 2020 from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17445647.2018.1531074

Trentino Valleys, Parishes and People. A Guide for Genealogists.

Trentino Valleys, Parishes and People. A Guide for Genealogists.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn examines the valleys, villages and parishes in the Province of Trentino, and the people who lived there. Part 1 in series.

It seems at least once a week, whether I am speaking with a new client or a new member of our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook, I find I myself having to explain many basics about Trentino geography and localities. But for some reason, despite the obvious need, I’ve never yet discussed the subject of geography in any detail on this website.

Now, if your immediate, involuntary response to the word ‘geography’ is to yawn, you’re not alone. For me, it conjures up recollections of my 7th grade geography class in Catholic school on Long Island, where we had to memorise all the local industries of Schenectady, New York, and so on.

YAWN indeed!

Perhaps my own avoidance of the topic was due to those images of me struggling to stay awake at the back of Sister Rose Winifred’s classroom. Or, perhaps on an unconscious level, I was also worried my readers would find it a sleepy subject, even if it is crucial to our full understanding of our ancestors’ lives.

It seems my concerns were not completely unfounded. To find out whether I was being too subjective, I recently polled our Facebook group, asking them what they thought about my writing an article series on the topic of the geography of Trentino, but with a genealogical focus.

Of the 49 people who responded:

    • 35 said they thought it was a great idea.
    • 10 said it sounded good, but they weren’t sure the topic would sustain their interest (especially if it was spread across many articles).
    • 4, including some experienced researchers, said they weren’t sure (possibly because they had no idea of how I would broach the subject)
    • Nobody said they thought it was a bad idea. Perhaps some were just being polite. 😉

So, while a clear majority liked the idea with some enthusiasm, I cannot ignore the fact that over a quarter of the responses expressed some doubt about the topic.

Therein lay my challenge:

How could I present the subject of the geography of Trentino in such a way that it could sustain the interest – and be useful to – beginners through advanced researchers?

I believe the key to that challenge lies in examining not just where places are on a map, but also WHO is in those places, and HOW people and places are connected.

MESSAGE TO ADVANCED RESEARCHERS: Article 1 in this series is, by necessity, going to cover some basics, which some of you with more experience and knowledge are likely to want to ‘skim’. But I promise you, as this series progresses, it will become far more detailed and specific, combining information from many different Italian resources. So, even if you want don’t read every word of this introductory article, I humbly ask that you to get a feeling for where I will be going from here. My sincere hope is that this series will ultimately become a valuable ‘go to’ reference for you and all my readers.

So, let’s begin…

The Four ‘Lenses’ of Geography

Geography is actually a multidimensional subject. It is not just about lumps and bumps on a map, but a complex set of interrelated factors. It isn’t just about where things are, but how they are divvied up, what they are called and who has ‘dominion’ over them.

Thus, in this series, I’d like to explore Trentino ‘geography’ through these different ‘lenses’:

    1. Civil, i.e. the state
    2. Ecclesiastical, i.e. the church
    3. Geographic, i.e. the land itself
    4. People

These lenses are inextricable intertwined. Only by considering them as a whole can we attempt to create an accurate, historical and cultural portrait of any land – and its people.

‘People’ are inevitably part of the geographic landscape. People create, respond to, adapt to and change everything within the other three lenses. Their surnames, language, customs, beliefs and behaviour cannot truly be understood in a vacuum, without the context of geography.

And none of these factors can be understood outside the dynamics of time. While changes in the lay of the land itself may not be as apparent to us (although rivers are frequently shifting their path), state and church boundaries are constantly in flux, and people have always moved from one place to another. Thus, ‘time’ is an overarching container in which these four lenses dwell and move.

Many family historians become disproportionately focused on the ‘people’ lens, often at a somewhat ‘micro’ level. That is to say, they tend to collect names, dates, and other facts about of specific families (usually their own) without giving a great deal of attention to the multidimensional context in when those people lived.

Conversely, so many ‘pure historians’ give a disproportionate amount of weight to the importance the state (governments, politics, wars, etc.), at the expense of the geographic or demographic lenses.

Both of these approaches to history can result in a somewhat myopic view, missing the richness of our ancestors’ experiences of life. Only by taking a multidimensional approach to family history can we begin to understand how people and their institutions are inevitably interdependent with the land.

CIVIL STRUCTURE: Italian Regions and Provinces

As discussed in my article Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?, the province of Trentino has ‘belonged’ to many different political powers throughout the centuries. Although my discussion of ‘civil structure’ will be about Trentino within the CURRENT ‘nation’ we know as ‘Italy’ today, please understand that everything I write about Trentino is referring to the SAME place, regardless of whether it was then part of the Holy Roman Empire, Austria or Italy.

So, let’s have a look at this place called ‘Italy’ and how it is divided up at a civil/political level.

For the most part, Italy’s CIVIL structure is broken down like this:

Region –> Province –> Municipality –> Village

I say ‘for the most part’ because there are some places where provinces and comuni were replaced by other entities; but as this is the structure that applies to our current topic, we’ll stick to that as a guideline.

The Italian words for these terms are:

Regione –> Provincia –> Comune –> Frazione

In the present-day country of Italy, there are currently 20 regions, 110 provinces, nearly 8,000 comuni, and I have NO idea how many frazioni.

Region

The region under discussion in this article series is Trentino-Alto-Adige, which is highlighted in RED in the map below:

trentino-alto-adige-location-on-the-italy-map
Downloaded 18 Jan 2020 from http://ontheworldmap.com/italy/region/trentino-alto-adige/trentino-alto-adige-location-on-the-italy-map.html. Note that many of these are the English spellings. Lombardy, for example, is Lombardia in Italian.

In this map, we can see easily that Trentino-Alto Adige is the northernmost region in the country. It is situated the Dolomite mountain range, part of the Alpine system.

Province

Regions generally have more than one province.

If we zoom in more closely, we can see that the region of Trentino-Alto Adige is divided into two provinces: Trentino and South Tyrol (synonymously called ‘Alto Adige’ or the ‘Province of Bolzano’):

trentino-alto-adige_hotels
Downloaded 18 Jan 2020 from http://www.hotelstravel.com/italy-ta.html

Boundaries for the provinces have remained reasonably the stable over the past century, with some exceptions. For example, the area known as Valvestino (west of Lago del Garda) was historically part of Trentino, but was given to the province of Brescia (in the Region of Lombardia) in 1934.

Your will often see Trentino referred to as the ‘Province of Trento’ (Provincia di Trento). This can sometimes be confusing for someone unfamiliar with the area, as ‘Trento’ is also the name of the capital city. For that reason, I will always say ‘Trentino’ when referring to the province and use the word ‘Trento’ when referring to the city (unless I specify ‘Province of Trento’).

Similarly, you might see the Province of South Tyrol referred to as ‘Alto Adige’ as well as the ‘Province of Bolzano’. However, recently the shift towards its historic name of ‘South Tyrol’ has taken precedent.

Is Trentino the Same as Tyrol?

Today, it NOT technically correct to refer to Trentino as ‘Tyrol’ or ‘South Tyrol’, even though many descendants of Trentino immigrants who left the province before or shortly after it became part of Italy identified themselves as ‘Tyrolean’. I have lived in England for over 20 years, and if you say ‘South Tyrol’ to anyone here in the UK or in continental Europe, they will always assume you are referring to the South Tyrol as it appears on the map above, not Trentino. Again, cultural identity does not always match up with current political boundaries.

So, for this study, I will never refer to Trentino as Tyrol or South Tyrol, even though I know and agree that many readers might think of themselves as ‘Tyrolean’.

Comuni

As a comune (plural comuni) is a local administrative entity, their boundaries are frequently in a state of flux, as populations shift. For example, for many centuries my father’s comune was Bleggio; within the past decade or so, his area became part of the comune of Comano.

Note that comuni are the keepers of local CIVIL records.

Frazioni

The word frazione (plural frazioni) literally means ‘fraction’, but a better translation would be ‘village’ or (in many cases) ‘hamlet’. Sometimes, instead of frazione, you might see the terms contrada, località (which be just a few houses in a rural area) or maso/mansu (a homestead for a single or extended family).

Unlike comuni, the boundaries of rural frazioni tend to withstand change over the centuries. This is because they aren’t really administrative entities, but simply inhabited places that have become a part of the landscape. Their names might change slightly (as is normal for anything linguistic over time), and they are also likely to have local dialect variants. My grandmother’s frazione of Bono, for instance, has been in existence by that name for at least 800 years, but local people (especially in the past) often called it ‘Boo’ (‘Boh’) in dialect.

LINKS: Resources for Italian Civil Entities

As civil structures are often confusing, here are two good websites for navigating through Italian civil architecture:

    • indettaglio.ithttp://italia.indettaglio.it/eng/index.html. The link is for the English version of the site. On the left side of your screen, you will find links to the regions, provinces, towns and villages of Italy.
    • Comuni Italiani – http://www.comuni-italiani.it/. This site provides similar information to the one above. It’s not in English, but navigating is fairly intuitive, even if you don’t understand Italian.

ECCLESIASTICAL STRUCTURE: How the Catholic Church is Organised

While understanding the CIVIL structure of Italy is surely important, it is arguably even more important that a genealogist researching in Trentino (or anywhere on the Italian peninsula) understand the ECCLESIASTICAL structure of the Roman Catholic Church.

Like the State, the Church also has a hierarchical structure overseeing the administrative and spiritual needs of its congregations. While the Pope in Rome is at the top of this chain, for our purposes, we only need to consider the part of this hierarchy with ‘diocese’ at the top.

In English, this is:

Diocese –> Deanery –> Parish –> Curate

Or, in Italian:

Diocesi –> Decanato –> Parrocchia (Pieve) –> Curazia

Diocese

As you can gather from this breakdown, a diocese oversees the operations of many parishes.

SOME dioceses are roughly analogous to a civil province or a region in Italy, but not all.

The (civil) Province of Trento is indeed covered by ONE diocese, also called ‘The Archdiocese of Trento’ (Arcidiocesi di Trento). The term ‘archdiocese’ does not mean it has jurisdiction over other dioceses. Rather, it refers to a diocese with a very large Catholic population, typically including a large metropolitan area. It may not be as large in terms of square miles as other, less densely populated, dioceses.

The head of a diocese is the Bishop; similarly, the head of an archdiocese is the Archbishop.

The geographic boundaries of the diocese of Trento have remained mostly unchanged throughout the centuries, regardless of the civil political situation. Thus, the Diocese of Trento is the most stable and important source of historical information for the Trentino genealogist.

Deanery

Called decanato in Italian, a deanery is a kind of ‘mother parish’ overseeing the operations of a group of parishes in the same geographic area.

For the genealogist, it can be useful to know the decanati overseeing your ancestors’ parishes, as they may sometimes contain duplicate records OR may have been the sole repository for another parish records during a certain era. Having this information can be especially useful when you reach a dead end in your research and have no idea of where to go next.

Like comuni, the boundaries of deaneries have sometimes shifted as populations have shifted, in order to ensure smooth administrative operations. Knowing when and how these changes occurred can also be helpful for the genealogist.

Parish

The parish (parrocchia or pieve) is the church entity with which most readers will be most familiar. A parish refers to the geographic parameters within which people of the same faith (in this case, Roman Catholic) attend the same church.

In Italian, the priest who is the head of a parish is called its parroco or pievano. Often translated as ‘parish priest’, many English speakers may be more familiar with the term ‘pastor’.

The geographic parameters of most large parishes in Trento have been fairly stable throughout the centuries, although they may have fallen under different deaneries over the years. Like the diocese, parishes really are cornerstones of genealogical research.

Curate

A curate church/parish (curazia) is a kind of ‘satellite’ parish, subordinate to the primary parish church.

Many rural areas will have curate churches that serve their local community because the main parish church is some distance away. These curate churches will often deliver Sunday Mass, and sometimes marriages and funerals; baptisms, however, will usually take place at the main parish church.

Curate churches to not normally keep their own parish records; rather, the main parish church will do that for them. Some curate churches become large enough to become independent parishes, offering baptisms, and maintaining their own records (but the main parish church is likely to keep duplicates).

In your research, you might see the records for a curate church suddenly stop. This is usually an indication you have reached the point in time before it had become entitled to keep its own records. For example, Romallo only started keeping its own records in the 20th century; before then, all its records were kept in the parish of Revò.

Thus, it is essential for a genealogist to know the connection between the main parishes and curate churches in their ancestors’ geographic area.

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The Diocese of Trento as Both Church and State

While many other dioceses in the world have shifted over the centuries, the parameters of the Archdiocese of Trento have remained pretty much unchanged for many centuries, despite many shifts on the civil landscape.

The first appointed Bishop of Trento was San Vigilio. Martyred on 26 June 405 C.E., his tomb is located (and viewable) in the crypt beneath the Duomo of San Vigilio in the city of Trento. He is the patron saint of both the city of Trento and all of Trentino. Throughout the province, you will find churches dedicated to him and frescoes depicting his life and death.

Under the order of Emperor Conrad II in the year 1027, this ecclesiastical diocese of Trento was further defined as the civil ‘Bishopric of Trento’. With this, the diocese became an official State of the Holy Roman Empire. In other words, the Bishop now became a state official, and was now called the ‘Prince-Bishop’ (Principe Vescovo). Thus, while still a priest bound by the orders of the Church, he was also minor royalty, with responsibilities to the Emperor as well.

This Bishopric of Trento remained in place for almost 800 years, until Napoleon dismantled the office, and indeed the entire Holy Roman Empire.

But, the DIOCESE of Trento itself still remains. The geographic parameters are unchanged; its bishops are still bishops of the Church.

In short, regardless of whether Trentino has been under control of the Rhaeti, Romans, Longobards, Holy Roman Emperors, French, Austrians or Italians, the PROVINCE and the DIOCESE have remained mostly unchanged (with a few exceptions) for the past 1,600 years.

When we consider this remarkable tenacity of both province and diocese, and the fact that these two administrative offices – both state and church – have always been virtually identical geographically –

We begin to understand why the people of Trentino and their descendants abroad identify so deeply with the PROVINCE over and above anything else.

And for the Trentino genealogist, ‘province’ in our case is synonymous with ‘diocese’ in terms of where we will want to look for vital records. Thus, we need to turn our attention now to how and where these records have been organised within the diocese.

Civil vs. Church Records

So many of us in the English-speaking world have grown up under a political ideology espousing the ‘separation of church and state’.

But in Trentino, and indeed throughout most of Europe, this concept simply didn’t exist until relatively recently. It wasn’t until around the time of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic invasions (at the end of the 1700s and early 1800s) that the office of the Prince Bishop in Trentino was abolished. Prior to then, church and state were inextricably intertwined.

So many of us are accustomed to think that ‘official’ documents for births, marriages and deaths are the domain of the state. And, yes, in Italy in you can obtain civil records from the registry office in your ancestors’ comuni but only from the 19th century onwards. Prior to the early (and in some places, mid) 1800s, there simply WAS no such thing as a ‘civil’ vital record.

Rather:

Vital records were NOT the domain of the state, but of the CHURCH.

It was, in fact, at the ‘Concilio di Trento’ (Latin: Concilium Tridentinum), which many English speakers may have seen written as ‘the Council of Trent’ in history classes, which took place between 1545 and 1563, that parishes were mandated to record all births, marriages and deaths within their congregation. Thus, while Italian civil records do not typically go beyond the beginning of the 1800s, CHURCH records (at least notionally) go back to the mid-1500s.

I say ‘notionally’ because not all records will have survived that far back, owing to damage from water, fire, wars and (sometimes) general neglect. That said, a remarkable number of volumes HAVE survived the centuries. Moreover, we of Trentino descent are extremely lucky because the Diocese of Trento is the ONLY diocese in the whole of Italy to have digitised ALL their parish records, and then some. The Archivio Provinciale of Bolzano appears to be in the process of doing the same.

Of course, aside from vital records, there have always been legal documents, such as Wills, land agreements, court disputes, etc., In Trentino, these were SOMETIMES kept by the comune, and SOMETIMES kept in the parish (admittedly, it is often confusing). But these are not the kinds of documents MOST genealogists are likely to consult, except those who are more advanced, and are seeking to deepen their understanding (or find evidence of) a specific event, era or person.

Thus, it is the body of work called the registri parrocchiali (‘parish registers’ or ‘parish records’) that is always the primary focus for anyone researching their Trentino ancestry.

These parish registers for Trentino are not owned by the state, but by the Diocese of Trento.

Catholic Deaneries and Parishes in the Diocese of Trento

There are over 400 parishes in the diocese of Trento, each falling under the ecclesiastical care of one designated deanery.

Book - Casetti_Guida-Storico-Archivistica-Trento

The 1,100+ page book Guida Storico – Archivistica del Trento by Dr Albino Casetti has been the ‘bible’ reference book on the archives of the province for almost 60 years. When he published this book in 1961, there were 25 deaneries in the diocese of Trento, which I have organised alphabetically below:

25 Deaneries of the Diocese of Trento

    1. Ala
    2. Arco
    3. Banale
    4. Borgo
    5. Calavino
    6. Cembra
    7. Civezzano
    8. Cles
    9. Condino
    10. Fassa
    11. Fiemme (Cavalese)
    12. Fondo
    13. Levico
    14. Malè
    15. Mezzolombardo
    16. Mori
    17. Pergine
    18. Primiero
    19. Riva
    20. Rovereto
    21. Strigno
    22. Taio
    23. Tione
    24. Trento
    25. Villa Lagarina

Some of these deaneries may have changed since Casetti’s publication, but as most genealogy projects go backwards in time (probably starting before 1961), these changes should not affect our genealogical research.

Hold this list in your mind’s eye, as we’ll come back to it shortly.

GEOGRAPHICAL STRUCTURE: The Valleys of the Province of Trentino

In this modern world, where we can get to just about anywhere by plane, train, bus or automobile, few of us consider geography as a factor in how and why communities are born and evolve.

A glance at the geographic landscape of Trentino is a great teacher in this regard. A rolling panorama of mountains, valleys and glacial rivers, it possesses a kind of ‘ready-made’ zoning of habitable lands. Before modern roads and motor vehicles, crossing these boundaries wasn’t impossible, but it was certainly not something you did every day.

In fact, marriages and migrations across these boundaries don’t show up frequently in parish records until the late 19th century. And when they do show up in earlier centuries, they are immediately noticeable to the genealogist as something unusual, and certainly significant.

Toponymy and Genealogy

One of the most useful books I have found on the study of Trentino valleys and the place names within them is Toponomastica Trentina: I Nomi delle Località Abitate (The Study of Trentino Place Names: The Names of the Inhabited Localities) by Giulia Mastrelli Anzilotti.

BOOK - Anzilotti_Toponomastica-Trentina

The word ‘toponymy’ (sometimes spelled ‘Toponomy’) means the study of place names, especially their linguistic origins and their evolution throughout history. While the word is rarely seen in the English language, toponomastica is an EXTREMELY common subject in books on Italian history.

For Trentino genealogists, the study of place names is often linked directly to genealogy. Many surnames – especially those in more remote rural areas – are derived from the names of places OR the other way around.

The Valleys of Trentino

Anzilotti has chosen a most useful – and highly visual – way to organise her study of place names: by looking at them within their respective valleys in the province. When I first found this book, I was immediate drawn to her minimalist presentation. I have seen many books with maps of Trentino valleys, but they are usually very cluttered, making it difficult to see the lines distinguishing one place from another.

Here is a map of the valleys of Trentino as it appears at the beginning of Anzilotti’s Toponomastica Trentina:

MAP: Valleys of the Province of Trentino (Trento)Click on  image to see it larger

For the purposes of being able to make these 23 names searchable, here they are in text form.

She assigns the number ‘0’ for the greater metropolitan area of the CITY of Trento. Then, the valleys are numbered from 1-22:

    1. Alta Val del Fersina
    2. Altopiano di Folgaria con Le Valli del Leno
    3. Altopiano di Lavarone e Luserna
    4. Altopiano di Vigolo Vattaro
    5. Alto Garda con la Valle di Ledro
    6. Caldonazzo e Levico don Calceranica, Tenna e le Valli di Centa
    7. Civezzanese
    8. Giudicarie Esteriori
    9. Giudicarie Interiori
    10. Perginese
    11. Piana Rotaliana con la Paganella.
    12. Pinetano
    13. Primiero con le Valli del Vanoi
    14. Val d’Adige
    15. Val di Cembra
    16. Val di Fassa
    17. Val di Fiemme
    18. Val di Non
    19. Val di Sole
    20. Vallagarina
    21. Valle dei Laghi
    22. Valsugana e Tesino

Anzilotti then works through these areas, listing all the inhabited places found within each, down to the smallest homestead. Basically, if people have lived there and it has a name, she’s listed it and given some sort of linguistic interpretation of its origins. I feel like she may have missed a few (I’ll address those in future articles) but for the most part, it really is a gem of a work.

A few linguistic notes for those who don’t know Italian:

    • Val’ is the usual singular form for ‘valley’; the plural can be either ‘valli’ (masculine) or ‘valle’ (feminine).
    • Alto’ (‘alta’ in feminine) means ‘high’. The word ‘altopiano’ means ‘the high plain’.
    • ‘Di’ means ‘of’; before a vowel, the ‘i’ is dropped and an apostrophe is inserted.
    • ‘Del’ (singular) and ‘Dei’ (plural) mean ‘of the’.
    • E’ means ‘and’.
    • ‘La’ (singular) and ‘le’ (plural) mean ‘the’ when it is before a feminine noun.
    • Con’ means ‘with’

A note before we continue…

Some of you might disagree with how she’s organised and labelled these valleys. For example, the city of Trento is usually included in ‘Val D’Adige’, and Val Rendena is often considered its own valley, whereas she has included it with Giudicarie Interiore.

Nonetheless, I feel her work is a good starting point, especially as the author has some extremely useful and easy-to-read maps of each valley later in the book, which I will share with you as we go along through this series.

Thus, I ask that you go with the flow with me, even if you disagree with Anzilotti’s designations.

TRENTINO VALLEYS: The Relationship Between Places and People

Something common amongst the people of Trentino is they nearly always refer to themselves as coming from a specific valley. This is because each valley is like a container of a unique subculture, illustrated by their local languages, names and customs.

Different valleys often have different dialects. My father, for example, spoke only the Giudicaresi dialect with his parents and siblings, not Italian. People from Val di Non speak Nones, an altogether different dialect.

Because of the insular nature of these valleys, many surnames will indigenous to one valley. And when you see one of these surnames suddenly appearing in a different valley, it is an immediate indication that a branch of the family has migrated.

Knowing which surnames are indigenous to specific valleys (if not specific parishes) is of vital importance to a Trentino genealogist. This knowledge can often help you identify anomalies and solve many mysteries quite quickly. For example, a new client recently came to me saying her family were named Flaim, and they came from Banale in Giudicarie Esteriore. Well, I knew well that the surname ‘Flaim’ was not native to the Giudicarie but was, rather, indigenous to the parish of Revò in Val di Non. This knowledge immediately led me to look for the point of entry at which a Flaim had migrated from Revò to Banale, as I knew I could trace the family further back from that point.

Valleys, Deaneries, Parishes and People

While a cursory glance over our two lists of valley vs. deaneries, we can see many names (e.g. Cembra, Civezzano, Fiemme, Garda, Pergine, Primiero, Lagarina and the city of Trento) that would seem to indicate they are referring to roughly the same part of the province. But other areas are less obvious to those unfamiliar with the geographic layout of Trentino. So, how do we make sense of what is where?

At this point, a curious genealogist will certainly be asking:

    • Which parishes are in each valley?
    • What are the deaneries for my ancestors’ parishes?
    • Which parishes share the same name as their comuni (or NOT)?
    • What are the names of the frazioni in these parishes/comuni?
    • Who lived in these parishes? What were the most common surnames?
    • Where might I find my own ancestors’ surnames?

While I don’t have the ability to answer every question every reader will have, over the course of the next (several) articles in this series, I will do my very best to share with you what I have learned about these subjects,  by dint of my study and my own research.

Coming Up In This Series…

Now that we’ve oriented ourselves with the ‘meta’ structures of Trentino at a civil, ecclesiastical and geographical level, we’re ready to explore them in more detail.

In the next article in this series, I would like to start our investigation by looking at the greater area of the CITY of Trento – its neighbourhoods, suburbs, parishes and a bit about the surnames. As part of that, I’ll be sharing some very interesting (and little known) information from a book called Libro della Cittadinanza di Trento by Aldo Bertoluzza. You can find it here:

MORE READING:   Trento - The City and Surnames Before the Year 1600

After exploring the city of Trento, I’m going to shake things up a bit. I’m NOT going to go through Mastrelli’s valleys in order, but discuss them somewhat at random, to keep you surprised.

(Psst! The next article after Trento
will be about Val di Non.
But don’t tell anyone!).

For each valley we explore, I will be listing its comuni and parishes, and the deaneries overseeing the parishes. Whenever I have some experience researching in a particular area, I will share some of the main surnames I have found there. If I am aware of parishes changing boundaries or status at different points in history, I will again share what I know.

To be honest, I can’t predict exactly what it’s all going to look like. But I promise it will be relevant to Trentino family historians…

…and I will do my best not to make it as sleepy as Sister Rose Winifred’s geography class.

I do hope you’ll subscribe, so you can receive the rest of this special series delivered to your inbox. You can do so via the form at the bottom of this article.

If this article has sparked your interest to keep reading about this topic, it would mean so much to me 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
23 Jan 2020

P.S. My next trip to Trento is coming up in March 2020. 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, 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.

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

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

View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://trentinogenealogy.com/my-tree/

REFERENCES

ANZILOTTI, Giulia Mastrelli. 2003. Toponomastica Trentina: I Nomi delle Località Abitate. Trento: Provincia Autonoma di Trento, Servizio Beni librari e archivistici.

CASETTI, Albino. 1961. Guida Storico – Archivistica del Trento by Dott.

SERAFINN, Lynn. 2019. Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?

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.

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Without Prejudice. Honouring All the Heroes in Our Families


Without Prejudice. Honouring All the Heroes in Our Families

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

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

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

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

Luigi the Trailblazer

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

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

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

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

Families Separated By An Ocean

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

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

Mentor and Guardian of the Next Generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great War Arrives

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

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

The Great Political Divide

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

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

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

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

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

Trentini Soldiers in Russia

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

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

Luigi Parisi: ‘Missing in Russia’

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

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

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

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

The Family Left Behind

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

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

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

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

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

What Do We Mean By ‘Hero’?

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

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

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

My personal belief is:

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

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

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

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
27 May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Today’s Article

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

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

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

Advertising and the Truth About ‘Reference Panels’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the same article, Padawer adds:

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

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

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

Competition and Lack of Uniformity Between DNA Testing Companies

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

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

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

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

Ethnic Populations Represented in DNA Test Groups

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

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

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

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

How Far Back in Time Do Ethnicity Reports Reflect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously? These are their criteria for their reference groups?

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

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

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

Under-Represented Ethnicity Groups

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

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

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

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

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

Sadly…

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

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

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

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

CASE STUDY: My Ethnicity Reports

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

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

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

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

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

EXAMPLE 1: AncestryDNA

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

AncestryDNA’s OLD Ethnicity Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope. Not a Viking in sight.

So, Am I Really Scandinavian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bye Bye Scandinavia

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

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

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

AncestryDNA’s NEW Ethnicity Report

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

AncestryDNA Ethicity Estimate 2018
Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

AncestryDNA ethnicity map 2018
Click on image to see it larger

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

But 70% Irish and 30% French? Seriously?

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

What Does Ancestry DNA Mean By ‘French’?  

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘French’ (DNA) Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXAMPLE 2: 23AndMe Ethnicity Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can I possibly learn from such ambiguity?

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

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

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

EXAMPLE 3: MyHeritageDNA

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

MyHeritageDNA - ethnicity estimate 2019
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As you can see, my mom’s DNA is still showing up as 50% Irish (this time lumped in with Scottish and Welsh), and my dad’s side shows yet another odd potpourri of ethnicities, albeit this time with more emphasis on ‘Italy’.

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

EXAMPLE 4: CRI Genetics

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

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

CRI Genetics Ethnicity Report - 2019
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According to them, not only is my father ‘French’, but so is my Irish mother! In fact, according to them, I’m 75% French.

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

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

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

There’s just ONE teensy problem with this:

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

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

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

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

How We Can Improve the Future of DNA Testing

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

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

How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

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

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOPIC 4: Cultural Identity in a New World

Nationality vs. Local Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fragile Identity of Youth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuzzy Labels. Fuzzy Sense of Self.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Losing A Surname – The Cruellest Cut of All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austrian, Tyrolean, Italian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Cultural Identities Get ‘Frozen’ in Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUT the thing is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schisms Triggered by Cultural Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Unaddressed Moral Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rhaeti and the Celts

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Romans

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

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

The Longobards (Lombards)

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

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

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

The Cimbri and Other Germanic Tribes

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

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

Later Germanic Migrations

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

The Ethnic ‘Soup’ of Northern Italy

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

The truth is, nobody seems to agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if it can…

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

And finally…

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

Coming Up Next Time…

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

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

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

You can now read that article here:

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

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

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

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

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

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

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Ancestry, family trees, research, translations, genealogy advice for those with ancestors from the province of Trento, Italy (formerly Tyrol, Austria)