Tag Archives: notary

Surname Spotlight: BETTA. Ancient Nobles of the Roman Empire?

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

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

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

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

Linguistic Origins of the Surname

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

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

Geographic Origins of the Family

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

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

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

Arrival, Migration and Branching Out

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

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

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

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

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

Below is a map where I have highlighted:

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

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

Betta Notaries

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

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

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

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

Brief Mention – Betta of Val di Fiemme

Before we move on to the Betta of Val di Non, I would like to briefly mention that we find Betta notaries present in Val di Fiemme at the beginning of the 1600s. The earliest I have found is the notary named Pietro Betta, son of Giovanni Betta, who was active at least between the years 1604-1625. Originally from Varena but living in Cavalese, Pietro also served as the Vicario of Castello di Fiemme (n.b.: ‘vicario’ refers to a secular role, not a priest). Pietro’s son, Orazio Betta of Cavalese, followed in his father’s footsteps and was active as a notary at least between 1622-1636.

The surname still flourishes in Fiemme today, mainly in Cavalese, Castello and Molina. I do not yet know if or how they may be related to the other lines I will discuss in this article.

Article continues below…

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Bonifacio Betta – From Arco to Val di Non

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

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

Ancient Nobility and ‘Caesarean Privilege’

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

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

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

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

The Sons of Bonifacio Betta

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

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

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

Pantaleone Betta, Founder of the Betta di Malgolo

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

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

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

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

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

ROVERETO – Betta della Beta

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

ROVERETO – Betta del Toldo

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

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

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

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

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

VAL GIUDICARIE – Betta of Stenico

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

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

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

Betta Artisans

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

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

Betta Priests

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

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

Other Betta of Note

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

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

Closing thoughts

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

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

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

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

Coming Up…

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

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

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

Until then…

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
26 October  2020

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

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

If you would like to book a time to discuss having me do research for you, I invite you to read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. Then, we can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

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

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

View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Was One of Your Trentino Ancestors a Notary?

Was One of Your Trentino Ancestors a Notary?
1521 legal document drafted and signed by notary Sebastiano Genetti, son of Giovanni, of Castelfondo in Trentino.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn explains role of the notary in Trentino society, and how discover exciting details about your notary ancestors in church and civil documents.

One afternoon in 2014, I was sitting a kitchen in the tiny frazione of Bono, in the parish of Santa del Croce. I had just had the thrill of being reconnected with my long-lost 2nd cousins, the grandchildren of the elder brother (Erminio Onorati) of my paternal grandmother (Maria Giuseppa Onorati). Located in the Giudicarie Valley, Bono has been the home of the Onorati family for at least the past 600 years – probably centuries longer. And this grand, multi-storied mountain house in which we were sitting – although beautifully remodelled and modernised – had been the home of our Onorati ancestors for unknown generations.

As my cousins shared precious old photos of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ families with me, we also shared stories about our childhood families – on both sides of the Atlantic – As we shared our filò, my cousins mentioned that the Onorati were renowned in the Giudicarie because they had been ‘notaries’ for many centuries.

At first, I didn’t understand the significance of being a notary (notaio), as my past experiences with notaries hadn’t made particularly lasting impressions on me.  When I was a teen in the US, I went to a notary at the post office to get an application endorsed for my first passport. Many years later, after I had moved to the UK, I went to a notary who endorsed some legal documents for me. To be honest, I don’t even remember what those papers were anymore! In short, a ‘notary’ was someone so much on the periphery of my daily life that I kind of gave them no thought at all. So, naturally, when my cousins inferred that being a notaio was some really big deal, I realised they were probably talking about something with which I wasn’t actually familiar.

Since then, I have studied and learned a great deal about notai (plural of notaio) and discovered many notaio families in both my clients’ ancestries and my own. Identifying notai in our family trees can be an exciting discovery, as it brings depth to our understanding of their lives, education, social status and even marital customs.

That why I thought it would be a great idea to write an introductory article just about notaries in Trentino. So today, we’ll explore who the notai were in Trentino society, how to find out more about our notary ancestors, and how their presence on our family trees can enrich our understanding of our Trentino heritage.

The Profession of the Notaio

While most of us in English-speaking countries think of a notary simply as someone who endorses signatures on official documents, in Italy they served (and still serve) a much more significant role in government and daily life.

A notaio is a legal professional whose title is granted either by a sovereign or by a local authority. In the past, those appointed by the Holy Roman Emperor (or the Austrian Emperor, after the HRE collapsed) were called notaries with imperial authority.

Performing his duties within an assigned territory/jurisdiction, a notary served the public by giving legal certainty to deeds, contracts, wills, trade agreements, legalization of signatures, etc. for his clients.

From what I have seen, notaries were often a varied mix of scribe, contract lawyer, registrar and (occasionally) tax collector.

The Education of the Notaio

A notaio was a highly-educated man. He was literate in both his native tongue as well as Latin. He was also fully educated in law, contracts and legal requirements. He also had to have very clear handwriting (unlike some of the priests who maintained parish records!) to ensure his contracts were legible. That said, some notaries used special scribes to draft the document, and which they then signed and authorised with their own official mark.

In a time of wide-spread illiteracy, their high degree of education, endorsements from legal authorities, and the vital role they played within their communities meant the notai were especially elevated in social status.

The Notaio in Society

Some the more renowned and experienced notai would work at the regional castles, or as personal assistants to specific government or church officials. I have also seen a few go on to become court judges and law makers.

But the majority of notai worked within their own local communities. This meant that they knew the families for which they performed their duties. Every official document, every official bill of sale or land agreement, every legal dispute, Will, dowry or inheritance settlement would have been drafted and handwritten by a local notary, who would sign the document with his official hand-drawn mark, used only by him.

Our contadini (farmer) ancestors didn’t go to some distant, impersonal government office to get these documents made and signed. Their local notaio would typically meet with them (along with the required witnesses) in a neighbour’s sitting room or courtyard, or sometimes in the rectory of the church (often in the presence of the parish priest). We know this because the notary always records the place in which the document was written and signed.

How Can You Know If Your Ancestor Was a Notary?

If your ancestor was a notaio, there will be obvious indications in any parish records in which he is named.

First of all, a parish record will very often SAY notaio (if the record is in Italian) or notarius (if the record is in Latin). This is especially the case if the person is serving in some official capacity at an event, (such as a witness at a wedding), but it would generally be mentioned even if it is talking about the father of a baptised child, the father of someone who is getting married, etc.

Secondly, the name of a notary is almost always preceded with some sort of honourific term, the most common of which are ‘spectacularus’ (often abbreviated as ‘spec’), egregio and excellentia. Any of these terms would convey a similar meaning to ‘the illustrious’, ‘the honourable’, ‘his excellency’, etc. Be aware, however, that these honourifics may also be used with rural nobility (and sometimes doctors), who may or may not be notaries.

Discovering More About Your Notary Ancestor

If you see such indications in the parish records, you might then wish to see if that person is mentioned in a book called Notai Che Operano Nel Trentino dell’Anno 845 by P. Remo Stenico. This book is widely considered to be the most comprehensive list of Trentino notaries throughout the centuries, although I must confess that I have found several people who are cited as being notaries in the parish records who are not listed in the book.

The names of the notaries are listed in alphabetical order, using Latin spellings. In most cases, Stenico provides the earliest and latest dates he has be able to find during which the notary was actively in practice. This can often help you estimate birth and death dates, if you do not have access to them in the original parish records. SOMETIMES Stenico also mentions the name of the father or other family members of the notary, which can be a real find. Once I even learned the name of my 8X great-grandmother from Stenico’s list, as she was cited as both the wife and the daughter of prominent notaries.

Stenico’s book is a ‘must have’ for anyone researching their Trentino ancestry. You can download the PDF version of this book for free by http://www.db.ofmtn.pcn.net/ofmtn/files/biblioteca/Notai.pdf

Pergamene – Parish and Municipal Parchments

While most of us tend to think of baptismal, marriage and death records as the cornerstones of genealogy, one of the greatest treasures in the archives held both by parishes and comuni are their ‘pergamene’ or parchments.

These libraries of documents – some going back over 1,000 years – contain everything from government decrees, land sales, legal disputes, and even local histories. Whenever these documents were official in nature, you can be sure a notary wrote and signed it. Occasionally, if a document became damaged with time, another notary may have rewritten it; but it is amazing how many of these documents still exist in their original form, with the original notary’s signature and mark.

The Provincial Archives for the province of Trento have been very active in working to digitise pergamene of the parishes and comuni throughout Trentino. If you search for a specific parish, comune or surname in their online catalogue, you might discover pergamene written by your notary ancestor. While most of the digital images are NOT yet available online, you can obtain copies of those of interest if you personally the Provincial Archives in Trento. You can search their inventory at https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/sistema/semplice.

You might also find some ORIGINAL notary records at ‘Sala Trentina’ at the Trento Municipal Library (Biblioteca Comunale di Trento). On my last trip, I found a legal dispute from 1618 over an unpaid dowry between one of my Onorati ancestors and his wife’s brothers. Apparently, their father died shortly after the wedding, and the brothers didn’t bother to make good on their late father’s agreement! I had originally discovered the existence of document in the catalogue at the Provincial Archives, but then learned it was actually kept at the library. It was wonderful to be able to hold the original document in my hands, and for a nominal fee the librarians made a PDF scan of it for me so I could take it home and study it.

The Mark of a Notaio

Finding an original document written by your notary ancestor is especially exciting for a family historian; not only will be able to see your ancestor’s handwriting and his signature, but also his unique notary mark.

A notary mark is a combination of signature and artistic flair. This mark was handwritten, not a stamp, as it would be today. Each mark was as individual as the person using it, making it difficult (if not impossible) to be imitated or forged.

On a recent trip to the Provincial Archives in Trento, I obtained digital images of several interesting notary marks made by my own ancestors, as well as a few of my clients’ ancestors. Personally, I get a thrill when I look at these little works of art, some of which were drawn half a millennium ago.

Notary Mark 11521 notary mark of Sebastiano Genetti of CastelfondoClick on image to see it in full size.

This notary mark is from a document written in 1521 by Sebastiano Genetti, son of Giovanni, of Castelfondo in Val di Non. If you look at the end of the first line of his signature, he specifies he is authorised by the a ‘sacra imperiali’, i.e. he was a notary with imperial authority. In fact, later in his life, Sebastiano was ennobled by the Holy Roman Emperor, Massimiliano II. Sebastiano was my 11X great-grandfather.

Notary Mark 21631 - Notary Mark Marco Campi of Gallio, Santa Croce del BleggioClick on image to see it in full size.

This notary mark is from 1631 and was written by Marco Campi, son of Antonio Campi, of Gallio in Santa Croce del Bleggio in Val Giudicarie. Marco also came from a noble family. Notice Marco’s notary mark is a castle. This is because their family name was originally ‘Castello Campo’, and simply ‘Campo’ or ‘Da Campo’ before that. The Da Campo family built the medieval castles Castello Campo and Castel Toblino in the 13th century. This and other notary documents written by Marco have enabled me to narrow down his death date to within three months (between Feb and April 1636), as his the last document I can find with his signature is dated 28 Jan 1626, and he is cited as deceased in the marriage record of one of his daughters on May 3rd of the same year. This is especially helpful as there are no death records for Santa Croce before the year 1638. It was also very helpful because prior to finding these notary records, I had wondered if Marco had died during the great plague of 1630, but apparently he survived. He was 66 when he died.

Notary Mark 3 1636 Notary mark of Lorenzo Levri of FiavèClick on image to see it in full size.

Signed on 14 July 1636, this notary mark is from Lorenzo Levri of Fiavè, also in Val Giudicarie. The mark looks like a baptismal font to me, but I am not if that is what it is supposed to be. Notice  Lorenzo’s initial (L.L.) in the centre of the mark. Working under the Giudizio di Stenico, Lorenzo operated at least between the years of 1635-1669, (possibly longer), so this was relatively early in his career. The Levri family had many notaries throughout the centuries, at least from 1521 through the early 1800s. In older Latin records you will usually see their surname written as ‘Lepori-‘ (with various endings, depending on the grammar of the sentence).

While not a blood relation of mine (he was distantly connected via marriage), the document from which this came was land sale agreement involving my 9X great-grandfather Sebastiano Sebastiani of Comighello.

Notary Mark 4

1642 Felice Onorati notary mark

Click on image to see it in full size.

This last image is from September 1642, and is an example of one of the dozens of notaries from the Onorati family of Bono, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this article. This notary mark is for Felice, son of ‘the living’ Giovanni Onorati (spelled ‘Honorati’ in Latin). Notice his initials ‘F-H’ (linked together) in the centre of the mark.

Felice was a distant cousin, but was in the same family as many of Onorati notary ancestors. I thought his notary mark was so lovely I had to share it. The record from which this comes is a debt resolution agreement for a man named Bartolomeo Giovanna, who was a distant uncle of mine, and the 8X great-grandfather of a friend/cousin of mine living in California.

Closing Thoughts

I hope this article has given you some information, ideas and inspiration to investigate whether any of your own ancestors were notaries, and to find out more about their lives and their work. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

For those of you who may be seeking some help in researching your Trentino ancestors — notaries or not — I am going back to Trento from 26 June to 10 July 2018. If you would like 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.

And finally, 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.

Until next time, enjoy the journey.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

View My Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

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

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

View the Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:

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