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Origins of the Many MAFFEI Families of Trentino – Theories and Evidence

Origins of the Many MAFFEI Families of TrentinoGenealogist Lynn Serafinn explores the fascinating and diverse origins theories of the Maffei families of Trentino, balancing documented evidence against family lore.

I am endlessly fascinated with Trentino surnames and their intricate histories. I see them as windows into the past, and into the lives our ancestors many centuries ago. Some Trentino surnames have a unique point of origin, in that we can identify clearly when and where they first appeared in the province, either within a family already living in Trentino, or when a specific family migrated into a parish or the province from elsewhere. But some Trentino surnames have multiple histories, in that they appear in our province in different places, at different times, and from different ancestral lines. One of those surnames is Maffei, which is the subject of today’s article.

The history of the Maffei surname is difficult to pin down, as it appears in so many parts of the province, and indeed in other parts of the Italian peninsula. In fact, it is far more commonly found outside Trentino, especially in Toscana (Tuscany), Lombardia (Lombardy), and even to the south in Campagna. Trying to form a ‘unified theory’ linking all these Maffei families together is not only an exercise in futility, but pointless (as there is no single history), as I aim to illustrate in this article.

Moreover, so many of these lines have their own ‘family lore’, rendering their own versions of their histories, which often conflict with the lore of other families and/or documented evidence. Sifting through all these conflicting ‘histories’ isn’t easy, especially if you are dealing with Latin or Italian sources that may be many hundreds of years old.

In this article, we will explore a range of ‘origin stories’ for many of the Maffei families of Trentino, with particular focus on the families of Val di Sole, Val Rendena, Val Giudicarie, Val D’Adige, Val di Cembra, and finally, Val di Non. In all cases, I have drawn upon the writings of various authors, the pergamene (legal parchments) held in the archives of various towns and parishes in Trentino, and my own research using the parish registers of the parishes I will discuss. Please bear in mind that NONE the sources I have consulted are in English, and I have translated and paraphrased them for this article, without citing the original text, for the sake of making the text flow more naturally to my readers. I have listed the sources at the end of this article, and I have linked to them as I have cited them throughout.

Linguistic Origins of the Surname Maffei

In his Guida ai Cognomi del Trentino1, linguistic historian Aldo Bertoluzza tells us that the surname Maffei is a patronymic (i.e., a surname based on the personal name of the family’s patriarch), derived from the man’s name ‘Maffeo’, a variant of ‘Matteo’, and the equivalent of the name ‘Matthew’ in English.

While many other surnames share this linguistic root (such as Mafezzoli, Meffezzoni, Maffi, Maffini, Maffioletti, Maffioli, et. al.), they are not historically/ancestrally connected to Maffei, nor to each other.

Patronymics are typically based upon the Latin root of the personal name. In this case, the Latin version of ‘Maffeo’ is ‘Mapheus’, which is a ‘2nd declension’ masculine noun. In early documents, you are likely to see the surname written in its Latin form, i.e., ‘Maphea’, ‘Maphei’, ‘Maphé, ‘Mapheus’, or another variant. Later, the root evolved into its Italian form ‘Maffe-‘, as the consonant blend ‘ph’ is not used in Italian.

The root of Mapheus is Maphe- (or Maffe- in Italian), i.e., without the final ‘-us’. If you then add the letter ‘i’ to the end of this root, it becomes the genitive form of the noun, taking on the meaning ‘of Maffeo’ or ‘belonging to Maffeo’ or, more simply, ‘Maffeo’s’. This is one reason why you see so many Italian surnames ending in the letter ‘i’.

Thus, the surname Maffei essentially means ‘[the family] belonging to [a man named] Maffeo’.

Dispersion of the Surname in Trentino

Because patronymic surnames are based upon personal names, it is not uncommon to see identical patronymics appear in different parts of the province (and indeed in other parts of Italy), and the surname Maffei is no exception.

Over the past half-millennium, the Maffei surname has appeared in numerous places in Trentino including Aldeno, Arco, Brez, Calliano, Cembra, Cles, Cloz, Denno, Fondo, Garniga, Isera, Lavis, Molina di Ledro, Mori, Nomi, Peio, Pinzolo, Pomarolo, Revò, Romallo, Rovereto, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Stenico, Tassullo, Termenago, Villa Lagarina, and the city of Trento.

In the book on Trentino nobility entitled Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine2, historians Tabarelli de Fatis and Borelli state, ‘it is not easy to establish whether [the Maffei families of Trentino] all come from the same origins.’ Based on my own research, I can state definitively that, while some Maffei lines are ancestrally connected, many others appear to be independent of the others, with possibly only remote historical connection, if any.

Family Origins – Many Tales, Many Theories

It is generally accepted that all Maffei families of Trentino were not originally from that province, but they had migrated there from someplace else on the Italian peninsula. Beyond this general idea, however, many different ‘origin myths’ have been passed down via family stories throughout the centuries. And once a family has ‘adopted’ a specific version of their ancestry, it is difficult for them to accept a different story, even if it is provable through documentation.

The overarching ‘family story’ common to many of the more ancient Maffei of Trentino – and one that is also shared by Aldo Bertoluzza3  – is that they were forced to flee their native homeland someplace in Toscana (Tuscany), during the conflicts between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, sometime between 1075-1122.

As to the point of origin in Toscana, historian Roberto Pancheri (I Maffei: Una Storia Ritrovata4 ) says many believe it to be Pistoia, which is about 25 miles northwest of Firenze (Florence) in Toscana. However, in his Dizionario Storico-Blasonico delle Famiglie Nobili E Notabili Italiane Estinte E Fiorenti5 , nineteenth-century historian G.B. Crollalanza tells us of a noble Maffei family of Volterra (an ancient walled town about 53 miles southwest of Firenze), who fled their homeland during the conflicts of the Guelphs and Ghibellines (although does not say where they are supposed to have gone). He does not mention this flight in any of his other entries for Maffei.

Regarding where they fled, the majority of these stories say the ultimate destination was in or near Valtellina, in the present-day region of Lombardia, but there are varying accounts of how they got there. While some say they fled directly to Lombardia, Bertoluzza and others say the Maffei first took refuge in Verona. After a few centuries, they reportedly participated in the battle of Agnadello in 1509 under the flag of the Republic of Venice, only to be forced to emigrate once again to the provinces of Como and Valtellina in Lombardia, after the Venetians fell in that battle. Other lines claim they either left Toscana to, or originated from, various points in Emilia-Romagna, including Bologna and Ferrara, before emigrating to Lombardia.

I personally believe that the presence of so many conflicting ‘origin stories’ comes down to one simple fact: there is no single history for all the Maffei families in Trentino, for the simple reason that they are not all ancestrally connected. Or, if they do share a common history, that connection is so remote, we would be hard-pressed to find documented evidence to prove it.

‘Maffeus of ‘Milan’– Early Indications of Maffei in Northwest Trentino

In Notai Che Operarono Nel Trentino dall’Anno 845, which is a list of notaries who worked in Trentino throughout the centuries, historian and priest P. Remo Stenico cites a document from 1364 that mentions a ‘Maffeus quondam Georgii de Mediolano notarius’, i.e., ‘Maffeo, son of the late Giorgio of Milano, notary’.6 Surely Stenico is referring to the same man mentioned a document from Villa Rendena, dated 4 December 1364, which describes a ‘Maffeo, son of Giorgio of Bernareggio (Milano)’.7 Although the name ‘Maffeo’ here is not used as a surname, it may be a reference to a member (and possibly the original patriarch) of the family who would later be known as ‘Maffei’.

The word ‘Mediolano’ (also ‘Mediolanensis’) refers to Milano (Milan) in the region of Lombardia. These days, Bernareggio is a comune in the Province of Monza e Brianza in Lombardia; but here, we see it was considered part of ‘Milano’ during this era. It is essential to understand that ‘Milano’ in the past would not necessarily have referred to the city of Milan, nor to the present-city province of Milan, but to what was then an official ‘district’ known by that name, or perhaps even to the wider Duchy of Milan, which covered a massive geographical area during the medieval era. Alternatively, in church documents, the word might sometimes refer to the diocese of Milan, rather than the civil state.

Half a century or so later, in a document dated 21 March 1404 in the Celledizzo in Peio in Val di Sole, a man referred to as ‘Romedio, son of the late Maffei called ‘Targe’ of Valtellina from the district of ‘Mediolanensis’ is cited as a witness to the drafting of a legal document.8 Today, Valtellina is in the province of Sondrio in Lombardia, be we can see clearly from this document that Valtellina was also considered part of the greater district of Milano during this era.

The next witness in the document is a blacksmith named Martino, from ‘the said valley’ (i.e., Valtellina), ‘now living in the village of Cogolo, a frazione (hamlet) in the comune (municipality or town) of Peio’. The words are abbreviated, but it seems to suggest that Romedio also lived in Cogolo.

Admittedly, the wording of this document makes it unclear as to whether ‘Maffei’ is Romedio’s surname and ‘Targe’ is his soprannome (family clan nickname), or his father’s name was Maffeo, and the surname was Targe. But given the fact that it is widely believed that so many Maffei families have their origins from somewhere in Lombardia, and given the fact that we find families using the surname Maffei established in both Val Rendena and nearby Termenago in Val di Sole a century or so later (as we will discuss presently), I feel these documents suggest that some of the founding fathers of the Maffei lines in this part of Trentino were already present in the province by the late 1300s.

Maffei of Termenago

Termenago is in Val di Sole (highlighted in yellow below), the northwestern-most valley the province of Trentino. The western borders of Val di Sole and Giudicarie Interiore (which includes Val Rendena), as well as part of Alto Gardo with Valle di Ledro, touch the eastern border of the region of Lombardia.

MAP - Val di Sol in the province of Trentino

click on image to see it larger

NOTE: All maps in this article were taken from the book Toponomastica Trentina: I Nomi delle Località Abitate by Giulia Mastrelli Anzilotti (2003),9 with my highlighting added.

Termenago is both the name of a frazione and a curazia.

A frazione is a ‘hamlet’, which is part of a comune (town or municipality). Today, Termenago is a frazione of the comune of Pellizzano. The map belong shows the position of the comune of Pellizzano (highlighted in yellow) within Val di Sole. I have also highlighted Peio (in pink), which I mentioned in the previous section of this article:

MAP: Val di Sole in Trentino, with Pellizzano and Peio highlighted

click on image to see it larger

A curate church/parish (curazia) is a kind of ‘satellite’ parish, subordinate to the primary ‘mother’ parish church. In this case, Termenago is the curazia of the parish of Ossana, which you can see just to the west of the comune of Pellizzano on this map.

Although the surviving birth and marriage registers for the curate of Termenago do not go beyond the year 1609, we know from other archived materials that the Maffei were well established as citizens of Termenago by the late 1500s.

The earliest reference to the Maffei amongst the archives for that parish is for a Zanino Maffei of Termenago in a parchment dated 11 December 1600, in which he is referred to as a ‘giurato’ (juror),10 indicating he was on the panel of men who collectively formed and approved the local laws for the community. Later, a parchment dated 9 June 1675, we see reference to a Salvatore Maffei, who is referred to as a ‘regolano’ (a higher rank than giurato)11, indicating he was on the panel of men who drafted and enforced the local rules. This level of prestige continued into the 18th century, with a Fabiano Maffei also cited as a regolano of Termenago in a parchment from 10 July 1759.12

So far, the only time I have seen reference to nobility for the Maffei of Termenago is in a document dated 19 November 1705, which mentions ‘the noble Giovanni Maffei’13, who practised as a notary at least between the years 1695-170514.

We see the Maffei in Termenago at least through the end of the 1800s, but it appears the name died out there sometime towards the beginning of the 20th century.

Fabiano Maffei – Curate of Termenago

In the archives for Termenago, the name of one particular Maffei recurs repeatedly in documents from the latter half of the 1600s: the Reverend Fabiano Maffei, who served as the curate (equivalent of a pastor) of Pellizzano (ca. 1667), and then of Termenago from 1673 until his death on 3 April 1705.15

During his more than three decades of service, he compiled a book of legacies (gifts of some kind) that had been granted to the curate of Termenago in people’s Wills, which his successors continued after his death.16

Upon his passing, the Noble Giovanni Maffei, notary, who was the paternal nephew of Rev. Fabiano, set up a legacy in the name of his late uncle that would provide marriage dowries for girls in the curate whose families were too poor to provide them with one.17

Maffei of Pinzolo

Pinzolo is at the northernmost tip of Val Rendena (often considered part of Val Giudicarie Interiore), just on the border of Val di Sole, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Termenago. In the map below, I have highlighted Pinzolo in yellow, with its southern neighbour of Caderzone (which I will discuss shortly) highlighted in pink:

MAP: Val Giudicarie Interiore, with Pinzolo and Caderzone highlighted

click on image to see it larger

The parish records for Pinzolo date back to the year 1630, and earlier records (back to 1562) can be found in those for Spiazzo Rendena. While I have not worked much with those records, we know from parchments in that parish that families with the surname Maffei were well established there at least by the early 1500s, as evidenced by a document dated 25 June 1556, which refers to a Bartolomeo, son of the late Giovanni Maffei, sindaco (mayor) of the villages of Pinzolo and Baldino.18 To have attained enough local status to have be chosen as sindaco, the family surely would have been in Pinzolo by the beginning of that century.

My colleague James Caola, who has done extensive research of the families of Pinzolo, sent me this baptismal record for a Cattarina Maffei19, born in the frazione of Baldino in the parish of Pinzolo, and baptised on 21 March 1635, whose father Pietro used the soprannome ‘Bergamasco’ (alternatively ‘Bergamaschi’):

21 March 1635. Baptismal record of Cattarina, daughter of Pietro Maffei of Baldino di Pinzolo, called ‘Bergamaschi’, and his legitimate wife, Rosa.click on image to see it larger

Interestingly, Crollalanza tells us there was a noble family in Verona called ‘Mafei-Bergamascha’20, but the only information he provides is a description of their stemma, and any online research I have done on this family has only resulted in references to this same sparse entry in Crollalanza’s Dizionario. In his book on nobility from the provinces of Veneto published in 1803, author Francesco Schröder discusses three different Maffei lines of Verona – one of which were already ennobled before 1405 and had attained the rank of Marquis in the year 1650. He mentions two other noble Maffei families of Verona, one of which was awarded the title of Count in 1423, and the other in 1618. 21 In none of these cases does he mention the predicate ‘Bergamascha’.

Surely, this same combination of names in Pinzolo makes it tempting to draw the conclusion that the family had a connection to this noble family of Verona. But, without any indication of nobility or place of origin in the Pinzolo records, it could just as easily be a ‘red herring’, and ‘Bergamaschi’ could be a soprannome indicating some sort of connection to Bergamo, which is both a province and a city in the region of Lombardia. James Caola further points out this could be an indirect link, rather than an indication of place of origin. He suggests, ‘It might mean someone in the family had married [a woman] from Bergamo, or had business there, or did seasonal emigration for work there’. Hopefully, further research can tell us more.

James also tells me that even by this time, there were at least four other major groups of Maffei families in Pinzolo and Carisolo, the largest being the ‘Bagionel’ line, from which a great many of today’s branches in Pinzolo descend.

In his list of Maffei personages of note, Aldo Bertoluzza mentions an Angelo Francesco Maffei of Pinzolo (1844-1899), who was a Jesuit missionary in India and Albania, and the author of a dictionary and a grammar of the Albanian language.22

Stenico list two Pinzolo Maffei notaries, both of Baldino, the elder being Giacomo Maffei, son of Giovanni, who was active in his trade at least between 1687-1730.23

Maffei of Caderzone

Southwest of and adjacent to Pinzolo lies the comune of Caderzone (see pink highlighted section in map above).

In the archives for this comune, we find a parchment dated 17 May 1492 that mentions a ‘Pasotto, son of the late Martino Maffei of Caderzone, mayor (sindaco) of the community of Caderzone’.24

Again, Pasotto or his late father Martino been new arrivals in Caderzone, the record would say ‘of such-and-such place, living in Caderzone’. The fact that this does not say this, and the fact that Pasotto is the sindaco of the community, would surely indicate this Maffei line were present in Caderzone at least by the middle of the 1400s.

SPECULATION: Given the dates of these documents, and the proximity of these locations, I would be tempted to guess that there is some sort of historical connection between the Maffei families of Termenago, Caderzone and Pinzolo, which would then possibly also link them to ‘Romedio, son of Maffei’ who was in Peio in 1404, but I need to stress that this is just my personal speculation at this point.

Maffei of Santa Croce del Bleggio

The parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio is in Val Giudicarie, but in the half of that valley known as ‘Giudicarie Esteriore’ (exterior) and is quite a way south (and on the other side of a mountain) from Caderzone and Pinzolo.

The parish is comprised of frazioni contained within the comune of Bleggio Superiore (Bivedo, Larido, Marazzone, Balbido, Rango, Cavrasto, Madice, Cavaione, Gallio, and Marcè), highlighted in pink in the map below, and the lower part of the former comune of Bleggio Inferiore (Santa Croce, Duvredo, Vergonzo, Tignerone, Cillà, Villa, Sesto, Biè, Comighello, Bono, Cares, and Ponte Arche), highlighted in yellow:

Map: Val Giudicarie Esteriore, with Bleggio highlighted (made in 2003, so it is slightly different today)Click on image to see it larger

On January 1, 2010, Bleggio Inferiore was merged with Lomaso to create a new municipality of Comano Terme, which is not shown on this map, as Anzilotti’s book (from which I have scanned these images) was published in 2003. The area which the parish serves, however, has not changed. In fact, with the exception of the fact that a small frazione called Saone was included as part of the parish up to the 1600s (but has since been an independent curate), the parish has remained the same for at least the past 600 years.

I am most familiar with Santa Croce, as this is where my father’s family came from, and I have been indexing those parish records now for many years.

The history of the Maffei in Santa Croce is much less ancient than, and completely separate from, the Maffei in the other parts of the province.

The surname does not appear at all in that parish until the latter decades of the 1700s.

We see a couple of random marriages in the late 1700s of Maffei from Pinzolo. One of these is Giuseppe Maffei of Pinzolo, who married Maria Baroni of the frazione of Balbido in Bleggio on 14 September 1779, and then settled in his wife’s village. A generation later, another Maffei from Pinzolo, a Giovanni Battista, married a Margherita Bombarda on 4 May 1791, and settled in Margherita’s frazione of Cares in that parish. Both couples had at least one son to carry on the family surname, but neither of these branches appears to have lasted long, as I have not been able to find any Maffei born in Santa Croce to these families in the 19th century.

from a Vincenzo Maffei, (son of Domenico), who born around 1755 in Armo in Valvestino, who married Cattarina Brocchetti from Cavrasto (daughter of Giuseppe) on 11 September 178225:

1782 marriage record of Vincenzo Maffei of Armo and Cattarina Brocchetti of Cavrasto.

Click on image to see it larger

Today, the beautiful and rugged Valvestino, which lies west of Lago di Garda, is part of the province of Brescia in Lombardia, but during this era it was considered part of the province (and diocese) of Trento. Raising their family in Cattarina’s home village, the couple had at least two sons, Giovanni Domenico (born 13 September 1784) and Giacomo Antonio (born 28 April 1787), both of whom had many children. Everyone Maffei birth in Bleggio from 1815 onwards can be traced back to this family. Some of their descendants also migrated to the coal mines of Pennsylvania in the United States in the early 20th century. I have met a few American descendants of those Maffei, and discovered they are distant cousins of mine.

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Maffei of Lavis

Lavis is a comune just north of the city of Trento in Val d’Adige, at the junction of Val di Cembra, in the central part of the province:

MAP: Comune of Val d'Adige in Trentino, with Lavis highlighted

Click on image to see it larger

Tabarelli de Fatis and Borelli tell us that the family tradition of the Maffei of Lavis holds that they originally came from Valmalenco in Lombardia26. However, they also point out that there is a document dated 1613 referring to a Giovanni Maffei in Lavis (son of Antonio, son of the late Giovanni), in which the younger Giovanni is called ‘Zuan de Voltolina’, i.e., Giovanni of Valtellina. Roberto Pancheri infers that Valmalenco was considered part of the greater area of Valtellina during this era27; they are about 25 kilometres (15 miles) away from each other.

The fact Giovanni is referred to as ‘of Valtellina’ tells us he was born there, and not in Lavis. So here we again have a reference to Valtellina, but the date of arrival (early 1600s) would indicate he was not related (or at least not identifiably) to the families of Val di Sole and Val Rendena we looked at earlier.

I have not researched this Maffei line personally, but it seems they may already have been ennobled when they arrived in Lavis, as Tabarelli de Fatis and Borelli also report that a Giovanni Giacomo Maffei of Lavis was the chief court physician and intimate adviser of Emperor Ferdinando III from 1648, and that his brother Antonio Maffei, a Doctor of Law, was the intimate adviser of the Archduke Ferdinando Carlo of Austria. These two brothers were later made Knights (Cavalieri) of the Holy Roman Empire and Conti Palatini (Palatine Counts), with the right of transmission (i.e., they could pass the title on to their heirs) on 10 February 1656.28

Maffei of Cembra

The comune of Cembra in Val di Cembra lies northeast of the city of Trento:

MAP: Val di Cembra in Trentino, with the comune of Cembra highlighted

Click on image to see it larger

Cembra really is on the opposite side of the province from the places we have looked at so far, as well as those we will explore shortly. It should come as no surprise, then, when we learn that their ‘family origin story’ says they came from a completely different place from the other Maffei families.

According to Tabarelli de Fatis and Borelli, the Maffei of Cembra claim to be descended from the Maffei of Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna, who, after the battle of Agnadello in 1509, are said to have fled their homeland to take refuges in the comune of Zogno, roughly 50 kilometres northeast of Milano in the province of Bergamo in Lombardia29. A member of this line (identified as a Bartolomeo by historian C. Giuliani30), then transferred to Cembra sometime in 1600s, thus establishing the lineage of the Cembra Maffei.

I do not yet have any additional information on this line, other than the fact that they must have been ennobled, as they are mentioned in Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine. The surname appears to have gone extinct in Cembra towards the end of the 19th century, although it is possible some Cembra Maffei migrated out of the province around that time.

Maffei of Val di Non – Overview

The last group of Maffei families we will explore are those of Val di Non, which lies east of Val di Sole and stretches northward to the border of South Tyrol (province of Bolzano). Specifically, we will be looking at three comuni: Revò (highlighted in yellow), Cles (highlighted in pink), and Fondo (highlighted in blue), as family lore (and at least some of the evidence) suggests they may all be historically connected.

MAP: Val di Non in Trentino, with Revo', Cles, and Fondo highlighted

Click on image to see it larger

Maffei of Revò

Family Origins – A Case of Chinese Whispers

Of all the Maffei family stories I have tried to piece together to date, the one for the Maffei of Revò makes my head spin, as it sometimes contradicts other historical accounts, and it frequently drives me to the limit of my willingness to suspend my disbelief.

In his book I Maffei: Una Storia Ritrovata, Roberto Pancheri tells us about a family tree manuscript held in the Maffei family archives in Revò, which claims their line is descended from an ‘Alphonsus Mediolanensis’, who had settled in Bologna in Emilia-Romagna by the year 103631. This manuscript was made in 1832 – less than 200 years ago, and some 800 years after the reputed arrival of said Alphonsus. The name ‘Alphonsus Mediolanensis’ means ‘Alfonso of Milano’. But as we have already discussed, the term ‘Milano’ in the past could have referred to a broad geographical area in what we now call the region of Lombardia, including places like Valtellina and Valmalenco, and possibly also Bergamo.

I am always naturally sceptical when I read such accounts of lineages stretching back 1,000 years or more, but the Italian Wikipedia entry for the Maffei family is even more of a stretch to credibility. The authors there (who provide a bibliography of four Italian sources dating from 1679 to 1876, but never say where they got what) claim the Maffei were an ancient house of Greece during the time of Emperor Constantine (306-337 AD). 32

Setting aside the ‘ancient Greece’ claim, if we take the Revò manuscript at its word, we are told that some man named Alfonso who lived in the early 11th century, came from somewhere in Lombardia and went to Bologna by 1036. If you have been following the other family tales in this article, you might notice that this direction seems to be against the ‘flow of traffic’ reported by other Maffei origin stories, in which the Maffei are said to have fled from interior parts of the peninsula around the end of the 1,100s, and moving to various points in Lombardia.

Are there other historical accounts that can support the story of Alfonso in the Revò manuscript? Aside from the manuscript, is there any documentation that a man, who would later be the patriarch of the Maffei line, arrived in Bologna from Lombardia sometime around 1038? Sadly, Crollalanza offers no information on any Maffei families in Emilia-Romagna, but the Wiki authors do, albeit in most confusingly. First they say the Maffei, believed to be a branch of Frankish ‘Geremia’ (or ‘Geremei’) family, settled in Bologna in the year 715. Then, a few sentences later, they say the Maffei of Bologna were descended from the ancient Maffei family of Volterra in Toscana, fleeing there around 1274 due to the conflicts between Guelphs and Ghibellines, and then later taking refuge in Verona. But then they also say they were in Bergamo by the 1200s. And never once do they say precisely where they obtained this information.

Is your head starting to spin now, too?

I am not yet sold on the story of Alfonso, but one thing we do know with certainty is that there was at least one Maffei family living in Bologna in the 1500s, as there is documented evidence of an engineer named Francesco Maffei of Bologna, who was paid by Cristoforo Madruzzo, Prince-Bishop of Trento, to level some of the streets in the city of Trento in 155033. He was again commissioned to build a bridge in 1578. But whether his family was connected to the line from which Revò Maffei claim to have come, who knows?

The Maffei manuscript in Revò further states that various illustrious personalities arose from this Bologna line, amongst whom were Antonio de Maffei, governor of the Province of Bologna, and three cardinals of the Catholic Church, namely Bernardino, Marcantonio, and Orazio Maffei, who (Crollalanza tells us) were elevated to the rank of cardinal in 1549, 1570, and 1606, respectively. However, according to Crollalanza, these three eminent cardinals were not from Bologna at all, but from the noble Maffei of Rome – a branch of the Maffei of Volterra. Crollalanza elaborates by explain that the Roman line was founded by one Benedetto Maffei, who had moved from Volterra to Rome around 1488, as evidenced by a document in which they are cited as patricians of that city.34

Setting aside any alleged ‘history’ from more than 700 years or so, I am willing to give the Revò manuscript the benefit of the doubt and accept that it probably contains at least some elements of truth. But, like a game of Chinese whispers, these truths have, over time, become a ‘mishmash’ of names, places, and chronologies.

Nonetheless, when you piece together all these fragmented and often conflicting versions of history, one persistent question seems to emerge (at least in my mind):

Is there an historical connection between the Maffei of Volterra (and/or the Maffei of Rome) and the Maffei of Bologna, and ultimately the Maffei of Val di Non?

We will return to this important question when we discuss the so-called ‘old arma’ of the Maffei of Revò, as it appears in their family archives.

The Six Sons of Maffeo Maffei

Roberto Pancheri also tells us about a detailed Maffei family tree from the 18th century, painted in oil, in the Maffei collection at Casa Campia in Revò. The painting depicts a visual history of the descendants of a ‘Maffeus de Maffeis a Ganda Vallis Malenci, oriundus Bononiae’, i.e., ‘Maffeo Maffei of Ganda in Valmalenco, [but] originally from Bologna’, who was apparently near the end of his life in 1558.35

Again, the chronology here is a bit challenging, especially when combined with the information about ‘Alfonso’ in the manuscript we just discussed. First, we heard that Alfonso came from Lombardia and went to Bologna around 1036; now we are being told a descendant of that same family left Bologna and went to Lombardia sometime before 1558.

But setting that aside, the more significant message in the painting is that, on 21 July 1558, this Maffeo Maffei is said to divided his goods amongst his six sons, who subsequently (presumably after their father’s death) went their separate ways. These sons, and their destinations, were:

  1. ANDREA: Who is said to have stayed in Valmalenco.
  2. GIACOMO: Whose descendants are said to have settled in Fondo in Val di Non.
  3. TOMMASO: Whose descendants are said to have settled in Salorno in Val d’Adige, where they went extinct after two generations.
  4. GIOVANNI: Whose descendants are said to have settled in Maiano in Cles in Val di Non, but also went extinct after two generations.
  5. ANTONIO: Whose descendants are said to have settled in Val di Cembra.
  6. PIETRO: The first born of Maffeo Maffei, who is said to be the founder of the Revò line (which went extinct in the 19th century), as well as the Cles line (which is still flourishing today).

While this is surely very colourful and makes for a great story, it does again verge on the mythic, sounding a bit like the 12 Lost Tribes of Israel to me. But, again, I am willing to accept that it may be at least partially true, at least with regards to the Val di Non families.

Trying to test the validity of this story against the surviving evidence is certainly challenging, with varying degrees of success. I cannot comment on Andrea’s line (the one that remained in Lombardia), nor on those of Tommaso and Giovanni, which are said to have gone extinct after two generations. But Antonio’s line, said to have settled in Val di Cembra, surely does not match the family lore of the Cembra families we discussed earlier (unless they are two unrelated families).

With regards to Revò (we will briefly address Cles and Fondo later), the surviving baptismal records there do not go beyond 1619, although some entries in the death records do help support the story.

One observation: If there indeed was a Maffeo Maffei, and he actually did divide his assets amongst his six sons, who later had the financial wherewithal to emigrate and set up new lives hundreds of miles from their homeland, he certainly must have had a sizeable fortune.

The Descendants of Pietro the Elder in Revò

I cannot say where Pietro’s name came from, as there does not appear to be any evidence of him in the Revò records, presumably because he was deceased before the surviving records begin. The Maffei archives, however, tell us he had a son named Andrea, whose name we do find in the parish records.

Andrea, who (according to Pancheri) was a trade merchant, died in in his own home in Revò on 18 June 1632, when he was believed to be a nonagenarian.36 This means he may have been born sometime around 1542, when his grandfather Maffeo was still alive.

18 June 1632 death record of Andrea Maffei of Revo' (Trentino)

Click image to see it larger

Pancheri tells us that Andrea’s son Jacopo (an antiquated form of ‘Giacomo’) carried on the commercial trade, eventually amassing a veritable fortune, and acquiring many farmlands, especially around Romallo. An example of one of his transactions is in a parchment dated 29 October 1626, in which Jacopo Maffei buys a plot of arable land called ‘al Pozzolino’ from a Simone Salazer (called ‘Santo Lazaro’ in the record).37 Pancheri reflects that this document demonstrates the origins of a ‘patrimonial expansion which, in a little more than two centuries, will lead the Maffei to acquire the best agricultural land in the paese.’ 38

Jacopo’s son Pietro was born in Revò on 28 April 1621. This is the first birth of a Maffei in the Revò register, as the surviving baptismal records do not go past the year 1619. In that record, it refers to Jacopo as ‘living in Revò’, inferring he had been born elsewhere.39

1621 - Baptismal record of Pietro Maffei of Revò, Trentino.

Click image to see it larger

Jacopo, who was later ennobled, died on 26 December 1668, when he was said to be 77 years old, estimating his year of birth around 1591. By this time, he is simply referred to as being ‘of Revò’.40

26 Dec 1668: Death record of the noble Jacopo (Giacomo) Maffei of Revò, Trentino.

Click image to see it larger

Diverging from the family mercantile trade, Jacopo’s son Pietro started his career as a notary by 1649.41 Pancheri tells us that, by 1669, Pietro and his family moved to into a grand house known as ‘Casa Campia’, which is so-named because tradition says it used to belong to the noble Campi family of Cles. 42 Today, this house holds the Maffei family archives, which contains Wills, dowries, division of good, legal documents, family trees, passports, autobiographical memoirs, notes about the weather, and many letters.

Nobility – The Maffei of Revò and Cles

We know with certainty that Ferdinando Maria, Imperial Vicar and Duke of Bavaria, conferred nobility of the Holy Roman Empire on the above-mentioned Jacopo Maffei of Revò, along with Giovanni Andrea and Tommaso Maffei of Cles, on 20 November 1657.43 From this point forward, the word ‘noble’ appears in most of the references to these lines in the parish registers.

Given the fact that these men were all ennobled in the same document, I can only assume they were related, although this is only inferred in Pancheri’s book. As mentioned, family lore holds that these two branches are descended from Pietro, the eldest son of Maffeo of Valtellina, but whether they were brothers, cousins, fathers/sons, or uncles/nephews, I cannot yet say. If conclusive evidence is there, it will definitely not be found in the parish registers alone.

When these Maffei men were ennobled in 1657, they were granted new stemma. It is comprised of a two-part shield. The lower half is blue with three silver roses, buttoned with gold. The upper half is a double-headed eagle, the symbol of the province of Trento, distinguishing them from the Maffei of other provinces. The quirkiest part of this new stemma is the crest at the top, which is an ‘armless gnome’, adorned with the same three silver roses found on the shield.

A painting of the ‘arma nova’, along with the date the title was granted and the names of all relevant parties, is in the Maffei family archives in Revò:

New stemma of the noble Maffei families of Revò and Cles, who were ennobled in 1657, as depicted in the Maffei archives in Revò, Val di Non, Trentino, Italy Click image to see it larger

IMPORTANT NOTE: All the images of the Maffei stemmi in this article are scans from the aforementioned book by Roberto Pancheri. Pancheri says there were three men from Cles, namely Giovanni, Andrea, and Tommaso, but after having looked closely at the punctuation in the stemma and having examined the parish register for Cles during this era, I suspect ‘Giovanni’ and ‘Andrea’ may actually one man named ‘Giovanni Andrea’.

The descendants of these men were entered into the matriculation of Tirolean nobility in 1779, and they were even recognised as nobles by the Kingdom of Italy on 4 August 1927, long after ‘nobility’ had officially been toppled in Trentino during the Napoleonic era a good century earlier.44

The ‘Old Arma’ and the Questions it Raises

In the Maffei family archives in Revò, you will also find this painting of the ‘arma vecchia’ (old coat-of-arms), purportedly the stemma the family used before they were granted imperial nobility in 1657:

Arma vecchia (old coat-of-arms) in the Maffei archives in Revò, Trentino, Italy

Click image to see it larger

The single-headed eagle at the top is the symbol of the Principality of Trento, which was then ruled by the Prince-Bishop; today, the single-headed eagle continues to be used as the emblem of the autonomous province of Trento. In contrast, the double-headed eagle in the ‘new stemma’ is the symbol of the empire, i.e., the Holy Roman Empire, Austrian Empire, or Austro-Hungarian Empire, depending on the era.

Also in the archives, you will find this painting of two Maffei stemmi, side-by-side, labelled ‘new and old’. Note how the ‘old’ stemma here does not contain the section with the eagle at the top:

Maffei of Revò stemma new and old, as seen in family archives in Revò, Trentino, ItalyClick image to see it larger

The old stemma in this side-by-side rendition is certainly intriguing, as it is identical to the stemma of Maffei of Rome as described by Crollalanza, and nearly identical to that of the ancient Maffei of Volterra, from whom the Roman line had descended. Crollalanza says the Volterra stemma has seven bands of blue and gold instead of six, but otherwise they are exactly the same. 45 This, of course, brings us back to the question we posed earlier as to whether there is an historical connection between the Maffei of Revò and those of medieval Toscana.

As we have learned, the Maffei of Revò say they came from Bologna, making no mention of an earlier connection to Volterra or Rome. Crollalanza, who published his Dizionario in 1886, makes no mention of noble Maffei family in Bologna at all, but we know do there were indeed Maffei in Bologna by the 1500s. But were they nobility, and were they connected in some way to the Toscana line? Could the Bologna line have been an extension of the Roman branch? If so, this could possibly explain why the Revò family claim they are from the same lineage as the three famous Catholic cardinals.

OR… could it all just be ‘family lore’?

Could the Maffei in Revò (or an overly ambitious artist hired by them) simply have ‘adopted’ the Toscana/Roman stemma when the other genealogical materials were created in the 18th century, possibly for the prestige of being descended from ‘ancient’ nobility?

On this issue, Pancheri points out something curious that certainly gives us pause to wonder. In the church of Santa Maria in Revò, there is a Maffei family tomb that was built in 1653, a few years before they were awarded Imperial nobility. Apparently, the tomb has an inscription that explicitly refers to the family’s Valtellina origins. But what the tomb does NOT contain is the family stemma.46 So, if this truly were the ‘vecchia arma’ of the Maffei who arrived in Val di Non only a generation or two earlier, why would they not have had this stemma engraved on their tomb?

So many questions.

The Maffei of Cles and Fondo – Brief Summary

As the Cles baptismal records begin in 1585, and the Fondo records in 1596, I cannot add much to what has already been said about the possible origins of these two lines, drawing mostly upon the traditional history suggested in the Maffei archives in Revò.

The oldest reference to the Maffei in Cles I have found are two parchments from 1599 and 1600 referring to a ‘Ser Cipriano, son of Giovanni Maffei of Valtellina, living in Cles’.47, 48 Tracing the descendants of this Cipriano in the parish registers for Cles, it becomes clear that this is the Maiano line that Roberto Pancheri says died out after two generations.

The earliest Maffei birth in the Cles register is for a girl named Alessandra, the daughter of yet another Giacomo Maffei, born on 25 May 1608. While it makes no mention of a ‘foreign’ origin for her father, others around this same era still say ‘living in Cles’.

I have found references to a Giovanni Andrea and a Tommaso Maffei, but I cannot yet be sure these are the men who were ennobled with Jacopo of Revò.

As to Fondo, the earliest baptismal record for a Maffei I have found in Fondo is for a Nicolò, son of Giovanni Maffei, born on 14 June 1599. No father is mentioned for Giovanni, and there is no inference that he came from anyplace other than Fondo.

The Question of Origins – Closing Thoughts

It seems clear to me that there is no ‘one size fits all’ history of the Maffei in Trentino. There are many different lines, some with ancestral connections to each other, and others whose connection (if there is one) would be so remote it would be next to impossible to identify. Even a large-scale Y-DNA project might not generate all the answers we seek, as there is so much conflicting information about patterns of migration, and about which branches are descended from which.

The proliferation of family lore certainly does not make our task any easier, as these tales can often conflict with other versions of history, and they sometimes even contradict themselves. And, of course, human beings sometimes just make things up, or ‘borrow’ things from other family histories, because they make their own family lore more interesting or prestigious. I have seen this happen many times, both in my own family, and in those of my clients.

But despite all the ‘fuzziness’ that inevitably arise when trying to answer questions about of our origins – whether we are talking about the origins of the Maffei family, of the human race, or of the universe itself – it really all boils down to what we feel most drawn to believe, at an individual level.

History – including family history – is never ‘etched in stone’. Far less concrete than most people imagine, historical research is always a matter of looking at as much available evidence as we can and formulating educated theories by comparing and analysing everything we have managed to find.

That said, there are at least TWO things we can definitively say are common to ALL the Maffei families of Trentino:

  1. They all came from somewhere outside the province.
  2. At some point in the distant past, they all had a patriarch named Maffeo.

This research is part of a book in progress entitled Guide to Trentino Surnames for Genealogists and Family Historians. I hope you follow me on the journey as I research and write this book; it will probably be a few years before it comes out, and it is likely to end up being a multi-volume set.

If you liked this article and would like to receive future articles from Trentino Genealogy, be sure to subscribe to this blog using the form below.

Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
17 May 2021

P.S. Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, I am still not sure when I will be able to go back in Trento, as the international travel situation keeps changing. Fingers crossed, I will be able to go there by the end of the summer, but there really is no way of knowing for sure at the moment.   

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 July 2021.

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.

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REFERENCES

  1. BERTOLUZZA, Aldo. 1998. Guida ai Cognomi del Trentino. Trento: Società Iniziative Editoriali (S.R.L.). Entry for Maffei. Pages 204-205.
  2. TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine. Trento: Società di Studi Trentini di Scienze Storiche. Entry for Maffei. Pages 177-178.
  3. BERTOLUZZA, Aldo. Pages 204-205.
  4. PANCHERI, Roberto. I Maffei: Una Storia Ritrovata. Guida alla Casa Campia e all’Archivio Maffei di Revò. Comune di Revò e Provincia Autonoma di Trento. Page 4.
  5. DI CROLLALANZA, G.B. Dizionario Storico-Blasonico delle Famiglie Nobili E Notabili Italiane Estinte E Fiorenti. Bologna: Arnaldo Forni Editore. Entries for Maffei families, Volume 2 of 3. Pages 44-45.
  6. STENICO, P. Remo. Notai Che Operarono Nel Trentino dall’Anno 845. Trento: Biblioteca San Bernardino. Page 215.
  7. Amministrazione Separata Usi Civici – Asuc Di Fisto. Schedatura delle pergamene (1305 – 1609). 4 December 1364. Villa Rendena. ‘ Copia autentica di Giovanni di Ambrogio da Giustino, Maffeo di Giorgio da Bernareggio (Milano), Domenico di Bontempo da Dasindo, Boninsegna di Frugerio da Comighello, Giovanni di Bartolomeo da Iavrè, di data 1364 dicembre 4, Villa Rendena, atto notarile; latino’. Accessed 15 May 2021 from https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/5738163.
  8. CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Inventari e Regesti degli Archivi Parrocchiali della Val di Sole. Volume 1: La Pieve di Ossana. Trento: Libreria Moderna Editrice A. Ardesi. Page 468.
  9. ANZILOTTI, Giulia Mastrelli. Toponomastica Trentina: I Nomi delle Località Abitate. Trento: Provincia Autonoma di Trento, Servizio Beni librari e archivistici. PLEASE NOTE: All maps in this article are scans from this book, with my colour highlights added. I have not put reference number for each map.
  10. CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Pages 444-445.
  11. CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Page 485.
  12. CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Page 467.
  13. CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Page 489.
  14. STENICO, P. Remo. Page 215.
  15. Termenago Parish Records. 3 April 1705. Death record of Rev. Fabiano Maffei. Termenago parish records, deaths, volume 2 (LDS microfilm 1388644, part 33), page 14-15. The beginning of that volume of death records has a list of the starting years of all the curate priests of Termenago from 1602-1883.
  16. CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Page 474.
  17. CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Page 489.
  18. Comune Di Fisto. 25 June 1556. Inventario dell’archivio e degli archivi aggregati. 13. Compravendita del piano di Nambino. ‘Bartolomeo fu Giovanni Maffei sindaci di dette ville’ (i.e. Baldino and Pinzolo). Accessed 13 May 2021 from https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/1703871.
  19. Pinzolo parish records. 21 March 1635. Baptismal record of Cattarina, daughter of Pietro Maffei, called ‘Bergamaschi’. Pinzolo parish records, baptisms, volume 1 (LDS microfilm 1388956, part 17) no page number.
  20. DI CROLLALANZA, G.B., Pages 44-45.
  21. SCHRÖDER, Francesco. Repertorio Genealogico delle Famiglie Confermate Nobili e dei Titolati Nobili Esistenti nelle Provincie Venete. Venezia: Tipografica di Alvisopoli. Entry for Maffei. Pages 458-460.
  22. BERTOLUZZA, Aldo. Pages 204-205.
  23. STENICO, P. Remo. Page 215.
  24. Comune Di Caderzone. Inventario dell’archivio. 17 May 1492. Caderzone. ‘Pasotto fu Martino Maffei’. Accessed 13 May 2021 from https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/1217803.
  25. Santa Croce Parish Records. 11 September 1782. Marriage record of Vincenzo Maffei of Armo (Valvestino) and Cattarina Brocchetti of Cavrasto. Santa Croce parish records, marriages, volume 3 (LDS microfilm 1448051, part 7), no page number. Archivio Diocesano di Trento file 4256260_01103.
  26. TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. Pages 177-178.
  27. PANCHERI, Roberto. Page 4.
  28. TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. Pages 177-178.
  29. TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. Pages 177-178.
  30. GIULIANI, C. I fuorusciti veneziani dalla battaglia di Agnadello al congresso di Bologna (1509-1529), in ‘Archivio Trentino’, a. 14 (1898), pages 65-82.
  31. PANCHERI, Roberto. Page 4.
  32. Maffei (famiglia). Wikipedia entry. Accessed 16 May 2021 from https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maffei_(famiglia).
  33. WEBER, Simone; RASMO, Nicolò. 1977. Artisti Trentini e Artisti Che Operarono Nel Trentino. Trento: Monauni.  Originally published in 1933, this is the 2nd edition. Entry for Francesco Maffei, engineer of Bologna, page 219.
  34. DI CROLLALANZA, G.B., Pages 44-45.
  35. PANCHERI, Roberto. Page 4.
  36. Revò parish records. 18 June 1632. Death of dom. Andrea Mapheus (Maffei) of Revò, about 90 years old. Revò parish records, deaths, volume 1 (LDS microfilm 1388682, part 3), no page number.
  37. Comune di Revò. Inventario dell’archivio storico. 15, Compravendita. 29 October 1626. Land sale agreement between Giacomo Maffei by Simone Salazer (Santo Lazaro) of Revò. Accessed 13 May 2021 from https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/2217729 .
  38. PANCHERI, Roberto. Page 6.
  39. Revò parish records. 28 Apr 1621. Baptism of Pietro Maffei of Revò, son of Jacopo and Domenica. Revò parish records, baptisms, volume 1 (LDS microfilm 1388681, part 6), page 14-15.
  40. Revò parish records. 26 Dec 1668. Death of the noble Giacomo Maffei of Revò, about 77 years old. Revò parish records, deaths, volume 1 (LDS microfilm 1388682, part 3), no page number.
  41. STENICO, P. Remo. Page 215.
  42. PANCHERI, Roberto. Page 8.
  43. PANCHERI, Roberto. Page 12.
  44. TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. Pages 177-178.
  45. DI CROLLALANZA, G.B., Pages 44-45.
  46. PANCHERI, Roberto. Page 12.
  47. Parrocchia di Santa Maria Assunta in Cles, Inventario dell’archivio storico. 262. 5 March 1599, Castel Cles. ‘Cipriano figlio di Giovanni Maffei dalla Valtellina’. Accessed 14 May 2021 from https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/1620806.
  48. Archivio Storico della Parrocchia di Cles. Dazione in pagamento. 3 January 1600, Cles. Ser Cipriano, son of Giovanni Maffei of Valtellina, living in Cles, gave in payment to dom. Cristoforo Campo… Accessed 14 May 2021 from https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/1621420.
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Surname Spotlight: BETTA. Ancient Nobles of the Roman Empire?

Surname: BETTA. Ancient Nobles of the Roman Empire?Genealogist Lynn Serafinn explores the history of the noble Betta family of Trentino, including its claims to Spanish origins, and ancient ‘patrician’ nobility from time of the Roman Empire.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that I said I would write the next article on the parish of Revò in Val di Non, as part of my continuing series on Trentino Valleys.

Well, I decided to take a short detour. One of my ongoing projects is a book (more likely a multi-volume set) on the surnames of Trentino, which I’ve been working on for a few years, and which I’ve called Guide to Trentino Surnames for Genealogists and Family Historians. With any luck, I’ll have at least the first volume of it out in a few years. In the meantime, I’ve created a ‘surname database’ on this website, with many (but not all) shortened versions of the entries I’ve written for the book.

Anyway, when doing some research for the Revò article this weekend, I started writing up some histories of some of the local surnames. The history for one particular surname – Betta – became so substantial, I thought it deserved to be shared in a blog post, especially as this surname crosses over into many other parts of the province. Also, the family has a unique ‘claim to fame’, which I think many of you might find interesting.

Linguistic Origins of the Surname

In his Guida ai Cognome del Trentino, linguistic historian Aldo Bertoluzza says this surname is either derived from the male name ‘Betto’, which is a short form of the name ‘Benedetto’, coming from the Latin word Benedictus, which means a person who is blessed. Alternatively, he says it may also come from the female name ‘Elisabetta’ (although the original form of the name was ‘Elisheba’), which he says means ‘my God is fullness’.

As with most patronymic/matronymic surnames (i.e. based on the name of a patriarch or matriarch), there are many other surnames based on this root ‘Bett-’. But for this article, we will focus solely on the form that appears as ‘Betta’, although occasionally you might also see it spelled with only one ‘t’ (Beta).

Geographic Origins of the Family

While all historians seem to agree the Betta came from outside the province of Trentino, and were most likely of ancient nobility, there is much disagreement regarding their precise origins, the nature of their nobility and their movements prior to the 1400s.

In his 3-volume work, Dizionario Storico-Blasonico delle Famiglie Nobili E Notabili Italiane Estinte E Fiorenti, historian Giovanni Battista di Crollalanza says the Betta of Trentino were originally from Spain, but relocated to Trentino sometime in the last decades of 11th century. The story goes that the Betta were loyal to Prince Garcia, who claimed the title of King of Galicia and Portugal in 1071. Just a year later, two of Garcia’s brothers attacked him, ultimately resulting in Garcia’s imprisonment until his death in 1090. Upon Garcia’s imprisonment, fearing they would be tried as traitors (and probably executed) by the new leaders, the Betta fled their native homeland taking refuge in Trentino.

This tale has been the Betta family lore for many centuries. Colourful as it is, many historians do not believe it is true. Tabarelli de Fatis (Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine) says the link to Spain is not documented (although few things are that far back), and they were more likely to have come from either Lombardia or the province of Verona. Author Gian Maria Rauzi (Araldica Tridentina) cites historian Quintillo Perini (1865-1942), who believes the Betta came to Trentino from Milan (in Lombardia). However, none of these authors cite any documentation or suggest any concrete evidence for these theories either.

Arrival, Migration and Branching Out

Precisely where the Betta entered the province, and the path they took when they settled there is also disputed. Essentially, the only thing historians seem to agree on is that the Betta came from someplace outside the province of Trentino, arriving somewhere in the province no later than the mid-1300s, and then spreading out to diverse places in the province.

Crollalanza says they originally took refuge in Val Lagarina. Although he doesn’t specify, the evidence indicates they were in Tierno, which is a frazione in Mori in that valley. In support of this theory, Bertoluzza cites a record that mentions an Antonio son of Guglielmo Betta in Val Lagarina in 1344 (the earliest mention I’ve seen cited for a Betta).

Tabarelli de Fatis and Rauzi believe the Betta first arrived in Arco, where their surname appears in records from the beginning of the 1400s, and that they expanded to Val Lagarina – specifically Tierno – from there. Bertoluzza cites a record dated 1411 that mentions a Guglielmo Betta of Tierno. From Tierno, they believe, various branches of the family then expanded outwards to other parts of Val Lagarina, such as Brentonico, Chizzola (a frazione of Ala), and Rovereto. Although they don’t mention it, based on notary records, at least one Betta family from this area settled in Riva del Garda (which is near Arco) by the early 1500s.

Regardless of whether the starting point in Trentino was Tierno or Arco, what is less disputed by historians is that, by the late 1400s, one of the Arco branches moved north, to various points in Val di Non, namely Cles and Revò, and eventually to Castel Malgolo. Apparently, there was a Stefano Betta of Cloz (near Revò) whose name appeared in the catalogue of noble gentry of Valli di Non and di Sole in 1529, but haven’t seen any other mention of the Betta living in Cloz.

Based on this, most historians today see the Betta as being split into two primary lines: one in Val di Non and one in Val Lagarina, especially in the area around Rovereto. The Arco line itself continued throughout the centuries, but not as prolifically as in these other places, and seems to have died out by the end of the 19th century. If you look on Nati in Trentino, you will find 1,349 Betta babies born in Trentino between the years 1815-1923, in most of the above-mentioned places as well as in Aldeno, Arco, Baselga, Bresimo, Caldes, Cavalese, Cis, Meano, Mezzocorona, Molina di Fiemme, Pergine, Preghena, Fondo, Stenico, Storo, Tenno, Tione, Vervò, and the city of Trento. I will briefly mention the Betta of Stenico in Val Giudicarie later in this article. In my own research, I have also found the surname Betta in Vezzano back to the mid-1600s, as well as in Tenno (again, near Arco) in the mid-1700s.

Below is a map where I have highlighted:

  • Alto Garda (number 5) in green, which is where places like Arco, Riva and Tenno are located.
  • Val Lagarina (number 20) in blue, which is where places like Tierno in Mori, Rovereto, Brentonico and Ala are located.
  • Val di Non (number 18) in yellow, which is where places like Revò, Cles and Castel Malgolo are located, as well as Marcena in Val di Rumo, which I will discuss shortly.
MAP: Trentino, with Val di Non, Val Lagarina, and Alta Garda highlighted
Original map (without highlighting) from the book ‘Toponomastica Trentina’ by Giulia Mastrelli Anzilotti.

Click on image to see it larger

Looking at this map, it seems most likely that all the Betta who are in the southern part of the province are from the original Val Lagarina and/or Arco lines, whilst those in the north are probably descended from the branch that shifted to Revò. But I’ve learned over the years that ‘most likely’ isn’t always ‘true’.

Regarding the dispute over whether the Betta started out in Tierno in Val Lagarina or in Arco, I think the documentation seems to lean to the former. Notary documents and names of priests with the Betta surname seem to go back at least a century earlier in Val Lagarina than those in Arco. Of course, that is not ‘proof’ on its own, as it may just be that more records from Tierno have survived than those from Arco.

Betta Notaries

Traditionally, the Betta were a family of notaries. In Trentino (and indeed all of Italy), a notary is kind of like a contract lawyer. He was responsible for writing every legal document for the comune – Last Wills and Testaments, land sale agreements, legal disputes, dowry agreements, court cases, ‘Carte di Regola’ (charters of local laws), etc. They were educated, highly prestigious and essential to the functioning of the community. If you are unfamiliar with this occupation, you might wish to read my article ‘Was One of Your Trentino Ancestors a Notary?’.

Priest and historian P. Remo Stenico has compiled a PDF book of Trentino notaries throughout the centuries. Among them, he lists over 30 Betta notaries, a substantial number for any single family. His research is based on surviving documents, so it is certainly likely there were more notaries before the dates he cites.

The earliest Betta notary he lists is Antonio Betta of Tierno in Val Lagarina, who appears in records as early as 1460, where he is described as ‘Antonio, son of the late Giovanni, son of the late Guglielmo Betta of Tierno’. This would place his grandfather’s birth sometime in the late 1300s. Looking at the family names, I would hazard a guess that they are descended form the ‘Antonio, son of Guglielmo’ cited by Bertoluzza (see above).

Less than a generation later, we find a notary named Giovanni Betta of Arco, whose name appears in records as early as 1475. Giovanni had a son name Bonifacio who followed in his father’s professional footsteps, appearing in notary documents as early as 1504. This Bonifacio is a significant figure, as he is actually the founder of the Betta line in Val di Non.

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Bonifacio Betta – From Arco to Val di Non

Author Pietro Micheli tells us that the name Bonifacio Betta appears in diploma of nobility in Marcena archives, dated 13 July 1495. Later, in 1525, this same Bonifacio was granted a title of rural nobility for his loyalty to the bishop of Trento, Bernardo Cles, during the Guerra Rustica (although, apparently, he didn’t engage in any of the military action).

This man is the same Bonifacio Betta of Arco who was cited as a notary twenty years earlier. By comparing various documents, it seems that Bonifacio maintained his home base in Arco, but was simultaneously busy acquiring a lot of land in Revò and Val di Rumo. Micheli lists a number of legal disputes over the rights to various resources and land borders, especially with the municipality of Rumo.

Ancient Nobility and ‘Caesarean Privilege’

We see these disputes continued into the next generation, when the comune of Rumo claimed that Signore Giovanni Betta of Revò (not Bonifacio’s son Giovanni) possessed most of the assets/land in municipality of Rumo, but that he was not paying any of the collections for said lands that were due to the Bishop of Trento. Giovanni Betta responded that he was ‘not obligated’ to pay those collections, because he was not ordinary ‘rural nobility’, but rather ‘superior’ or ‘ancient’ nobility, going back to time immemorial. In a document dated 1576 (found in the Marcena archives), he claimed he had ancient privileges from his ancestors, whereby his predecessors, successors and heirs and he himself were – and will always be – exempt from paying collections/taxes.

Half a century later, a similar dispute took place between a Bartolomeo Betta and the community of Revò. But this time, Bartolomeo appealed directly to the Bishop, and on 13 January 1637, he presented the leaders in Revò with a document from the Castello del Buonconsiglio stating that the family were granted the privilege of immunity from payments due to the Bishops of Trento, by virtue of their ‘Caesarean privilege’.

‘Caesarean privilege’ is a term indicating the family were believed to be ‘ancient’ nobility, allegedly (or at least ‘officially’) dating back to the time of the Roman empire.

Just as their claim to Spanish origins cannot be documented, there is also no ‘paper trail’ to confirm the nobility of the Betta family dated back to the time of the Caesars. True or not, they certainly were successful in persuading Bishops and Emperors of their veracity. Indeed, the Betta of Revò acquired the Bishop’s Palazzo – adorned with the stemma of Cardinal Cles – which still stands in the western part of the village, albeit in disrepair.

The Sons of Bonifacio Betta

We know Bonifacio had at least two sons, both of whom are historically important.

Born in Arco in 1499, Bonifacio’s son Giovanni Betta was a medical doctor who went on to become the Bishop of Trieste from 1560, until his death on 15 April 1565.

Another son named Pantaleone became the patriarch of another branch of the family called ‘Betta di Malgolo’, which I will discuss next.

Pantaleone Betta, Founder of the Betta di Malgolo

In 1555, Pantaleone Betta, son of Bonifacio, married Bona Concini of Casez. His new bride was the heiress of Castel Malgolo, and the couple settled there. Built sometime before 1342, and originally owned by the Lords of Coredo, the castle is in the locality of Malgolo, which is part of the municipality of Romeno. Today it is a private home.

From this couple came the ‘Betta di Malgolo’ line, upon whom many noble titles were conferred in the subsequent centuries. On 11 June 1645, Emperor Carlo V granted nobility of the Holy Roman Empire to Giovanni Betta di Castel Malgolo, a medical doctor. Two Prince-Bishops – Carlo Emanuele Madruzzo and Giovanni Michele Spaur – confirmed the family’s noble titles in 1637 and 1697, respectively.

In keeping with the family profession, the line produced many notaries, at least three of which are listed in P. Remo Stenico’s book of notaries.

Here is the stemma (coat-of-arms) for the Betta di Castel Malgolo as it appears in the book Araldica Tridentina by Gian Maria Rauzi:

Stemma (coat of arms) of the Betta di Castel Malgolo
Stemma (coat of arms) of the Betta di Castel Malgolo

ROVERETO – Betta della Beta

Tabarelli de Fatis says this line came to Rovereto (from Tierno, via Brentonico), where their title of ancient ‘patrician’ nobility was recorded in 1517. He tells us this line went extinct with Ferdinando Vincenzo Betta in 1878. Their stemma is found at the University School of Bologna, for Felice Leonardo, laureate in 1653.

ROVERETO – Betta del Toldo

Tabarelli de Fatis says this line may have started in Folgaria (not far from Rovereto). We do know that, in 1537, they were awarded feudal lands by the Prince-Bishop in Rovereto, Lizzan and Lizzanella.

On 18 Jan 1556, their ancient stemma was confirmed by Emperor Ferdinand I to Luigi Betta. This stemma also appears on the façade of the palazzo in Rovereto that bears their name (see title image at the top of this article). Later, the stemma was embellished (see below), but the main part of the stemma remained the same.

On 27 March 1564, this same emperor (Ferdinando I) also awarded Luigi the title of Tyrolean Nobility.  Rauzi says this Betta line was elevated to the rank of Barons of the Holy Roman Empire by the Duke of Bavaria in 1790.

Here is the embellished stemma of the Betta del Toldo family as it appears in the book Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine (Tabarelli de Fatis; Borrelli):

Stemma (coat-of-arms) of Betta del Toldo family
Stemma (coat-of-arms) of Betta del Toldo family

VAL GIUDICARIE – Betta of Stenico

In his 1993 article ‘Le famiglie nobili e notabili delle Giudicarie Esteriori’, historian Carlo Alberto Onorati includes the Betta of Stenico in his discussion of noble families. He admits that he didn’t know whether the Betta of Stenico came from the Betta of Rovereto, or one the Nones families. I have yet to find any other author even mention this line.

The clearest evidence we have of this family in Stenico is their presence as notaries. P. Remo Stenico lists five of them, the earliest being a Francesco Betta of Stenico, who appears in documents as far back as 1656.

Onorati offers no information about the specifics of their nobility, but says the Betta of Stenico retained the rank of Lords until the end of the 1800s, whereas most lesser nobility lost their titles and privileges as a result of the Napoleonic invasions.

Betta Artisans

In their book Artisti Trentini e Artisti Che Operarono Nel Trentino, authors Weber and Rasmo mention two Betta artisans:

  • Giovanni Maria Betta of Cavalese (1702-1775). Carver/engraver. In 1758, he gilded four reliquaries for the church of Panchià in Val di Fiemme, and also engraved the sacristy cabinets for the church in Valfloriana (also Val di Fiemme), signing them ‘Giovanni Maria Betta fecit anno 1772’.
  • Giuseppe Betta of Cavalese (died 1773). In 1730, he made a tabernacle in the church of Sanzeno to contain the relics of the Holy Cross. He engraved another tabernacle for the church at Tesero, and a third one for the main altar of the church of the Franciscans in Cavalese.

Betta Priests

Similar to his book on notaries, P. Remo Stenico book Sacerdoti della Diocesi di Trento dalla sua Esistenza Fino all’Anno 2000, is a compilation of names of priests who served in the Diocese of Trento throughout the centuries. In that book, he lists more than 50 priests with the Betta surname.

I’ve already mentioned Bonifacio Betta’s son Giovanni (1499-1565), who served as the Bishop of Trieste. While he was born in Arco, the earliest Betta priests Stenico mentions are all from Tierno, most likely born a century before Giovanni in the late 1300s or early 1400s.

Other Betta of Note

Bertoluzza lists many people (well…actually all men) of note who had the surname Betta. Here are a few he mentions:

  • Lodovico Betta of Arco (1500s). Latin poet.
  • Francesco Betta dal Toldo of Rovereto (1526-1599). Legal consultant, expert.
  • Felice Giuseppe Betta of Rovereto (ca 1701-1765). Historian and scholar.
  • Ferdinando Betta of Brentonico (1700s-1800s). Lawyer and translator.
  • Edoardo Francesco de Betta (1822-1896) of Malgolo, politician, zoologist, natural sciences.
  • Nino Beta of Rovereto (1909-1991). Writer, professor, recipient of gold medal for culture.
  • Bruno Betta of Rovereto (1908-1997). Antifascist, writer, professor.

Closing thoughts

We all like a little bit of ‘glamour’ in our family history. This is why tales of ‘exotic’ Spanish origins, dramatic flights from one’s homeland 1,000 years ago, and ancient nobility dating back to the Roman Empire can be awfully alluring – and enduring – when we construct our family histories. But as a genealogist, I feel it is my responsibility to present these to you as theories for your consideration, but not ironclad facts. Somehow, when reading the accounts of all the legal disputes back in the 1500s, I get the impression those Betta notaries were pretty good ‘talkers’ (not unlike courtroom lawyers today), and they were able to convince people of influence (such as the Prince-Bishops) of their ancestral lineage, which may or may not have been true.

Just because a certain version of a story has been repeated many times over, does not prove its veracity. But equally, a lack of tangible proof does not necessarily make something untrue.

But one thing is absolutely true: The Betta family has a colourful story. And, in truth, the story itself (even if it’s completely made up) is also part of their history, as it has become part of the family identity.

And if it’s part of YOUR family story, it really is up to you to choose the version you wish to own, and pass on to future generations.

Coming Up…

Next time, as promised, we’ll move on to the parish of REVÒ in Val di Non, the home parish of so 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 then…

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
26 October  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 will have some openings for a few new client projects starting in December 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.

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

CROLLALANZA (di), G.B. 1886. Dizionario Storico-Blasonico delle Famiglie Nobili E Notabili Italiane Estinte E Fiorenti. 3 volumes. Bologna: Arnaldo Forni Editore.

MICHELI, Pietro. 1985. Carta della Regola della Magnifica Comunità di Revò. Trento: Grafiche Artigianelli.

ONORATI, Carlo Alberto. 1993. ‘Le famiglie nobili e notabili delle Giudicarie Esteriori’. Judicaria, January-April 1993, n. 22. p 8-46. Tione: Centro Studi Judicaria.

RAUZI, Gian Maria. Araldica Tridentina: stemmi e famiglie del Trentino. 1987. Trento: Grafiche Artigianelli.

SERAFINN, Lynn. 2018. ‘Was One of Your Trentino Ancestors a Notary?’ Published on 26 May 2018 at https://trentinogenealogy.com/2018/05/trentino-ancestor-notary/

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.

WEBER, Simone; RASMO, Nicolò. 1977. Artisti Trentini e Artisti Che Operarono Nel Trentino. Trento: Monauni.  Originally published in 1933, this is the 2nd edition.

Keeping Our Ancestors Alive: Reflections on the Day of the Dead


Keeping Our Ancestors Alive – Reflections on the Day of the Dead
Genealogist Lynn Serafinn and her grandson, Percy, celebrate Il Giorno di Morti (The Day of the Dead), and discover the power of fil
ò family storytelling.

Like many, if not most, people of Trentini descent, I was raised Roman Catholic (although, in my case, I probably owe my religious education more to my Irish mother than my Trentino-born father). For Catholics, the first two days of November are special holy days.

November 1st is ‘All Saints Day’, the purpose of which is to honour the memory of all the saints in Heaven, even those about whom we might never have heard. The name of our modern holiday ‘Halloween’, which falls on October 31st, was derived from the term ‘All Hallows Eve’, i.e. the evening before the day on which all ‘hallowed’ spirits are honoured.

November 2nd is ‘All Souls Day’, the purpose of which is to pray for the souls of all those who have left this world. In Italy, it is called Il Giorno di Morti – the Day of the Dead. While English-speaking people may not be familiar with the Italian term, many may have heard of Dia de los Muertos, which is the celebration of the Day of the Dead amongst Mexican Catholics.

As I write this article, it is November 2nd – the Day of the Dead. As a genealogist, sometimes it seems like every day is the Day of the Dead, as I am constantly researching and thinking about those who walked this planet before us. But for me, the transition from the month of October to November always has special significance, because my father (who passed away in 2001) was born on Halloween – October 31st, 1919 – in the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio, in Trentino. His birth name was ‘Romeo Fedele Serafini’, but it he changed it to ‘Ralph Serafinn’ in the 1930s, after the family emigrated to the United States.

This year, on my dad’s birthday, I thought about posting some photos or stories about my dad on Facebook, but work got in the way and it felt like I had lost the moment. But then, last night, something unexpected happened: my 11-year-old grandson, Percy, called me on the phone. His mom (my daughter, Vrinda) had come up with the idea to celebrate Dia de los Muertos by remembering the family Percy never got the chance to meet. As part of this, she told him to call me and ask me to tell him some stories about my parents.

Ralph Serafinn – Inventor of the First Telephone for the Deaf

1965 - Ralph Serafinn and the 'Sensicall'
1965 – Newspaper advert showing Ralph Serafinn with his invention, the ‘Sensicall’, the first telephone device for the deaf.

I asked Percy what kind of stories he wanted to hear. At first, he said, ‘Anything,’ but then he said his mom had told him my dad had invented the first telephone device for the deaf, and he wanted me to tell him more. I told him how my father was an electrical engineer for the New York Bell phone company. In 1965, the company gave him the assignment to come up with a device that would enable the deaf and deaf-blind to use the telephone. I told Percy how my dad worked in our basement for many months, experimenting with different ideas. He created two different devices – one using a small, red flashing light to communicate in Morse code (for deaf people who could see), and another that used a sensitive, hand-held buzzer that could transmit the code through vibrations (for the deaf-blind). I explained that there was no such thing as home computers in those days, so these were actually cutting-edge technologies even though they might look very primitive to us today.

I told Percy how my dad used to invite me – then 10 years old – to help him with his experiments. He would send me into another room with one of his beta models, and I would report back to him how many lights I saw or buzzes I felt. As the devices became more precise, I had to tell him whether the signals were long or short (as in Morse code). I explained how my father also invented a system that made the lights in the house flash on and off when a call came in, so the deaf and hard-of-hearing knew they had a phone call.

I told Percy how a newspaper came and took photos of my dad working, and even took one of me working alongside him (sadly, those photos have been lost with time). I told him how the story of my dad’s invention – dubbed the ‘Sensicall’ – was covered in newspapers all over the United States, and how we received letters from people all over the world (I remember one very beautiful one from South America) profusely thanking my father for inventing this device. Those days are some of my fondest memories of my dad, and it was such a privilege to share the story with my grandson.

Then Percy made a very astute – and beautiful – comment. He said, ‘You know how you said they didn’t have home computers back then? Well, you might say that without my great-grandfather’s invention, there might not BE any home computers today. It’s like, his invention is the thing that made everything else happen.’

‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘It’s like building a staircase to go from one level to another. Each step is important. You can’t just leap from the ground floor to the second floor. There’s no telling how different the world would be if you took out even one step.’

From this, Percy asked questions about my dad during World War 2. I told him how my dad had fought in Japan, and was on a ship on the Pacific, less than 100 miles from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the US dropped the atomic bomb on those cities. We talked about how my father died at the age of 81 from a rare blood disorder called myelodysplasia, which has been linked to exposure to high amounts of radiation. We even talked about my father’s (sometimes wacky) OCD – a condition both my daughter and Percy inherited (at least in part) from my dad.

Escape from Siberia in World War 1

1915 - Luigi Pietro Serafini, in Austro-Hungarian army uniform during World War 1
1915 – Luigi Pietro Serafini, in Austro-Hungarian army uniform during World War 1

Percy then asked me to tell him stories about my grandfather – Luigi Pietro Serafini, who was born in the same village of Duvredo in 1888.

Percy remember hearing that Luigi had fought in World War 1, but didn’t know much else. I didn’t want to go into all the politics of Trentino being part of the Austro-Hungarian empire (I’ll save that for another discussion), as I thought it would take us off the track of talking about my grandfather. So, I told Percy how my grandfather was sent to fight in Russia, and how he and thousands of others were captured by the Russian army and sent to Siberia, where they were prisoners of war for about two years.

Percy was curious to know what it was like in the prison. He asked me, ‘Did they feed the prisoners? Was it like prison food?’ I told him, yes, they fed them, but it was probably not very nutritious food. I explained that many men died from illness, lack of nutrition and poor sanitation.

‘Didn’t you tell me once that he escaped from the prison camp?’ Percy asked.

I acknowledged this was true. Percy then asked how my grandfather managed to get out.

I told him, ‘Well, actually, there are three different versions of that story, and I’m not sure which is true.’

‘Why not?’ he queried.

‘Because people tend to elaborate when they tell family stories. They’re not necessarily lying, but they will often make up things to fill in forgotten details, or just to make the story more exciting. Would you like to hear all the different versions, so you can decide?’ I asked him.

‘Yes, please!’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘story number one, which my father told me, is that my grandfather was so ill with some disease, he fell unconscious. The Russians thought he was dead (or as good as), so they tossed him into a mass grave with a lot of other dead bodies. Then, something happened (my father never said what), which caused the Russians to leave in a hurry. When my grandfather regained consciousness, he found himself surrounded by dead bodies! At first, he felt panic; but eventually he realised his captors were gone, and he was free to go. Then, he got up and walked home – many hundreds of miles, in tattered clothes and in poor health – all the away from Siberia to Trentino.

‘Story number two is one I heard from my (male) cousins, who said they had also heard it from my father. It’s similar to the first story, except in this version, my grandfather supposedly “faked his own death” so the Russians would toss him outside the camp into the place where they kept the dead bodies. He lay there until dark, and when the guards weren’t looking, he got up and ran as fast as he could until he knew he wasn’t being followed. Then, he walked home.

‘Story number three is less dramatic, but is possibly closer to the truth,’ I said. ‘It’s something I read in a book specifically about the prisoners of war in Siberia in World War 1. In 1917 there was a big revolution in Russia. When that happened, the whole Russian government collapsed, including the army. There was no more money to feed the prisoners, or to pay the soldiers who guarded the prisons. So, the prison guards opened the gates and basically told the prisoners they were on their own now. Many thousands left and made their way home on foot. Some, who were either too ill or too afraid to leave, stayed behind and didn’t go home until the Red Cross came to help almost a year later. My grandfather was one of the men who left.’

Percy asked me, ‘If you were in that situation, would you have left, or would you have waited for the Red Cross to come?’

‘Oh, I would have left and taken my chances,’ I said.

‘Really?’

‘Definitely. After spending so much time in prison, I’d just want to get out of there, and I’d worry about the details later.’

Percy seemed to like my reply.

‘Which story do you think is true?’ I asked him.

‘I like the one about faking his own death!’ he chimed enthusiastically.

That figures, I thought to myself. That’s the version my dad told my male cousins, when the eldest was about Percy’s age. I guess it’s the kind of story boys would like.

‘Yes, it’s very dramatic,’ I acknowledged. ‘But somehow I don’t think the Russian soldiers would have been so easily fooled.’

Percy quickly agreed, and immediately adopted version number 1 as his own.

‘I’m going to tell my friends that my great-great-grandfather escaped from prison because he was tossed into a stack of dead bodies by the Russians,’ he said with great satisfaction.

A FOURTH VERSION: Something I only remembered after my call with Percy is that my father’s sister, Fiorina, wrote a story about her father’s escape from Siberia, in which she says the Russian guards simply opened the gates one day and let them all go. She doesn’t offer an explanation for why, but I am certain it is linked to the timing of the Russian revolution. Fiorina also describes how the Russians used to pile the corpses onto a flat-bed train car. This image is not so unbelievable when you consider that harsh Siberian winters made the frozen ground too hard to dig graves except in the warmest months of the year. I assume Fiorina heard these details directly from her father, but my experience with my father’s stories makes me suspect that Trentini men might sometimes tell ‘softer’ versions of the same story to their daughters than to their sons. After hearing all the family stories, and reading various historical accounts, my own belief is that my grandfather may well have been left for dead by the Russians when they were getting ready to abandon the camp after the 1917 revolution (and was possibly dumped amidst the many unburied dead bodies), but his escape entailed no deliberate trickery on his part.

Percy and I went on to talk about my grandfather’s homecoming, and how my grandmother – after she got over the shock of seeing him alive – made him burn his clothes and scrub down his hair and body with kerosene (Percy thought I had said KETCHUP when he heard this story on a previous occasion!) to kill off all the germs, fleas or whatever else had made its home on him over the past two to three years. When he was finally free of vermin (but probably stinking of kerosene), my grandmother welcomed him into the house, where my grandfather finally got to meet his baby daughter, Luigina (whom I knew as Aunt Jean), who had been born while he was in Russia.

Ancestry and the ‘Butterfly Effect’

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

After we spoke about my grandfather, I said, ‘There’s someone else I’d like to tell you about – my grandfather’s uncle. His name was also Luigi, but his last name was Parisi. The reason I want to tell you about him is that if he had never lived, you and I would probably never have been born, and we wouldn’t be talking about all these stories today.’

I explained how Luigi Parisi – the younger brother of my grandfather’s mother – had gone back and forth from Trentino to America four times. Each time he went to America, he worked in the coal mines, earning money that he sent back to his wife and children back in Duvredo in the parish of Bleggio. While he was away on one journey, his wife Emma died, leaving their children without anyone to care for them. Luigi came back to Bleggio and married Emma’s sister, Ottavia. Together they had four more children (one died young), and named their first daughter after Emma. I told Percy how Luigi had come home to see his family in 1914, but was sent to war, where he died. I recounted a story I had read in a book where one of his comrades said Luigi simply disappeared when they were crossing a river together somewhere in Russia. One minute he was there, and the next he was gone. Nobody knows whether he was shot, or the current of the river got hold of him and he drowned. To this day – 100 years later – his official status is still ‘missing’.

‘Now, shall I tell you why I said you and I would probably never have been born if it weren’t for Luigi?’ I asked.

‘Go on, then,’ Percy replied.

‘Well, according to a book I have, my great-great uncle Luigi Parisi was the first person from my father’s parish (perhaps even from all of Trentino) to settle in the mining town of Brandy Camp in Pennsylvania. He went there first as a young man, around the time my grandfather was born. Each time he went back to Trentino, he brought more men from his village with him, and helped them to settle into their new surroundings. Over time, almost all the Trentini settlers in Brandy Camp came from Santa Croce del Bleggio. That’s why they named their new church ‘Holy Cross’ (which is what Santa Croce means). When my grandfather was a teenager, his uncle Luigi brought him and his younger brother, Angelo, with him to Brandy Camp. There, my grandfather worked in the mines for several years.

‘Finally, when 1914 rolled around, Luigi told my grandfather that he wanted to go back to visit his wife and children. By this time Uncle Luigi was getting close to 50 years old, so he was probably hoping to settle down and spend his later years in his native homeland. But (or so I heard from my cousin Aldo, the son of Angelo), Luigi also thought it was time for my grandfather, now 25 years old, to go home and find himself a wife. Aldo told me that my grandfather didn’t really want to go back to Bleggio, as he had become accustomed to his life in America. But he respected his mother’s brother, and eventually agreed to go back with him in the spring of that year.

‘My grandfather married my grandmother in May 1914. By August, World War 1 had broken out, and most of the local men – including my grandfather, my great-great-uncle Luigi and my grandfather’s brother Angelo – were sent to fight in Russia. As I told you, Luigi Parisi died, but my grandfather and his brother both survived. After the war, my grandfather spent some time recuperating from the trauma of the war and imprisonment. That’s when my father and his younger sister, Pierina (whom I knew as aunt Ann), were born.

‘After a few years, my grandfather went back to America, to the same place his uncle Luigi had brought him – Brandy Camp. After he got settled in, my grandmother, my father and my dad’s sisters followed. My aunt Fiorina was born during their stay in Brandy Camp. Later, they moved to New York where another child – my uncle Raymond – was born. My mother (who wasn’t from Trentino) lived in New York. She became best friends with my father’s sister, Pierina. Later, she and my father fell in love and got married, and started their own family.

‘So you see, Percy, if Luigi Parisi had never lived, he wouldn’t have gone to Brandy Camp and started a community there. He would never have brought my grandfather to America when he was a teenager, or insisted my grandfather get married in 1914. If that had never happened, my father might never have been born, or the family would never have gone to America. If they had never gone to America, my parents would never have met. If they hadn’t met, I wouldn’t have been born, or your mother, or you. And if neither of us had been born, we wouldn’t be talking on the phone right now!’

Percy became excited. ‘Well, you can also say that if Luigi’s FATHER had never been born, then HE wouldn’t have been born, and we wouldn’t be here either. I mean, you can keep going backwards….’

‘Exactly!’ I said. ‘Every single person in our ancestry has played a part in making us who we are, even if we don’t know them, or we’ve never heard of them.’

I didn’t say this to Percy at the time, but it’s just like that science-fiction concept, the ‘butterfly effect’, where everything in the future changes when you change even one, seemingly disconnected event in the past.

Filò – How Stories Keep Our Ancestors Alive

Mural in Favrio, in the town of Ragoli, depicting the ancient tradition of filò - family storytelling.
Mural in Favrio, in the town of Ragoli, depicting the ancient tradition of filò – family storytelling.

When I first reconnected with my long-lost family in Trentino in the summer of 2014, I visited the hamlet of Favrio in the town of Ragoli, where my Serafini ancestors lived before they moved to the parish of Santa Croce. In the historic quarter of that town, you’ll find many fascinating murals illustrating the history of our Alpine people. One of these murals (see image above) depicts the ancient practice of filò – family storytelling.

Filò was the time – between dinner and bedtime – when families came together to tell and listen to stories. Families would gather, either around a hearth or in the stable (typically on the first floor of their mountain house), where they could benefit from the body heat radiating from their livestock. Traditionally, the storyteller was the head of the household, who wove tales from local legends, family history or his own imagination.

Literally, the word filò means ‘spinning’. Many people say that filò is so-named because women used this time to spin their yarn while listening to the stories. While that may be tree, I also believe it refers to the ‘spinning’ and weaving of the tales themselves.

Filò served as entertainment in an age before radios, televisions and computers. In fact, when I asked my cousins when the tradition stopped, they said it phased out pretty much when radio became popular. It was also simply a time for families to bond and spend time together after a hard day’s work. It was a way of enjoying humour, passing down traditions and instilling cultural values. But, most relevant to what I’ve been talking about today, it was a way bring back to life those who lived before us.

My grandson Percy had no idea that last night – almost instinctively – he and I were sharing filò.

I guess it’s in our blood.

What is ‘true’ in history is only partially made up of facts, dates and evidence. The rest is down to us – our stories, our imaginations, our memories.

We are our stories.

Our ancestors continue to live through our stories. We will continue to live through the stories our grandchildren tell THEIR grandchildren.

Keep telling stories. And don’t wait for the next Giorno di Morti to come for your storytelling hour. Share a story with someone in your family today.

I invite your reflections about family storytelling, or any other topic to do with Trentino Genealogy. Please feel free to express yourself by leaving a comment in the box below, or drop me a line using the contact form on this site.

Until next time, enjoy the journey.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S.: I am going back to Trento to do research in March, 2018. If you would like me to try to look for something while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. I look forward to hearing from you!

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from Trentino Genealogy!
Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at the right side at the top of your screen.
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Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

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

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author and genealogist specialising in the families of Trentino. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

In addition to her work for clients, her personal research project is to transcribe all the parish records for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (where her father was born) from the 1400s to the current era, as well as to connect as many living people as she can who were either born in Bleggio or whose ancestors came from there. She hopes this tree, which already contains tens of thousands of people, will serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

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

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES.

Genealogical Breadcrumbs: Notes, Sources & Reviewing Research

Genealogical Breadcrumbs: Notes, Sources & Reviewing ResearchGenealogist Lynn Serafinn explains how and why to cite genealogy sources, and how good research habits can help you fill in the gaps when records do not exist.

In my last article, I talked about the many ways we can make mistakes in genealogy and put the wrong information in our family tree. I also said the two most important habits of GOOD genealogists are:

  1. They always CITE their sources.
  2. They regularly REVIEW their work.

In writing today’s article, I realised I needed to add a third habit to the list:

  1. They KEEP NOTES of their research.

In fact, keeping good notes is so fundamental to research, I’m going to bump it up to #1 on the list of essential habits of a good genealogist: 3 Essential Habits of a Good GenealogistClick on image to see it larger.

Please SHARE this meme with your family history friends on social media.

Today, I want to talk about how these three habits work together in genealogy, and how they can help you create a trail of clues I like to call ‘genealogical breadcrumbs’, which can help lead you to the truth about your ancestors’ lives.

As always, while some elements of this article will be specific to Trentini genealogy, most of the concepts are equally applicable to ANY family history research, regardless of origin.

Keeping Notes of Your Research – Even When You’ve Found NOTHING

You might think ‘keeping notes’ means keeping track of what you discovered. However, I find it is just as important to keep a record of what I DID NOT find, and where/why I didn’t find it. For example, say you tried to find the marriage record of your great-great-grandparents in the parish records where your great-great-grandfather lived, but your search was unsuccessful. In such a case, you should write a NOTE in the description field for the marriage (Ancestry, Family Tree Maker, etc. will all have a description field) to the effect of:

‘I checked the marriage records for X parish between 1800 and 1820, but could not find it.’

I also find it useful to make a note of how thoroughly you’ve checked; after all, there is a big difference between doing a ‘quick check’ or scouring through the records three times. Make notes of ANYTHING of which you are uncertain, as well as any possible conflicts of information you might have found (e.g. two children for a couple appear to have been born too closely together).

What do you do if the original records for a parish/era no longer exist? Make a note saying something like:

‘There are no surviving marriage records for X parish between 1800 and 1820.’

Keeping such notes saves you time, as it helps ensure you don’t keep looking for the same records over and over (trust me, I’ve been there!).

What Are ‘Sources’?

A ‘source’ is a document (vital record, census, etc.), publication (book, website, blog article, etc.) or person (dictated verbally, in a letter, in an email, etc.) from which/whom you obtained your information. For example:

  • If you find a birth date of your ancestor Giuseppe in an official birth certificate, the birth certificate is the source.
  • If you find an estimated birth year for Giuseppe via a census record, the census record is the source.
  • If your Aunt Matilda told you Giuseppe’s birth date, Aunt Matilda is the source.
  • If you have obtained Giuseppe’s birth date from all three of the above, then ALL THREE are your sources – even if they give you conflicting information.

There are two types of sources:

  • Primary sources are original documents of an event or person, such as a birth/baptismal record, marriage record, death record or military record.
  • Secondary sources are quotes, opinions or other third-party accounts of an event or person, such as a book, article, letter or personal discussion.

In my opinion, certain records – such as census records – can be both primary and secondary sources. For example, it is a primary source for a person’s address on a specific date, but a secondary source of a person’s name or estimated year of birth (and they are often WRONG).

What Are ‘Source Citations’ and What Do You Put in Them?

A ‘source citation’ is a notation in your family tree of where you obtained your information. Most family tree programmes (Ancestry, Family Tree Maker, etc.) enable you to add and attach source citations to specific facts. A good source citation provides information about the source, such as the title, author, publisher, volume, year and page number of the source. If you are citing a parish record, for example, don’t just say ‘parish records’; rather, be sure to provide the name of the parish, the volume/book/part in which the record is located, and the page number (if there is one). It is also important to cite where/how the record was accessed, i.e. original record, digital image, microfilm, etc. Here’s an example of how I cite sources when working with digital images of the parish records at the Archives at the Archdiocese of Trento:

Santa Croce del Bleggio Parish Records (Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy).

Repository: Archdiocese of Trento Archives

Trento file 4256260_00985; Santa Croce parish records, marriages, volume 1 (LDS film 1448051, part 5), no page number.

(After the citation, I typically transcribe/translate the document as well, but that’s a whole different topic.)

If that looks like a lot of writing, the first two lines are a template I set up in Family Tree Maker. I set one up for every parish I research. That way, I can pull down the template and insert the information about the specific reference, which you see on line 3. Even that is a ‘template’ I’ve made up, to enable me (or others) to locate the records where I obtained the information. In this case, ‘Trento file’ refers to the number of the digital image I obtained in Trento, and it really is only relevant to people who do research there, as these files are not available outside the archives.

The reference to the ‘LDS microfilm’ is so that people who might be doing research at their local Family History Centre can find the exact page where the record is located. Of course, the FHC are retiring their microfilm service at the end of August 2017, so this information will become less relevant as they move over to digital images in the next few years.

Even if your source is a word-of-mouth account, you can (and should) cite the person’s name, and possibly the year in which he/she provided the information. You might also wish to say whether they gave you the information from memory or if they had any documentation.

Don’t forget to cite YOURSELF as a source if providing information from first-hand knowledge, e.g. your own birth date, the birth dates of your immediate family members, etc.

There is no ‘set in stone’ method for citing sources, and yours don’t need to be as detailed as mine. But once you understand the reasons why it’s important to cite your genealogical sources (which we’ll look at next), you too might wish to be more thorough in your citations.

Why Are Source Citations Essential in Genealogy?

While citing sources might seem like the less exciting side of genealogy, most experienced genealogists will tell you that genealogy without proof, sources and/or documentation is simply MYTHOLOGY (just Google the words ‘genealogy sources and mythology’ and you’ll see how often this topic has been discussed). In ANY kind of research – but especially genealogy – source citations have a threefold purpose:

  1. CREDIBILITY. As I said in my earlier article, ‘The Science of Finding Your Female Ancestors from Trentino’, genealogy is all about formulating hypotheses and then finding evidence to support or dispute it. Without at least one reliable source, our ‘facts’ are meaningless. The more reliable sources you have to back up a claim, the more likely it is that our ‘facts’ are true. Generally, primary sources are considered more ‘reliable’ than secondary sources such as word-of-mouth, books or other people’s family trees (see my additional comments about this below*).
  2. ATTRIBUTION. There isn’t a researcher on the planet who hasn’t found information from someplace else. While sometimes that information is a primary source (like a parish record), other times it has come from someone else’s research. Regardless of whether you are using primary or secondary sources, you MUST give proper attribution. Otherwise, you are plagiarising someone else’s work and/or intellectual property. Proper attribution will also provide evidence of the reliability of the original source.
  3. CROSS-CHECKING. Genealogy is a continually unfolding process. In other words, you (and others) will continually unravel new mysteries, even after you have found evidence for a specific person. Sometimes, the information you have found for one person is crucial in helping solve the mystery of another. OR, sometimes the information you have put on the tree was entered incorrectly or was incomplete. Incorrect/incomplete information is especially common when you are just starting out and you don’t understand how to interpret the records properly. If you have carefully cited your sources, you can return to the original document, reassess it, and fix the incorrect or incomplete information. Citing your sources also enables OTHER researchers – either family members or people you may not even know yet – to cross-check and/or expand upon your information.

* SOMETHING IMPORTANT TO CONSIDER: Ancestry dot com gives you the ability to cite another person’s tree as a source. That’s all well and good, but if that person’s tree has no reliable (preferably primary) sources to back up their information, such a ‘source’ is no proof at all. I know it can be tempting to build your family tree as quickly as possible, but piecing together your ancestry using other people’s unsubstantiated information is likely to lead you WAY off track, and you will end up disappointed when you find out much of your family history is simply untrue.

Creating a Breadcrumb Trail – Recording and Citing ‘Implied’ Information

As suggested at the start of this article, good genealogical practice helps you create a trail of ‘genealogical breadcrumbs’, which can narrow down information, even when documentation for that information does not exist. When you work with original records or images of the same (such as microfilm or digital image libraries), you can find a great deal more information than you would in indexed records or (most) online databases. For example, priests often use the Italian word fu, or the Latin word quondam (often abbreviated as ‘q.’), to indicate someone is deceased. Typically, these designations will appear:

  • IN MARRIAGE RECORDS: Before the name of a deceased father and/or grandfather of the bride or groom. In the latter part of the 19th century, you will also start to see it used to refer to a deceased mother of a bride/groom.
  • IN BAPTISMAL RECORDS: Before the name of a deceased paternal grandfather.
  • IN BAPTISMAL RECORDS: Before the name of a deceased father of an unmarried woman, or the deceased husband of a widowed woman, when she is the godmother of the child being baptised.

While such inferred information isn’t precise, it can help you create an estimated date of death for the person cited as deceased, as you know they died sometime before that event. Thus, you can enter an estimated date of death for that person, putting something like ‘Before March 1692’ in the date field on your tree. Less commonly, the word posthumous may appear before the name of the father in a baptismal record. This means the father died sometime between the date of conception and the birth of the child. This helps you narrow down the date of death to roughly a 9-month window. In this case, you can put something like ‘Between Jan – Aug 1709’ in your date field.

But here’s where good genealogical practice is especially important. When you estimate dates:

Be sure to cite the SOURCE(s) from which you INFERRED the estimate.

Why should you cite your sources when you’re just estimating a date? Two equally important reasons:

  1. Because you are likely to forget why you made that estimate in the first place. This could lead you to CHANGE the estimate to a date that is less precise or altogether incorrect.
  2. Because you may have made a mistake when you interpreted the record. Unless you know how to find your way back to the original record, you won’t be able to locate the source of the error. Without being able to check the original record, you might continue to conduct your research based on incorrect assumptions.

How do you cite a source when you are making an estimate? The SAME WAY you would cite your source for a baptism, marriage, etc. However, in this case, you would include NOTES about how you arrived at the estimate. For example, here is how I created a note for an ancestor of mine named Gaspare Genetti (later spelled Zanetti):

Estmated date of death for Gaspare Genetti of Castelfondo
Estmated date of death for Gaspare Genetti of Castelfondo

Click on image to see it larger.

The problem in finding the exact date of death for Gaspare is that, apart from a few death records for some of the parish priests, there are no death records for the parish of Bleggio before the mid-1660s. As I know Gaspare died before 1660, all I can do is formulate an estimate, based on available evidence. However, by carefully examining records of his family members, I managed to get a pretty good idea of when he died:

  • In this case, I have estimated his death as, ‘Between March and July 1637.’
  • Next, I explained how I deduced that estimate, saying that Gaspare was alive when his daughter Cattarina was born in February 1637, and that I ‘think’ he is cited as deceased in marriage record of his older daughter Margarita in July 1637. I say, ‘I think’ in this case, because I didn’t feel the handwriting on Margarita’s marriage record was 100% clear.
  • I go on to say that I KNOW he was deceased by the time his other daughter Vittoria marries in 1657, as it is clearly written in that document.
  • I then refer to five supporting source citations, which I linked to this estimated date. Each citation gives the Trento file, parish, page number, etc. as shown earlier.
  • I also uploaded a couple of images for these sources, which helps the readers assess the evidence themselves. It also enables ME to go back and reread the documents, to see if I made any errors.
  • Later, if I find other documents that give me an earlier or more precise date, I can change it, citing another source.

In this way – even if there are no existing records – it is often possible to formulate a narrow range of dates during which an event took place.

Creating estimates supported by source citations can also help speed up your searches through existing records. Let’s say you want to know the death date of your 5x great-grandfather, Giovanni. If you were to trawl through all the death records for his parish without having a rough idea of when he died, you’d probably end up searching aimlessly through hundreds of records, unsure whether ANY of them referred to your Giovanni. But if you have already formulated an estimate for his death, gleaned from information found in the marriage records of his children, or baptismal records of his grandchildren, you can limit the range of years in which you need to look. This will significantly decrease the amount of time you need to spend searching for a record, and increase the likelihood of finding the correct document.

The Importance of Reviewing Your Work

In genealogy, it is often all too tempting to go for quantity at the expense of quality. We want to go back one more generation, rather than dig more deeply, verify or refine the information already gathered. But I know from experience that, while it might seem like a dull proposition, going back to review your work can often breathe new life into your tree:

  • A cryptic word on a record you looked at ten times in the past might suddenly leap out and you and make sense.
  • Your language skills might have improved since the last time you studied a set of records.
  • You may have become more skilled at deciphering messy handwriting.
  • You might have recently discovered that your family used a soprannome during a certain period, which means you may have missed them in the records when you looked last time.
  • You might look at your tree and suddenly realise two people are the SAME person.
  • You might suddenly realise someone you thought was related only by marriage is actually the father of your 10x great-grandfather.

OR… You might realise an underlined word in a baptismal record is not the person’s surname (as it usually is), but their village. This happened to me JUST last night. I was reviewing some transcriptions made a few months ago, and noticed I had made a note that there was one record where I didn’t understand the surname. I took out the record and within a second I could see that the surname was missing from the record, and the priest had only given the first name and the frazione. Immediately, I realised I had found the 1566 baptismal record of one of my 9x great-grandfathers, Antonio Domenico Frieri (son of Filippo) of Marazzone. It seems so obvious to me now, but I must have looked at this record a dozen times before, without making the connection:

1566 Baptismal record for Antonio Domenico Frieri of Marazzone.
1566 Baptismal record for Antonio Domenico Frieri of Marazzone.

Click on image to see it larger.

There is no way ANY of us get it right – or complete – the first time around. Without regular review of our work, we may feel like we have hit a brick wall, while the information is staring us in the face and we simply haven’t yet noticed it.

Closing Thoughts

I hope you found this article useful and informative, and that it has inspired you to become a ‘master’ in our craft. Most of us who do genealogy are not only driven by a desire to find out about ourselves, but also by the wish to leave a valuable and lasting legacy for our children, grandchildren and extended family. To ensure that happens, we family historians must aspire to maintain the highest standards in every aspect of our research. As I said, while keeping notes, citing sources and reviewing one’s work might seem like the less ‘glamourous’ side of genealogy, they are the activities that will help your visions become reality.

So, be sure to post this reminder over your desk:

3 Essential Habits of a Good GenealogistClick on image to see it larger.

Please SHARE this meme with your family history friends on social media.

I would welcome any comments or questions on this, or any other topic to do with Trentino Genealogy. Please feel free to express yourself by leaving a comment in the box below, or drop me a line using the contact form on this site.

Until next time, enjoy the journey.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S.: I am going back to Trento to do research on August 16th, 2017. If you would like me to try to look for something while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. I look forward to hearing from you!

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from Trentino Genealogy!
Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at the right side at the top of your screen.
If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

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

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

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author and genealogist specialising in the families of Trentino. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

In addition to her work for clients, her personal research project is to transcribe all the parish records for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (where her father was born) from the 1400s to the current era, as well as to connect as many living people as she can who were either born in Bleggio or whose ancestors came from there. She hopes this tree, which already contains tens of thousands of people, will serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

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

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES.

How the WRONG Information Ends Up in Your Family Tree

How the WRONG Information Ends Up in Your Family Tree
Baptismal record from 1567 where priest has omitted the father’s surname, Onorati.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn discusses 15 common ways we make mistakes in genealogy, and offers tips on how to separate fact from fiction in your family history.

It’s easy to get hooked on the act of discovery when researching our family histories. We love finding new people and adding them to our tree, and can often feel disappointed if our tree hasn’t grown after a hard day of research. But sometimes, our desire for growth can make us careless. Lack of rigour in our research can bring many errors into our precious family trees – from incorrect dates to the wrong people. This is especially the case when we are just starting out and less experienced, both in the subject matter (our ancestors) and the process of research itself.

Even when we are experienced, genealogy can be an informational nightmare. It’s bad enough trying to make sense of foreign, inaccurate or missing primary sources, but we must also contend with imperfect personal memories and simple human error. Then – with our trees and the trees of millions of others being freely available online – one mistake can become multiplied thousands of times over.

That’s why I wanted to write an article about how we family historians can get it very WRONG, if we’re not as meticulous as possible in our work. While some of this article will cover things specific to Trentini genealogy, most of the concepts I will share are applicable to ANY family history research, regardless of origin.

15 Ways We Make Mistakes in Genealogy

Mistakes are inevitable in genealogy, but they DO need to be addressed. The first step in dealing with them is to know where and how they most commonly happen. Here are some of the most common ways mistakes enter our family trees:

1.      Relying solely upon people’s memories or family hearsay.

When we first start doing our family history, we typically begin with what we (and other family members) already know. The problem is, what we THINK we know may not actually be true, especially if we are talking about the past. Some examples:

  • One of my father’s sisters wrote a very sweet love story about her parents’ early marital life (many years before she was born). In the story, she said they lived in Merano. The problem is, this is pure fiction. My grandparents never lived anywhere near Merano. My aunt made it up (probably because she had been born in the US, and had never actually visited Trentino). This colourful myth is still in circulation within the family, and it’s really difficult to get people to ‘unbelieve’ something after they’ve believed it so long.
  • One of my clients gave me a death date for her great-granduncle. But the more I researched him, I could find no evidence to back up this date. When I asked where she had gotten this date, she told me someone in her family had given it to her, but she had no documentation for it. So, assuming this date was incorrect, I started my search from scratch. Eventually, I found the correct record – a good 20 years earlier than the date her relative had told her! To this day, we have no idea how the fictitious date was even conjured.

2.      Copying or merging information from someone else’s tree.

Websites like Ancestry and MyHeritage are very enthusiastic about giving you ‘hints’ for your ancestors. Often these hints come from information in other members’ trees. The problem is, unless you know the person who made the tree, and have complete faith in their competence as a researcher, it’s a REALLY (really, really!) bad idea to copy that information onto your tree – especially if they have not cited any sources or provided any images of original documents. Furthermore, even if the information they have is 100% correct for THEIR ancestor, it doesn’t necessarily mean the ‘hint’ you’ve received is for YOUR ancestor. Merging people into your tree via these online hints is one of the fastest ways to compromise the quality of your work and turn your tree into a complete fiction. If you believe you’ve found the right person, manually copy the information into your tree, with accurate notes about who you got the information from, so you can verify it later.

3.      Typos.

Research is always a case of taking information from one source and writing it down in another place. For example, if you find a birth date, you have to enter it into your tree. It’s easy for a slip of the finger to result in a misspelled name or incorrect date, so careful proofreading before uploading your information is always the best policy. Reviewing your work regularly (an idea we’ll come back to in the next article) is another good habit to develop, as you’re bound to find typos lurking in places you may not have checked.

4.      Lack of familiarity with the language.

If you’re unfamiliar with the language in which a record is written, it’s easy to get it wrong when you are trying to translate it. In Trentino, virtually all official documents before the mid-19th century (whether church or secular) are written in Latin. Later, they start to shift into Italian. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a Latin scholar or be fluent in Italian to make sense of most of the relevant details, but you do need at least some understanding of the language.

5.      Lack of familiarity with the date conventions.

I’m not sure about the rest of Italy, but Trentino priests (especially in the 17th and 18th centuries) had a quirky method of writing dates that can confuse those who are unfamiliar. Have a look at these two baptismal records from 1669 and 1670, respectively, and try to make out the MONTHS in which they occurred:

Baptismal record from 1669, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trentino
Figure 1: Baptismal record from 1669 – CLICK IMAGE to see it larger.

CLICK IMAGE to see it larger.

1670 baptismal record of Giovanni Parisi of Bono, Santa Croce del Bleggio, diocese of Trento.
Figure 2: 1670 baptismal record of Giovanni Parisi of Bono, Santa Croce del Bleggio, diocese of Trento.

CLICK IMAGE to see it larger.

In Figure 1, you’ll see the priest wrote ‘Xbre’ for the name of the month. If you remember Roman numerals, ‘X’ represents the number 10. So, you MIGHT assume ‘Xbre’ means October, the 10th month, yes? Well, you’d be wrong. ‘Xbre’ stands for DECEMBER, the 12th month. Why? Because the Italian word for ‘10’ is dieci. Although dieci MEANS ‘10’, it SOUNDS like the Italian word for December – dicembre. So, when you see ‘Xbre’ it is shorthand for December.

Figure 2 gives a similar example. The month is written ‘7bre’. This time the priest did not use a Roman numeral, but the regular (Arabic) number ‘7’. Again, you might thing this refers to the 7th month, i.e. July, but it doesn’t. In Italian, ‘7’ is pronounced sette, so ‘7bre’ is shorthand for the month of SEPTEMBER.

The last four months of the year are frequently abbreviated in this way (October is ‘8bre’ and November is ‘9bre’). The reason might have something to do with the fact that these months were originally the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months of the year; but given the fact that the current calendar was introduced much before the 17th century, I think it’s just the way the priests heard the words in their heads. But, if you’re looking at the words as numbers rather than hearing them as sounds, you could easily record the wrong month for your ancestor’s birthday.

6.      Lack of familiarity with toponymy/geography.

Knowing the names of local parishes and villages (frazioni), as well as the names of contingent and more distance places in the region, is also an essential skill if we are to avoid mistakes in our family trees. I once saw a tree in which every child in the family was born in a different village, some of which were hundreds of miles from each other. While we in the 21st century may be accustomed to moving around frequently, this was less common in the past. This error happened because the man who made the tree was unfamiliar with Trentino and had no idea where places were on the map. Using an online database, he entered all the names he believed matched his search, but it was almost entirely incorrect. Good genealogists don’t just look up names and dates; they also take the time to learn about the places they are researching.

7.      Lack of familiarity with the local surnames (and how they evolved over time).

When we start our research, we tend to look for information solely about our own family. This can cause us to develop ‘tunnel-vision’: we might find a record with something that somewhat resembles our family’s surname and assume it is our surname because we don’t know of any other surname like it. Here are some examples from my own research into a branch of my family with the surname ‘Gusmerotti’:

  1. The name ‘Gusmerotti’ was originally derived from the first name ‘Gosmero’ (the suffix ‘-otti’ meaning ‘big’). Thus, some very early records that say ‘Gosmero’ or ‘Gosmeri’ are typically predecessors of those who later called themselves Gusmerotti. When I first started my research, I failed to notice many of my early Gusmerotti ancestors’ records because the surname didn’t have the ‘-otti’ ending.
  2. Several years ago, when I knew little about surnames in my father’s parish, I found a record written in very small, tight handwriting, in which the surname started with a ‘G’, had ‘u’, ‘m’ and ‘t’ in the middle, and ended in a vowel (but I wasn’t sure if it was an ‘i’ or an ‘a’). At the time, the only name I knew that fit these parameters was Gusmerotti, and I thusly assumed it to be so. Later, I realised it actually said ‘Giumenta’ (which means ‘mare’), a surname that became obsolete sometime in 17th century, having evolved into the name ‘Martinelli’, and then ‘Martini’. In fact, Martinelli is more than likely a soprannome that ‘stuck’ over time (we’ll look at soprannomi next).

8.      Not recognising a soprannome when you see it.

I’ve mentioned the use of soprannomi in other articles on this site. Soprannomi (plural of soprannome), are specific to Italian genealogy, including Trentino, and unless you get a handle on them, you can sometimes fail to recognise an entire branch of your family. A soprannome is used as a kind of ‘bolt on’ to a surname, to distinguish one branch of the family from another. Here’s a sample of a few soprannomi from my father’s parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio during the 16th-18th centuries, and the surnames of the families to which I have seen them attached:

SOPRANNOME RELATED SURNAME(S)
Ballina, Balini Fusari
Bella Caresani, Duchi
Bellotti (var. of Bella) Caresani
Berlingoni Duchi
Bertagnini Crosina
Blasiola Farina
Bleggi Duchi
Bondi, Bont Devilli
Cimador Devilli
Ferrari, Fabriferrari, Frerotti Briosi
Jakobi Gusmerotti
Martini, Martinelli Giumenta
Ottolini Panada
Rizza Devilli
Solandri Beltrami
Tosi Crosina
Trentini Devilli

While soprannomi can tell us a lot about who is related to whom, they can also cause many inexperienced researchers to make mistakes. This is because:

  • Rarely do soprannomi bear ANY resemblance to the surnames.
  • Soprannomi change frequently, typically lasting only one to three generations before they morph into something else.
  • A priest will often use a person’s soprannome INSTEAD of the surname, when he records an event.
  • Sometimes a soprannome will permanently replace the surname, which can make it seem like a family has fallen off the face of the earth.
  • Many soprannomi are also surnames – but of OTHER families!

All these idiosyncrasies can cause you to miss one of your ancestors, attach someone to the wrong family, or assume you are looking at completely unrelated families. Unfortunately, the ONLY way to master the changes of soprannomi is to study the images of the original records of your family’s parish METICULOUSLY. There simply is no other way.

9.      Misreading the handwriting.

Trying to understand handwritten documents can be a challenge even for the experienced genealogist, but it is especially difficult when you are new to research. Aside from the unpredictable spelling of names and places, and the frequent use of short-hand, sometimes the handwriting in the document is just plain MESSY! The only way to minimise mistakes caused by misreading handwriting is continual practice with images of original documents.

10.  Overlooking the details.

Parish records often contain a lot of subtle information, which can be easy to miss if you read too quickly or not carefully enough. You might fail to notice ONE word indicating the fact that someone’s father was deceased, or that someone was a widow/widower when they married. A single word might indicate someone was NOT originally from the place they later lived, or that a godfather at a baptism was the brother of the mother of the child. Sometimes that single word is the only piece of information that will save you from months of fruitless – or inaccurate – research. Squeeze every bit of evidence out of your documents, and record every minute detail that tells the story of your family.

11.  Drawing conclusions based on only ONE source.

Major mistakes can creep into our tree if we base our assumptions on information we’ve gathered from only one source (i.e. a baptismal, marriage or death record) without cross-referencing it to anything else. This happened to me when I was just starting out. I stumbled upon the death record for one of my 2X great-grandfathers, Bernardino Luigi Onorati. The record listed his date of marriage to my 2X great-grandmother, Margarita Elisabetta Gusmerotti. I knew from the baptismal record of my great-grandfather (their son) that Margarita’s father’s name was Lorenzo. I looked on the Nati in Trentino website and quickly found a Margarita Elisabetta Gusmerotti, daughter of Lorenzo, born in 1818. Happy I had found the right woman, and knowing the date of their marriage, I proceeded to research my new Gusmerotti line, spending many weeks on microfilm at my local Family History Centre. A few years later, I was in Trento and I suddenly realised I had never actually looked for the original marriage record of my Onorati 2X great-grandparents. As I now had access to digital images and my research abilities were vastly improved, I found the marriage record within minutes, rather than weeks. But when I read the document, my jaw dropped and I got a horrible sinking feeling in my stomach. The name of Margarita’s MOTHER was not what I had on my tree. Evidently, there were TWO different Margarita Elisabetta Gusmerottis, daughters of two different Lorenzos, and two different mothers, born around the same times. I had spent weeks (if not months) researching the WRONG families.

After I stopped kicking myself for not having checked earlier, I went to work. I found my TRUE 2X great-grandmother – Margarita Elisabetta Rosa Gusmerotti, born four years earlier in 1814. Then, I got to work building her lineage – with the new Lorenzo and my newly-found 3X great-grandmother. Happily, however, as I have been researching the entire parish for the past several years, I was able to link her lines to many other people I already had on the tree, and I quickly traced many of her lines back to the early 1600s.

12.  Searching solely for your ancestor, instead of your ancestor’s FAMILY.

Have you ever taken a good look at your family tree, and think something along these lines?

‘Maria got married at 45 and her last child was born when she was 65 years old…hmmm…that doesn’t seem quite right….’

If not, you’re either really GOOD at catching mistakes, or you haven’t been careful ENOUGH in your research. Mistakes like these commonly happen when we find a record we believe to be our ancestor’s, and then STOP looking for anything else. Often, after we dig a little deeper, we might discover that the record we found was actually that of an older sibling who died when he/she was very young, for example. But because we want to feel like we’ve accomplished something after a day of research, it’s often tempting to tick off items on our ‘to do’ lists and move on to something else.

Fastidious researchers don’t just look for their ancestors – they look for their ancestors’ families. I think of it as ‘building families’ – births, marriages and deaths of everyone in the nuclear family of my ancestor. This gives me a much more accurate picture of who everyone is, and the relationships between them. It also minimises the chances that I will connect someone to the wrong spouse at another generational level.

13.  Not recognising when the PRIEST has made a mistake.

It’s natural to want to believe parish records are 100% accurate, but unfortunately that is NOT the case. Parish priests may be dedicated to their spiritual duties, but they are also human. And like any other human being, they are prone to errors. Perhaps they miswrote a name because they heard it incorrectly, or they came from outside the parish and were unfamiliar with the local families. Maybe they didn’t have time to write it down carefully. Or, perhaps they felt it was unnecessary to specify every detail, as they assumed anyone reading the document would know who they were talking about. An example of this can be seen in the image of the baptismal record I used in title of this article, where the priest wrote ‘Matteo of Bono, notary’, omitting the surname ‘Onorati’. To him, it was obvious he was talking about Matteo Onorati; but to someone in the 21st century, it may not be immediately apparent, unless you are intimately acquainted with the records for that era.

Or (and this might surprise you), perhaps they simply couldn’t be bothered. While most priests are fastidious record-keepers, I get the distinct impression that some of them really couldn’t stand the obligation of having to write everything down. That’s when they got messy, took short cuts, left out information – and made mistakes. The only way to evaluate documents you suspect contain errors is to complete the architecture for a family as thoroughly as possible (as discussed in the previous point). That way, you can recognise inconsistencies and anomalies more easily, and make sure one person’s error doesn’t steer you off course.

14.  Depending too much on transcriptions.

While parish priests might make their share of errors, it’s nothing compared to errors made when documents are transcribed by someone completely unfamiliar with the culture of the person whose information they are recording. Some perfect examples are US census records, ship manifests and Ellis Island immigration documents. In these, you have TWO levels of possible transcription error:

  • First, when the government official writes the information into the document
  • Then, when the website transcribes/indexes the document

For example, the Ellis Island immigration documentation for my grandfather lists his village of origin as ‘Dunendo’. One of my cousins put ‘Dunendo’ on his tree, and wrote to me asking where it was because he couldn’t find it on the map. The problem is, ‘Dunendo’ doesn’t exist; the name of the village is Duvredo. The transcriber misread the handwriting, and the mistake then became ‘fact’.

Census records are also notorious for incorrectly spelled names and incorrect ages. If you are depending upon these kinds of ‘official’ documents for information, use them with a pinch of salt, and NEVER assume transcriptions are accurate.

15.  Depending too much on ‘Nati in Trentino’ or other online databases.

In this digital era, we are used to ‘Googling’ everything. We want to do quick searches and find information right away. The problem is, to make things searchable, they must first be transcribed from other sources, and then filtered to respond to specific search parameters.

We’ve already looked at the problems transcriptions can bring with them. Fortunately, the database on the Nati in Trentino website (see my previous article ‘Searching Online for 19th & 20th Century Trentini Ancestors’ about this site) is very WELL transcribed, making it fairly reliable for 19th century searches. However, you still have the limitations of what it DOESN’T show because it’s not included in its search parameters. For example, you cannot see the names of grandparents or godparents. You cannot see if a priest has made a notation that the child died shortly after baptism. Many people use Nati in Trentino when they first get started researching their Trentini ancestors, but it is a mistake to rely upon it as your sole source of information, because it will likely create errors in your tree.

Errors are also likely to occur if you depend too much on the Family Search website. There, many Italian parish records have been transcribed by volunteers. These volunteers can only choose which parishes Family Search happens to be currently working on. Thus, it is highly likely the volunteers will be unfamiliar with the parishes whose records they are transcribing. There are many rules on how Family Search want the documents transcribed, which I found frustrating when I gave it a shot a few years ago. I stopped volunteering because I strongly felt these limitations create problems for the people using the database.

Closing Thoughts

The main difference between a good genealogist and a mediocre one is not how many mistakes they make, but how rigorously they stay on top of them. A good genealogist develops a research routine and standards that help ensure mistakes get FIXED quickly, and that all information can be verified by some form of documentation. To do this, you need to cultivate two essential habits:

  1. CONTINUOUSLY REVIEW YOUR WORK. No matter how long you have been doing genealogy, it’s unwise to take anything for granted. Your earlier work may contain errors you never noticed, or never addressed. Over the years, you may have inadvertently compounded these by assuming one thing to be true that wasn’t. Look for gaps, inconsistencies and conflicting information. Check, check and triple check. Next year, check it all again.
  • ALWAYS CITE YOUR SOURCES. Source citations are like genealogical ‘breadcrumbs’. They enable you to trace back to where you found information and verify whether your conclusions are true. They also give other people confidence that your information is correct. Lastly, they give clues that point you in the right direction to find records or other family members. Even if your only source is a specific titbit is family hearsay, a phone call or a personal letter, always cite who gave you the information, and how/when you received it.

In my next article, we’ll look specifically at citing sources – how to do it, why to do it, and how to use citations to back up HYPOTHESES you can formulate, even when the precise information may be missing. I hope you’ll subscribe to Trentino Genealogy to receive that and all upcoming articles. You can subscribe using the form at the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing the site on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

I hope this article has given you some useful information that can help bring more accuracy into your work, and more confidence as a researcher. I would welcome any comments or questions on this, or any other topic to do with Trentino Genealogy. Please feel free to express yourself by leaving a comment in the box below, or drop me a line using the contact form on this site.

Until next time, enjoy the journey.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S.: I am going back to Trento to do research in August 2017. If you would like me to try to look for something while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. I look forward to hearing from you!

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author and genealogist specialising in the families of Trentino. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

In addition to her work for clients, her personal research project is to transcribe all the parish records for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (where her father was born) from the 1400s to the current era, as well as to connect as many living people as she can who were either born in Bleggio or whose ancestors came from there. She hopes this tree, which already contains tens of thousands of people, will serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

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

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES.

What Our Ancestors’ Deaths Can Teach Us About Their Lives

What Our Ancestors’ Deaths Can Teach Us About Their LivesLynn Serafinn explains the importance and challenges of including death information in your family tree, and discusses 10 causes of death in 19th century.

When I was a child, my Trentino-born father frequently used to say,

‘Never forget, Lynn: our ancestors were survivors. You come from a long line of survivors. We ARE survivors.’

He said this so often, and with such conviction that, now in my 60s, I can still hear his voice and see his face as he is saying it. The idea of our family surviving against all odds was a powerful, driving force for him – one that was fundamental to his identity. He saw his heritage as a part of the choreography of the ‘natural order’ of life, where only those who are strongest will survive and thrive. Certainly, his worldview played a role in shaping my own way of seeing the world – and myself – as I grew up.

While, I admit, there is something seductively romantic about the idea that I have inherited the strength of my ‘survivor’ ancestors, my work in genealogy has caused me to reformulate my ideas on what exactly ‘survival’ means.  We might imagine it means being able to withstand disease, overcome hardships, raise lots of children, and live to a ripe old age amongst our grandchildren or even great-grandchildren. But the reality of ‘survival’ of our Trentini ancestors often meant that they made it to adulthood at all. While it’s natural to imagine our great-great-great-grandparents as being wise, elderly people, the truth is, I am probably older right now than 95% of my ancestors were when they died. In fact, many of them died when they were younger than my 33-year-old daughter.

How does this information reshape the way we see our ancestors – and ourselves? Moreover, what else can death and dying tell us about who we are, as a people? Those are some of the questions I hope to address in this article, where we’ll be taking a short tour of DEATH as part of LIFE in Trentino in the past.

We’ll look at:

  • The importance of including death information in your family tree, and how it brings depth to our understanding.
  • The challenges of using death records for information, and how to glean information from other sources if death records are unavailable or incomplete.
  • Some common causes of death in 19th century parish records, and translations of some of the Italian terminology you might encounter.

The Importance of ‘Killing Off’ Your Ancestors

A couple of years ago, I was reading a book called Tracing Your Ancestors Through Death Records by Celia Heritage (http://amzn.to/2hb1HJm), when a particularly memorable quote leapt out from the page:

‘If you are serious about your family history, then ‘killing off’ your ancestors is mandatory.’

When we research our personal genealogy, it can be all too tempting (if not ‘addictive’) to go for quantity over quality. We love the feeling of discovering one more person to add to our tree. Perhaps we’ve finally found the marriage record revealing the name of our great-great-great-grandmother, or we’ve unexpectedly come face-to-face with our 12x great-grandfather in a 16th century land agreement. It’s exciting – even emotionally stirring – when we make such wonderful discoveries.

But Celia Heritage’s point is this: while birth and marriage information is certainly fundamental to our genealogical research, until we know something about our ancestors’ deaths, we cannot get a truly accurate picture of their lives. If we really want to know where we come from, it is crucial for us to get into the practice of ‘killing off’ our ancestors, by discovering as much as possible about when, where and (hopefully) how they died.

Learning about our ancestors’ deaths can often tell us more about them than anything else. After all, when we are born, we are simply a name and a hope for the future. But when we die, our lives have already happened. All that we have done and experienced precedes us. We have left an imprint upon our families and communities, and they upon us. We have formed relationships, and we have left people behind who are affected by our lives – and by our deaths.

I would also add that it is just as important to research the deaths of ALL the members of your ancestors’ families, not merely those of your direct ancestors. Every death – even that of a new-born infant – has a physical, emotional and sometimes financial impact on a family. A single death can be the trigger that causes people to marry, remarry or even move locations. I doubt, for example, my Serafini ancestors would have moved from the parish of Ragoli to Bleggio in 1658, had not the older brother of my 6x great-grandmother Pasqua died, leaving her the only child to inherit.

The Challenges of Researching Death Information

Many of us from America and Britain are accustomed to looking for death information amongst the civil records. But in Trentino, civil registration only began in 1820. Prior to that, the primary record-keepers were Catholic priests in the local parish churches.

As mentioned in a previous article on this site, while the keeping of parish records was first mandated by Catholic Church at the Council of Trento in 1563, it took a while for it to become regular practice throughout the Church. Moreover, the practice of recording deaths tended to show up significantly later than the keeping of records of births and marriages. In my father’s home parish, for example, birth and marriage records begin in 1565, but death records begin more than 80 years later, in 1638. Some Trentino parishes did not start keeping death records until the middle of the 18th century.

Even when death records are available for a specific parish, the system for recording information is often erratic, until the middle of the 19th century, when it becomes more codified. While some records will tell you the age of people when they died, and some details about their familial lineage (e.g. ‘Giovanni Malacarne, son of Antonio of Sesto’ or ‘Marianna, born Gusmerotti, widow of Valentino Martini’), others will simply list the name and date of death.

Moreover, before it became standard practice to include the deceased date of birth in the record, the cited age at the time of death is often just an estimate. Priests often rounded the number up or down to the nearest decade. Alternatively, a member of the family of the deceased may simply have guessed their loved one’s age when the priest asked them. When such vagaries arise in the absence of any other information, you might be able to go back to the birth or marriage records and confirm you’re matching the right record to the right person. But sometimes, you’re not so lucky, and the scanty and conflicting information on the death record will simply leave you scratching your head.

Gleaning Death Information from Baptismal and Marriage Records

If death records are missing altogether for the ancestor or period you are researching, there are other ways you can at least narrow down the range of dates before/ after/ between which your ancestors died. The best way to do this is to look for clues in baptismal and marriage records.

When a child is born, his parents (especially the father) are typically cited in the baptismal record by referring to the child as ‘Giovanni, son of Paolo’, or ‘Cattarina, daughter of Giuseppe and Maria’ or something along those lines. Thus, in many records prior to the mid-19th century, we will see at least the paternal grandfather’s name in addition to the father’s (and, hopefully, the mother’s). As we progress towards the second half of the 19th century, we will start to see not only both grandfathers, but both grandmothers as well. The same is true for marriage records.

To find clues about a person’s death, we reading any parish record, look carefully and take note of any of these notations before any of the parents’ names, as they are all indications that a person (or persons) is deceased:

  • qm or f.q.
  • gm or f.g.
  • fu
  • furono

The first two are Latin abbreviations. The first is shorthand for ‘figlio (or figlia) quondam’, which means son (or daughter) of the ‘once’ so-and-so (e.g. ‘Antonio, son of the once Giovanni who is no longer with us’). The second is shorthand for ‘figlio/figlia gigantum’, meaning ‘son/daughter of the deceased’ so-and-so. Occasionally you will also see words like obit or defuntus, but these are less common in birth records.

The last two are Italian, and appear more commonly from the 19th century onwards. Fu is the third-person, singular, past tense of the verb essere, which means ‘to be’. Thus, fu means ‘he/she was’ (in other words, this person’s ‘being’ is now in the past). Furono is from the same verb, but in plural form; in other words, it indicates the record referring to more than one deceased person. For example:

  • Giovanni di Antonio e fu Domenica, would mean Giovanni’s father Antonio was still alive, but his mother Domenica had passed away.
  • Giovanni di fu Antonio e Domenica (or ‘vivente Domenica’), would mean his father was deceased, but his mother was still alive.
  • Giovanni di furono Antonio e Domenica, would mean that both of Giovanni’s parents were deceased.

TIP: When reading baptismal and marriage records, don’t forget to check the godparents and witnesses, as these will also often have references to deceased fathers and husbands. If you look diligently enough, you will probably find some unexpected clues about an ancestor’s death date.

The Importance of Keeping Track of Estimated Deaths

I believe it’s important to keep a log of ANY clues you might discover for a person’s death, even if you don’t know precisely when it occurred. For example:

  • If I am looking at a marriage dated 5 May 1742, and the husband is cited as ‘Giovanni di fu Antonio’, I will go to the death date for Antonio, and enter the words ‘Before 5 May 1742’.
  • Then, in the description field or notes for his death (I use Family Tree Maker for this), I put something like: ‘Cited as deceased in the marriage record of his son Giovanni on 5 May 1742’.
  • Finally, I cite the SOURCE of the record. For example: ‘Santa Croce parish records, marriages. LDS film 1448051, part 9, page 108’. As I get many of my digital images directly from the Archdiocese of Trento, I also enter the number of the file in the Trento system.
  • Suppose, a few months later, I happen to stumble across a baptismal record dated 10 April 1737, where Antonio is cited as being the godfather of one of his neighbour’s children. This new information gives me a lower boundary for Antonio’s death (i.e., he had to have died after 10 April 1737). Now, I can go back to my record for him, and alter the estimated death date to ‘Between 10 April 1737 and 5 May 1742’, narrowing it to a 6-year window.

Keeping a careful log of all the clues you stumble upon in your research helps make finding death records easier later, and helps fill in the gaps if the original death records happen to be missing.

The Case of the Posthumous Father

Sometimes, a man will have died shortly before the birth of one of his children. In this case, his name is often prefixed by the word ‘posthumous’ rather than fu in his child’s baptismal record. Here is the birth record (7 May 1750) for my 4x great-grandfather, Giovanni Antonio Caresani, whose father Antonio Felice is cited as ‘posthumous’:

(Click the image to see it larger)

1750 baptismal record for Giovanni Antonio Caresani
1750 baptismal record for Giovanni Antonio Caresani, whose deceased father Antonio is referred to as ‘posthumous’. Santa Croce del Bleggio parish records.

Knowing Antonio had to have died no more than 9 months prior to the birth of his son Giovanni Antonio, I could now narrow down his date of death to somewhere between September 1749 and May 1750. This enabled me locate his death record within a few minutes when I was in Trento. The actual date was 21 Feb 1750:

(Click the image to see it larger)

1750 death record of Antonio Caresani of Madice
1750 death record of Antonio Caresani of Madice, who died at the age of 33. Santa Croce del Bleggio parish records.

Note the death record says Antonio Caresani died at the age of 30. In this case, I already had Antonio’s birth information, but if I hadn’t, this information could have helped me locate his baptismal record. As I mentioned earlier, however, the given age on death records is OFTEN imprecise. In this case, the priest is off by three years, as Antonio was actually 33 years old, not 30, when he passed away.

Sadly, as is often the case with pre-19th century records, the record provides us with no cause of death. We can only wonder why a young man in the prime of his life died, leaving behind a young wife and at least two living children, who would later become my direct ancestors.

Infant Mortality and Early Childhood Deaths

In an earlier article on this blog I wrote about using the Nati in Trentino website for genealogical research. That site contains a searchable database of Trentini births/baptismal by the Catholic church between the years of 1815 and 1923.

While it contains a wealth of information, Nati in Trentino has many significant limitations, as this next example will demonstrate. Here’s a snapshot of the birth dates as they appear on Nati in Trentino for the children of a man named Vincenzo Domenico Maffei, who goes by the name ‘Domenico’. For now, I only want to show you the left side of the screen (you’ll see why in a minute):

(Click the image to see it larger)

Births of the 10 children of Vincenzo Domenico Maffei
Births of the 10 children of Vincenzo Domenico Maffei, between 1861 and 1875.

The first two children are via Domenico’s first wife, Angela, who died from tuberculosis in 1863, less than 3 months after the birth of her daughter, Ernesta. The other 8 children are via Domenico’s second wife, Filomena, whom you’ll meet in a minute.

Have a look at the twin girls Neonata1 and Neonata2 born in 1866, and the boy Neonato born in 1875. The terms neonato (for a boy) and neonata (for a girl) are NOT names; they simply mean ‘new-born’, and are used to indicate an unnamed, stillborn child, or one that died before it could be baptised (which was often on the same day). Another frequently appearing term in the parish records is innominato or innominata (‘unnamed male’ or ‘unnamed female’, respectively), which conveys the same meaning.

Based on Nati in Trentino’s information alone, we would be led to believe that three of Vincenzo’s 10 children died, and the other seven survived. But a direct examination of the baptismal records themselves will tell a different story altogether:

(Click the image to see it larger)

Family of Vincenzo Domenico Maffei, including births and deaths of his children
Family of Vincenzo Domenico Maffei, including births and deaths of his children

Have a look at the right-hand column underneath the word ‘death’. I obtained the death dates for ALL these children (except Alfonso’s) from their baptismal records. Many 19th century priests (at least in Santa Croce) would make notations about a persons’ death – and sometimes marriage – into that person’s baptismal record, even if it occurred years after the fact. Although death dates rarely appear in baptismal records before the 19th century, priests will often infer that a child died young, by putting a cross (+) next to the infant’s name in the record. While inconsistently used, you can find evidence of this practice even in very early records.

Shockingly, the notations in the baptismal records reveal that all but one of Domenico’s 10 children died under the age of 4. One little boy, Maradio born in 1867, managed to be baptised, but died later the same day. The only child to survive to adulthood is Alfonso, born 1870 – who ended up becoming the great-grandfather of one of my 9th cousins, who lives in the US.

The REAL story of this family is:

  • Within a span of 14 years, Domenico saw the death of NINE children and a wife.
  • Within the span of a decade Filomena gave birth to 8 children, only one of whom outlived her.
  • Alfonso lost his father Domenico when he is 15 years old, leaving him to care for his widowed mother.

It simply boggles the mind, and changes our perspective of this family completely.

10 Causes of Death in 19th Century Italian Parish Records

Bearing in mind that it was not the standard practice to cite the cause of death until printed columns were introduced into the parish records around 1815, I’d like to round off this article by sharing some of the terminology you might see cited as ’cause of death’ in the mid-to-late 19th century.

I have two reasons for including this topic in this article:

  1. A few of my readers ASKED me to do it. 😉
  2. I believe seeing all these maladies lined up one after the other can really make the weight of our ancestors’ lives sink in. In fact, it kind of hits you like a brick.

It would be impossible to talk about all the possible causes of death in a single blog article. Really, it would take a book (and a LOT of research). So for now, I’m going to limit my discussion to 10 terms that might be more cryptic or less familiar to English speakers in the 21st century. The reason why they may be less familiar is partially because some of these diseases are not as common today as they were in the past, and partially because the terms themselves have changed over the past two centuries.

I’ve broken these 10 common causes into two categories: those that mostly affect infants and young children, and those that mostly affect adults, including the elderly.

I’ll warn you in advance, you may feel like crying.

Infants and Young Children

Tosse, pertosse, canine pertosse

These are all Italian terms for ‘pertussis’, more commonly known today as whooping cough. Whooping cough is a highly contagious, airborne, bacterial disease causing violent coughing fits, often leading to fatal complications. New-borns and babies under the age of one year are most at risk. Although doctors today use vaccines and antibiotics to prevent/treat the disease, it still claims the lives of many infants every year, even in ‘developed’ countries.

In one record, I also saw the term catarro soffocato. As ‘catarrh’ (catarro) refers to thick phlegm in the respiratory tract, this term means the baby suffocated on his/her own phlegm. My guess is that this might also indicate the child had whooping cough.

Grippe

This is the old Italian term for influenza or flu. The same term was used in English in the past, and the word grippe still means influenza in modern French. Historically, flu epidemics have claimed the lives of millions of people over the centuries, as the virus continually mutates as humans adapt to it. While adults often succumb to more virulent forms of influenza, babies and infants are often cited to have died from the more common winter strain of it throughout the 19th century.

For further reading, an interesting book on the so-called ‘Spanish Influenza’ of 1918 is Flu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It by Gina Kolata (http://amzn.to/2haAUge). While not about Trentino, it gives terrific insight into the nature of epidemic diseases, and the challenges of protecting ourselves from them.

Disenteria

The literal translation is ‘dysentery’, which, technically, refers to an aggressive attack of parasites in the digestive track. Dysentery can cause high fever, diarrhoea and vomiting. In the case of infants (especially those still being breast-fed), I feel the term disenteria may more likely indicate they were suffering from chronic diarrhoea rather than actual parasites, eventually dying from dehydration.

Today, few of us think of diarrhoea as a lethal threat, but back then many babies and children died from it, all over the world.

Vermazione

Worms! I had never heard this term before working with the Trentini death records, but apparently, the term ‘vermination’ was also used in 19th century English medical texts. Vermination is any kind of worm infestation in the intestinal tract. In babies, vermination can also cause painful convulsions.

Believe it or not, I found a book from 1836 on Google Books with the somewhat catchy title of Medical commentaries on puerperal fever, vermination, and water in the head by a medical doctor named John Alexander. Dr. Alexander confesses that (at least at that time) doctors simply didn’t KNOW what causes babies to get worms.

Incompleto sviluppo

Literally ‘incomplete development’, this refers to a premature baby. Back then, if a baby was born prematurely, there was little hope for survival. We I first started working with death records, I was shocked to see how many infant deaths in the 19th century were actually due to premature births. My only guess for these high numbers is that perhaps a great many pregnancies failed to go full-term due to poor nutrition and lack of pre-natal care.

Adults and Elderly

Pellagra

Called the same in English, pellagra is an insidious lethal disease caused by a chronic deficiency of niacin (vitamin B6) in the diet. It is most commonly seen in populations where their diet consists mainly of corn (as in polenta), with few other sources of nutrition. This is because corn that has not been cured with lime can leech niacin from the body, unless there is ample supply of the nutrient from other food sources. During the 19th century, when many contadini in Trentino suffered economic hardship, diversity of diet was difficult. Although often fatal, pellagra is easily curable in all but the most advanced cases through dietary and nutritional changes. But unfortunately for many of our ancestors, niacin and its role in the disease was not discovered until the 1930s.

If you are interested in reading more about pellagra, I highly recommend the book A Plague Of Corn: A Social History Of Pellagra by Daphne Roe (http://amzn.to/2hk0HW9). Extremely well-written and insightful, she also includes one chapter where she talks about how the ‘polenta eaters’ in places like Trentino were impacted by this horrible disease.

Tisi, tisi polmonare; consunzione polmonare

These are all terms for pulmonary tuberculosis, commonly called ‘consumption’ in the 19th century. Tuberculosis was so endemic in Europe in the 19th century (and even to the early decades of the 20th century), that it forms the backdrop for many novels, plays and operas of those times. Attacking the lungs, it frequently struck down young adults in the prime of their lives. Some pages in the death records will have many tisi deaths, one after the other, all people in their 20s and 30s.

Tifo (tiffo)

Typhus, a bacterial disease often equated with wartime, it can be transmitted by lice, ticks, mites or fleas when people live in cramped quarters, and have insufficient hygienic facilities. Once it takes hold in a community, it can spread virulently. Thus, if you see one case of tifo, you’re bound to see many others within a short time span.

Apoplessia

The literal translation is ‘apoplexy’, an English which today refers to a stroke. However, in the past, the word apoplexy was used to refer to any kind of sudden death (often preceded by unconsciousness), including stroke, heart attack and aneurysms.

Marasma

Literally ‘decay’, this term was used to refer to dying of ‘old age’ rather than any specified disease or condition. You will only see it used with people of advanced age (usually 70 or older), and refers to the decline in bodily functions, muscle mass, bones, etc.  Occasionally, you will see the term marasma senile, which is used where there is extreme wasting/weight-loss. Most of the sources I have read do not necessarily tie it to the word ‘senility’ or dementia, but it is possible these ailments would also fall under this ‘catch-all’ term.

Closing Thoughts

There is so much more we could discuss when it comes to talking about how our ancestors died. We could talk about ‘La Peste’ of 1630, which wiped entire villages off the map. We could talk about the world-wide cholera epidemic of 1855, which took its toll on Trentino. We could talk about the thousands of men and women who died between 1914 and 1918, during the First World War. Throughout history, the Trentini people have experienced it all – famines and floods, plagues and epidemics, war and economic hardships.

And while these things certainly took their toll on individuals and families, we – as a people – have survived. We identify with our culture; we recognise it as fundamental to who we are. Even those of us who are the children (or grandchildren) of those who emigrated to other lands, are still Trentini.

As my father said:

‘We are survivors.’

I hope this article has inspired you to become as curious about learning about your ancestors’ deaths, as you are about their births, marriages, and other life events. I also hope it has given you some useful tips and information to help you in your research. I would welcome any comments or questions on this, or any other topic to do with Trentino Genealogy. Please feel free to express yourself by leaving a comment in the box below, or drop me a line using the contact form on this site.

Until next time, enjoy the journey.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S.: I am going back to Trento to do research in January 2017. If you would like me to try to look for something while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. I look forward to hearing from you!

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author and genealogist specialising in the families of Trentino. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

In addition to her work for clients, her personal research project is to transcribe all the parish records for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (where her father was born) from the 1400s to the current era, as well as to connect as many living people as she can who were either born in Bleggio or whose ancestors came from there. She hopes this tree, which already contains tens of thousands of people, will serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

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

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES.

Guide to Genealogical Research at the Archdiocese of Trento

Guide to Genealogical Research at the Archdiocese of Trento
Image: Title page of 17th-century baptismal record book from the parish of Drò (Trentino, Italy) drawn by the parish priest, Francesco Giuliani.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn tells what you can find at the Church Archives in Trento, Italy, and shares crucial tips for how to prepare BEFORE you make the trip.

For me, one of the most beautiful places on early is the city of Trento, a hidden gem in the Dolomites (part of the Alps) in northern Italy. Apart from Rome, the city of Trento is arguably the most important place in the history of Christianity, especially as the venue of the Concilio di Trento aka Concilio Tridentino (Council of Trent) in the mid-1500s.

But Trento is also a vital place for modern historians, as it is home to a wealth of archival repositories, including the State Archives, the Archives at the Castello di Buonconsiglio, and the Archives of the Catholic Archdiocese of Trento. It is the last of these – the diocesan archives – that we’ll be looking at today.

In this article, we’ll be looking at what you can find in these archives, how to communicate before you make the trip, and how to prepare for your research so you can make the most of your time there. If you are fairly new to Trentino family history research, you might wish to read these previously published articles before reading this one:

SIDE NOTE: ‘Trento’ is sometimes referred to as ‘Tridentino’, and things to do with Trento are sometimes called ‘Tridentine’. In English, you will frequently see it written simply as ‘Trent’, undoubtedly due to the influence of Austria and the Germanic influence of the Holy Roman Empire, which ruled the area for many centuries.

Genealogical Resources at the Archives

The Tridentine Diocesan Archives preserves, stores and makes available to the public many original historical writings of the bishops of Trento and many other individuals and institutions. But what is of most interest to genealogists is that they have an excellent on-site facility for viewing digitised images of all the baptisms, marriages and deaths of ALL the parishes within the Diocese of Trento, starting from the mid-16th century (when parish records began) until 31 December 1923. These digital images are NOT available online or at any other facility in the world.

In the parish record room, there are five viewing stations, with each high-resolution computer screen measuring 70 cm x 40 cm (27.5 inches wide x 15.75 inches high), which is just about as large as you could ask for in a personal workstation. You have instant access to ALL the parishes of Trentino at your fingertips. Each parish is in its own folder, and then further divided into births, marriages and deaths. You’d have to pay a small fortune to have the microfilms of all of these parishes sent to your local Family History Centre.

While the images themselves are identical to the ones you will find on the LDS microfilms, the fact that they are in digital format makes research a radically different experience. For one thing, the viewing facilities at the archives are state of the art, with extra-large computer monitor screens. This gives you many advantages over microfilm viewing:

  • Computer displays are much brighter and crisper than most microfilm readers.
  • You can quickly zoom in and out to enlarge the images.
  • You can simply ‘click’ to the image you want, without the need to scroll through a whole film.
  • As each image has a unique file number, you can quickly find it again later.
  • You can have several windows open at one time, making it easier to compare records, or work on baptisms, marriages and/or deaths, or even different parishes at the same time.

However, to be able to reap the full benefits of these features, it is important to know the ‘house rules’ at the Archives, as well as how to prepare before you make the trip.

House Rules When Working at the Archives

When working at the archdiocese, there are two crucial ‘house rules’ you will need to know and adhere to:

  • You cannot download the digital files yourself.
  • You cannot take photos of the images off the screen using your phone or camera.

However, for a very reasonable fee (30 cents per image, when I was last there), you can ask the VERY helpful archivists who work there to download specific files onto your USB memory stick for you, OR even upload them to your DropBox folder. When you enter the research room, you will find a tray with forms where you can make a list of all the files you’d like to order. Here’s a scan of one of the many dozens of forms I filled in when I was there earlier this year (please excuse my horribly messy handwriting!). To see it larger, just click on the image and it will open in a new window:

Example of order form for digital filesIf you look at the penultimate column on the right of the form, there is a space to write the file number you require. To ensure the archivists get the correct file for you, you will need to enter the parish, the type of record (baptism, marriage or death), the name of the person whose record you’re particularly interested in, the date of that specific record and the file number. Some archivists will give you the entire page, while others will crop the image and give you only the record you list, so be sure to be very clear when filling in the information.

IMPORTANT TIP for Americans: For dates, Europeans put the DAY first, and the MONTH second. In other words:

12.04.1604 = April 12th 1604

(NOT December 4th)

Contact the Archives BEFORE You Book Your Trip

I highly recommend that you contact the archivists BEFORE you book your trip, and make sure:

  • That they will be open the week/days you want to come. The centre is always closed for a couple of weeks in August, and also on national holidays. They might also occasionally need to close if some construction or a conference is taking place.
  • That they can reserve a work station for you on the days you intend to be there.
  • That someone who speaks English will be on site that day, if you do not speak Italian.

The best way to communicate is via email at archivio@diocesitn.it. You can write in English if you need to, but if you can write in Italian (or find someone to write it for you), that would be best. The official website for Archives of the Archdiocese of Trento can be found by clicking here.

Staff at the Archives of the Archdiocese of Trento, Italy
At the Archives of the Archdiocese of Trento. Left to right: Dr. Katia Pizzini (Assistant Director), Lynn Serafinn (genealogist), Dr. Claudio Andreolli (archivist), Dr. Renato Giacomelli (archivist).

ALWAYS Confirm the Opening Hours

So you can plan your research, it’s a good idea to confirm their opening hours before you go, so you don’t end up disappointed. The ‘official’ hours of the centre are:

  • Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday: 9 am – 12 pm, and 2 pm – 5 pm (closed between 12 pm and 2 pm)
  • Thursday: 9 am – 5 pm (no closure for lunch, as on the other days)
  • Friday: 9 am – 12 pm only (closed in the afternoon)

Although these are the ‘official’ hours, I still recommend you confirm them before your trip, as sometimes the centre needs to close early, and sometimes you might even get a ‘surprise’ bonus day where they are unexpectedly open when they would otherwise have been closed.

Preparing for Research

Going to Trento can be a major trip for many researchers, especially if they are coming from a great distance. Thus, it is crucial that you make a detailed plan for what you want to achieve while you are there. Otherwise, you are likely to drift around the records (much as people surf the Internet) and go home without much to show for the time you’ve spent there.

STEP 1: Calculate your time

The first thing you should do before you create your plan is to take a look at how many HOURS you will be spending at the Archives. There is a huge difference between what you can accomplish in a single day versus a couple of weeks. Assuming the Archives will be operating according to normal opening hours, you can calculate the maximum number of hours you will have for research:

  • 6 hours a day on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays
  • 8 hours on Thursdays
  • 3 hours on Fridays

Thus, you will have a maximum of 29 hours for research per week (especially if you’re neurotic like me, and your backside stays glued to the chair for the entire day once you’ve sat down).

STEP 2: Make a detailed research plan

The next thing to do is to create a research plan that will keep you on track during your time at the Archives. Before I go on any trip to Trento, I might spend a full week – or even longer – working on my research plan. That might sound like a LOT of time to invest in planning, but doing so has enabled me to make the most of every moment I was there. Here’s the method I use and recommend:

  1. IDENTIFY MISSING DATA: First, I systematically go through all the branches of the tree I am working on, and write down EVERY piece of vital information that is still missing (e.g. unknown marriage dates, incomplete names, etc.). One way to see this clearly is to generate a ‘pedigree chart’ using a genealogy programme like Family Tree Maker. That way, I can quickly see which ancestors are missing or incomplete.
  2. CREATE GROUPS: I then take this list and group all the missing/incomplete people according to parish, then their frazioni (villages) within the parish and then into surnames. The main reason I break them into frazioni is that some parish priest would group the records according to frazione, rather than mix them altogether in chronological order. You may or may not need to be as detailed, if your particular parish does not categorise its records according to frazione.
  3. MAKE A REVERSE CHRONOLOGY: I then organise each group in reverse chronological order, so I can weave my way backwards when I do my research. There is little point in starting from the earliest records until I know how they connect with later generations.
  4. CREATE ‘BATCHES’: The next step is to take these groups, and bundle them into ‘batches’ of about 10 to 15 records etc. Each batch should have something in common. For example, they could be baptismal records of people who all have the same surname or live in the same frazione between a specific set of years (one or two generations). Or, I might chunk together all the marriages within a certain span of years. The reason I suggest 10 to 15 records in each batch is that this is the number you might expect to work through on a half-day session (3 to 4 hours).
  5. ORGANISE YOUR BATCHES IN ORDER OF PRIORITY: Once I’ve made my batches, I then sequence them in order of priority. Of all this information, what are the things I most want to find out on this research trip? Which things would be the most difficult to find at home, if I don’t try to find them in Trento? Which things could I leave to the end of my trip, and look for them only if I end up having extra time?
  6. ASSIGN RESEARCH SESSIONS TO EACH BATCH: Finally, I made a day-by-day plan by assigning each batch to a specific morning/afternoon session on a specific day on the trip. This enables me to pace myself each day, and shift gears if I feel like I’m getting nowhere.
  7. TWEAK AND REFINE: I look through my plan, and tweak it to ensure I have some ‘buffer’ time. Is there some area where I am being overly ambitious and trying to cram too much into one session? How can I lighten the load, in case some things take longer than others to find?
  8. PAGINATE, PRINT AND KEEP IT SAFE: When I am satisfied my plan is doable, I put the plan for each date onto a SEPARATE page in Word. In other words, 10 days of research means I have a 10-page plan. Then, I print it out, staple it together, put it in a plastic sleeve and then store it in a document wallet where I will keep all my notes for the trip. You might prefer not to print your plan, but I find it easier to have it sitting next to me on my workstation. That way I can keep my tablet available with my family tree software open, and not need to switch back and forth between screens.

Here’s an image of my plan for one of my own research days. You can click the image to see it larger:

Sample page of genealogy research plan by Lynn SerafinnIf you prefer, you can download a Word docx of this sample page by clicking here.

Getting Oriented on Day 1

Before you start working through your plan, I strongly recommend that you spend the first session (or perhaps the entire first day) creating a ‘map’ for yourself, showing where different records are located within the parish you are researching. Once you create this map, you won’t need to do it again, unless you start working with records from a different parish.

What I mean by ‘map’ is a spreadsheet (or whatever system you prefer) where you list the range of file numbers that contain specific information. For example, as I said earlier, some parish records are organised according to frazioni. Thus, you might see records for a span of years ALL from a single frazione, and then all of a sudden the records leap back in time to the starting point, showing all the records for that time period for a different frazione. Sometimes (if you’re lucky) the priests will have put indices at the beginning of each book saying where these divisions occur, but this isn’t particularly useful if you’re searching for the records via file number. Thus, I might sit for a morning and go through, say, all the records for the 1600s, and write down the numbers of the first and last file within each sequence.

Here’s an example for how I mapped one frazione called ‘Larido’ in the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (I did the same for all the frazioni in the parish). Note that there was one file (01111) that contained two out-of-sequence entries for the year 1612, so I made a special note about this in the right-hand column:

Example of how to create a map your genealogy recordsClick on the image to see it larger.

How is this map useful to me? Well, let’s say that later in the week I am trying to find the birth record for a person born around 1660 in the village of Larido. From my map I can see that the records for 1646 – 1686 are spread across 21 files (01516 – 01536). Knowing that, I can probably guess that the file I’m looking for is probably just a bit before the mid-point of this span, say file 01522. I can go directly to that file, and probably locate the document I am looking for in 5 minutes or less. Without such a map, I’d be likely to spend hours – maybe all afternoon – trying to find it.

Having a map like this also enables you to decide quickly whether a particular file is missing or (more likely) that the person was actually from a different frazione. Remember, when it comes to research, NOT finding a file is often just as informative as finding it.

Working with Your Plan

Once you create your map, you should work methodically through your plan, trying to stick to it as best you can. If you get ‘stuck’ trying to find a particular record, or you think you are spending too long on one thing, make some notes about what you already tried, and then move on to the next item in your plan. Maintaining some sort of momentum can help keep you from becoming bogged down and discouraged.

When I go to Trento (or anywhere else), I like to use Family Tree Maker to enter all the new data I find, making sure to include the number of the file where I found the information. Rather than try to transcribe records while I’m researching, I use the order form to request the digital file of the records I want, so I can study them in greater detail later, when I am not under a time limitation.

At the end of my research day, whenever I close Family Tree Maker, I created a ‘change log’ (which you can generate via the ‘sync’ button) and save it as a PDF file, so I can see exactly what I added, deleted or changed throughout the day. Only later do I sync the data to the online version of the tree, if I have one.

To prevent myself from getting side-tracked, if I happen to stumble upon some interesting discoveries that are NOT included in my plan, I write down the file number, and order the digital file from the Archives, so I can look at it in more detail when I get home. This method is especially useful if I happen to find records on someone whose connection to my tree is not immediately apparent, but whom I suspect could turn out to be relevant later.

Setting Goals and Expectations

Something you are probably asking yourself is how you should set your own research goals. How many records can you expect to find every day? Your individual research expectations will depend on four things:

  1. Your preparation, i. e. whether or not you’ve made a plan
  2. Your orientation, i.e. whether or not you’ve made a ‘map’
  3. Your experience, i.e. how much time you have previously spent working with parish records using LDS microfilms at your local Family History Centre
  4. Your familiarity with the parish, i.e. how well you know the frazioni, the local surnames, common soprannomi of certain families, etc.

If you can give yourself high marks on all three of these things, you can comfortably expect to find at least four records per hour. I have often located more than 10 records within a single hour, because I knew exactly what I was looking for, and exactly where to find them.

If you have had NO experience with the microfilms at all and/or you know next to nothing about your family or their parish, it does not mean you should not make the trip to the Archives. However, in this case, I suggest writing to them in advance asking whether someone who speaks English there can help you with your research. Try to bring as much concrete information about your ancestors as you can, such as birth names, birth/marriage years, parish, etc.

OF COURSE, I am also available for hire as a genealogist, specialising in the family history of Trentino. I could mentor you through your research OR you could hire me to do the research for you. As an experienced author, I can also help construct your family history in writing. If you would like to discuss how we might work together, I invite you to write to me via the contact from on this website, and request a (free) 30-minute Skype chat, so we can get to know each other.

The Really Important Work Starts AFTER Your Trip

One thing that can REALLY slow you down in your research is if you try to process all the information mentally while you are in the ‘discovery’ phase. Thus, my best advice to you would be to use your trip simply to FIND the files you need, and not to analyse them or transcribe them (unless you want to do that in the evening). Be sure you keep a good record of what you managed to find, and what you TRIED to find but could not.

Then, assuming that you’ve obtained all the digital files you discovered, when you return home you can sit and spend as much time as you want studying, translating and ‘connecting the dots’ with your discoveries. Remember, hidden within a baptismal record for one of your ancestors could be the names of that child’s grandparents. Or, you might discover that a child’s godfather/godmother, or the witnesses at your ancestors’ wedding are yet OTHER ancestors of yours. You might see clues indicating they originally came from another parish. You might see hand-written notes indicating death dates, marriage dates, occupations or many other gems. There is no way to take it all in when you are on the hunt for the records themselves; what’s more, you shouldn’t try to.

I am STILL working methodically through the 300+ pages of records I located and retrieved during my 5 weeks in Trento earlier this year. I have a special spreadsheet where I write down the number of each file, which village(s) it covers, the earliest and latest date in the file, and how many records it contains. I also make notes if there were some records I couldn’t read or understand in the file. This way, I always know which files I have already analysed, sparing me from accidentally repeating work I have already done. It also helps me identify which files I might still need to locate at a later date.

Using this method, my primary tree has blossomed from about 1,000 people in December 2015 to (as of this writing) over 8,700 people, supported by nearly 1,500 digital images (old photos, civil documents, census records, parish records, and my transcriptions of the same).

UPDATE JUNE 2019: My Santa Croce tree now has nearly 24,000 people on it. 

Don’t Fear the Learning Curve

I am sure some of you are feeling a bit overwhelmed at this point. I’d like to quell your feelings by telling you about the very first time I went to the Trento Archives. Back then, I couldn’t yet speak Italian, and I had a very sparse tree through the 19th century with no actual images of the records. Bringing my Italian friend Vanessa with me as a translator, I went to see an archivist there named Claudio Andreolli (who speaks almost no English). Claudio knew I was coming, and I had given him all the information I had gathered so far. When I arrived, I was thrilled to discover that he had ALREADY traced my father’s Serafini line back to the late 1500s! While this was just the male line – about seven generations of Serafini grandfathers, with the names of some of their wives – this really kick-started my research, and everything I have done since blossomed from that point. Over the next year, I actually found a couple of errors in Claudio’s original research, which I corrected. However, when I did that, I discovered that Claudio himself was actually my 4th cousin. What an exciting discovery!

I tell this story for two reasons. First, please remember that EVERYONE starts out as a beginner in genealogy. Second, don’t worry about MAKING MISTAKES. Every single researcher, no matter how learned or experienced, will make mistakes. The important thing is to check, double-check, and triple-check your work over time, as you gain experience and expertise. Sometimes the answers to things you didn’t know or corrections to mistakes you made in the past just sort of POP out at you, and you can’t figure out why you hadn’t seen them before.

Stay Connected

Coming soon on the Trentino Genealogy blog, we’ll be looking at:

  • Reading and interpreting parish records from Trentino
  • Notaries and noble families
  • Using church parchments to understand more about your ancestors’ daily lives

I hope you’ll subscribe to this blog so you can follow along on this genealogical journey, and read all future articles on this site. Desktop viewers can subscribe using the opt-in form at the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

We also have a thriving ‘Trentino Genealogy’ Facebook Group, open to ANYONE interested in discussing genealogy, and meeting others who are researching their family history. Who knows? You might meet a long-lost cousin there!

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

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

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

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

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author and genealogist specialising in the families of Trentino. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

In addition to her work for clients, her personal research project is to transcribe all the parish records for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (where her father was born) from the 1400s to the current era, as well as to connect as many living people as she can who were either born in Bleggio or whose ancestors came from there. She hopes this tree, which already contains tens of thousands of people, will serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

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

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES.

Preparing for Research: Using Microfilms for Family History


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did your ancestors actually come from Trento?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to find your ancestor’s parish

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

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

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

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

How your ancestors’ parishes may have changed over time

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

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

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

How to order a microfilm of your ancestors’ parish records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting familiar with your microfilm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing thoughts

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

Coming up soon on the Trentino Genealogy blog, we’ll be looking at what to expect when working with the Archives at the Archdiocese in Trento (if you do decide to make the trip), how to interpret parish records from Trentino, an introduction to notaries and noble families in Trentino, and how to use church parchments to understand more about your ancestors’ daily lives. I do hope you’ll subscribe to this blog so you can follow along on this genealogical journey, and read all future articles on this site. Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

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

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from Trentino Genealogy! Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

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

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

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author and genealogist specialising in the families of Trentino. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

In addition to her work for clients, her personal research project is to transcribe all the parish records for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (where her father was born) from the 1400s to the current era, as well as to connect as many living people as she can who were either born in Bleggio or whose ancestors came from there. She hopes this tree, which already contains tens of thousands of people, will serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

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

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES.

Searching Online for 19th & 20th Century Trentini Ancestors

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

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

UPDATE MARCH 2021: Since publishing this article in 2016. the Nati in Trentino website has been UPDATED. You will find the new website at by clicking here: Nati in Trentino (1815 – 1923) (mondotrentino.net).

While most of the information in this article is still relevant, some of it is now out of date. I have created two video tutorial on how to use the NEW website, which you will find on my ‘tutorials’ here: 

MORE READING:   Genealogy Video Tutorials

ORGINAL ARTICLE FROM 2016:

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

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

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

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

In this article, I’ll be looking at:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advantages of Using Nati in Trentino

It has been made by EXPERTS

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

It is extremely accurate

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

It has an English language option

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

It can save you time

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

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What The Site CAN and CANNOT Tell You

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the date of birth

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

About parishes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technical Limitations of the Site

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

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

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

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

Tips and Tricks to Get the Most from Your Searches

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

CHILD’S (AND FATHER’S) SURNAME

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

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

MOTHER’S SURNAME

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

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

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

PERSONAL NAMES

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

For example:

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

GETTING AROUND THE 103-YEAR PRIVACY ISSUE

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

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

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

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

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

Finding SIBLINGS of Your Ancestors on Nati in Trentino

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts…

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

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

I do hope you’ll subscribe to this blog so you can follow along on this genealogical journey, and read all future articles on this site. Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

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

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from Trentino Genealogy! Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

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

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author and genealogist specialising in the families of Trentino. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

In addition to her work for clients, her personal research project is to transcribe all the parish records for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (where her father was born) from the 1400s to the current era, as well as to connect as many living people as she can who were either born in Bleggio or whose ancestors came from there. She hopes this tree, which already contains tens of thousands of people, will serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

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

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentino SURNAMES.

Parishes, Parish Records & Genealogy Resources for Trentino

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

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

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

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

What Are Parish Records and When Did They Start?

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

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

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

The Role of Parishes in Our Ancestors’ Lives

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

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

Parishes and Life Events – Where Did They Take Place?

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

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

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

Exceptions to the Rule

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

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

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

Changes in Parish ‘Boundaries’ Over Time

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

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

Click on the image below to see it larger.

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

Where Can I Find and Search Trentini Parish Records?

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Up Next Time…

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

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

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

I hope you’ll subscribe to this blog so you can read all future articles on this site. Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

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

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from Trentino Genealogy! Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

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

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

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author and genealogist specialising in the families of Trentino. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

In addition to her work for clients, her personal research project is to transcribe all the parish records for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (where her father was born) from the 1400s to the current era, as well as to connect as many living people as she can who were either born in Bleggio or whose ancestors came from there. She hopes this tree, which already contains tens of thousands of people, will serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

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

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES.