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The STANCHINA of Trentino. Origins, Nobility, Genealogy.

The Stanchina of Trentino. Origins, Nobility, Genealogy.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn discusses the medieval origins of the Stanchina family, and how its branches in Livo, Terzolas and Carciato are ancestrally connected.

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I love researching the history and origins of our Trentino surnames. But sometimes, there is something about a surname that will make me curious to dig more deeply than I normally would. It doesn’t even have to be a surname from my own family tree. More often, it is a surname I stumbled upon when doing research for a client.

Perhaps I found the sound of the surname to be interesting, or perhaps its sound or linguistic origin is unique amongst others in the province. Or perhaps the surname is ‘imported’ either from outside the province, or from a different part of the province. In such cases, the obsessive genealogist in me will want to verify whether different families with that surname are ultimately descended from the same patriarch. I will want to discover the precise point of entry – the who, where and when of the first person who brought that surname to the province, or to that village.

Lastly, I am often drawn to study families who have been ennobled. This is not because I am attracted by noble titles, but because I know I will be more likely to find their names in legal documents that pre-date the beginning of the parish registers. Generally, I’m not so interested in the very highest-ranking nobles, such as the Counts of Tyrol. Firstly, many volumes have already been written about the Counts of Tyrol by other historians; secondly, while many of my clients have noble ancestors, I’ve yet to have a client descended from a Count (at least not ‘legitimately’).

The surname STANCHINA meets many of these criteria. It has an unusual sound, and it is not closely similar to most other Trentino surnames.[1] Although the surname appears to have originated within the province, many branches arose as a result of migration over the centuries, making it an intriguing genealogical puzzle to piece together. And finally, many lines were considered nobility, some attaining the rank of Knights of the Holy Roman Empire. Lastly, a few of my clients have ancestors with this surname, meaning I had the added motivation to share a history of their ancestors with them, and show them how they are all ‘cousins’, even if only distantly.

But doing such a study does not come without its challenges. Surnames as we know them did not really exist before around the beginning of the 1400s (and early surnames were often somewhat ‘fluid’), and parish records did not begin until the latter half of the 1500s. Thus, weaving your way back in time to find the precise origin of a particular surname is often difficult, and may not always yield the answers you seek.

The Aims of this Article, and the Sources Used

In this article, I will aim to identify the origins of the Stanchina lineage, and to illustrate how various branches of the family migrated and expanded over the centuries.

As the parish registers will only come into play from the late 1500s (and, in some cases, early 1600s), any information about their more ancient history has been gleaned mainly from surviving legal parchments, also called ‘pergamene’ (singular = ‘pergamena’). Most of the pergamene I have cited were taken from in the 3-volume work entitled Inventari e Regesti degli Archivi Parrocchiali della Val di Sole by Giovanni Ciccolini. Others were attained from other published inventories or from the Archivi Storici del Trento database. Most of the information about nobility has been gathered from published books that refer to diplomas and lists held in the State Archives in Trento or Innsbruck. You will find all endnotes and resources at the end of the article.

All genealogical charts in this article were made by me, drawn from a ‘Stanchina Master Tree’ I have constructed using Family Tree Maker software. This tree is a composite of all research I have done independently using the sources mentioned above, with some items drawn from writings of other published histories.

Geographic Origins and Expansion of the Stanchina

In most books published before 2010 or so, you will read that that Stanchina were originally from Terzolas in Val di Sole.[2] [3] [4] [5] However, more recent research has convincingly demonstrated that the family originally came from (or at least lived in) Tassullo in Val di Non, and then moved to Livo, which lies at the junction between Val di Non and Val di Sole. From Livo, a branch of the family relocated to settle in Terzolas.[6] [7] The most recent branch is that of Carciato (also in Val di Sole), which began when a member of the Terzolas line relocated there in the 18th century. Throughout this article, we will be examining all of these branches, with an aim of reconstructing a genealogical link between them.

To get a feeling for what the migration pattern looked like, here is a street map starting in Tassullo to the southeast, then looping northward to Livo, then southwest towards Terzolas, and finally to Carciato:

MAP_Tassullo-Livo-Terzolas-Carciato

IMAGE: Street map from Google Maps showing of journey (on foot) from Tassullo, to Livo, Terzolas, and Carciato. Click image to see it larger.

What this type of map does not show, however, is why this journey was shaped so peculiarly. When we look at the same journey on a map showing the terrain, we can see it ‘hugs’ the outline of mountainous, densely forested, and essentially uninhabitable area. Even if you were driving in a car today, you would still need to made this somewhat zig-zagged, inverted U-shaped journey:

Terrain map from Google Maps showing of journey (by car) from Tassullo, to Livo, Terzolas, and Carciato.

IMAGE: Terrain map from Google Maps showing of journey (by car) from Tassullo, to Livo, Terzolas, and Carciato. Click image to see it larger.

Unconvincing Linguistic theories

Spelling variants: Stanckhini; Staigkin; Stanken; Staiken; Stanghin.

Nobility variants: Stanchina von Panienthurm um Leiffenburg; Stanchina Panianthurn zu Leiffenburg; Stanchina de Torre de Pegnana.

The linguistic origins of a surname can often tell us much about the history of the family. But in the case of the Stanchina, many of the published theories about its linguistic are unconvincing, if not altogether incorrect.

Bertoluzza[8] proposes the surname may be derived from the eastern European name ‘Stanislav’. Alternatively, both he and Leonardi[9] suggest it is a patronymic derived from the medieval personal name ‘Stancario’, which has been found in documents as early as 973. But these linguistic theories do not stand up against what we now know about the actual history of the Stanchina family in Trentino. If the surname were a patronymic, then you would find a patriarch with that personal name who lived just before the surname was adopted. As we will see shortly, there is no ‘Stancario’ to be found among the ancestors of the man we now know as the ‘first’ Stanchina in Tassullo.

Another possibility is that Stanchina is a toponymic surname, i.e., one derived from the name of a place associated with the founding family. Bertoluzza comments there once was a locality known as ‘Stanchini’, but he does not say where it was,[10] and none of my own investigations led me to information on a place with this name. Moreover, in none of the early documentation do we find the family mentioned in connection with a place with a name resembling Stanchina.

As the word does not resemble an occupation, the last possibility is that it was a soprannome, used as a nickname describing Nicolò’s personal attributes. In modern Italian, the word ‘stanca’ is the feminine form of and adjective meaning ‘tired’, and the diminutive ‘stanchina’ might be interpreted as ‘tired little girl’, which of course makes no sense at all. Leonardi says the word ‘stancario’ refers to a lance or a spear,[11] but connecting it to the surname seems a bit of a stretch to me.

Thus, for now, I feel the linguistic origins of the surname must remain a mystery. But happily, we know much more about the family’s activities in this late medieval era.

The First ‘Stanchina’ and His Possible Ancestry

According to Guelfi, early forms of the surname – Stankin, Stainken, Stangehin – appear in documents from the 1300s.[12] Ausserer says the same, but lists completely different variant spellings – Staubin, Staickin, Stangkin.[13] However, neither author cites his sources, or tell us where the family lived, or whether these examples are from the early, middle or latter part of the century. So, without more information, I cannot comment or assess their relevance.

We do have some concrete documentary evidence of the surname appearing in the early 1400s, however. In a legal agreement dated 28 April 1423, held in the Thun Archives in Castelfondo, we find amongst the witnesses to the transaction a ‘Nicolò called “Stanchina”, son of Ser Belvesino di Tassullo, now living in Livo’.[14] [15] This is, to the best of my knowledge, the earliest surviving document containing the surname (or at least the designation) ‘Stanchina’. As we find out more about this Nicolò and his descendants, it become apparent that he was the patriarch of all the Stanchina branches that would eventually flourish in Livo, Terzolas and Carciato, and other places in the province.

In his list of Trentino notaries, P. Remo Stenico mentions a as ‘Belvesino (‘Belvesinus’), son of the late Guglielmo of Tassullo’, who appears in a document dated 1391.[16] Historian Paolo Odorizzi believes this to be the previously-mentioned Belvesino of Tassullo, who was the father of Nicolò Stanchina.[17] As the surname was not yet in use, this is admittedly somewhat speculative, but I am inclined to agree with Odorizzi that Belvesino, the father of Nicolò, and Belvesino, son of Guglielmo, are one and the same person. If that is true, then it takes us back one more generation, to Guglielmo of Tassullo. From this point, Odorizzi tells us of a ‘Ser Guglielmo, notary, son of Ser Belvesino of Tassullo’, who is named as a witness in a notary document dated 11 March 1374.[18]

Based on these documents (and others cited by Odorizzi), we can construct a 4-generation tree, outlining the paternal lineage of Nicolò Stanchina of Tassullo back to around the year 1300:

4-generation chart, ancestors of Nicolo' Stanchina of Tassullo, back to about 1300.

Possible Links to the Thun Family?

To readers who may be familiar with the history of medieval Trentino, the name ‘Belvesino’ may have already caught your attention. Castel Thun, the formidable and majestic residence of the noble Counts of Thun (which, today, is just as formidable a museum), was originally called ‘Castel Belvesino’. In the High Middle Ages, before surnames were commonly in use, many people (including nobility) would be referred to by the name of their place of residence. Thus, as ‘Belvesino’ is such an uncommon name, and one directly associated with the Counts of Thun, it would not be too far-fetched to imagine he had some familial connection to the Thun family. Moreover, it is significant that we see the title ‘Ser’ recurring in this line, which is an honourific generally reserved for nobility.

This is precisely the theory by Paolo Odorizzi in his book Val di Non e i Suoi Misteri, wherein he proposes that Belvesino (the elder) was a son of an illegitimate son (Corrado, called ‘Buscacio’) in the noble family of Castel Belvesino, who would later be known as ‘Thun’. As his argument is very complex, and as I have not personally reviewed the documents from which has sourced the information, I refer the reader to pages 461-484 of that book for further consideration.[19]

Investiture at Mostizzolo

We return now to Nicolò Stanchina and move forward in time to see how the family evolved over the coming centuries.

In 1435, the Prince-Bishop of Trento Alessandro di Mazovia (reigned 1423-1444), invested Nicolò Stanchina with the Office of Massaro in the fief (‘feudo’) of Mostizzolo.[20] This fief intitled Nicolò to the use of all the fields, pastures, vineyards, etc., in that property, and also to a portion of the taxes collected from the same. Nicolò’s role as debt collector is evident from a parchment in the Stanchina family archives in Livo dated 13 June 1442, in which Cardinal Alessandro tasks Nicolò with the job of obtaining long overdue payments in the area.[21]

Aside from the income made from working the lands, and the profits the Stanchina were permitted to draw from taxes, the investiture at Mostizzolo had other assets that can only be understood by looking at where it is located:

Terrain map from Google Maps showing location of Mostizzolo

IMAGE: Terrain map from Google Maps showing location of Mostizzolo. Click on image to see it larger.

The location of Mostizzolo was highly desirable, as it is positioned at the ‘apex’ of that inverted U-shaped journey we saw in the earlier maps, precisely at the junction between Val di Sole (running to the southwest) and Val di Non (to the south and east, on both sides of Lago di Santa Giustina). This made Mostizzolo an important crossing point for trade between the two valleys. Its geographical position also made it an important military stronghold; in fact, it was the site of a fortress, which had stood there since the 1100s. Thus, being granted this investiture was no small stroke of fortune for the Stanchina.

The Stanchinas’ feudal privileges at Mostizzolo were unfortunately short-lived, however, as the next Prince-Bishop (Giorgio de Hack) transferred the fief of Mostizzolo to Vigilio of the Counts of Thun in 1447. The Thun, who had been keen to possess this valuable military and economic strategic point for themselves, retained control over Mostizzolo until the Napoleonic invasions in 1789.[22]

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The Five Sons of Ser Nicolò of Livo

In 1456, Ser Nicolò (who had by now acquired citizenship of Livo), purchased two houses in Pedergnana (Val di Rabbi), but was deceased by January 1458, leaving behind 5 sons: Antonio, Belvesino, Leonardo, Ottone and Pietro, who were all still living in their paternal home in Livo.[23]

Of these, Belvesino may have died soon after, as we have no further information about him.

Pietro Stanchina, who stayed in Livo, practiced the profession of a notary at least between the years of 1458-1462,[24] but absence of other records indicates he may have died relatively young (under 40), leaving behind at least one son (Baldassare), whom we find alive in 1496. None of the sources I have consulted mention whether Baldassare had sons who carried on the family name.

Leonardo, who also remained in his ancestral home of Livo, is the founding father of the Stanchina family of LIVO, as all of those lines can be traced back to him.

Antonio left Livo to establish his residence in Terzolas and became the founding father of the Stanchina line of TERZOLAS. Again, all the Stanchina of Terzolas can be traced back to him. In the early 1700s, a branch from this line established itself in Carciato, making him the ancestral patriarch for that line as well.

Finally, we look at Ottone Stanchina, who appears to have been the longest lived of the five brothers. By 1470, he had transferred to the parish of Malé, which then included the areas of Samoclevo and Terzolas.[25] HIs aristocratic career was long and illustrious. In a land sale agreement, in Terzolas, dated 23 March 1491, we learn that ‘Ser’ Ottone, son of ‘Ser’ Nicolò Stanchina of Livo was Captain of Castel Rocca in Samoclevo, under the authority of the noble Giacomo Thun.[26] We see him performing a similar transaction on behalf of Antonio Thun on 3 December 1493.[27]

Sometime before 27 March 1496, Ottone passed away, as the noble Pangrazio Spaur then passes the investiture of Castel Rocca to Bartolomeo Stanchina, son of Ottone’s late brother Antonio. [28] This document stays Ottone had been granted the investiture on 15 December 1491, although we know from the other documents already cited that he was already Captain of Castel Rocca by March 1491 (so I can only presume the document from December 1491 was some kind of update on his previous investiture).

This 1496 investiture is particularly rich in genealogical information. It tells us that, in 1491, Ottone had obtained the investiture in 1491 not only for himself, but also on behalf of his nephews – the sons of his deceased brothers, Pietro and Leonardo. While we are told that Pietro’s son was named Baldassare, the names of Leonardo’s sons are not mentioned (although it says ‘brothers’, indicating there was more than one), possibly because they were still children.[29] The document further tells us that now, in 1496, Bartolomeo Stanchina is appealing for the investiture on his own behalf, as well on the behalf of the same Baldassare (son of the late Pietro) and ‘the Stanchina brothers’ (sons of the late Leonardo) granted the investiture in 1491, as well as Pietro, son of the late Ottone.[30] This is the only mention of Ottone’s son Pietro I have found in any record, and I have no further information about it.

The late Ottone’s name appears in a later document from 1510, which mentioned his ‘biological’ son, Gregorio, who was living in Caldes.[31] The terms ‘biological son’ infers Gregorio may have been illegitimate; indeed, the fact that he was not represented by Bartolomeo Stanchina in the 1496 investiture document also seems to indicate he was not considered to be a legitimate heir.

Overview of Early Stanchina Generations

To summarise what we’ve just discussed, and before moving on to look at the development of the Stanchina lines in Livo, Terzolas and Carciato, here is a genealogical chart showing the first five generations of Stanchina men known to be descended from Belvesino of Tassullo:

Descendant Chart for Belvesino of Tassullo (5 generations)

Click on the image to see it larger.

I made this chart after constructing a tree in Family Tree Maker, inserting estimated dates of births, marriages and deaths, using the compiled information I have gathered so far.

In green, I have highlighted Leonardo, the ‘Founding Father of the Livo Stanchina’, and his sons.

In purple, I have highlighted Antonio, the ‘Founding Father of the Terzolas Stanchina’, and his sons, who is also the patriarch of the Carciato line.

Stanchina of Livo (1510-1600)

We start our discussion on the specific branches of the Stanchina by looking at the family that remained in Livo, descended from Leonardo (son of ‘Ser Nicolò), the ‘founding father’ of the Livo line.

As the baptismal and marriage records for Livo do not begin until the 1570s, we must again draw upon notary parchments for our information about the earlier generations of this family. We already learned from the investiture documents of 1491 and 1496 that ‘Ser Leonardo’, then deceased, had more than one son. My research has uncovered only two – Nicolò and Antonio – who were alive after those dates.

Nicolò and Antonio, Sons of Leonardo

Nicolò’s name is especially prominent in the pergamene, as he had a long career as a notary at least between the years 1510–1555,[32] and his signature appears in numerous legal documents. While many of his signatures say he was ‘son of the late Ser Leonardo Stanchina’, some also specify that he was also the grandson of ‘Ser Nicolò’.[33] [34] As we can assume he was a legal adult (25 years or older) when he began his practice, we can estimate he was born no later than 1485, and that he was probably in his 70s when he passed away (Livo death records do not begin until 1658).

The earliest document in which I have found a reference to Antonio is a land sale agreement drafted on 2 January 1513, where ‘Antonio Stanchina, son of the late ser Leonardo Stanchina’ is cited as witness.[35] Being a legal witness most likely means he was then of majority age (25 years or older), thus born no later than 1487.

We can conclude from this that both Nicolò and Antonio were the ‘brothers’ referred to in the investiture document of 1491, although there may have been other siblings for whom we have no evidence.

Rural Nobility (1529)

After the so-called ‘Guerra Rustica’ (Rustic War) of 1525, many families in Val di Non and Vale di Sole who remained loyal to the Prince-Bishop, who was then Cardinal Bernardo Cles, were granted a title of ‘rural nobility’ in 1529. We are fortunate to know many (if not most) of these names, as the notary Giuseppe Sandris of Nanno[36] compiled them into a Catalogue of Rural Nobility of Valli di Non and Sole in 1529 (albeit many entries are somewhat vague). Under the listing for rural nobility in Livo, as transcribed by Guelfi, we find both brothers:

Antonio Stanchina; ser Stanchina, notaio [37] [38]

The word ‘notaio’ means ‘notary’; although Nicolò is not mentioned by name, he is the only Stanchina notary living in Livo in this era, and it definitely refers to him.

MORE READING:   Was One of Your Trentino Ancestors a Notary?

The Descendants of Giovanni, son of Nicolò

I have found no evidence of descendants for Antonio. We know, however, that the notary Nicolò had at least one son, namely Giovanni, who is cited as the ‘son of the late Nicolò Stanchina di Livo’ when he is a witness at the drafting of a land sale agreement recorded on 31 March 1572.[39]

Giovanni had at least three sons (Nicolò, Antonio and Matteo) and a daughter (Anna), who were all born before the beginning of the Livo parish records, but whose names and connection to their father are documented in pergamene, and in later baptismal or marriage records for their children. His sons Antonio and Matteo were especially prolific, both having no fewer than 10 children each between about 1577 and 1609 (albeit many died in infancy/childhood). [40]

Although we know Antonio had a son named Nicolò who was born before the parish records begin in 1579, the first recorded child for him and his wife Pasqua (or for any Stanchina in Livo, for that fact) is dated 29 Sept 1581, for a daughter named Anna.[41] Note also that Anna’s godmother was Maria, the wife of Antonio’s brother, Matteo:

1581 baptismal record for Anna Stanchina, daughter of Antonio Stanchina of Livo and his wife Pasqua.

Click on image to see it larger.

As Antonio was already married before the beginning of the parish records, we do not know the surname of his wife, Pasqua. But we do know that on 19 January 1579, Matteo married Maria Aliprandini, a young daughter of the notary Aliprando Aliprandini of Preghena.[42] Based in Preghena, the Aliprandini were another affluent, noble family, renowned for producing dozens of notaries throughout the centuries.[43] The closeness of these two families is evidenced by a document dated 28 July 1583, in which ‘Matteo, son of the late Giovanni Stanchina, and the heirs of Aliprando Aliprandini of Preghena’ are jointly invested with the use of several fields and pasturelands.[44] There are similar examples connecting these two families in later generations.

Here we begin to see how, through intermarriage, the Stanchina would ultimately establish a strong network of family (and business) connections not just with the Aliprandini, but also with other many influential and aristocratic families, in the centuries to come.[45]

Following tradition, Matteo and Maria named their first son after Matteo’s father, Giovanni, and their second son after Maria’s father, Aliprando. After that Aliprando apparently died in infancy, they had another son named Aliprando in 1598.[46] This is the first time we find a Stanchina with the name Aliprando, but from this point forward, we will find this name recurring numerous times amongst Aliprando’s descendants, at least into the mid-1700s, an enduring reminder of their connection to the Aliprandini family in the past.

Knighthood – The Stanchina de Leiffenburg (1624-1661)

We know from many sources that, in 1624, the Stanchina of Livo were elevated to the grade of Knights of the Holy Roman Empire (Cavalieri del S.R.I.), granting them the right to use the predicate ‘de Leiffenburg’ (sometimes ‘von’ is used instead of ‘de’), which is German for ‘Castel Livo’. [47] [48] [49] [50]

The original stemma (coat-of-arms) awarded to the Stanchina in 1624 was a blue shield with a vertical band of gold.[51] [52] Many variations of this original stemma appear in books, the primary difference being the contents of the crest adorning the shied. One key element that appears in all versions of the crest is the pair of blue and gold buffalo horns in the middle. Rauzi comments that the Stanchina ‘boasted’ that they had essentially the same stemma as that of the Counts of Thun, the only difference being the additional elements in the crest.[53] Whether this is merely coincidence or intentional, I cannot say. If intentional, it could possibly indicating an ancestral connection between the two families, as suggested by Odorizzi; alternatively, it could simply have been an expression of a desire to be associated with the Lords of Thun. For comparison, here are two depictions of the Stanchina stemma from 1624, followed by one version of the stemma for the Thun von Hohenstein. The similarity is certainly evident.

1624 stemma of the Stanchina de Leiffenburg, as depicted by Tabarelli de Fatis and Borrelli

ABOVE: 1624 stemma of the Stanchina de Leiffenburg, as depicted by Tabarelli de Fatis and Borrelli. [54]

1624 stemma of the Stanchina de Leiffenburg, as depicted by Rauzi

ABOVE: A more ornate version of the 1624 stemma of the Stanchina de Leiffenburg, as depicted by Rauzi
. [55]

Stemma of Thun von Hohenstein, as depicted by Tabarelli de Fatis and Borrelli

ABOVE: Stemma of Thun von Hohenstein, as depicted by Tabarelli de Fatis and Borrelli
. [56]

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Who Exactly Was Knighted?

One thing I find curious (and slightly frustrating) is that none of the sources I have consulted specify the name of the man or men upon whom the title was granted. Unfortunately, the Livo death records do not begin until 1658, so the only way we can determine who was still alive in 1624 is by cross-referencing the parish registers and the scattered parchments. Having done this, I can attest that there were very few adult Stanchina men who were (or may have been) alive in 1624.

One is the afore-mentioned Aliprando Stanchina. We know he died sometime between September 1639 and May 1640, because he is cited as deceased in the baptismal record of his daughter Marina on 24 May 1640.[57] He would have been 26 years old and already a head of a household in 1624. Given these facts, alone with the apparent social advancement and additional noble titles we see later amongst his descendants, he was certainly one recipient of this imperial title.

We know that all the Stanchina men from the generations before his were already deceased (except perhaps his father Matteo[58]), and we know at least three of Aliprando’s first cousins (sons of his uncle Nicolò) were alive in 1624, but they all would have been minors at the time. His nephew Antonio (son of his brother Bernardino) was also still alive, as we see his name in a later document when he is a young man.

To make an educated guess on who exactly had been granted this the diploma of knighthood, let us consider the information from a parchment dated 19 April 1661 in the Stanchina Archives in Livo.[59] This document tells us that on 12 January of the previous year (1660), four Stanchina men had been granted the use of (and profit from) a house and many feudal lands by the Count Prospero Francesco of Spaur, who had since passed away. In this document, his successor Count Giovanni Antonio of Spaur is renewing the investiture, upon which the same four Stanchina men swear an oath of loyalty to their new ‘Lord’.

What makes this document so informative is that is gives the name and paternity of each of these Stanchina men, namely:

  • Ser Antonio, son of the late Bernardino Stanchina
  • Brothers Matteo and Antonio, sons of the late Aliprando Stanchina
  • Nicolò, son of the late Leonardo Stanchina

I made this chart to illustrate how all of these men were related:

DESCENDANTS - Giovanni Stanchina of Livo (4 generations)

Click on chart to see it larger.

To make the chart easy to read, I have removed all the mothers and siblings, leaving only the direct male lineage of the four men who were granted the investiture. I have highlighted these four men in orange, with their paternal lines in purple and green, respectively. As per the usual protocol, the four men are listed in the document in order of descending age, starting with the eldest Antonio, son of Bernardino, who was born in 1619.

We already know from the document that Matteo and the younger Antonio (born 1629) were brothers, and sons of the late Aliprando. But here we can clearly see that the elder Antonio was their first cousin, as he was the son of their father’s brother.

The youngest of the four men was Nicolò, son of Leonardo, born in 1640. We can see from this chart that Nicolò’s father Leonardo was the 2nd cousin of the other three men, as they were all great-grandsons of Giovanni Stanchina. This means Nicolò was the 2nd cousin 1X removed of the other three men, as he was born in the subsequent generation.

In my view, I cannot imagine such a significant investiture would have been granted to so many members of this extended family if they were not ALL considered to be of high noble rank. For this reason, I suspect the 1624 Knighthood had been granted either to the ‘heirs of Giovanni Stanchina’, or perhaps (as they would have been more recent in people’s memory) to ‘the heirs of brothers Antonio and Matteo Stanchina’.

Stanchina de Turri de Pegnana (1723)

On 20 April 1723, Prince-Bishop Gian Michele Spaur granted episcopal nobility to Matteo Alessandro Stanchina, granting him the right to use the predicate ‘de Turri de Pegnana’, also see written ‘Torre Pegnana’. [60] [61] The word ‘torre’ means ‘tower’ and ‘Pegnana’ may be a contraction of the place name ‘Pedergnana’ in Val di Rabbi[62], where the Stanchina had owned property since the mid-1400s.

Born in Livo on 11 April 1691, Matteo Alessandro was the son of the noble dominus Aliprando Stanchina of Livo, and his wife Lucia.[63] He was his parents’ eighth child, but their only son, having been born after seven elder sisters.

1691 baptismal record for the noble Matteo Alessandro Stanchina of Livo.

Click on image to see it larger.

Matteo Alessandro’s Paternal Ancestry

Perhaps, seeing the name ‘Aliprando’ for Matteo Alessandro’s father, you may have already suspected that he was descended from the Aliprando Stanchina de Leiffenburg (grandson of Aliprando Aliprandini), who was knighted in 1624. If so, you would be correct. Below is a chart showing Matteo Alessandro’s paternal ancestral line, with the addition of his 3X great-grandfather Aliprando Aliprandini at the top.[64] Notice how the names ‘Matteo’ and ‘Aliprando’ recur in alternating generations:

Click on image to see it larger.

Due to an unfortunate 80-year gap in the Livo marriage records (1650-1730), I do not currently know anything about Matteo Alessandro’s mother or wife other than their first names.

We do see that his great-grandmother was Agata Sparapani, from the renowned Sparapani family of Preghena who, much like the Stanchina, produced many notaries and had various noble titles throughout centuries.

We ‘met’ his grandfather Matteo earlier, as he was one of the four men who had be granted the investitures of 1660 and 1661. While I know little more about the family of Matteo’s wife Agnese Tomasi (other than her parents’ names), what struck me as most unusual about this couple is that Matteo Stanchina was not quite 15 years old[65] when he married Agnese Tomasi on 26 August 1640.[66] Moreover, Agnese was nearly 9 years his senior, which makes this even more unusual.[67] I have quadruple checked the records and this is no error.

We note, however, that their first child, Aliprando (who would later become the father of Matteo Alessandro), was not born until 21 November 1642, when Matteo would have just turned 18 years old. This does make me suspect that the marriage may have been arranged to create some sort of profitable alliance between the two families, but that the actual consummation of the marriage had been delayed until Matteo was closer to a more ‘acceptable’ marriage age. I have seen other examples of this kind of arrangement, but they usually involve a very young bride (but no younger than 15), rather than a very young groom. The gaps in their ages could also explain why there were no children born after 1656, when Agnese was nearly 40 years old, despite the fact both of them died well after that date.[68] [69]

Another Knighthood. Another Predicate (1764)

According to don Luigi Conter, the Stanchina families continued to increase in both wealth and status throughout the 1700s, while the affluence of several other ancient Livo families – such as the Aliprandini and Anselmi – was steadily declining. [70]

One testament to their increasing influence was the award of yet another knighthood. On 16 January 1764, the three eldest sons Matteo Alessandro – namely Aliprando Michele (born 1724), Giovanni Andrea (born 1726) and Lorenzo Nicolò (born 1728) – were themselves elevated to the rank of Knight, this time being granted the predicate ‘von Panianthurn zu Leiffenburg’, which means ‘of Torre Pegnana e Castel Livo,’[71] thus combining the previous predicates into one. Again, there are many variant spellings for this predicate, depending on whether you are reading German or Italian sources; moreover, Italian sources will always say ‘de’ instead of ‘von’, ‘zu’ or ‘um’). Tabarelli de Fatis and Borelli express that the Stanchina surname in these documents ‘suffered’ many variant spellings (including Staigkin, Stanken, Staiken and Stanghin), undoubtedly due to the language difference between the Stanchina and their German-speaking superiors.[72]

Tabarelli de Fatis and Borelli also tell us that Aliprando Michele was a lawyer in Graz (Austria), and Giovanni Andrea was a Controller of the War Office in Milan. [73] The fact that their occupations took them outside the province is surely why there appear to be no children born to these two men in Livo. Although these same authors say nothing more about Lorenzo Nicolò, my own research has shown that he married the noble lady Teresa Cazzuffi of Trento sometime before 1769, and the couple had at least five children, all born in Livo. Below is this baptismal record for one of their sons, Aldobrando Michele, born 13 February 1778. Two godfathers are listed for the child, the second of whom is Lorenzo Nicolò’s brother Aliprando Michele, who is described as ‘Consiliario Graecansi’, which means ‘Advisor of Graz’.[74]

1778 baptismal record for the noble Aldobrando Michele Stanchina of Livo.

Click on image to see it larger.

It is likely the child Aldobrando Michele was named after his uncle/godfather, as it appears Aliprando was known as Aldobrando when he lived in Austria, as it is the equivalent name in German.

Eighteenth-century historian and Franciscan priest Giangrisostomo Tovazzi cites a very interesting and somewhat revealing letter, dated June 1775, addressed to ‘the most illustrious Signor Aldobrando Stanchina de Turri Pegnana zu Leiffendorff’ (i.e., Aliprando Michele), who is referred to as ‘Imperial Judge (Giudice Cesareo Regio) and President (or Dean) of the Provincial Civil Court of Trieste’. [75]

Tovazzi tells us this letter was written by Stanchina’s nephew, a young Franciscan monk Lorenzo Zini of Cavareno. Lorenzo (whom Tovazzi refers to as ‘our brother’ as they were from the same religious order), would have been the son of his sister Anna Claudia, who marriage the noble Giovanni Battista Zini in 1747.[76] As Tovazzi would have been Lorenzo Zini’s contemporary, I presume he was allowed to see the letter before it was sent.

Perhaps to honour his Brother Lorenzo’s privacy, Tovazzi does not transcribe the letter the contents of the letter; rather, he inserts his own rather scathing opinion:

(Aldobrando) Stanchina is a native of Livo, whose father was a very wealthy man, though not very civil, whose name was Alessandro. For his eulogy at his funeral, the Archpriest Manfroni of Cles [sic] proposed the theme: ‘The rich man is dead, and he was buried in hell.’[77]

Clearly, neither Father Manfroni nor Tovazzi had a very high opinion of Lorenzo Zini’s grandfather, the noble Matteo Alessandro Stanchina!

Just to clarify, Tovazzi actually says Archpriest Manfroni was from Cles. He was, rather, Archpriest Antonio Dionisio Manfroni from Caldes (born 12 January 1702).[78] He served as the parroco of Livo for 35 years, so he must have known the Stanchina very well. He died at the age of 77, on 12 September 1778, a few years after this letter was written.[79]

Tovazzi closes his comments by telling us that in the year 1788, Aldobrando Stanchina is said to have offered 127 thousand florins to obtain the jurisdiction of Königsberg (which he spells ‘Chinigspergensi’), which included the villages of Lavis, Pressano, Nave, San Michele and Faedo, Giovo, Lisignago, Cembra, Faver and Valda, and constituted a district for the administration of criminal and civil justice. [80]

Changes to the Family Stemma

With the new knighthood granted in 1764, the family stemma went through several changes. The first was the addition of a red cross, set at an angle, placed on the centre of the gold banner:

1764 stemma of the Stanchina von Panianthurn zu Leiffenburg, Tiroler Landesmuseen, Innbruck

ABOVE: 1764 stemma of the Stanchina von Panianthurn zu Leiffenburg, Tiroler Landesmuseen, Innbruck. [81] [82]

The crest above the shield was also embellished. Before 1764, it had been comprised of two blue buffalo horns in the centre, with black birdwings to either side, and a gold bar and band on the outer border. After 1764, towers were added in front of the bird wings, and a raised arm holding a silver sword was placed at the top between the buffalo horns:

1764 stemma of the Stanchina ‘von Panienthurm um Leiffenburg’, as depicted by Leonardi

ABOVE: 1764 stemma of the Stanchina ‘von Panienthurm um Leiffenburg’, as depicted by Leonardi.[83]

Marriages With Other Noble Families

One thing that is striking as we watch the Livo Stanchina throughout the centuries is how they married members of many other noble families – often high-ranking ones – from various parts of the province. Some of those families include:

ALIPRANDINI. You may recall this surname we looked at the descendants of Matteo Stanchina of Livo and Maria Aliprandini (daughter of Aliprando) of Preghena, who married on 19 January 1579.[84] The Aliprandini are a very old and influential noble family from Preghena, who produced many notaries and many priests. Like the Stanchina, a branch would be granted knighthood in the 1700s.

CAPOLINI. About 1807, Matteo Alessandro Stanchina (born 22 December 1764, grandson of the knighted Matteo Alessandro), married the noble Teresa Capolini of Riva del Garda. [85] Teresa’s father was Filippo Capolini de Varonenbach um Brionberg, who had been elevated to the rank of Count of the Holy Roman Empire on 25 August 1790.[86]

MAFFEI. On 25 November 1767, Giovanni Antonio Stanchina (born in Livo 9 December 1721)[87] married the noble Anna ‘Isabella’ Maffei of Romallo.[88] Isabella’s mother was also high nobility, namely Teresa Elisabetta Clara Wielandt from Castelfondo.

SPARAPANI. On 7 February 1622, Aliprando Stanchina (bone 13 August 1598) married Agata Sparapani.[89] I suspect (but am not certain) that Agata came from one of the many ennobled lines in the Sparapani family. We do know that the Sparapani in general were socially affluent family, producing many notaries, with one branch being knighted in 1740.

TORRESANI. While I have not been able to find a marriage record for this couple, all the baptismal records of the children for Antonio Stanchina (born 8 December 1619)[90] and his wife Cattarina Torresani state that she herself is nobility.

ZINI. On 7 Feb 1747, Anna Claudia Stanchina (born 4 August 1730, daughter of Matteo Alessandro) married the noble Giovanni Battista Zini of Cavareno. [91]

I am certain we would see many more such ‘alliances’ in the Stanchina lineage if there were not an unfortunate 80-year gap in the marriage records for Livo. Even so, this gives us an idea of how noble families over the centuries sought to strengthen their wealth and power by forming close ties with other families of similar social influence.

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Stanchina of Terzolas (1478-1529)

In their book Memorie di Terzolas, authors Tiziani Ciccolini and Udalrico Fantelli comment that information about the Stanchina of Terzolas is mainly to be in the ‘occasional notes in the matricular registry of the parish archives of Terzolas’, as well as ‘in the margin notes of curate don Pietro Silvestri,’ a renowned expert in the history of his homeland. They tell us also that don Pietro constructed a family tree the early Stanchina, but they also warn us that this tree contains ‘serious gaps’ and inaccuracies during the period prior to the beginning of the parish registers (which, for Malé, where the Terzolas records were kept at that time, was 1553 for baptisms, and considerably later for marriages and death records). [92]

Thus, without drawing up those notes of don Pietro (which I don’t have at my disposal anyway), let us return to the available pergamene and other references, with an aim of piecing together an early history of the Stanchina in the village of Terzolas.

Recalling our earlier discussion on the five sons of Ser Nicolò Stanchina of Livo, we learned that his son Antonio Stanchina became the founding father of the Terzolas line. Born in Livo (most likely sometime around 1425), we have documentation placing him and his family in Terzolas by 1478.[93] [94]

We also know Antonio had at least four sons – Bartolomeo, Nicolò, Guglielmo and Michele. As all of these sons would have been born well before 1478, I cannot say with certainty whether they were born in Livo or Terzolas. However, as all the records I have found refer to his sons as being ‘of Terzolas’ rather than ‘living in Terzolas’, it is certainly possible Antonio settled in Terzolas around the time he married and started his family, and that his sons were born there.

  • We briefly ‘met’ Bartolomeo earlier in this discussion, when he was awarded the investiture of Castel Rocca in Samoclevo in 1496, after his uncle Ottone had passed away. [95]
  • We first find Nicolò in a land sale agreement in 1491, wherein he is referred to as ‘son of the late Antonio Stanchina of Terzolas’, [96] thus telling us patriarch Antonio Stanchina was now deceased.
  • We know little about Guglielmo, other than the fact he was one of the recipients of rural nobility in 1529, as we will discuss shortly.
  • Antonio’s son Michele, who is said to appear in a document from 1501[97], passed away by 1522, when we find various documents referring to ‘the heirs of the late Michele Stanchina of Terzolas’. [98] [99]

Rural Nobility (1529)

As we saw with the Stanchina in Livo, many members of the Stanchina family in Terzolas also were granted the rank of ‘rural nobility’ after the Guerra Rustica of 1525. Again, we refer to Guelfi’s transcription of the list from 1529, wherein the Stanchina of Terzolas who were ennobled are said to be:

Ser Nicolò Stanchina; Guglielmo Stanchina;
Robonello; his brother Giacomo; other, Leonardo.[100]

 ‘Ser Nicolò and Guglielmo’ at the top of the list are surely the sons of the late Antonio.

We know from the afore-mentioned parchments that Antonio’s son Michele was already deceased by 1522, and the absence of Bartolomeo’s name would surely indicate that he had also passed away before 1529. Thus, by process of elimination, the other Stanchina mentioned must be the sons of either Bartolomeo or Michele, as there simply were no other Stanchina families in Terzolas in this era.

Ciccolini and Fantelli state that we know with certainty that Antonio’s sons Nicolò and Michele had descendants, but they are uncertain about their other two sons.[101] Numerous sources confirm that Nicolò had at least three sons (Matteo, Giovanni, and Bartolomeo), whom we will ‘meet’ a bit later. Regarding the heirs of Michele, I have a couple of theories, which I will discuss below. Regarding the last two brothers – Bartolomeo and Guglielmo – after identifying all the early Stanchina births (and Stanchina as godparents) in the first volume of the Malé baptismal register, and cross-referencing these with legal parchments, I am fairly certain his son Bartolomeo had at least two sons. I also think his son Guglielmo might also have had a son, although I am not yet certain about this.

I believe Giacomo (brother of Robonello) mentioned on list of rural nobility, was the son of the late Bartolomeo. I say this because we know Giacomo had a son named Bartolomeo (most likely born around 1530) [102] who, in turn, named his first son Giacomo (born 18 Oct 1559)[103], as well as a later son (born 13 September 1575), after the first child had died. [104]

Thus, if Robonello (more commonly spelled ‘Rubinello’) was Giacomo’s brother, then he would also be a son of Bartolomeo. The name Rubinello is certainly unusual, but the parish registers do show us a Rubinello Stanchina married with at least three children appearing a generation later in 1560s.[105] I presume this is not the same Rubinello listed in the catalogue of rural nobility, but that he was more likely his son or nephew[106].

Regarding Leonardo, the way his name is recorded by Guelfi (or perhaps in the original document) is slightly problematic. After a semicolon (which indicates a new person), it says ‘altro, Leonardo’, which literally means ‘other, Leonardo’. While I feel safe in interpreting ‘altro’ to mean ‘un’altro’ (i.e., another), we have to query whether this mean ‘another brother of Rubinello (and Giacomo)’ or ‘another Stanchina’?

After comparing many documents and constructing these lines as best I can, I suspect it means ‘another Stanchina’, and that Leonardo, may have been the son of the late Michele, I am hypothesising this SOLELY based on the fact that Leonardo had a son named Michele.[107]

Given the fact we know Michele had ‘heirs’ when he passed away, we would expect to find at least two living children after 1522. With that in mind, I am also theorising that an Antonio Stanchina (who had numerous descendants through his son Gaspare) may also have been a son of Michele, but he would surely have still been a child at the time of the award of nobility. Again, I have no solid evidence other than the fact Michele’s father’s name was Antonio, and I would presume had named one of his sons after his father. We will come back to this Antonio when we visit the Stanchina branch that settled in Carciato.

I should stress that there are several other Stanchina males whose names appear in the early records for Malé, but owing to a lack of early marriage records in that parish, I have yet been able to identify their parentage.[108]

Overview of First Two Generations

Based on what we have observed so far, we can construct a rough chart of the male descendants of Terzolas ‘Founding Father’ Antonio Stanchina born the first two decades of the 1500s. I should point out, however, that while we know Michele had ‘heirs’, I am speculating that Leonardo and Antonio below were his sons. I have omitted my theory about a possible son of Guglielmo for now.

MALE Descendants of Antonio Stanchina of Terzolas, 2 generations

Click on image to see it larger.

Stanchina of Terzolas (1530 to early 1600s)

Working through the pergamene for Malé and the Thun of Castelfondo, we learn that Ser Nicolò who had been granted rural nobility in 1529 was already deceased by August 1546.[109] [110] From these documents, we find he had at least three sons – Matteo, Giovanni and Bartolomeo. However, of these, it seems Bartolomeo was the only son who had sons of his own: Cristoforo, Gregorio and Antonio.

Apparently, in his Will, Ser Nicolò had left a ‘perpetual legacy’, wherein every year 6 bushels of rye would be harvested and baked into bread, which would then be distributed to the people of the community of Terzolas. The legacy specified that this grain was to be harvested from a plot of land they owned in Terzolas called ‘in sum pra’ (‘pra’ is short for ‘prato’ which means a meadow or pastureland). Evidently, Ser Nicolò’s son Bartolomeo honoured his late father’s wishes and kept up this legacy throughout his long lifetime. But on 21 July 1580, around the time when Bartolomeo’s death seemed imminent (he was probably in his mid to late 70s), Bartolomeo’s son Cristoforo was named the administrator of his father’s assets – his ‘power of attorney’, so to speak – and appealed to the citizens of Terzolas to be released from this obligation. [111]

As a result of the meeting on 21 July, various exchanges were made, and the very next day (22 July 1580), we find Cristoforo Stanchina at Castel Caldes selling that very same plot of land to Count Sigismondo Thun. This time, the document says Bartolomeo was acting on behalf of his father, as well as his brothers Gregorio and Antonio.[112] The fact the Cristoforo is the designated legal representative infers he was the eldest of the three brothers, which, based on the birth dates of their children, does seem to have been the case.

The elderly Bartolomeo died sometime within the next two years or so, as we find another document drafted at Castel Caldes dated 14 October 1582 in which ‘Cristoforo and Gregorio, sons of the late Bartolomeo Stanchina of Terzolas’ are negotiating a solution to their debts to the Lords of Thun by giving them yet another plot of arable land in Terzolas, in a place called ‘in Lidrama’.[113]

Economic decline, but increasing numbers

It seems the Stanchina of Terzolas (or, at least this particular line) were experiencing at least a temporary economic decline, in contrast to their Livo cousins who seemed to be continually increasing in power, wealth and influence.

This does not mean they were in declining in numbers. Far from it, in fact. By the early decades of the 1600s, so many branches of Stanchina started to appear in Terzolas that we begin to see the use of soprannomi to distinguish one line from another. One of the granddaughters of the younger Rubinello Stanchina cites the name ‘Rubinel’ as a soprannome in her baptismal record on 6 August 1613.[114] The very next day, with find the birth of a Cristoforo Stanchina with the soprannome Beatricis’, drawn from the name of his paternal grandmother, Beatrice.[115]

Overview of Descendants through Early 1600s

Below is a chart summarising the first four generations of male descendants of Ser Nicolò, son of Antonio, although it really is more of a descendant chart for Nicolò’s son Bartolomeo, as I have not identified any children for his son Matteo, and his son Giovanni seems to have had only daughters. The blue, green and peach colours show the descendant lines of Bartolomeo’s sons Cristoforo, Gregorio, and Antonio, respectively. To make the chart easier to read, I have omitted all female children, and all male children who died in infancy. I have also omitted all the wives, except for Beatrice, to show how the soprannome arose in the line descended from Bartolomeo’s son, Antonio:

MALE Descendants of Nicolò Stanchina of Terzolas, 4 generations.

Click on image to see it larger.

Similarly, this chart summarises the first four generations of male descendants Michele, son of Antonio. I have filtered the information the same way as I did in the chart above. However, I must point out that, although we know Michele had heirs, I am not yet fully confident Leonardo and Antonio were actually Michele’s sons. The blue line shows the descendants of Leonardo, and the green line shows the line for Antonio. The one person I am not completely certain I have in the correct place is Giovanni, son of Leonardo, as I have found no reference of his father’s name in any of the sources I consulted. I am theorising he is the son of Leonardo as he had a son of that name.

MALE Descendants of Michele Stanchina of Terzolas, 4 generations

Click on image to see it larger.

Antonio’s line becomes relevant as we move to the next stage of our discussion, as one of his descendants became the found of the Carciato Stanchina in the early 18th century.

Stanchina of Carciato

Among the notes by 19th-century priest historian don Pietro Silvestri in the parish archives of Terzolas, there is mention of a Giovanni Domenico Stanchina, said to have been a mason, who moved from Terzolas to Carciato (part of the parish and comune of Dimaro in southwest Val di Sole) after having married Domenica Pontirolli from that village on 19 April 1711. [116] [117] This couple thus became the ‘founding parents’ of the Stanchina in Carciato. Their marriage record, shown below, clearly states that Giovanni Domenico was from Terzolas, with no indication he was already living in Carciato, which infers he moved there only after his marriage.

1711 marriage record for Giovanni Domenico Stanchina and Domenica Pontirolli of Carciato (parish of Dimaro, Trentino)

Click on image to see it larger.

Ancestry of Giovanni Domenico, Founding father of Carciato Stanchina

The priest did not record the name of Giovanni Domenico’s father his 1711 marriage record, but this was not uncommon when a groom came from outside the parish, as the priest would not personally have known his family. However, there was only one Giovanni Domenico Stanchina born in Terzolas in the appropriate era. He was born on 10 December 1686[118], the son of Leonardo Stanchina and his wife Domenica (her surname is currently unknown, owing to a gap in the marriage record for Livo).

Below is a chart illustrating his paternal lineage back to Michele, son of Antonio, Founding Father of the Terzolas line. As mentioned at the end of the previous section, the one grey area for me is whether Giovanni Domenico’s 3X great-grandfather Antonio (ca. 1518-1572) was indeed the son of Michele, or of a different son of Antonio. But either way, we can see that the Carciato line has a direct link to the ancient Stanchina, as Giovanni Domenico was the 9th great-grandson of Belvesino of Tassullo from the early 1300s.

Vertical Pedigree Chart for Giovanni Domenico Stanchina, founding father of the Stanchina in Carciato (Trentino).

The Expansion of the Stanchina in Carciato

Historian Udalrico Fantelli tells us that the anagraph for the family of Giovanni Domenico and Domenica shows the couple had at least 12 sons and daughters in the parish records between the years 1712 and 1738.[119] I have not researched this family in detail, in my own research I have ‘met’ three of their sons – Giovanni Battista, Antonio and Pietro – all of whom had many descendants. Antonio and his wife Anna Domenica Mochen (married 16 Jul 1750)[120] are the 4X great-grandparents of one of my clients in the United States.

Fantelli tells us that, from this first nuclear family, the Stanchina expanded and spread out, until this family became one of the most solid and articulated ancestral lines of Carciato and, successively, in Dimaro.[121] That same author tells us that a Giovanni Domenico Stanchina, who, in his role as ‘regolano’, lead the important assembly of the citizens of Carciato that made the decision to build the new church in 1750.[122] Later, on 23 April 1764, we find a Giovanni Domenico Stanchina who was present as a witness at the drafting of an agreement in Mezzana.[123] I have yet to investigate whether these citing refer to the Giovanni Domenico who was head of the lineage or to one of his sons.

The Stanchina Today

So many of the ancient families of Trentino have gone extinct over the centuries, the Stanchina continued to thrive in their three adopted villages (Livo, Terzolas, and Carciato) up through the early 20th century. A quick search on the Nati in Trentino website shows us that, between the years of 1815-1923, there were 634 children born with the surname Stanchina, and all but a handful of them were born in the three parishes we just discussed:

  • 161 Stanchina children were born in the parish of LIVO.
  • 255 Stanchina children were born in the parish of TERZOLAS.
  • 201 Stanchina children were born in the parish of DIMARO (presumably from Carciato).

Of those from Livo, two were born in Preghena, a frazione of Livo. Twenty were recorded as ‘de Stanchina’ rather than ‘Stanchina’; these are all descendants of the noble Matteo Alessandro Stanchina. One child was baptised in the city of Trento, but as the family was from Livo (and were living there after that birth), I’ve included in in the Livo births.

This leaves only 17 additional Stanchina children born in scattered parts of the province over a period of more than a century. These usually appear with only one or two children showing up in each place, and do not appear to indicate any significant migration to these places prior to World War 1 and the years just after it.

Noticeably, the numbers in Livo are significantly lower than in the other two parishes. Perhaps that explains why, on the Cognomix website, no Stanchina families are listed for Livo at all, while there are still many families living in Dimaro and some in Terzolas/Malé.[124] Although I haven’t investigated this further, I feel we should not necessarily take this to mean they simply ‘died out’; rather, it is more likely they migrated elsewhere (including emigration to the Americas).

Chart from Cognomix website showing the number of Stanchina FAMILIES (not individuals) living in each comune.

ABOVE: Chart from Cognomix website showing the number of Stanchina FAMILIES (not individuals) living in each comune.

Closing Thoughts

Before anything else, I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Robert Jusko for his patient proofreading of this article, and to Andrea Pojer for his deciphering a couple of strangely spelled place names I could not make out in some of the Latin documents. I do hope you found this article interesting, and that you feel I achieved my original goals, which was to show the origins of the Stanchina family, how they gained in power and influence, how they dispersed throughout the province, and how all the Stanchina of Trentino are ultimately related via a common ancestral patriarch. Speaking for myself, even though I do not have (to my knowledge) any Stanchina ancestors, I find their journey and the history of the times fascinating.

As some of you know, I have been working on a book entitled Guide to Trentino Surnames for Genealogists and Family Historians for some time now. That book, which currently has about 800 surnames (most in very rough form), is going to take me several more years to finish (plus I want to bring the total up to at least 1,000 surnames).

However, this week I decided to publish another book before the Guide is complete: a set of histories of selected Trentino families, which will be a composite of longer studies I have done on specific families, such as this article you have just read. That will still take me a couple of years to complete, but I already have a lot of material written for it. My aim will be to create a book of ‘case studies’ of origin and migration stories, which collectively can show us a bigger picture of the diversity of families who make up our beautiful ancestral province. I haven’t made up a working title for it yet, but I will surely let you know when I have.

In the meantime, if you enjoyed this article, or have comments or questions, I welcome you to share them in the comments field below. And, as always, if you wish to read more articles like this, I invite you to subscribe to this blog, using the form below.

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Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
11 March 2022

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 NOTES

[1] The closest in sound is the surname Stancher, but it is not historically related (and probably not linguistically) to Stanchina.

[2] TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. 2005. Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine. Trento: Società di Studi Trentini di Scienze Storiche, page 268.

[3] RAUZI, Gian Maria. Araldica Tridentina: stemmi e famiglie del Trentino. 1987. Trento: Grafiche Artigianelli, page 325.

[4] BERTOLUZZA, Aldo. 1998. Guida ai Cognomi del Trentino. Trento: Società Iniziative Editoriali (S.R.L.), page 337.

[5] GUELFI, Adriano Camaiani. 1964. Famiglie nobili del Trentino. Genova: Studio Araldico di Genova, page 117. Unlike the other references above, Guelfi does not specify Terzolas, but says merely ‘Val di Sole’.

[6] CICCOLINI, Tiziana; FANTELLI, Udalrico. 2013. Memorie di Terzolas. Cles: Centro Studi per la Val di Sole, page 181.

[7] ODORIZZI, Paolo. 2018. La Val Di Non e i Suoi Misteri – Volume I. On pages 461-484.

[8] BERTOLUZZA, Aldo, Guida ai Cognomi del Trentino, page 337. On this same page, he also offers the same linguistic origin for the surname ‘Stancher’ and its variants.

[9] LEONARDI, Enzo. 1985. Anaunia: Storia della Valle di Non. Trento: TEMI Editrice, page 385.

[10] BERTOLUZZA, Aldo, Guida ai Cognomi del Trentino, page 337.

[11] LEONARDI, Enzo. Anaunia: Storia della Valle di Non, page 385.

[12] GUELFI, Adriano Camaiani. Famiglie nobili del Trentino, page 117.

[13] AUSSERER, Carl. 1985. Le Famiglie Nobili Nelle Valli del Noce: Rapporti con i Vescovi e con i Principi Castelli, rocche e residenze nobili Organizzazione, privilegi, diritti; I Nobili rural. Translated by Giulia Anzilotti Mastrelli from the original German work Der Adel des Nonsberges, published in 1899. Malé: Centro Studi per la Val di Sole. Page 243.

[14] CICCOLINI, Tiziana; FANTELLI, Udalrico. Memorie di Terzolas, page 181. They reference a ‘Compravendita di diritto di decima’ dated 28 April 1423 in the Archives of the Thun family, Castelfondo line. This document is listed, but not fully transcribed, in the resource listed in the next footnote.

[15] VALENTI, Elena. 2006. Famiglia Thun, conti di Thun e Hohenstein, linea di Castelfondo. Regesti delle pergamene (1270-1691). Trento: Provincia autonoma di Trento. ‘Compravendita di diritto di decima’, 28 April 1423 (Cles), page 17, pergamena 14.

[16] STENICO, P. Remo. 1999. Notai Che Operarono Nel Trentino dall’Anno 845. Trento: Biblioteca San Bernardino, page 198.

[17] ODORIZZI, Paolo. 2018. La Val Di Non e i Suoi Misteri – Volume I, page 461-484. Also, via private correspondence, Odorizzi says this comes from Codice Clesiano, volume 2, page 210.

[18] This information was given to me directly by Paolo Odorizzi, who says he obtained this information from the APTn atti notaio Tomeo di Tuenno; but I have not seen the original document.

[19] ODORIZZI, Paolo. 2018. La Val Di Non e i Suoi Misteri – Volume I, page 461-484.

[20] CICCOLINI, Tiziana; FANTELLI, Udalrico, page 181.

[21] CICCOLINI, Giovanni. 1965 (reprint). Inventari e Regesti degli Archivi Parrocchiali della Val di Sole. Volume 3: La Pieve di Livo. Trento: Temi – Tipografia Editrice, page 301, pergamena 406.

[22] CICCOLINI, Tiziana; FANTELLI, Udalrico, page 181.

[23] CICCOLINI, Tiziana; FANTELLI, Udalrico. This as subsequent information about the sons of Nicolò appear on pages 181-182.

[24] STENICO, P. Remo. 1999. Notai Che Operarono Nel Trentino dall’Anno 845. Trento: Biblioteca San Bernardino, page 317.

[25] CICCOLINI, Tiziana; FANTELLI, Udalrico, page 181.

[26] VALENTI, Elena. 2006. Famiglia Thun, conti di Thun e Hohenstein, linea di Castelfondo. Regesti delle pergamene (1270-1691). Trento: Provincia autonoma di Trento, page 59, pergamena 111.

[27] VALENTI, Elena, page 60-61, pergamena 115.

[28] CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Inventari, Volume 3, La Pieve di Livo, page 301-303, pergamena 407.

[29] We know from other documents that Leonardo had at least two sons, namely Antonio and Nicolò.

[30] In this document, Bartolomeo refers to the other Stanchina as his ‘nephews’, but technically he was their first cousin. This same Bartolomeo is later found in Terzolas, where he is listed amongst the rural nobility in 1529.

[31] CICCOLINI, Tiziana; FANTELLI, Udalrico, page 182.

[32] STENICO, P. Remo, Notai, page 316-317. He is also cited in numerous documents in Ciccolini’s inventory for Livo.

[33] CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Inventari, Volume 3, La Pieve di Livo, page 159, pergamena 258. ‘Not. Nicolò Stanchina, son of the late ser Leonardo, son of the late ser Nicolò Stanchina di Livo’ signature in document dated 22 Jan 1553.

[34] CONTER, Luigi (don). 1982. Fatti Storici di Livo. Narrati ai suoi compatrioti da don Luigi Conter, parroco di Cloz. Trento: Stampalith. On page 67-68, he transcribes the Will, dated 18 April 1531, of a Melchiore Graziadei of Celledizzo, which was drafted by ‘Nicolò, son of Leonardo, son of Nicolò Stanchina of Livo, notary’.

[35] CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Inventari, Volume 3, La Pieve di Livo, page 145, pergamena 224.

[36] STENICO, P. Remo, Notai, page 302. Stenico says Giuseppe Sandris was active at least between the years 1519-1531. Guelfi and Stenico identify him as the author of the catalogue of rural nobility.

[37] GUELFI, Adriano Camaiani, page 160.

[38] CONTER, Luigi (don). Fatti Storici di Livo. On page 64, the author refers to a slightly different list, which he says was compiled by priest historian Giangrisostomo Tovazzi, in which ‘Ser Stanchina, notaio’ is further described as ‘de domo Aliprandina superveniente’, which means ‘from the following Aliprandini household’. This is surely an error (either by Conter or Tovazzi) and the words ‘de domo Aliprandina superveniente’ introduce the list of Aliprandini family members that follows, and have nothing to do with the Stanchina.

[39] CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Inventari, Volume 3, La Pieve di Livo, page 165, pergamena 276.

[40] This information is based on my own research, using the Livo parish records.

[41] Livo parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 28.

[42] Livo parish records, marriages, volume 1, page 6. As their last child was born in 1609, Maria had to have been very young (possibly about 16 years old) when they married in 1579. However, their first child was not born until January 1582, which may be an indication they did not consummate the marriage until she was closer to 18 years old. This was not an uncommon practice.

[43] STENICO, P. Remo, Notai, page 20-21. Stenico lists 24 Aliprandini notaries.

[44] CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Inventari, Volume 3, La Pieve di Livo, page 303, pergamena 408.

[45] Unfortunately, there is an 80-year gap in the Livo marriage records between 1650-1730, so we do not know all of these connections.

[46] Livo parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 64.

[47] TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine, page 268.

[48] GUELFI, Adriano Camaiani, Famiglie nobili del Trentino, page 117. He says, however, that the predicate was ‘Leiffendorf, not Leiffenburg, a variant I have not seen in any other source.

[49] RAUZI, Gian Maria. Araldica Tridentina, page 325.

[50] Carl Ausserer (Le Famiglie Nobili Nelle Valli del Noce, page 243) incorrectly says this predicate was given to them in 1764, but he is surely confusing it with a later award where the predicate was embellished.

[51] TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine, page 269. They say there was a red cross on the gold band, but the cross was actually added later, in 1764.

[52] RAUZI, Gian Maria. Araldica Tridentina, page 325.

[53] RAUZI, Gian Maria. Araldica Tridentina, page 325.

[54] TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine, page 375.

[55] RAUZI, Gian Maria. Araldica Tridentina, page 325.

[56] TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine, page 377.

[57] Livo parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 245-246.

[58] Matteo was alive when his son Bernardino married Marina Andreis on 28 Nov 1618 (Livo parish records, marriages, volume 1, no page number), but I do not know if he was still alive in 1624.

[59] CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Inventari, Volume 3, La Pieve di Livo, page 303-304, pergamena 409.

[60] TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine, page 268. They refer to him simply as ‘Alessandro Stanchina’.

[61] GUELFI, Adriano Camaiani, Famiglie nobili del Trentino, page 117. He refers to him as ‘Mattia Alessandro’ Stanchina.

[62] My apologies: I did read this explanation in one of my sources, but at the moment, I cannot find the reference, so I am simply saying it ‘may’ be the case.

[63] Livo parish records, baptisms, volume 2, page 174-175.

[64] This chart is from a tree I made using Family Tree Maker software, from information gathered during my research.

[65] Matteo Stanchina was born 5 September 1625. Livo parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 185-186.

[66] Livo parish records, marriages, volume 1, no page number.

[67] Agnese Tomasi was born 16 December 1616. Livo parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 117-118.

[68] ‘Agnese Stanchina’ died on 30 July 1664. Although it does not say ‘wife of Matteo Stanchina’, the only other Agnese Stanchina who was alive at this time was a young child, and the record is clearly for an adult.

[69] ‘Dominus Matteo Stanchina’ died on 30 March 1683. Livo parish records, deaths, volume 1, no page number.

[70] CONTER, Luigi (don). Fatti Storici di Livo, page 94-95.

[71] TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine, page 268.

[72] TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine, page 268.

[73] TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine, page 268. They refer to Aliprando Michele as ‘Aldobrando Michele’, but he was baptised Aliprando Michele in Trentino.

[74] Livo parish records, baptisms, volume 3, page 88-89. Many thanks to historian Andrea Pancheri for deciphering the word ‘Graecansi’ (of Graz), which I honestly could not make out in this document.

[75] TOVAZZI, P. Giangrisostomo. 1994. Varie Inscriptiones Tridentinae. Originally published in the late 1700s. 1994 version edited by P. Remo Stenico. Trento: Edizioni Biblioteca PP. Francescani, page 496, inscription 842. The exact words in Latin are ‘All’Illmo Signor Aldobrando Stanchina de Turri Pegnana zu Leiffendorff, Giudice Cesareo Regio e Preside del Civico Provincial Tribunale ec. in Trieste’.

[76] Using the parish records for Sarnonico, I have found five children for this couple, including three sons, but none is named Lorenzo. P. Remo Stenico (STENICO, P. Remo. 2000. Sacerdoti della Diocesi di Trento dalla sua Esistenza Fino all’Anno 2000, page 468) cites a Lorenzo Zini of Cavareno who died 16 May 1824 at the age of 76. This would mean he was born around 1748, which is when the couple’s eldest son Pietro Antonio Adamo Zini was born (2 February 1748). I can only assume that the letter was from this nephew, and that he adopted a different personal name when he took Holy Orders.

[77] TOVAZZI, P. Giangrisostomo. Varie Inscriptiones, page 496, inscription 842. The Latin exact words in Latin are ‘mortuus est dives, et sepultus est in inferno.’

[78] Caldes parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 329-330.

[79] Livo parish records, deaths, volume 2, page 62-63.

[80] CASETTI, Albino. 1981. Storia di Lavis. Giurisdizione di Königsberg-Montereale. Trento: Società di studi trentini di scienze storiche. Except accessed 6 March 2022 from ‘Castelo di Monreale (Königsberg)’ on the Piana Rotaliana website at https://www.pianarotaliana.it/territorio/luoghi-di-cultura/castelli/castello-di-monreale-koenigsberg

[81] This image, which I have cropped and enhanced, was downloaded from TIROLER LANDESMUSEEN. Tyrolean Coat of Arms; Fischnal coat of arms index. The writing on the card says the stemma is from 1764. Accessed 3 March 2022 from http://wappen.tiroler-landesmuseen.at/index34a.php?wappen_id=26296&drawer=&tr=1#next.

[82] GUELFI, Adriano Camaiani, Famiglie nobili del Trentino, page 153. He says the diploma is stored in volume 61, folio 270.

[83] LEONARDI, Enzo. 1985. Anaunia: Storia della Valle di Non. Trento: TEMI Editrice, page 446 (page number inferred).

[84] Livo parish records, marriages, volume 1, page 6.

[85] I don’t have the marriage record, but I have gleaned the information and estimated the marriage date from the birth records of their children.

[86] TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine, page 74.

[87] Livo parish records, baptisms, volume 2, page 300-301.

[88] Revò parish records, marriages, volume 2, page 117-118.

[89] Livo parish records, marriages, volume 1, no page number.

[90] Livo parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 137-138.

[91] Sarnonico parish records, marriages, volume 3, page 226-227.

[92] CICCOLINI, Tiziana; FANTELLI, Udalrico, page 182-183.

[93] CICCOLINI, Tiziana; FANTELLI, Udalrico, page 182. The authors reference Ausserer – Regesti di Castel Bragher, pergamena 593, dated 2 May 1478.

[94] CICCOLINI, Giovanni. 1939. Inventari e Regesti degli Archivi Parrocchiali della Val di Sole. Volume 2: La Pieve di Malé. Trento: Libreria Moderna Editrice A. Ardesi, page 138, pergamena 94. Bartolomeo, son of Antonio Stanchina of Terzolas is cited as a witness.

[95] CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Inventari, Volume 3, La Pieve di Livo, page 301-303, pergamena 407.

[96] CICCOLINI, Tiziana; FANTELLI, Udalrico, page 182.

[97] CICCOLINI, Tiziana; FANTELLI, Udalrico, page 182. On page 260, the cite a source from Ciccolini’s pergamene, but I have not been able to find the source they cite.

[98] CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Inventari, Volume 2, La Pieve di Malé, page 227, pergamena 269. The document, dated 14 October 1522, refers to ‘the heirs of the late Michele Stanchina’.

[99] CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Inventari, Volume 2, La Pieve di Malé, page 350, pergamena 354. The document, dated 7 October 1526, refers to ‘the heirs of the late Michele Stanchina’.

[100] GUELFI, Adriano Camaiani. Famiglie nobili del Trentino, page 161.

[101] CICCOLINI, Tiziana; FANTELLI, Udalrico, page 182.

[102] We know the younger Bartolomeo married Simona David, daughter of Giovanni David of Terzolas, as per the baptismal record of their son Giacomo, born 18 October 1559 (Malé parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 48). We also know the couple were already married by 1 April 1558, as Simona is referred to as ‘the wife of Bartolomeo Stanchina’ when she is a godmother on that date (Malé parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 33). This puts his most likely date of birth between 1530-1535, meaning he was most likely the eldest son of the elder Giacomo.

[103] Malé parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 48. The baptismal record cites the names of both grandfathers, i.e., Giacomo Stanchina and Giovanni David.

[104] Malé parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 139. The record cites the name of his paternal grandfather, Giacomo Stanchina.

[105] Leonardo (born 10 July 1560), Margherita (born 1 October 1562) and Domenica (born 5 June 1567), Malé parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 53, 64, and 92, respectively.

[106] One anomaly is that the only son of this younger Rubinello was named Leonardo, which would normally make me suspect his father’s name was also Leonardo.

[107] Leonardo’s name is cited in the baptismal record of his granddaughter Maria Stanchina, born 31 October 1564, daughter of Michele Stanchina and his wife Flora. Malé parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 78.

[108] There are a few Stanchina men, namely Antonio, Bernardo, Pietro and Simone, who were all most likely born between 1510-1525, whose parentage I have not yet been able to identify (although I suspect Antonio was a son of the late Michele). There are also a few other men in the next generation (born circa 1540-1552), whose fathers I have not yet identified.

[109] CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Inventari, Volume 2, La Pieve di Malé, page 353, pergamena 498. ‘Matteo, son of the late Nicolò Stanchina of Terzolas’ cited as a witness in a legal document dated 17 August 1546.

[110] VALENTI, Elena. Famiglia Thun (Castelfondo). Regesti delle pergamene, ‘Costituzione di censo’, 3 January 1551, Castel Caldes, page 151, pergamena 315. ‘Giovanni, son of the late Nicolò Stanchina of Terzolas…’

[111] CICCOLINI, Giovanni. Inventari, Volume 2, La Pieve di Malé, page 299-300, pergamena 465. The document also mentions another Bartolomeo, son of the late Giacomo Stanchina (Cristoforo’s 2nd cousin), as well as a Leonardo and a Nicolò Stanchina, but it does not identify their fathers.

[112] VALENTI, Elena. Famiglia Thun (Castelfondo). Regesti delle pergamene, page 204, pergamena 426.

[113] VALENTI, Elena. Famiglia Thun (Castelfondo). Regesti delle pergamene, page 212, pergamena 445.

[114] Maria, daughter of Leonardo ‘Rubinel’ Stanchina and his wife Agata, born 6 August 1613. Malé parish records, baptisms, volume 2, page 118. Leonardo was the son of the younger Rubinello.

[115] Malé parish records, baptisms, volume 2, page 119. Cristoforo (born 7 August 1613) was the son of Nicolò (born 19 September 1568), who was in turn the son of Antonio and Beatrice. Antonio was the son of the Bartolomeo

[116] CICCOLINI, Tiziana; FANTELLI, Udalrico. 2013. Memorie di Terzolas. Cles: Centro Studi per la Val di Sole, page 182-183.

[117] Dimaro parish records, marriages, volume 2(?), page 94-95.

[118] Malé parish records, baptisms, volume 3, page 244.

[119] FANTELLI, Udalrico. 1992. Carciato: il paese e la gente. Centro Studi per la Val di Sole, page 57.

[120] Dimaro parish records, marriages, volume 3(?), page 108. NOTE: The LDS church did not microfilm the records for Dimaro before 1770, but the Archivio Diocesano has made colour digital images of the early books that had been overlooked. Albino Casetti says there are 5 books of marriage records; I suspect this one is from volume 3, but I am unsure. The number of the digital file in Trento is P6150851.

[121] FANTELLI, Udalrico. Carciato, page 57.

[122] FANTELLI, Udalrico. Carciato, page 57.

[123] CICCOLINI, Giovanni. 1936. Inventari e Regesti degli Archivi Parrocchiali della Val di Sole. Volume 1: La Pieve di Ossana. Trento: Libreria Moderna Editrice A. Ardesi, page 182, C.n.575.

[124] COGNOMIX. ‘Diffusione del cognome Stanchina’. Accessed 10 March 2022 from https://www.cognomix.it/mappe-dei-cognomi-italiani/STANCHINA/TRENTINO-ALTO-ADIGE/TRENTO

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

Trentino Valleys, Parishes and People. A Guide for Genealogists.Genealogist Lynn Serafinn examines the valleys, villages and parishes in the Province of Trentino, and the people who lived there. Part 1 in series.

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

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

YAWN indeed!

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

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

Of the 49 people who responded:

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

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

Therein lay my challenge:

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

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

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

So, let’s begin…

The Four ‘Lenses’ of Geography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CIVIL STRUCTURE: Italian Regions and Provinces

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

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

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

Region –> Province –> Municipality –> Village

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

The Italian words for these terms are:

Regione –> Provincia –> Comune –> Frazione

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

Region

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

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

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

Province

Regions generally have more than one province.

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

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

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

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

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

Is Trentino the Same as Tyrol?

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

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

Comuni

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

Note that comuni are the keepers of local CIVIL records.

Frazioni

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

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

LINKS: Resources for Italian Civil Entities

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

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

ECCLESIASTICAL STRUCTURE: How the Catholic Church is Organised

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

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

In English, this is:

Diocese –> Deanery –> Parish –> Curate

Or, in Italian:

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

Diocese

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

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

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

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

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

Deanery

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

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

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

Parish

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

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

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

Curate

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

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

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

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

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

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The Diocese of Trento as Both Church and State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civil vs. Church Records

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

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

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

Rather:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catholic Deaneries and Parishes in the Diocese of Trento

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

Book - Casetti_Guida-Storico-Archivistica-Trento

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

25 Deaneries of the Diocese of Trento

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

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

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

GEOGRAPHICAL STRUCTURE: The Valleys of the Province of Trentino

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

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

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

Toponymy and Genealogy

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

BOOK - Anzilotti_Toponomastica-Trentina

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

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

The Valleys of Trentino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A note before we continue…

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

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

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

TRENTINO VALLEYS: The Relationship Between Places and People

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

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

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

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

Valleys, Deaneries, Parishes and People

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

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

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

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

Coming Up In This Series…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If this article has sparked your interest to keep reading about this topic, it would mean so much to me if you could take a moment to leave a few comments below, sharing what you found most helpful or interesting about the article, or asking whatever questions I may not have answered.

Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
23 Jan 2020

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

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

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

Not Just a Nickname: Understanding Your Family Soprannome

Not Just a Nickname: Understanding Your Family Soprannome

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

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

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

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

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

In this article, I will discuss:

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

Recording Data – The Computer as an Analogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Name, Surname, Soprannome – An Increasing Need for Accuracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Con = with

Nome = name

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sopra’ = above or ‘on top of’

‘Nome’ = name

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

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

What are Soprannomi and Why Are They Used?

As you might have already surmised:

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Think ‘Nickname’ is a Misleading Term

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is NO consistently used system for recording soprannomi.

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

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

‘Detto’ or ‘Dicti’

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

For example, consider this baptismal record from 1705:

1705 Baptismal record for Antonio Buschetti, soprannome 'Caserini'

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

1768 marriage record from Tione di Trento.

Click on image to see it larger

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

‘Vulgo’

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

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

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

Click on image to see it larger

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

Surname Followed by Soprannome

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

1760 baptismal record for Francesca Failoni of Tione di Trento.

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

‘Equal’ sign

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

1838 death record for Tommaso Viola of Cavedago

Click on image to see it larger

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

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Where Do Soprannomi Come From?

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

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

Personal names

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

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

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

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

Place of Origin

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

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

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

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

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

Family Profession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, this is JUST my own theory.

Moorish style chandelier at Castel Stenico, Val Giudicarie

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

Character or Attribute of Family or Individual

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

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

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

Soprannomi Taken from the Surname of a Matriarch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Soprannomi Become a Nightmare

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

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

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

1730 marriage record for Giovanni Battista Devilli and Margherita Caliari

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

1583 Reversi Ballina double wedding, Santa Croce del Bleggio.

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

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

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ever-Changing Nature of Soprannomi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracing the Origins of Your Family’s Soprannomi

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

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

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

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

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

Recording Soprannomi in Your Family Tree

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

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

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

OPTION 1: Soprannome as a MIDDLE NAME

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

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

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

OPTION 2: Using ‘Also Known As’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UNBREAKABLE RULE: Record WHERE You Found It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please DON’T do this!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts

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

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

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

Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
6 Oct 2019

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

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

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Kissing Cousins: Marital Dispensations, Consanguinity, Affinity

Kissing Cousins: Marital Dispensations, Consanguinity, Affinity

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

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

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

The Mathematics of Why Our Ancestors Did Not Double Every Generation

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

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

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

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

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

The reason for this is twofold:

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

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

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

Endogamy and Pedigree Collapses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consanguinity versus ‘Inbreeding’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marriage and the Church

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

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

Canon Law Regarding Consanguineous Marriages

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

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

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

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

English Thinking Versus Italian Thinking

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

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

Canon Degrees Versus Civil Degrees

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

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

This means:

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

No wonder the terminology is confusing for so many!

Affinity – A ‘Spiritual’ Relationship

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

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

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

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

Marital Dispensations – The Legal Loophole

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

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

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

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

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

More Frequent Dispensations Among the Noble Classes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recognising and Understanding Dispensations in Marriage Records

As a family historian, it’s important to:

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

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

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

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

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

EXAMPLE 1: 1836 – Third Grade Consanguinity

1836 marriage record of Giovanni Brocchetti and Cattarina Grazia Bleggi.

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

Relationship chart of Giovanni Brocchetti and Cattarina Grazia Bleggi

Click on image to see it larger

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

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EXAMPLE 2: 1883 – Second and Third Grade Consanguinity

1883 marriage record of Cesare Viola and Angela Viola

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationship chart of Cesare Viola and Angela Viola

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

EXAMPLE 3: 1778 – Third and Fourth Grade Consanguinity

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

1778 marriage record of Bonifacio Blasio Furlini and Maria Levri

Click on image to see it larger

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

Relationship chart for Bonifacio Blasio Furlini and Maria Levri

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXAMPLE 5: 1859 – Dispensation for Time of Year

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

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

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

1858 marriage record of Fioravante Giacomuzzi and Margherita Damolin

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts

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

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

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
12 Aug 2019

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

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Without Prejudice. Honouring All the Heroes in Our Families


Without Prejudice. Honouring All the Heroes in Our Families

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

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

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

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

Luigi the Trailblazer

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

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

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

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

Families Separated By An Ocean

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

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

Mentor and Guardian of the Next Generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great War Arrives

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

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

The Great Political Divide

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

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

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

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

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

Trentini Soldiers in Russia

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

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

Luigi Parisi: ‘Missing in Russia’

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

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

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

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

The Family Left Behind

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

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

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

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

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

What Do We Mean By ‘Hero’?

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

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

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

My personal belief is:

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

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

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

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
27 May 2019

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

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

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References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Today’s Article

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

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

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

Advertising and the Truth About ‘Reference Panels’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the same article, Padawer adds:

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

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

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

Competition and Lack of Uniformity Between DNA Testing Companies

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

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

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

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

Ethnic Populations Represented in DNA Test Groups

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

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

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

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

How Far Back in Time Do Ethnicity Reports Reflect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously? These are their criteria for their reference groups?

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

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

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

Under-Represented Ethnicity Groups

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

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

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

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

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

Sadly…

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

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

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

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

CASE STUDY: My Ethnicity Reports

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

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

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

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

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

EXAMPLE 1: AncestryDNA

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

AncestryDNA’s OLD Ethnicity Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope. Not a Viking in sight.

So, Am I Really Scandinavian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bye Bye Scandinavia

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

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

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

AncestryDNA’s NEW Ethnicity Report

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

AncestryDNA Ethicity Estimate 2018
Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

AncestryDNA ethnicity map 2018
Click on image to see it larger

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

But 70% Irish and 30% French? Seriously?

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

What Does Ancestry DNA Mean By ‘French’?  

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘French’ (DNA) Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXAMPLE 2: 23AndMe Ethnicity Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can I possibly learn from such ambiguity?

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

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

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

EXAMPLE 3: MyHeritageDNA

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

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

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

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

EXAMPLE 4: CRI Genetics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s just ONE teensy problem with this:

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

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

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

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

How We Can Improve the Future of DNA Testing

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

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

How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

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

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOPIC 4: Cultural Identity in a New World

Nationality vs. Local Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fragile Identity of Youth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuzzy Labels. Fuzzy Sense of Self.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Losing A Surname – The Cruellest Cut of All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austrian, Tyrolean, Italian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Cultural Identities Get ‘Frozen’ in Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUT the thing is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schisms Triggered by Cultural Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Unaddressed Moral Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rhaeti and the Celts

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Romans

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

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

The Longobards (Lombards)

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

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

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

The Cimbri and Other Germanic Tribes

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

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

Later Germanic Migrations

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

The Ethnic ‘Soup’ of Northern Italy

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

The truth is, nobody seems to agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if it can…

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

And finally…

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

Coming Up Next Time…

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

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

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

You can now read that article here:

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

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

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

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

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

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

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https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research


Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research

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

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

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

Last time, in Article 1, we covered:

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

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

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

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

Today, Article 2, our topic will be: 

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

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

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

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

What Many People Imagine About DNA Tests

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes. I want to know ALL of that.’

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Close Relations Through DNA Tests

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

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

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

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

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

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

DNA Relationship Estimates

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

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

AncestryDNA, table of centimorgans

Click on image to see it larger in a new window

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

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

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

DNA Relatives – And THEN What?

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

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

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

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

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

The bottom line is this:

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

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

How Endogamy Can Blur Relationship Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing Genes – Triangulation

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

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

DNA Triangulation on Chromosome 16, 4 people.

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

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

The Trouble with Triangles

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

There’s Two Sides to Every Chromosome

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

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

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

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

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

In other words…

It’s back to GENEALOGY.

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

How DNA Tests Can MISS Known Blood Relations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patience vs. Our ‘I Want It Now’ Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Up Next Time…

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

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

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

  • TOPIC 4: Cultural Identity in a New World

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

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

Finally, in Article 4, we will finally look in depth at ethnicity reports – how they come up with their data, what the data means, and how we genealogists – from ALL ethnic backgrounds – can help improve the future of DNA research. In that article, I will also share examples from my own reports, so you can see how data can be interpreted (and misinterpreted) in context.

I invite you to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog, to make sure you receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing, as well as all our future articles. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all these articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing online, you will find the subscription form on the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento will be in February and March 2019. 
If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site.
Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: Whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from
Trentino Genealogy!

Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form
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If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form,
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Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

Join our Trentino Genealogy Group on Facebook: http://facebook.com/groups/TrentinoGenealogy

View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry: https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity

DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity
Ca. 1913. Anna Corona Onorati and her elder sister Maria Giuseppa Onorati, of Bono in Bleggio, Val Giudicarie, Trentino. Maria was my paternal grandmother.

Article 1 of 4. Genealogist Lynn Serafinn discusses fundamentals of genetics, Y-chromosome, mitochondrial and autosomal DNA tests and pedigree collapses.

Over the past few months on social media (especially on Facebook), I have been watching with interest a marked increase in conversations about DNA testing and its relevance to genealogy. This has been especially noticeable in groups exploring their northern Italian and/or Trentino ancestry. Amongst those of northern Italian descent, the ‘heated debates’ were mostly in response to AncestryDNA’s new algorithms for their ethnicity reports, which have suddenly – and seemingly inexplicable – relabelled many of us (including me) ‘French’.

As I watch people’s reactions to their DNA test results and ethnicity reports (from ANY DNA testing service, not just Ancestry) I see they are frequently confused, sometimes disappointed, and occasionally upset. I have often added my own opinions and insights when I see these online conversations, but the nature of social media is that the impact of any kind of complex discussion is often fragmented. 

For that reason, I decided to write this series of articles, where I will do my best to address what I believe are the most common causes of these understandable emotions amongst DNA testers:

  1. Unrealistic expectations about DNA testing (largely due to misleading media hype and advertising).

  2. Minimal or insufficient understanding of genetics in general.  

  3. Insufficient genealogical research of their own ancestry.

  4. Misunderstanding the difference between ethnicity, nationality and cultural identity.

  5. Lack of knowledge of the history of their ancestral homelands.

  6. Lack of understanding of how ethnicity reports are created, and what the information actually MEANS.

My purpose in writing this series is to help you become better informed on the subject, and not to discredit any of the DNA tests currently on the marketer or put readers off the idea of taking a DNA test. Quite the opposite, in fact: I believe that the more people of specific ancestries get tested, the more accurate and USEFUL the results will gradually become. I also believe we can make an impact on the future of research, when we combine DNA with meticulously-documented, traditional genealogy.

How the articles are organised:

NOTE: Be sure to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog using the subscription form at the right so you can receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling the articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

DISCLAIMER: I am NOT a scientist or a geneticist. Nor am I an historian in the academic sense of the word. I am a genealogist and author specialising in the people of Trentino. I was a college teacher for many years, and I still teach workshops in Italian genealogy to various groups. Many years ago, I did post graduate work in social anthropology and world music. I have read a lot, observed a lot and researched a lot within the parameters of my work and my lifelong passion for social and cultural history. Genetics has always been a fascination of mine, as it plays a huge role in our understanding of our family histories, and our personal identities. I have done autosomal DNA testing through both AncestryDNA and 23AndMe, and I have also uploaded my raw data files to both GEDMatch and FamilyTreeDNA. Just this week, I also ordered autosomal and mtDNA tests from CRI Genetics (so I cannot comment on them in this article). Please bear my ‘mixed bag’ background in mind as you read this series. I would not wish to create yet more ‘unrealistic expectations’ for you by posing myself as an expert in genetics. I really am just like most people – learning as I go along.

PART 1: Our Unrealistic Expectations About DNA Testing

As a professional genealogist, I have subscriptions to just about every relevant genealogy website on the Internet. And when you have a lot of web subscriptions, you are also on a lot of mailing lists. So, it came as no surprise to me over the recent Christmas season that I received dozens of marketing emails from every genealogy site to which I subscribe, suggesting I buy their products as Christmas presents for friends and family members. And one of the number one ‘gifts’ being flogged this year by all the major sites this year was DNA testing kits.

Unfortunately, many of these marketing campaigns can create unrealistic expectations in their customers. With regards to ancestry (I’m not considering health reports or those for genetic traits), you will see two main promises:

  1. ETHNICITY: Marked by catch phrases like ‘discover your ancestors’ origins’ or ‘uncover your ethnic mix’.

  2. CONNECTION: Marked by catch phrases like ‘connect with relatives’, ‘discover long-lost family’ or ‘meet a distant cousin’.

The trouble is, NEITHER of these promises is 100% honest, and both are somewhat misleading.

Later in Article 3, when we look at ethnicity reports, we’ll see how and why ethnicity and ancestral origin reports are usually very ‘woolly’, imprecise, and often downright WRONG.

And while the media (and marketing campaigns) love to focus on success stories of people who were reunited with parents, siblings and other close relations after doing a DNA test, for most people, the reality of connecting with blood relations through DNA testing is much more challenging, as we will also see later.

Three Types of DNA Tests

Before you decide to spend your money on any DNA test, I strongly advise getting clear about what you wish to gain from being tested. Knowing what you want will determine which of the tree main types of DNA tests is best for you:

  1. Y-DNA – This test is specifically to trace your patrilineal ancestry (your father, his father, his father’s father, etc.). It is only available to men (as women don’t have a Y chromosome), but a female can explore this by asking her father, brother or a male cousin (he MUST be a son of her father’s brother) to get a Y-DNA test. This test is good if you are interested in tracing the history of a surname, for example. I have one client who is using Y-DNA testing to reconstruct the history of a specific Trentino family throughout the centuries.

  2. Mitochondrial (mtDNA) – This test is for tracing your matrilineal ancestry (your mother, her mother, her mother’s mother, etc.). Both men and women can take an mtDNA test, as we all inherit this from our mothers. Be aware that it does NOT tell you about all your female ancestors (i.e. it cannot tell you about your paternal grandmother, the mother of your maternal grandfather, etc.), but only the direct line of females from your mother back in time.

Both Y-DNA and Mitochondrial DNA change very slowly over time, which means these kinds of tests can reveal more about your ancient ethnicity/ancestry than autosomal testing. If you are interested to see how some scientists have used these tests to trace the ancient ancestry of one man, I highly recommend checking out the 2-part BBC television series ‘Meet the Izzards’. You can find it on YouTube at these links:

Meet the Izzards Part 1 – ‘Mother’: https://youtu.be/DIp_xtQelWA

Meet the Izzards Part 2 – ‘Father’: https://youtu.be/vMHQA2nS7tA

  1. Autosomal – This is the most commonly chosen and widely available DNA test, and only one currently offered by companies like AncestryDNA and 23AndMe. You would choose this kind of DNA test you if you are interested in your more recent ethnicity (the last few hundred years) and/or connecting with living people who are biologically related to you. Autosomal tests are also used by companies (23AndMe is an example) to create health profiles, showing which genes you have that may indicate a higher risk of developing certain diseases or conditions, or sensitivity to certain medications. Autosomal tests can also be used for discovering inherited traits, such as eye colour, the ability to roll your tongue, etc. Autosomal DNA tests are available to both men and women.

*** NOTE: I will ONLY be discussing AUTOSOMAL testing in this article series. ***

Choosing the Right Company

Aside from choosing the right test, your reasons for choosing one company over another should ideally have more to do with what they offer (and how that relates to what you want) than with price:

  • If your primary aim is to trace your patrilineal or matrilineal ancestry, there are currently only a few companies offering Y-DNA and/or mtDNA testing. FamilyTree DNA, National Geographic, CRI Genetics are the ones I know of, but there may be others.

  • If your primary aim is to get a health profile, then you might look into 23AndMe. CRI Genetics also has a health report, but I haven’t had it done, so I cannot say how detailed it is.

  • If your primary aim is to connect with living relatives (bearing in mind the caveats we’ll discuss later in this series), you would do best to go with the company with the biggest database of DNA testers, which is currently AncestryDNA.

  • If you’re really serious about finding living relatives, you would do better to get tested through multiple companies. The bigger the ‘net’ the more likely to ‘make a catch’.

  • If your primary aim is to get an ethnicity profile of your recent ancestry, pretty much all the testing companies will give this to you via autosomal DNA testing. However, as we’ll see later in this series, the results you will get are not always as precise as you might like. Also, as we will see, autosomal DNA (or at least our current understanding of it), by its very nature, cannot show details extending much further back than around 250 years (NOTE: that is an arbitrary figure I am gleaning from AncestryDNA’s ethnicity reports). Based on reviews, companies like FamilyTreeDNA and CRI Genetics seem to have a better reputation for accuracy and precision than Ancestry does, but I cannot yet vouch for either personally.

Rather than trying to review all the tests themselves (and they are bound to change over time anyway), I refer you to two good articles that compare a range of DNA tests available as of this date (albeit the one on the Family DNA site is predisposed towards their own product):

PART 2: Entry Level Genetics for Genealogists and Family Historians

Before dipping your toes into your chromosomes, I think it is important to understand a few basics about genetics in general. I don’t mean the scientific side so much as how it ‘works’ in our ancestral inheritance. To that end, I want to explain a little bit about autosomal DNA and how it is transmitted over time, as autosomal tests are the basis for the ethnicity reports people receive from most DNA testing services.

Autosomal DNA – Understanding the Basics

The following illustration gives us an idea of how autosomal DNA is passed on from parents to a child. It looks very simple; each parent gives 50% of his/her DNA to the child:

Autosomal DNA - 2 Generations

Click on image to see it larger in a new window.

While, in principle, this seems simple, in reality, it is more complex than it looks.

Why? Because Father and Mother are not just ‘all red’ or ‘all blue’. Each of them has inherited 50% of their genes from their OWN parents.

Again, in principle, that sounds like it would be simple. Logically, it would mean the child inherits 25% of their genetic material from each of their grandparents. But, in practice, this is not exactly what happens. We can understand this better if we look at two children from the same couple:


Autosomal DNA, 3 Generations. Diagram by Lynn Serafinn, https://trentinogenealogy.com
Click on image to see it larger in a new window.

(Forgive any slight imprecision in the diagram; I did it by hand in Photoshop, and I’m not a graphic designer).

In the diagram above, we see three generations of autosomal DNA. Now, we see Father has inherited 50% of his DNA from his parents (red and yellow), and Mother has inherited 50% of her DNA from her parents (blue and purple).

But look, now, at the children. Each child has inherited 50% of their DNA from each of their parents. HOWEVER, the percentage of DNA from each ‘colour’ (i.e. each grandparent) is NOT an exact 25%. They receive more from one grandparent, and less from the other, until it adds up to the full 50% from that parent.

Note how Child 1 has a lot more yellow and blue DNA than Child 2, and Child 2 has a lot more red and purple DNA than Child 1 has. This is what makes siblings unique (except for identical twins, whose DNA are identical).

But it gets even more complicated, the more we work through the generations. Here’s a diagram of the same family with their great-grandparents added into the mix:Autosomal DNA, 4 Generations. Diagram by Lynn Serafinn, https://trentinogenealogy.com

Click on image to see it larger in a new window.

From this diagram, we can see yet more diversity entering the ‘gene pool’. At each generation, children have inherited 50% of their DNA from their parents, but now (at least from Father and Mother down) we see how they continue to inherit DNA from their grandparents and the ancestors who came before in varying proportions.

Now, when we look at the two children, we see even greater diversity between them. Child 2, for example, carries a lot more DNA from their father’s paternal grandmother (green) than his/her sibling does.

But the OTHER thing we start to notice is how the slices of DNA are getting smaller, as they combine and recombine to fill in the 50% from each parent. This is an important point:

The AMOUNT of autosomal DNA
we inherit from specific ancestors
DECREASES over time.

Try to imagine, now, if I added another generation to this diagram…and then another, and another, ad infinitum. Not only would some of those colours become so narrow they would be hard to detect (and I would certainly have a rough time drawing them in Photoshop), but SOME of those colours might not appear in DNA tests at all.

This is why:

  • Siblings can sometimes receive slightly different ethnicity reports from the autosomal tests. It doesn’t mean they HAVE different ethnicities. It just means that one of them has genes that appear more in one ‘test group’ than the other (we’ll discuss test groups in the final part of this series).

  • One sibling might have a DNA match on Ancestry, etc. which the other sibling does not share. It doesn’t mean they are NOT both related to the DNA match. It just means that the specific genes they inherited matched the specific genes the ‘match’ inherited. In fact, one sibling could inherit the DNA from an ancestor whose DNA is completely absent in their siblings’ DNA.

  • Autosomal testing CANNOT really tell us our ‘ancient’ or ‘deep’ ancestry. Autosomal DNA is changing EVERY generation, whereas Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA (which CAN tell us our ancient ancestry) are not. So, don’t go into autosomal testing expecting to discover very ancient ancestral roots.

The Mysterious Case of ‘Faded Genes’

Scientists tell us we could indeed be a direct descendant of someone without having inherited ANY of that person’s DNA. The more distant our relation to an ancestor, the more likely this becomes.

While that is the ‘official’ belief amongst scientists, I personally believe we carry DNA of each and EVERY one of our ancestors inside of us, from the beginning of time – even if only in an infinitesimally small quantity.

I confess this is an utterly UN-scientific belief. But having researched so many ancestors for myself and so many others, I have come to believe it to be true, at what I might call a ‘spiritual’ level.

If science cannot yet ‘detect’ the presences of all those ancestors in our genes, I believe it is more a measurement of the current technological limitations than an indication that ancient DNA simply ‘fades away’ over time.

Again, this is simply my personal belief. But I suspect many others (especially genealogists) feel similarly.

Endogamy and Pedigree Collapses

To finish our discussion on autosomal DNA, I feel it is important to touch upon the subject of ‘endogamy’, and how this related to both DNA testing and genealogy.

‘Endogamy’ refers to the practice of small, insular groups intermarrying over many generations – often over many centuries. Intermarriage within one’s own social group occurred amongst ALL human societies, pretty much until the beginning of the 20th century with the introduction of mass transportation. Having researched tens of thousands of families over the years, I would say that around 95% of the time, couples tended to marry within their own parish – and often within their own village/hamlet. Moreover, you will often see them intermarrying with the same families over the generations.

Continual intermarriage within a closed community will ALWAYS lead to the inevitability of some couples marrying who were related by blood. The technical term for a blood relationship is ‘consanguinity’ (literally ‘with blood’).

Many of us have heard stories about royal families intermarrying ‘too much’ (I’ll get to that in a minute), but the truth is consanguineous relationships between spouses occurs in ALL family trees, in all parts of the world, from the simple farmer up to kings and queens.

And the further you go back in time, the more of these ‘consanguineous’ ancestors you will find in your tree. In fact, when you start to plot out all the families in a parish over a long period of time (as I am doing for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio), you will start to see that pretty much EVERYONE alive today who is descended from someone in that parish is related to pretty much everyone else – whether they realise it or not. Moreover, if you look back in time to, say, around 500 years ago, you will see that pretty much everyone who was alive THEN in that parish is your ancestor.

It’s a bit mind-bending.

There isn’t a person on earth who, does not have at least some ancestors who married someone who was related to them by blood. It doesn’t mean they were closely related. 4th cousins, for example, were not considered ‘close’ in terms of canonical (Church) law. And more distant relations than that, people didn’t even CONSIDER were ‘related’ to them at all.

But while the Church and its parishioners might not consider 5th cousins and beyond to be ‘relatives’, from a genealogical perspective – and in terms of DNA – they most certainly are.

Every time you have a pair of consanguineous ancestors, it creates something called a ‘pedigree collapse’. Normally, we expect the number of our ancestors to multiply by two at each generation, as we move back in time. But when there is a consanguineous relationship between a husband and wife, it means they share a common ancestor (or, more frequently, a pair of common ancestors). Thus, when we move backwards in time to the generation at which their common ancestors occur, there will be FEWER than double then number of ancestors (minus two, to be precise).

Here are a couple of diagrams to illustrate what I mean:Autosomal DNA, 2nd grade consanguinity. Diagram by Lynn Serafinn, https://trentinogenealogy.com

Click on image to see it larger in a new window.

In this diagram, Father’s mother and Mother’s father were brother and sister. This means that Father and Mother above are actually 1st cousins (In reality, most consanguineous marriages are more distant than 1st cousins, but this was the simplest diagram I could draw to illustrate a pedigree collapse). The Catholic church calls this ‘2nd grade consanguinity’ because the blood connection is found  two generations back from the couple who are marrying (i.e. Father and Mother’s grandparents).

Look all the way at the top of the diagram, you will see that Father’s maternal grandparents are the SAME colours as mother’s paternal grandparents (yellow and brown). This is because they are the SAME couple.

Thus, a more accurate diagram to show what is going on is this:
Autosomal DNA, 2nd grade consanguinity, pedigree collapse. Diagram by Lynn Serafinn, https://trentinogenealogy.comClick on image to see it larger in a new window.

Instead of the expected eight grandparents for Mother and Father, we have only SIX. This is why we call it a ‘collapse’: instead of the number of your ancestors multiplying by two at every generation, whenever there is a consanguineous marriage, there will be fewer than the expected number of ancestors – two fewer if both ancestors are shared, and one fewer if only one of them is shared (e.g. if Father’s mother and Mother’s father we step-siblings instead of full siblings).

Really, pedigree collapses are a simple matter of statistics: If we look back at the human population of the planet over the millennia, doubling our ancestors at every generation is mathematical impossibility. There simply weren’t enough people living on the planet for us to have two completely unrelated ancestors for every generation in our history.

SIDE NOTE: In the future I will be publishing an article on this site discussing how to recognise consanguineous marriages and pedigree collapses in your family tree, and also how to USE these as clues to piecing together genealogical riddles in earlier generations.

Collapsing the ‘Gene Pool’

Have a look now at the two CHILDREN of the consanguineous couple in the diagram above. Do you notice anything different compared to the earlier diagram were there were eight great-grandparents?

I’ve deliberately exaggerated the results for purpose of demonstration, but if you look closely at Child 1, you might notice he/she has TWO sets of yellow DNA. In fact, the amount of yellow in the diagram (and remember, it’s just my own drawing, and isn’t scientific) is close to 50% of the child’s DNA. This is because Child 1 just happened to get a double whammy of ‘yellow’ from both Mother and Father, via their shared ancestor.

Let’s consider some of the implications for the children in this diagram:

  • Child 1 and 2 are not just siblings; they are also 1st cousins, 1st removed.

  • If Child 1 were to grow up and marry yet another close descendant (another 1st cousin, for example) of the ‘yellow’ great-grandfather, there is a strong chance that their children would inherit and even higher percentage of ‘yellow’ DNA, for the simple reason that there is that much less diversity in the genes to pass on to their descendants. If that DNA happened to contain genes associated for certain health conditions that were normally ‘recessive’, it would make that child more susceptible to developing those conditions. This is what happened to many of the European royal families, including Queen Victoria’s family and the Hapsburgs.

  • Child 2’s genes appear to be a bit more evenly spread out, but there is always a chance that he/she has also inherited the recessive gene for a disease or serious health condition. So if this child marries another closely related descendant of the ‘yellow’ grandfather, there may be a higher risk that the condition will get ‘switched on’ in the next generation.

Even though you might discover many pedigree collapses in your family tree, a marriage between cousins does not automatically mean their children will inherit health risks. Moreover, marriages between more distant cousins (3rd and 4th cousin marriages were fairly common in the past) still allowed for a fairly diverse ‘gene pool’, especially if cousins from the SAME lineage did not intermarry at the next generation. Consanguinity between marital partners only becomes a genetic risk when close cousins intermarry repeatedly throughout the generations, without ever (or hardly ever) introducing ‘fresh blood’ into the gene pool. This was not the case for most of our ancestors

How Pedigree Collapses Affect Your DNA Test Results

Many people do DNA testing to find and connect with living relatives. Sites like Ancestry can sometimes give you lists of hundreds of ‘cousins’, with whom you share at least SOME DNA according to their tests. Sometimes these DNA matches show up as ‘probable’ 2nd, 3rd or 4th cousins. But others might show up as ‘3rd to distant cousins’ or something equally vague.

One of the reasons for such vagueness is the presence of (possibly many) pedigree collapses.

Because endogamy can cause your genes to become more ‘saturated’ (for lack of a better word) with the genes of certain ancestral lines, a cousin might show up who shares enough common genetic material to be your 3rd cousin in theory, but in fact is your 6th (or even more distant) cousin. Thus, if the two of you try to find your common ancestors at the 3rd cousin level (great-great-grandparents), you simply won’t find them, and are likely to become confused (and possibly doubtful about your own family tree) if you try to.

Moreover, the more pedigree collapses each of you has in your ancestry, the more ‘off’ these estimates will be.

The only way to SEE how you are connected is for both of you to have traced your family history – through genealogy, not DNA.

My gut tells me (although this is just a HUNCH based on logic, and not any scientific evidence) that endogamy can also skew our ethnicity reports. In other words, if the genes for one ancestral line are disproportionately pronounced in our DNA due to pedigree collapses, would it not give the ‘appearance’ of us being ‘more’ of something than we actually are? For example, if we had inherited a lot of ‘yellow’, and ‘yellow’ was associated with a particular ethnic or geographic group in a tester’s DNA database, wouldn’t our ethnicity reports show us as being a high percentage of whatever that ethnicity happened to be – even if it weren’t the ethnic group to which we believed we belong?

To get into the heart of such a ‘loaded’ question, we first need to get clear about what exactly ethnicity is – and what it is not – as well as how DNA testing sites ARRIVE at their ‘ethnicity estimates’.

Coming Up Next Time…

This seems like the perfect place to end the first instalment of this article series, as next time, in Article 2, we will be addressing the next topic on our list, namely:

  • PART 3: Why DNA Testing is NOT a Substitute for Genealogical Research

In that article, we will examine some of the misconceptions people have about DNA tests, how relationship estimates are formed to identify ‘DNA Matches’, and the many the challenges around identifying your connections with DNA matches. We’ll also look at the technique of ‘triangulation’, as well as how ‘endogamy’ can sometimes blur relationship estimates.

YOU CAN READ IT NOW AT:

MORE READING:   Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research

I invite you to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog, to make sure you receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing, as well as all our future articles. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all the articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing online you will find the subscription form on the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

(Closing thought: If you are interested to go more deeply into the fascinating world of genetics, I highly recommend checking out the beautifully written book called A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: the stories of our genes by Adam Rutherford. I assure you it is NOT overly scientific; rather it’s extremely engaging and often funny. I think it’s a terrific book title too.)

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento will be in February and March 2019. 
If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site.
Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: Whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

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View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry: https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

How Cemeteries Can Help Grow Your Family Tree

How Cemeteries Can Help Grow Your Family Tree
Panoramic view of a section of Trento Monumental Cemetery (Cimitero Monumentale di Trento), Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy.

Trentino Genealogist Lynn Serafinn discusses cemeteries in Italy, and shares tips on how gravestones can help you discover more about your ancestors.

Like so many other genealogists and family historians, I love walking through cemeteries. I don’t see them as morbid or spooky, as so much of our popular culture portrays them. I see them as profound expressions of love, admiration, community and social values.

But cemeteries can also be rich sources of historical information, and catalysts that can help us discover many things we might not have known about our families. Sometimes, a random gravestone can turn out to belong to an ancestor, a distant cousin, or a family member of someone else you may not have met yet.

In this article, I want to give you a taste for how cemeteries can help you in your quest for constructing your family history, so you can start to discover and unlock the treasures they may hold. We will look at:

  • The Pros and Cons of Working with ‘Virtual’ Cemeteries
  • The Limitations and Inaccuracies on Gravestones of Immigrants
  • Why There Are No Ancient Graves in Italian Cemeteries
  • Parish Cemeteries vs. Frazioni Cemeteries
  • How Women Are Recorded on Trentino Gravestones
  • Gleaning Information and Identifying People You Don’t Know
  • Family Groups on Trentino Gravestones
  • How Gravestones Can Reveal More Than Just Dates
  • Expanding Your Research and Leaving a Legacy

SIDE NOTE: In addition to the tips in this article, you might also like this VIDEO TUTORIAL I made on a trip to the Trento Municipal Cemetery.

The Pros and Cons of Working with ‘Virtual’ Cemeteries

I’ve observed that descendants of Italian immigrants often want to jump right into finding their ancestors in Italy before taking ample time to gather as much documentation as they can in their ‘adopted’ country. When we talk about Trentini descendants, those countries are typically either the US or somewhere in South America. I recently had a client who lived in England but, like me, had moved here from the US about 20 years ago. This client’s ancestors were not actually from Trentino, but from Genova. Since moving away from her birth place of Chicago, and since the passing away of her parents and other elders of the family, she had lost her connection to the family lore and had little information that could help us get to the point where we could start researching her family’s ancestor in the Italian records.

When I took on the project, the first thing I wanted to do was fill in the blanks of her family AFTER they had emigrated from Italy. For that, one of the most valuable resources was Find-A-Grave, a website containing millions of memorials from cemeteries around the world, all submitted by volunteers. It is, if you will, a collection of ‘virtual’ cemeteries viewable to anyone with Internet access.

Using Find-A-Grave immediately opened a floodgate of information for my client’s family tree. Not only did I find death dates, but many people are linked together, showing connections between spouses, children, siblings, etc. This information enabled me to construct entire families, which I later cross-checked with other online sources like Ancestry and Family Search.

Additionally, some of the memorials contained obituaries from local newspapers, which gave me even more information – including information about when my client’s ancestors first came over from Genova. This led me to find immigration documents. Using what I found in these virtual cemeteries, I was able to glean enough information about her family’s Italian origins to make me confident I could start tackling the Italian records. From there, things became much easier for me, and I quickly managed to take her family tree back to the mid-1700s with a day’s work.

*** FREE RESOURCE ***

Click HERE to download a PDF list of cemeteries in North and South America known to have the graves of many Trentini (aka Tyrolean) immigrants, with links to their pages on Find-A-Grave. No sign-up or email address is required.

But while using Find-A-Grave was a great success on this project, the site does have its limitations.

  • All content on the site is provided solely by its users, so the data is as accurate or inaccurate as the people who enter it. TIP: If you see a mistake on a memorial in Find-A-Grave, you can (and should) send a suggested correction to the moderator of that page.
  • Not all cemeteries are listed. TIP: You CAN add a cemetery if it is missing (and I encourage you to do so), but be sure to check it isn’t already listed under a slightly different name.
  • Most cemeteries listed are in the United States. In fact, there are only a handful of cemeteries listed on Find-A-Grave from the province of Trento (CLICK HERE to see what they are). TIP: Again, I encourage you to add cemeteries you know in Trentino, but if you do, it is wise to enter them under their Italian name. Also, you MUST put ‘Provincia di Trento’ after the name of the comune, as that is how Find-A-Grave refers to and recognises locations in the province.

Limitations and Inaccuracies on Gravestones of Immigrants

While cemeteries can provide us with vital pieces of our ancestral puzzle, my observation of gravestones in our ancestors’ adopted countries (especially the US) is that:

  • They often lack detail. Frequently they only have the death date (sometimes only the year), without a date of birth (or at least the year). Even more rarely do they contain much information about who the person was in life, or about his/her relationship within the family.
  • They are full of mistakes. Information on gravestones is supplied by a surviving member of the family. Family members – especially children of immigrants – can be inaccurate about dates, names, etc. Back in their ‘old country’, the family would have had access to the original documents via their local parish priest. But without that historic connection to their place of birth, the family has no such stream of information. People who emigrated at a young age (or were BORN in their adopted country) will often mishear, misunderstand, mix up or COMBINE two places, names or events. This results in a muddle of mis-information and false beliefs that will always be some variation on the truth. My cousins, aunts, uncles – even my own parents – were all prone to these kinds of false beliefs. I had to do a LOT of unlearning, relearning and re-educating when I embarked on this genealogical journey.

Equally (and possibly MORE) prone to errors are the obituaries that may have been published in local newspapers. The original information is provided to the newspaper by the surviving family who, as I’ve already said, can frequently get things wrong. Then the newspapers themselves can (and often DO) compound the errors, especially when it comes to the spelling of names and places unfamiliar to them. Birth, marriage and arrival dates will often be wrong, as well. Hopefully they at least get the death date right!

Why There Are No Ancient Graves in Italian Cemeteries

Now, let’s cross the ocean and go back to the patria to have a look at cemeteries in Trentino (or anywhere in Italy).

One of the first things people comment on when they visit an Italian cemetery for the first time is the practice of putting photographs of the deceased on the gravestones. This can be an exciting discovery for the family historian, as they can finally put faces to some of the names they have been researching.

But once they get over that novelty, the next thing they notice – often with some amount of confusion and disappointment – is the ABSENCE of old gravestones. I mean, some of these parish churches go back over 700 years or more; surely we are going to find plenty of fascinating, ancient gravestones in their cemeteries, right?

Well…no.

Yes, you are likely to find old tombs of priests and patron families inside the church dating back many centuries, and you might also find a few older headstones for priests or patrons (perhaps from the 18th century) affixed to the outer walls of the church or perimeter wall of the cemetery. But other than these:

most gravestones are likely to be no older than about 80 years.

This is because, in many European countries, a coffin is exhumed at some point after burial and the skeletal remains are removed from the grave and placed in an ossuary – typically a box, building, well or wall. Then, the same grave is used to bury someone more recently deceased.

This removal of bones has nothing to do with religious practice, but with practical necessity: if everyone who ever died in the parish were put into a coffin and buried under their headstone forever, the space required for the dead would soon take over the land needed for the living.

Just what ‘at some point’ means seems vary in different parts of Italy. I recently read an account where a person’s grandfather’s remains were exhumed only 10 years after he died (the writer expressed some understandable distress). In my father’s parish, however, they appear to wait a couple generations before transferring the bones. That way, the spouse and children of the deceased (and probably most of the people who once knew the deceased in life) are also likely to have passed away. Certainly, this is a more sensitive arrangement.

SIDE STORY: Once when I was showing the underground crypt in Santa Croce to some American cousins, the lady who had unlocked the church for us found a small piece of (very old-looking) jawbone that had fallen out of the wall in a small alcove. She sheepishly whispered a request for us not to say anything about it to anyone, and she respectfully put the bone back into the wall. At the time, I thought she might have been worried teams of archaeologists would descend upon the church and tear it apart. Later, I realised this was probably the site of an ancient ossuary, and she may have wished to avoid upsetting anyone. The crypt itself is at least 1,000 years old, and it was built on the site of an older, Longobard (Lombard) church.

Parish Cemeteries vs. Frazioni Cemeteries

In larger parishes with many frazioni (hamlets) spread out over a wide area, you will often find small satellite churches serving these communities, some of which might have cemeteries of their own. In these cemeteries, you might get lucky and find a few older graves, especially if the family was prominent in that frazione.

For example, when I first went to the main parish cemetery for Santa Croce del Bleggio, I was disappointed not to find the graves of my Serafini great-grandparents, who died in the 1930s.  But when I visited the cemetery adjacent the little church of San Felice in the frazione of Bono, where my grandmother’s Onorati family had lived for many centuries, I found the graves of my Onorati great-grandparents who had died earlier, in the 1920s. I believe the reason may be partially due to the Onoratis’ historical prominence in Bono; but the frazione is also tiny, and the cemetery is not nearly as crowded as the main parish cemetery. Some frazioni cemeteries are even larger than the main parish cemetery.

Remember also that married women are most likely buried in the parish (or frazione) in which they lived with their husband. Unmarried women will most likely be buried in the parish (or frazione) in which they were raised. So, when you make your trip to Trentino, be sure to ask whether there is more than one cemetery in the parish. You might discover your ancestors in a place different from where you had expected.

How Women’s Names Are Recorded on Trentino Gravestones

Identifying women on gravestones can often be more challenging than identifying men, as the way they appear will vary according to culture.

For example, because women in the US, Britain and many other countries take the surname of their husband when they marry, they are nearly always referred to by their married names on their headstones when they die in their adopted homeland. In such a scenario, a woman’s gravestone might not be very useful for research, as it doesn’t offer much information about her origins.

In contrast, Italian women retain their maiden names throughout life, even if they have been married for decades. Thus, MOST of the time, a gravestone will give some sort of reference to both her maiden and married name.

There are three common conventions for recording a woman’s name on a headstone. Let’s look at each in turn.

‘Nata’ or ‘N.’ (indicating birth name)

Typically, if a woman is buried in the same plot as her married husband and/or children, she will be referred to by her married name, BUT it will usually have the word nata’ (or its abbreviation ‘N.’), which means ‘born’ (feminine gender).

Here is an example from the frazione of Balbido in Santa Croce del Bleggio. The family name is Riccadonna, and you can tell from the photo and the layout of the stone that we are looking at the grave of a husband (Cesare), wife (Colomba) and one of their children (a son named Danielle, born in 1926, although the date is hard to see behind the flowers). Below Colomba’s name it says ‘N. Brunelli’ (nata Brunelli); thus, her birth name is Colomba Brunelli.

Gravestone of Cesare Riccadonna and his wife Colomba Brunelli, Balbido cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino, Italy
Gravestone of Cesare Riccadonna and his wife Colomba Brunelli, Balbido cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino, Italy

Below is another clear example of ‘N.’, from the frazione cemetery in Tignerone in Santa Croce del Bleggio. This is the grave of Ersilia Bleggi, who was born Ersilia Gusmerotti in 1879:

1952: Grave of Ersilia Gusmerotti (married name Bleggi), Tignerone cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino, Italy
1952: Grave of Ersilia Gusmerotti (married name Bleggi), Tignerone cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino, Italy

Lastly, here is another example of ‘N.’ on an older, more weather-worn stone from the parish of Saone. On this stone, they have written the surname before the personal name, i.e. ‘Bondi, Catterina, nata Buganza,’ who ‘died on 20 February 1903 at the age of 60’:

1903 grave of Catterina Buganza (married name Bondi), Saone cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1903 grave of Catterina Buganza (married name Bondi), Saone cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

‘In’ (indicating married name)

Sometimes a woman’s birth name is given first, followed by her married surname prefixed by the word ‘in’. I have noticed this is most frequently used if the woman happened to be buried in the grave or tomb of her birth family (which could be in a different parish or frazione from her husband’s).

For example, the BIRTH name of the woman in the gravestone below is ‘Giustina Parisi’. But if you look beneath her name, it says ‘in Gasperini’. It’s a little worn, so the ‘I’ is a bit hard to see, but it is definitely ‘in’, not ‘n’. The surname is also partially worn off, but it is definitely Gasperini:

1974 grave of Giustina Parisi (born 1894), married name Gasperini, Tignerone cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1974 grave of Giustina Parisi (born 1894), married name Gasperini, Tignerone cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

Here is a clearer example of ‘in’ from an ossuary in the Cimitero Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery) in the City of Trento:

1958 Gravestone for Maria Parisi (born 1920), married name Pisetta, Trento Municipal (aka Monumental) Cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1958 Gravestone for Maria Parisi (born 1920), married name Pisetta, Trento Municipal (aka Monumental) Cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

VIDEO: See a video I took at the Cimitero Monumentale di Trento when I visited it in July 2018 (second on page).

‘Vedova’ ‘ved’ or ‘v.’ (indicating she was widowed)

If a woman’s husband predeceased her, she will be referred to as his widow (vedova in Italian) in records and on her headstone. In this case, the stone will give her birth name, followed by the word ‘vedova’, ‘ved.’ or simply ‘v.’, which is then followed by her late husband’s surname.

For example, this placard for Libera Bondi, widow of (someone named) Marchiori, was attached to the top of the family headstone in the parish of Saone in Val Giudicarie (I took this shot in 2016; it may have since been engraved):

2012 grave of Libera Bondi (born 1919), widow of Marchiori, Saone cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
2012 grave of Libera Bondi (born 1919), widow of Marchiori, Saone cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

The question, of course, is WHO is the late Mr. Marchiori? We’ll come back to that question in a moment.

This next stone is from Cimitero Monumentale in the City of Trento. In this case, the woman’s birth name was Anna Pegoretti and she was married to Giovanni Casotti, whose name is right above hers. You can see he predeceased her by more than three decades. The fact that Anna is cited as his widow indicates she never remarried (and was already almost 60 when her husband passed away):

1995 grave of Anna Pegoretti, widow of Giovanni Casotti, Trento Monumental cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1995 grave of Anna Pegoretti, widow of Giovanni Casotti, Trento Monumental cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

Gleaning Information and Identifying People You Don’t Know

None of the people whose gravestones I shared above are ancestors of mine. In fact, I took those photos out of a sense of curiosity rather than any specific investigative motive.

But as a genealogist, my natural curiosity often leads me to seek out details about a person I find on a gravestone, even if I don’t know them. When I do, I often discover I am connected to them in some unexpected way.

Let’s take Colomba Riccadonna, born Brunelli, from the first gravestone I showed you above. The stone says she was born in 1893.

As she was born between 1815 and 1923, I used the online database created by the Archivio di Trento called Nati in Trentino to find out who Colomba was. All I had to do is plug in her name and year of birth. Luckily, there was only one Colomba Brunelli born that year:

1893 baptismal record listing for Colomba Maria Brunelli, from Nati in Trentino online database.
1893 baptismal record listing for Colomba Maria Brunelli, from Nati in Trentino online database.

I also used Nati in Trentino to try to identify Cesare, but there were actually two Cesares born in 1887, so I needed to find their marriage record to learn which one he was. I also searched for additional children for the couple and found a daughter born in 1923. They probably had other children, but the online database doesn’t go past 1923.

When I entered Colomba into my tree, I discovered she was a distant cousin (7th cousin 1X removed). Not exactly a close relation, but you never know what such a connection might lead to later.

I used the same process to discover the birth information for Ersilia Gusmerotti, Giustina Parisi and Catterina Buganza, and discovered:

  • ERSILIA was my 7th cousin 2X removed.
  • GIUSTINA was my 3rd cousin 2X removed.
  • CATTERINA was the great-grandmother of one of my clients. I hadn’t planned it that way; I just happened to have taken the photo when I was in Saone on a previous trip. Las month, when I was working on that client’s tree, I looked through my photo archive and discovered I had a picture of her great-grandmother’s grave.

You never really know who or what you will discover when you start taking photos of random gravestones. I could never have predicted a photo I took a couple of years ago would end up being the great-grandmother of one of my future clients. But my client was thrilled to see the photo, as she’s never been to Saone, and this took her closer to her roots.

Family Groups on Trentino Gravestones

Many gravestones in Trentino will contain names from an entire family group. To demonstrate this, let’s go back to the widowed Libera Bondi and look at the full image of the stone on which she appears:

Grave for the family of Modesto Marchiori and Elisabetta Bondi, Saone, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
Grave for the family of Modesto Marchiori and Elisabetta Bondi, Saone, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

The primary surname on this stone is MARCHIORI, and the patriarch is Modesto, on the left. To his right, we see ‘Elisabetta Marchiori, born Bondi’. Looking at the dates, we can ASSUME Elisabetta was Modesto’s wife. Of course, we would need to verify that with documentation (I already have, and they were indeed husband and wife).

Moving down the stone, we come to Giuseppe (born 1910) and Antonio (born 1912), with no surname mentioned. The omission of a surname implies they share the same family surname, i.e. Marchiori. Again, looking at the dates, we might guess that Giuseppe and Antonio were the sons of Modesto and Elisabetta. To verify this theory, I looked them up on Nati in Trentino. Sure enough, I found them listed amongst Modesto’s and Elisabetta’s children, along with several other siblings.

But now we have the question of the two women: Emilia (born Biancotto) and Libera (born Bondi). We can assume they were probably married to these two sons. But who was married to whom?

While there is no online resource to answer this question, I was fortunate enough to have access to the family anagraphs for Saone for this era when I was doing research in Trento recently, where I found this entry for Modesto’s family:

Anagraph for the family of Modesto Marchiori (born 1867), Saone parish records, Archivio Diocesano di Trento, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy.
Anagraph for the family of Modesto Marchiori (born 1867), Saone parish records, Archivio Diocesano di Trento, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy.

Anagraphs (called ‘Stato delle Anime’, or ‘State of Souls’ when they appear in the parish records) are records of family groups and contain a wealth of information, including dates of birth, confirmation, marriage and death. They can also include the names of the spouses in the annotations column at the right. In most places, anagraphs were started in the mid to late 19th century. The various comuni also started recording them in the 19th century, maintaining them at the registry of anagraphs; but so far, I have only dealt with those kept by the church.

In the ‘Annotazioni’ (annotations) column in the anagraph above, the priest has recorded that Giuseppe was married to Libera Bondi and Antonio was married to Emilia Biancotto, with dates of their respective marriages (I know it’s difficult to read here, but I have a larger, full-colour image on my computer that shows it more clearly).

So, while the gravestone didn’t give us all the information we needed, it certainly pointed us in the right direction, giving us clues about what we should look for next. Thus, it was a crucial part of our research.

As it turns out, this family group are ALSO related to my afore-mentioned client, as Elisabetta (Elisa) Bondi was the daughter of her great-grandmother Catterina Buganza, and sister of her grandfather. In other words, Elisa was her great-aunt. Tracing this family helped me identify many of her close cousins.

How Gravestones Can Reveal More Than Just Dates

If you analyse every aspect of a gravestone, you will often find it contains a lot more information than dates alone. Sometimes you can discover a person’s occupation, gain insight into their personal character, or get a feeling for their relationship with their family and community.

On a recent visit to Cimitero Monumentale in the City of Trento, I took dozens of photos of graves, many of which contained clues about the kinds of people who had been laid to rest. Here are two highlights:

1933 ossuary gravestone for Secondo Bertoldi, pharmacist, Trento Monumental cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1933 ossuary gravestone for Secondo Bertoldi, pharmacist, Trento Monumental cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

This photo is of the ossuary memorial for a man named Secondo Bertoldi. The stone tells us he was born in Lavarone on 20 Aug 1872 and died in Trento on 20 Feb 1933 (Roman numerals are used for the months). But it also tells us he was a chemist/pharmacist (here in England, pharmacists are also called chemists, but the term is not generally used in the US). Additionally, it says he was a ‘fervent patriot’, and that he lived his life in a loving way and by doing good. It also says that his wife, Anna Maria Bosetti, arranged for this stone to be laid as a ‘loving and tearful memory’ of Secondo. All these words give us a much richer picture of who Secondo was than what we might have learned from documents alone.

Sometimes even the most minimal of headstones can lead to a potentially interesting story. Here’s another photo I took in the ossuary at the Trento cemetery:

Ossuary gravestone for sisters Maria and Giuseppina Vitti of Trento, who died in 1968 and 1974. Cimitero Monumentale di Trento, Trento, Trentino Alto-Adige, Italy
Ossuary gravestone for sisters Maria and Giuseppina Vitti of Trento, who died in 1968 and 1974. Cimitero Monumentale di Trento, Trento, Trentino Alto-Adige, Italy

The stone merely says ‘Vitti Sisters’, and then gives their first names and years of birth/death. A quick search on Nati in Trentino told me that Giuseppina (born 27 Aug 1888) and her sister Maria (born 15 Oct 1890) were both born in the city of Trento in the parish of Santi Pietro e Paolo (Saints Peter and Paul), and were the only two daughters of Andrea Vitti and Santa Tommasi. The sisters also had two brothers, but I don’t know anything other than their dates of birth.

Apart from this, I know nothing at all about this family. But the fact that these two sisters – both of advanced age (78 and 86) – were laid to rest in the same grave AND they were referred to by their birth names leads me to theorise that neither sister married. It also leads me to think they were probably very close throughout their lives. While these are just my own guesses based solely on what I am seeing in the stone, these guesses might help point me in the right direction if I were to research this family in depth.

Expanding Your Research and Leaving a Legacy

Whether you are planning a visit to a local cemetery, or you are hoping to visit some cemeteries when you are in Trentino, be sure to bring a camera and photograph as many graves as you can, even if you have no clue WHO the people are. If the cemetery is very large – or if the thought of dealing with all those photos is a bit overwhelming – focus on photographing stones containing one or two specific surnames.

And remember, when in Trentino, don’t just visit the main parish cemetery; ask if there are other cemeteries in the frazioni where your ancestors may have lived.

Don’t worry about trying to make sense of who is who when you are taking your photos. That will only slow you down and make it less enjoyable. Look at your trip as a kind of ‘treasure hunt’ where your mission is to get as many good photos as you can. Be sure to get the WHOLE stone in your photo, so you can see all the words in context. They may not mean anything to you now, but they may mean something important later.

And don’t forget that graves in Italy don’t stay around forever. A few years from now…

your photo might end up being the only tangible evidence of a person’s grave,
as the remains and headstone for that person may soon be moved – or removed altogether.

Consider SHARING your images on your tree on Ancestry, as well as on Find-A-Grave. That way, you are not only helping yourself, but also making it easier for OTHER Trentini descendants to find the graves of their own family members. Your photo might mean the world to a complete stranger many years from now.

BRIGHT IDEA: Perhaps we could create a ‘virtual party’ for the purpose of creating all the Trentini cemeteries on Find-A-Grave and entering our family’s memorials on there. We could use our Trentino Genealogy Facebook group to coordinate it. What do you think?

I hope this article has helped you understand more about interpreting gravestones in Trentino, and has also inspired you to go out and start recording as many Trentino graves as you can – as soon as possible, before they disappear.

I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento is from 21 Oct 2018 to 15 Nov 2018.
If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site.
Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: Whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

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View My Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author and genealogist specialising in the families of Trentino. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

In addition to her work for clients, her personal research project is to transcribe all the parish records for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (where her father was born) from the 1400s to the current era, as well as to connect as many living people as she can who were either born in Bleggio or whose ancestors came from there. She hopes this tree, which already contains tens of thousands of people, will serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

View the Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES.