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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 –> Decanto –> 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.

Article continues below…

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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 of Trentino valleys in the book Toponomastica Trentina: I Nomi delle Località Abitate by Giulia Mastrelli Anzilotti
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.

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! Part 3 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?

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Not Just a Nickname: Understanding Your Family Soprannome

Not Just a Nickname: Understanding Your Family Soprannome

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

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

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

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

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

In this article, I will discuss:

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

Recording Data – The Computer as an Analogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Name, Surname, Soprannome – An Increasing Need for Accuracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Con = with

Nome = name

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sopra’ = above or ‘on top of’

‘Nome’ = name

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

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

What are Soprannomi and Why Are They Used?

As you might have already surmised:

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Think ‘Nickname’ is a Misleading Term

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is NO consistently used system for recording soprannomi.

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

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

‘Detto’ or ‘Dicti’

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

For example, consider this baptismal record from 1705:

1705 Baptismal record for Antonio Buschetti, soprannome 'Caserini'

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

1768 marriage record from Tione di Trento.

Click on image to see it larger

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

‘Vulgo’

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

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

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

Click on image to see it larger

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

Surname Followed by Soprannome

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

1760 baptismal record for Francesca Failoni of Tione di Trento.

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

‘Equal’ sign

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

1838 death record for Tommaso Viola of Cavedago

Click on image to see it larger

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

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Where Do Soprannomi Come From?

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

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

Personal names

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

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

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

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

Place of Origin

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

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

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

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

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

Family Profession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, this is JUST my own theory.

Moorish style chandelier at Castel Stenico, Val Giudicarie

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

Character or Attribute of Family or Individual

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

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

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

Soprannomi Taken from the Surname of a Matriarch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Soprannomi Become a Nightmare

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

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

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

1730 marriage record for Giovanni Battista Devilli and Margherita Caliari

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

1583 Reversi Ballina double wedding, Santa Croce del Bleggio.

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

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

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ever-Changing Nature of Soprannomi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracing the Origins of Your Family’s Soprannomi

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

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

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

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

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

Recording Soprannomi in Your Family Tree

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

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

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

OPTION 1: Soprannome as a MIDDLE NAME

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

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

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

OPTION 2: Using ‘Also Known As’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UNBREAKABLE RULE: Record WHERE You Found It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please DON’T do this!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts

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

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

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

Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
6 Oct 2019

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

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

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

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View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
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How the WRONG Information Ends Up in Your Family Tree

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

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

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

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

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

15 Ways We Make Mistakes in Genealogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.      Typos.

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

4.      Lack of familiarity with the language.

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

5.      Lack of familiarity with the date conventions.

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

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

CLICK IMAGE to see it larger.

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

CLICK IMAGE to see it larger.

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

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

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

6.      Lack of familiarity with toponymy/geography.

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

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

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

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

8.      Not recognising a soprannome when you see it.

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

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

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

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

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

9.      Misreading the handwriting.

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

10.  Overlooking the details.

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

11.  Drawing conclusions based on only ONE source.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14.  Depending too much on transcriptions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Until next time, enjoy the journey.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

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

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

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

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

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

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

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

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

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES.

What’s in a Name? A Short Tutorial on Trentini Surnames

1937 - Romeo Fedele Serafini (aka Ralph R. Serafinn), age 17
Born Romeo Fedele Serafini in 1919, my dad’s name changed to Ralph Serafinn around the time this shot was taken in 1937.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn shares tips for researching your Trentino family history, and tells what you need to know about your ancestors’ surnames.

When it comes to family history, all research springs from one thing: a NAME.

Our Trentini ancestors had wonderful names – rich in meaning, culture and history. Having a solid understanding of the names of Trentino is crucial to constructing an accurate picture of your family history. That’s why, over the next few articles on this blog, I’ll be looking at some of the idiosyncrasies of our ancestral names so you can more easily identify your ancestors in historical records, and have a better understanding our colourful heritage. In today’s article, we’ll be taking a look at cognomisurnames.

SIDE NOTE:  I’ve made a searchable database of Trentini surnames on this site. CLICK HERE to view it and see if your surname is currently on our “One Tree” project family tree. 

Changes to Surnames after Immigration

The first thing to remember is that many of our ancestors who immigrated to the Americas changed their surnames to make them sound less “foreign”. Surprisingly, some descendants might not even be aware this change occurred. Such was the case with me. When I was growing up, neither I nor many of my cousins knew our family name was actually Serafini. But after my dad died, I discovered our original name when I started digging into our family history. I even found the official change of name request my grandfather had filed in the 1930s. This meant that my dad had been known by the surname Serafini until he was in his late teens, but (for reasons unknown) he chose not to tell me. It was a bit of a shock to discover that something I had been told since childhood was an untruth. Be prepared for the possibility of unearthing a few of your own skeletons as you do your research!

Natural Evolution of Surnames Over Time

Prior to the 18th century, surnames were still in a state of evolution, and your surname will probably look very different the further back you go in time. One example is the surname Gusmerotti. This name is likely to be written as Gosmero or Gosmeri in records from the 1500s and early 1600s. This is because Gusmerotti comes from the masculine first name Gosmero plus the suffix -otti (meaning large).

Click on the image below to see it larger.

Santa Croce del Bleggio - Example of surname Gusmerotti spelled as Gosmeri in parish records
Santa Croce del Bleggio – Example of surname Gusmerotti spelled as Gosmeri in parish records

Another example is the surname Devilli. Prior to the 19th century, you will typically find it written as either “de Vigili” or simply Vigili. The term “vigili” refers to someone who keeps guard. As a name, it was first used to refer to specific branches of the military during the reign of the Prince Bishops. Thus, knowing the origins of your surname can sometimes give you a clue as to what some of your ancestors did for a living.

Latin Version of Names in Parish Records

Until the late 18th century, Latin was the language used in Trentini parish records, rather than Italian. While this practice was nearly always used in the spelling of first and middle names (which we’ll explore next time), it could occasionally also alter the spelling of surnames. One example is the surname Onorati, which was frequently written in its Latin forms, Honoraty, Honorati or Honorato.

Click on the image below to see it larger.

1596. Baptismal record of Francesco Onorati, son of Valerio and Giustina. The surname is spelled "Honorato".
8 Feb 1596. Baptismal record of Francesco, son of the noble Valerio Honorato (Onorati) of Bono and the lady Giustina. Santa Croce del Bleggio parish records.

Forget About Spelling!

Even after modern surnames began to “stick”, there was no concept of standardised spelling until relatively recently. For example, the surname Caliari can also appear as Calliari, Cagliari or Caliary.

Along the same lines as the Devilli example above, any kind of “conjunct surname” (one that was originally two separate words) could appear either as a single word or two separate words. For example, the name Daldos might show up as Dal Dos or Dal Doss.

Generally speaking:

  • Consonants in between vowels might be doubled or left single (Benassuti, Bennasuti, Bennassuti)
  • The letter “a” is often interchangeable with the letter “o” (Bonomi, Bonami)
  • The letter “e” is often interchangeable with the letter “i” (Rocche, Rocchi, Roche, Rochi)
  • A “g” can sometimes appear before an “ni” or “li” (Cagliari, Caliari, Benini, Benigni)

This flexibility means it is not uncommon to see different surname spellings in the birth, marriage and death records for members of the same family (or even for the same individual). So, it’s important to remember that variations in spelling do not normally indicate the person is from different family, as it would in modern English-speaking culture.

SIDE NOTE: Research become even more complex when you add to this the plethora of variations you will see in first and middle names (which we’ll look at next time)!

Surnames of Women in Trentino

When researching your female ancestors, you need to remember that women in Trentino do not take their husbands’ name when they marry, but retain their fathers’ surnames throughout their lives. So, when researching your female lines, don’t try to find them under their husbands’ names, as you won’t find them. Also, if you use software for your family tree, make sure it is set so it doesn’t automatically change the women’s surnames to their husbands’.

Soprannomi – A Blessing or a Curse for Family Historians

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning “soprannomi” (plural). A soprannome (singular) is an add-on or nickname sometimes given to one branch of a family to distinguish it from other branches. While saying “Giovanni son of Giovanni” can help distinguish that person from “Giovanni son of Pietro”, sometimes there are just too many Giovannis to know who is who. That is where a soprannome can be useful. For example, the branch of the Serafini family from which I am descended was given the soprannome “Cenighi”. This soprannome was chosen because Margherita Giuliani, the wife of my 4x great-grandfather Alberto Serafini, came from the village of Ceniga in Drò parish.

For the genealogist, a soprannome can be a blessing OR a curse. You might come across a baptismal, marriage or death record where the priest used ONLY the soprannome, omitting the person’s surname completely. When that happens, if you don’t know the soprannome (or you’re not paying attention) you might accidentally gloss over the record you’re looking for.

Coming Up Next…

BOOK: Guida cognomi del Trentino, by Aldo BertoluzzaI hope this article has got you interested in knowing more about all the wonderful Trentini surnames that make up your heritage. If you’d like to dive more deeply into the subject, there are many excellent books available in Italian. One I use almost on a daily basis is Guida Cognomi del Trentino by Aldo Bertoluzza.

Next time, we’ll be looking at things every family historian needs to know about our ancestors’ first and middle names. If you subscribe to Trentino Genealogy blog (see the form on the top-right side of this page), you’ll be sure to receive that article via email, along with all upcoming articles.

Until then, I look forward to reading your comments or questions below. And if you have any comments or questions, I cordially invite you to drop me a line with me via the contact form on this site.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

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

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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.