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The BORZAGA of Cavareno. Origins, Genealogy, Famous People

The Borzaga of Cavareno

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn discusses the origins, history and expansion of the noble Borzaga of Cavareno, and famous Borzaga of the 20th century.

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Cavareno – An Overview

The charming village of Cavareno, highlighted in the map below,[i] lies in the north-eastern part of Val di Non in northern Trentino. Possibly already settled by the late Roman Empire, the dialect spoken in Cavareno is found only in a few other nearby villages, i.e., Sarnonico, Ronzone, Romeno (and its frazione Salter), Don, Amblar, and Malgolo.[ii] Perhaps this is part of the reason why we will often find marriages (and movement) between the families of Cavareno and these places.

This is the setting for the family we will be examining in this report: the BORZAGA.

MAP: Val di Non, with the village of Cavareno highlighted in yellow.

Arriving in Cavareno in the early 1500s, the Borzaga would become one of three noble families associated with that village (the Campi and Zini being the other two).

In this report, we will explore their origins and early generation in Cavareno, their noble titles and their family occupation as notaries. Then, we will look at how some Borzaga lines settled in other parts of the province, all of whom can ultimately be traced back to the original settlers in Cavareno. Lastly, we will look at the lives of a few renowned personalities from more modern times, descended from this ancient family.

Sarnonico: The State of its Parish Records

To construct a genealogy for any family, it is first essential to get a good understanding of the state of surviving birth, marriage and death registers for that parish. Although an independent parish today, Cavareno (along with Malosco, Ruffré, Ronzone and Seio) was a curazia (‘daughter’ parish) of the larger parish of Sarnonico for many centuries. Hence, all baptismal records for Cavareno before 1855, as well as all marriages and deaths before the 20th century, will be found in the parish registers for SARNONICO.

Baptismal records

Although the baptismal records for the parish of Sarnonico begin in 1585, they do not flow in a continuous manner. The records stop abruptly and leap back and forth many times. To summarise what I have encountered:

  • There is a GAP in the baptismal records from July 1609-January 1616.
  • There are two random pages of baptisms from 1628-1629 mixed with the marriages in the 1620s. They are not duplicates, and do not appear in the baptismal register.
  • I am convinced many baptismal records from the 1600s are missing, as I have often found evidence of people whose births ‘should’ be there, but they are not.
  • Volumes 3 (1629-1650) and 4 (1650-1681) of baptismal records are organised in alphabetical order according to FIRST name. As such, they tend to leap around chronologically, and sometimes you will find things entered in the wrong place.

Marriage records

Similarly, although the Sarnonico marriage records begin in 1586, we again encounter many irregularities and gaps. Here is a summary of what you can expect:

  • Volumes 1 and 2 of the marriage records contain indexes, but the priest who made the index for volume 1 has also noted that he was unable to read a great many of names, and hence about a quarter of the records are omitted from the index.
  • Many of the pages referred to in the index are missing. Volume 1 of the marriages contains only pages 41-52 and 61-64 of the original register. Volume 2 starts on page 58; pages 63-64 are missing.
  • Curiously, there is an index in Volume 2 that covers those missing pages, from which we can sometimes learn the surnames of some of the women, but nothing else.
  • In Volume 1, there is ONE record from 1586, then it leaps to 1619, then back to 1587. After 1589, they stop and go to 1601 and forward (so there is about an 11-year gap here). Many records are extremely hard to read, as they tend to run into each other.
  • The dates at the beginning of the volume 2 marriage records also leap around.
  • SUMMARY OF GAPS IN SARNONICO MARRIAGE RECORDS: Dec 1589-Dec 1600; Nov 1612-Feb 1618; Dec 1619-March 1627; Aug 1638-Jan 1655.

Death records

Like most other Trentino parishes, the death records do not begin until the second half of the 1600s (in this case, 1664). The main issue is that the earlier registers do not appear to included infant/child deaths, which can make it more challenging to piece together families. While I have not yet found any significant gaps in the death records, I am convinced some records are missing, as I cannot find certain death records within the time frame they ‘should’ be found.


Linguistic Origins – Unsatisfactory Theories

Although several historians have offered theories on the linguistic origins of the surname Borzaga, I have not yet found any that are particularly convincing.

Linguistic historian Aldo Bertoluzza suggests that the surname Borzaga was derived from a place called ‘Borzago’ in Val Rendena.[iii] However, although there is a family named Borzaghini in Rendena who are undoubtedly connected to that village, I have found no historical connection between that family or village and the Borzaga of Val di Non.

As to the literal meaning of the surname, historian Ernesto Lorenzi says Borzaga (along with other surnames sharing the root ‘Borz’) may be derived from the antiquated male name ‘Burcio’, which is pronounced ‘Borz’ in Trentino dialect. Alternatively, he suggests it could also be a corruption of the German word/name ‘Swartz’ (having first been ‘Sborz’ and then ‘Borz’).[iv] But again, while these might apply to surnames such as Sborz, Borz, Borzi, etc., we find no such names among the family that start to be known as ‘Borzaga’ in the 1300s. Thus, I cannot accept these suggestions as likely explanations for the linguistic origins of the surname Borzaga.

Outliers – Pellizzano and Condino

For the sake of thoroughness, I should briefly mention that there were a few Borzaga ‘outliers’ appearing in the 1500s and 1600s, for which I currently have no explanation.

In a land sale agreement dated 24 August 1501, we find an Ognibene, son of the late Giacomo called ‘Borzaga’ of Pellizzano, in the southern part of Val di Sole.[v] I have checked the Pellizzano records that begin in 1626, but I have found no mentions of any Borzaga, and I cannot explain who this could have been.[vi]

Later, in a document dated 22 November 1595, we find a Nicolò, son of the late Angelo Borzaga da Condino, confirming he had received the dowry for his wife Flora Mazzola.[vii]  Priest historian P. Remo Stenico also lists a priest named Nicolò Borzaga of Condino whose name appears in a record from 1693.[viii] Condino is in the Val del Chiese area of the Giudicarie Interiore, just north of Storo. Sadly, most of its archives were destroyed during World War 1,[ix] so I currently have no way to follow up this information.

For now, I will set aside these outliers as not being relevant to the topic of the current report, but it is possible that future research might reveal a connection between these and the Borzaga of Cavareno.

Geographic Origins of the Borzaga – Tuenno

There is much convincing evidence suggesting that the Borzaga of Cavareno were descended from the Lords of Tuenno in Val di Non.[x] [xi] [xii] Here, I have highlighted Tuenno on the map of Val di Non that I shared earlier, showing its position in relation to Cavareno. The distance on Google maps is roughly about 18 kilometres (about 11 miles) but bear in mind that this is all mountainous terrain.

MAP: Val di Non with Tuenno and Cavareno highlighted

In a work from 1955, Enrico Leonardi stated that the ultimate progenitor of the noble Borzaga family was ‘Giacomo de Borzaga’ of Tuenno, present at Castel Valer in 1211, who served as an attorney of Prince-Bishop Federico Vanga.[xiii] [xiv] Historian Paolo Odorizzi refers to this man only as ‘Giacomo of Tuenno’,[xv] as he was not truly a ‘Borzaga’, as the surname did not appear until about two centuries later.

Odorizzi explains that, while we have no documentation to definitively show us that Giacomo himself was a direct ancestor of the Borzaga, the Borzaga (along with the Concini and Cazuffo) were surely descended from Signore Bartolomeo I of Tuenno (ca. 1140-1210), as well as a later Bartolomeo II, who was certified as a notary in 1306.[xvi]

Thus, we see the foundations of what would eventually evolve into a legacy of notaries in the Borzaga family, which would endure for many centuries to follow.

First Appearance of the Surname

We first find the surname ‘Borzaga’ in the mid-1300s, in documents drafted by a Tuenno notary referred to as ‘Ser Bartolomeo, son of Benvenuto,[xvii] called Borzaga’. [xviii] [xix]

Paolo Odorizzi also tells us that this Bartolomeo (who was sometimes called ‘Tomeo’), was the grandson Sicherio of Tuenno, one of the Lords of Tuenno, who was also a notary.[xx]

We find Ser Bartolomeo in many high-ranking professional roles, such as the Vicario of Justice in Val Giudicarie (1360), Assessor of Stenico in Val Giudicarie (1375),[xxi] and the Assessor and Vicario of Val di Non and Val di Sole. He was also the notary who documented a truce between Valli di Non and Sole in 1371, [xxii] and was invested as a notary for Prince-Bishop George I von Liechtenstein at Castel Tuenno in 1400 and 1401.[xxiii]  According to research by Odorizzi, Bartolomeo had two sons, Giovanni and Benvenuto Antonio (sometimes just called Antonio), who were also notaries.

It is from this Benvenuto Antonio, he says, that the Borzaga of Cavareno are descended. Below, I have put a screenshot from a tree (in spreadsheet form) constructed by Odorizzi, showing the descending line from Ser Benvenuto to the early Borzaga in Cavareno. [xxiv]

Borzaga ancient lineage as illustrated by historian Paolo Odorizzi

Note, however, that there are several gaps in Odorizzi’s tree (which he indicates by dotted lines, or absence of vertical connecting lines), and this diagram does not show a continuous ancestral line, but rather a chronology of names for which we have evidence.

In fact, as we will examine shortly, there seem to have been multiple Borzaga lines in Cavareno in the late 1500s, which seems to infer more than one family group made the shift from Tuenno to Cavareno around the same time.

The Early Borzaga in Cavareno

Arrival of the Borzaga in Cavareno – When, Why and Who?

Writing in 1899, historian Carl Ausserer says the Borzaga left Tuenno for Cavareno by the year 1530. [xxv] [xxvi] Trusting Ausserer as a source, this date has been repeated in just about every other history I have read on Cavareno despite the fact that Ausserer gives no sources for this claim. He tells us only that the Tuenno notary (Alessandro) Compagnazzi, acting as the attorney for Borzaga family members who were still of minority age (i.e., not yet 25 years old), had arranged to have their Tuenno properties sold around this time.

The fact the attorney was acting on behalf of ‘minors’ seems to indicate their father was deceased. It is also important to bear in mind that the Guerra Rustica (Rustic War, or peasant revolt) had taken place just a few years earlier, in 1525. Perhaps both of these factors contributed to the family’s desire (or need) to make the shift to a new village.

Unfortunately, we do not seem to have any documents containing the names of the family members who made this move. We know there was a ROMEDIO Borzaga, son of the late BALDASSARE Borzaga, who was already living in Cavareno when he purchased some property there in 1560.[xxvii] But having carefully examined the very fragmented early parish registers for Sarnonico (which notionally begin in 1586), I feel fairly certain there had to have been more than one Borzaga household in Cavareno by this time, and that Romedio cannot have been the sole progenitor.

Early Patriarchs: Simone and Giovanni Borzaga

What we do know, via the surviving parish records for the Sarnonico, is that there were two Borzaga men – SIMONE and GIOVANNI – who were alive and having children in Cavareno during the last decades of the 1500s.

The male line of Borzaga descended from Simone (via his son Antonio) still exists today not only in Cavareno, but also in other parts of the province and beyond.

The male line descendants of Giovanni continued in Cavareno until the end of the 1700s, after which they appear to die out.[xxviii] There are still living descendants via some of the females in Giovanni’s line (some of my clients are descended from these female lines), but of course they do not carry the Borzaga surname.

None of the documents I have found record the name of Simone’s and Giovanni’s father(s). Although timing of the family in Cavareno would seem to suggest they would have been related to each other in some way (and also probably related to Romedio, son of Baldassare), I have found no documentation even suggestion what their relationship might have been.

My personal suspicion is that Simone and Giovanni were brothers, but this is based on an admittedly tenuous theory I have formed, as I will explain later in the section on nobility.

Patriarch 1: Simone Borzaga (Senior), Notary

Family group of Simone Borzaga, born ca. 1550
Click on image to see it larger

Most likely born in Cavareno sometime around 1550, Simone followed in the footsteps of his Borzaga predecessors, and took on the profession of a notary.

We find the name ‘Simone Borzaga of Cavareno, imperial notary’ as the author of numerous legal documents between 1594-1603.[xxix] [xxx] Unfortunately, none of the documents I have not found includes name of Simone’s father, but as he is always referred to as ‘of Cavareno’, we can presume he was born there and not in Tuenno.

We know Simone had at least one son – ANTONIO Borzaga – who was also a notary, and who would be the recipient of many noble honours. We will discuss the activities of Antonio in some detail later.

We find the name of Simone’s wife, Chiara, in a document drafted in Cavareno on 18 August 1599. In that document, Simone and Chiara agree to give an annual payment of rye on a meadow which was part of Chiara’s dowry as payment to a Giovanni Giacomo Mazza; in exchange, Simone gives his wife a guarantee for the same value from his own properties.[xxxi]  Looking at the timing of this document, I am fairly certain Chiara would have been Simone’s second wife, and not the mother of his son Antonio.

Patriarch 2: Giovanni Borzaga

The surviving parish registers contain baptismal records for two of Giovanni’s sons – NICOLÒ (1588) and ROMEDIO (1589). Neither of these records mentions the name of their mother. The baptismal record of a daughter named MARINA in 1597 gives her mother’s name as Maria, but the wide gap between her birth and that of Romedio suggests Maria was Giovanni’s second wife.

Family group of Giovanni Borzaga, born ca. 1545
Click on image to see it larger

In addition to the three children whose births are recorded in the parish register, we also know Giovanni had a son named BARTOLOMEO (evidently born before the beginning of the records), who married an Orsola Rosati (daughter of Giacomo Antonio) of Romeno on 7 February 1610:[xxxii]

7 Feb 1610. Marriage record of Bartolomeo Borzaga of Cavareno and Orsola Rosati of Romeno.
Click on image to see it larger

Later, when we discuss a diploma of nobility granted to the Borzaga in 1626, we will learn of a third brother named BALDASSARE, again born sometime before the beginning of the records.

Baldassare, Bartolomeo and Nicolò all grew up to have families of their own. I have no further information about Romedio or Marina.

More Outliers

Aside from Giovanni and Simone, we do find a few instances of the other Borzaga in Cavareno in the early 1600s, but none of these lines appear to have endured.

We find, for example, a MICHELE Borzaga, married to a Lucia, who had twin boys named Pietro and Giacomo on 15 May 1606.[xxxiii] Aside from this baptismal record, I have can find no further mention of Michele or his sons, and I have no idea if or how they are connected to Giovanni and Simone.

A bit later, we find a ‘NICOLÒ Bodessaroli called Borzaga’, married to a Maria, who had a daughter Cattarina (born 27 December 1624)[xxxiv] and a son Baldassare (born 8 May 1628).[xxxv] We find this same Nicolò named as the ‘son of the late Baldassare “Bodessaroli” of Cavareno’ in a payment agreement dated 25 April 1625 in Sarnonico. [xxxvi] In that document, it says a DIFFERENT Nicolò Borzaga of Cavareno was the curator (legal representative) for the other Nicolò ‘Bodessaroli’. After these citations, we see no further mention of the soprannome ‘Bodessaroli’, nor any further mention of Nicolò ‘Bodessaroli’ Borzaga or his children. Thus, we have to assume this line died out.

Still, the records regarding the short-lived ‘Bodessaroli’ may contain clues to the ancestry of the Borzaga lines that did survive:

  • The simple fact that we see a soprannome in use makes it clear that there was more than one Borzaga line present in Cavareno in the early 1600s. We see this clearly in the 1625 document where there are two different men named Nicolò Borzaga – one with the soprannome, and one without. (I am reasonably certain the ‘non-soprannome’ Nicolò was the son of Giovanni).[xxxvii]
  • As none of the descendants of Giovanni and Simone used the soprannome ‘Bodessaroli’, they were clearly NOT from the same branch as the ‘Bodessaroli’ Borzaga.
  • The fact that ‘Nicolò Bodessaroli called Borzaga’ was the son of a Baldassare makes me wonder whether he was a brother of the afore-mentioned Romedio, whose father was also a Baldassare Borzaga (although the document we have for Romedio does not mention a soprannome).
  • If this was the case, knowing that Giovanni and Simone were from a different line, we might then theorise that they were NOT the sons of Romedio, but from a different Borzaga whose name we do not yet know.

For now, we have to set these lines of inquiry aside, holding them in the back of our minds as possible clues that might reveal more information as more documentation comes to light.

The Noble Borzaga

Noble Title and Stemma – 1615

Although the Borzaga had already come from a noble lineage, they attained additional titles of nobility in the 17th century. In the ‘Ausserer Collection 1897’ preserved at the Tiroler Landesmuseen in Innsbruck, there is an illustration of a Borzaga family stemma (coat-of-arms), said to have been granted to one Antonio Borzaga in 1615. The inscription on the card says, ‘Palatine Diploma, 25 November 1615 (granted) by P. Alessandrini to Anton (i.e., Antonio) B (Borzaga):[xxxviii]

1615 Stemma (coat-of-arms) awarded to Antonio Borzaga of Cavareno
Click on image to see it larger

It is somewhat perplexing, however, why Carl Ausserer makes no mention of this award in his 1899 book. I wrote to the Landesmuseen in Innsbruck, and one of their archivists told me via email that they have no further reference to that diploma in their library other than this card. Moreover, neither Leonardi nor Tabarelli de Fatis and Borrelli mention this 1615 title in their books.

Nonetheless, despite the scanty information about this 1615 award, I am confident that the ‘Antonio Borzaga’ in question was Antonio Borzaga, notary, son of Simone (‘Patriarch 1’), as Antonio’s son Simone, and all of Simone’s descendants, are consistently referred to as ‘noble’.

Although Antonio was born before the beginning of the surviving parish registers, we can estimate from dates of the legal documents he drafted that he was most likely born sometime around 1575.

Variants on the Stemma

The main component of the 1615 stemma is a red lion standing upright, holding an uprooted tree, with three gold stars overhead. Tabarelli de Fatis and Borelli show a variant of this where the same lion is also in the crest atop the main shield:[xxxix]

Variant on Borzaga stemma
Click on image to see it larger

Endrizzi shows us yet another variant, where the lion is holding a sword instead of a tree, with other elements now depicted on the left side of the shield:[xl]

Variant on Borzaga stemma
Click on image to see it larger

Authentication and Extension of Title – 1626

After a noble title has been granted, the need would often arise for them to be ‘confirmed’ or ‘authenticated’ by a representative of the empire or the principality. Usually, such confirmations would become necessary if the original recipient of the title had passed away, and future generations required proof of their inheritance.

But sometimes, a confirmation would be needed if noble privileges were to be extended to ‘parallel’ members of the family (brothers, cousins, etc.) who had not been named in the original diploma, and who were not direct heirs (children, grandchildren, etc.) of the original recipient. This appears to have been the scenario for the Borzaga in 1626.

Leonardi tells us, ‘On 25 December 1626, the Prince-Bishop, having seen the caesarean privileges previously granted to the family, authenticates the privileges and grants the stemma.’[xli] Thus, he infers there was an earlier title (presumably the one from 1615), but he provides us with no details about it.

Tabarelli de Fatis and Borelli give us some additional information, saying that the stemma was granted on 25 December 1626 by Count Palatine P. Alessandrini de Neuenstein of Trento to Antonio, Baldassare, Bartolomeo and Nicolò Borzaga, brothers, of Cavareno.[xlii]

After assessing and comparing these descriptions alongside what we see in the parish records and notary documents, I believe none of these fragmented statements gives the complete picture. Moreover, I think some of the wording in the books is misleading, if not incorrect.

About the title

It is clear that P. Alessandrini de Neuenstein who awarded the title and stemma to the Borzaga was a ‘Count Palatine’. This title was once associated with one of the most illustrious positions of the early Middle Ages in the kingdoms of the Franks. The original job of the Palatine Count was to judge all the cases that had appealed to the sovereign’s tribunal, and then to bring to the King’s knowledge only those judgments that he considered most important. But over the centuries, the title lost its original importance, and by the early 1600s, it was often little more than a token granted by the emperor in exchange for loyalty (or money). Nonetheless, the title still carried a certain amount of social prestige.

By saying ‘caesarean privileges’ Leonardi seems to infer the Borzaga had been granted the title of ‘Count Palatine’, but this was not the case. Such a title would have been granted by the Holy Roman Emperor, not by another Count Palatine. Moreover, while the Borzaga were referred to as ‘noble’ in the parish registers, they are never referred to as ‘Conte Palatino’.

About the recipients

I also believe the reference to ‘Antonio, Baldassare, Bartolomeo and Nicolò Borzaga, brothers’ may be slightly incorrect. Based on what I have been able to ascertain, I am fairly confident that the term ‘brothers’ refers to the last three men, and NOT to the original Antonio:

  • We know from a document from 1616 that the notary Antonio Borzaga was the son of the notary Simone (Patriarch 2).[xliii] However, I have found no evidence that Simone had any other sons, nor have I found evidence of a second Antonio.
  • As discussed earlier, we know from parish records that Giovanni Borzaga (Patriarch 2) had two sons named Bartolomeo and Nicolò. The parish registers also show us a Baldassare Borzaga who had a son named Giovanni on 18 January 1616.[xliv] As this appears to be his only child, it seems logical to assume Baldassare was another son of Giovanni.

Thus, Antonio Borzaga CANNOT be a brother of Baldassare, Bartolomeo and Nicolò, as he was not the son of Giovanni.

Based on this information, I am inclined to re-interpret the wording by Tabarelli de Fatis and Borelli as: ‘the stemma was granted to Antonio (Borzaga) [and to] Baldassare, Bartolomeo and Nicolò Borzaga, brothers.’

My theory

My working theory is that the patriarchs Simone and Giovanni were brothers. This means Antonio the notary would have been the first cousin, not the brother, of the other three recipients (Baldassare, Bartolomeo and Nicolò).

One possible reason why this title may have been extended to Antonio’s cousins is the fact that he appears to have had no living siblings. Moreover, he himself had only one surviving son – Simone, born 29 November 1603.[xlv] Simone, who was still a minor when the awards were granted, would have automatically inherited his father’s title and stemma, and thus there was no need to include his name in these diplomas. But were this Simone to die young, the title would go extinct when Antonio died.

Although that didn’t actually end up happening (in fact, Simone’s descendants continue to this day), in 1626 it would have made perfect sense that the family wanted to ensure the continuation of their noble privileges by requesting they be extended to include Antonio’s cousins.

Below is a stripped-down diagram, showing this configuration. To make the chart easier to understand, I have removed the names of all wives and daughters, as they are not relevant to the issue of the noble title. I have also removed Giovanni’s son Romedio[xlvi], who was most likely deceased before 1626 as he was not included in the diploma of nobility.

Descendants of Simone and Giovanni Borzaga of Cavareno
Click on image to see it larger

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Six Generations of Borzaga Notaries

In his 1999 publication, P. Remo Stenico lists four Borzaga notaries from Cavareno; but in constructing a Borzaga genealogy using the parish register, I have identified others Stenico did not include in his study.[xlvii] In fact, when we work through the families methodically, we discover an unbroken chain of notaries from father to son for six generations, as well as another cousin in generation 6:

1 PATRIARCH Simone (b. about 1550)
2 Son Antonio (b. about 1575)
3 Grandson Simone (b. 29 Nov 1603)
4 Great-grandson Antonio (b. 28 June 1627; d. 24 May 1704)
5 2X great-grandson Giovanni Battista (b. 22 June 1682)
6a 3X great-grandson Carlo Antonio Martino (b. 13 November 1709; d. 4 December 1764)
6b 3X great-grandson Pietro Antonio (b. 14 December 1726; died 21 June 1803). NOTE: he was the 1st cousin (not the brother) of Carlo Antonio Martino.

We have already looked briefly at Simone ‘Senior’, so let us now look at the professional careers of his notary descendants.

Generation 2: Antonio, son of Simone

Most likely born around 1575, Simone’s son Antonio is found actively practicing his profession as a notary at least between December 1602[xlviii] and October 1631[xlix]. As he typically signed his name simply as ‘Antonio Borzaga, notary of Cavareno’, we might never have known who his father was, if it were not the Carta di Regola (Charter of Rules) for the comune of Seio which he drafted on 3 March 1616, in which he signs his name as ‘Antonio, son of egregio domino Simone Borzaga of Cavareno, Val di Non, Diocese of Trento.’[l] While the honourific words ‘egregio domino’ can be loosely translated as ‘the esteemed gentleman,’ the term ‘egregio’ is nearly always an indication the man (in this case, his father) was a notary.

As already mentioned, this is surely the Antonio who had been granted the noble title and stemma in 1615 and again in 1626. We find his descendants referred to as ‘noble’ in the Sarnonico records, especially in the indices.

Generation 3: Simone, son of Antonio (grandson of Simone Senior)

Born 29 November 1603 to Antonio and his wife Margherita,[li] Simone is not listed in Stenico’s book of notaries. However, he is called ‘egregio’ in baptismal record of daughter Margherita (11 September 1630)[lii], and ‘spectabilis’ in marriage record of daughter Barbara (28 April 1667).[liii] These honourifics are used only when referring to notaries.

On the Archivi Storici website, we find several references to a Simone Borzaga, notary, during this era; however, some of the earlier documents (especially one dated 1627) may refer to his grandfather, as I am unsure as to when the elder Simone passed away.[liv] [lv] [lvi] [lvii]

Generation 4: Antonio, son of Simone (great-grandson of Simone Senior)

Born 28 June 1627, the next Borzaga notary was another Antonio, the eldest son of Simone (b. 1603) and his wife Maria.[lviii]

His first marriage took place on 27 November 1664, when he was already 36 years old. His bride was the noble Maria Sofia Zini, who was nearly 14 years his junior.[lix] Their marriage record contains some interesting details. First, we notice that Antonio is referred to as ‘Nobilis Magister Philosophia’, which literally means ‘Noble Master (or teacher) of Philosophy.’ While this could mean he was a teacher, it more likely refers to his educational degree. The record does not say he is a notary, but it does refer to his father Simone as ‘spectabilis’ (indicating he was a notary). We also learn that he and Maria Sofia, who is also referred to as nobility, were granted a dispensation for 3rd grade consanguinity. This means they were 2nd cousins (i.e., they shared great-grandparents). Unfortunately, the records do not go back far enough to help us establish this connection, but it does tell us that there was already early intermarriage between these two noble families of Cavareno.

Soon after his marriage, we find him as the notary who drafted several level documents between the years 1660-1671.[lx] [lxi] [lxii] [lxiii] In the private collection of the noble Thun family (now held at the Archivio Provinciale di Trento), we also find six letters sent from Antonio to Count Cristoforo Riccardo Thun, written between the years of 1659-1667.[lxiv]

A few months after the birth of their fifth child, Maria Sofia passed away at the age of 35.[lxv] Soon after, Antonio remarried Veronica Rosina, with whom he father 6 more children. He died on 24 May 1704, just a month before his 77th birthday.[lxvi]

Generation 5: Giovanni Battista, son of Antonio (2X great-grandson of Simone Senior)

As we would have expected, Antonio and Maria Sofia did have a son named Simone, but he died when he was still in his teens, so he never lived to learn the family profession. Instead, it was Giovanni Battista Borzaga, the eldest son of Antonio and his second wife Veronica Rosina, who would carry on the tradition.

Born 22 June 1682[lxvii], we first find an indication of Giovanni Battista’s profession when he is referred to as ‘spectabilis’ in the baptismal record of his daughter Maddalena Veronica, who was born 4 May 1726.[lxviii] Stenico cites ‘Giovanni Battista Borzaga, son of Antonio’ as being active between the years 1731-1734,[lxix] but I have also found a document drafted by him in 1745.[lxx]

In 1732, Giovanni Battista held the office of general sindaco of Valli di Non and Sole together with the noble Giovanni Nicolò Bevilacqua and Giuseppe Maffei.[lxxi]

Although not specifically related to his practice as a notary, there is also a record held at the Municipal Library in Trento, in their Archivi di famiglie (Archives of families), dated 26 August 1721, which is an agreement stipulated between the prelate of the Provost of San Michele all’Adige and Giovanni Battista Borzaga, along with his two younger brothers, Tommaso (i.e., Tommaso Romedio) and Antonio. [lxxii]

Although not listed in Stenico’s book, we have some news of another brother, Pietro Antonio (born 19 October 1687)[lxxiii], who became a priest. Described as the ‘noble Rev. Pietro Antonio Borzaga’, he was the godfather of his niece Veronica Teresa Margherita Borzaga (eldest child of his youngest brother, Antonio) on 11 October 1716.[lxxiv]

Generation 6: Carlo Antonio Martino and Pietro Antonio (3X great-grandsons of Simone Senior)

At this point, we now find two Borzaga notaries, both the 3X great-grandsons of Simone Senior.

Both grandsons of Antonio Borzaga and Veronica Rosina, the first of these – Carlo Antonio Martino Borzaga – was actually 17 years senior to first cousin and professional colleague, Pietro Antonio Borzaga.

Relationship of Carlo Antonio Martino Borzaga to Pietro Antonio Borzaga
Click on image to see it larger

Although baptised Carlo Antonio Martino on 13 November 1709,[lxxv] the elder cousin was generally known only as Carlo or Carlo Antonio. Stenico cites him as being active as a notary between the years 1740-1749,[lxxvi] but he is referred to as a notary in the baptismal records of his children as early as August 1731.[lxxvii] We also find him as the notary who recorded a criminal trial in Cles between the years 1750-1759.[lxxviii] He fathered at least eight children with his wife Lucrezia Cattarina, none of whom appear to have been notaries. He passed away on 4 December 1764.[lxxix]

Baptised 14 December 1726, Pietro Antonio (sometimes known simply as Pietro) was the son of Carlo Antonio’s paternal uncle Antonio.[lxxx] Sometime before 1751, he married the noble Maria Veronica Antonia Bartoli of Cornaiano in South Tyrol, with whom he fathered at least 11 children. Stenico cites his professional career as a notary as spanning nearly half a century, from 1749-1797.[lxxxi]  He is consistently referred to as a notary in the baptismal records of his children, beginning in 1751.

As with Carlo Antonio, I can find no notaries amongst Pietro Antonio’s sons, and the impressive legacy of Borzaga notaries appears to end with his death at the age of 76, on 21 June 1803.[lxxxii]

Expansion: Beyond Cavareno

Over the centuries, some branches of the Borzaga would eventually expand and settle in other places, both near and far from their home in Cavareno.

With the exception of one case where records appear to be missing, I have managed to trace every one of these lines back to ‘Patriarch 1’, i.e., Simone Borzaga, Senior, notary. The descendants of ‘Patriarch 2’ (Giovanni Borzaga) appear to have stayed in Cavareno until they died out around the end of 1700s.

Below is an overview of each of these lines, including a look at their ‘founding parents’.

Borzaga in Ronzone

One of the most prominent sub-branches of the Borzaga are those in Ronzone, another curate of the parish of Sarnonico. This branch began when Tommaso Romedio Borzaga (born 21 December 1685)[lxxxiii] and his wife Maria Elisabetta moved from Cavareno to Ronzone sometime between 1709-1711.

Tommaso Romedio was the son of the notary Antonio Borzaga (1627-1704), and younger brother of the notary Giovanni Battista Borzaga (b. 1682). Thus, he was the 2X great-grandson of the notary Simone Borzaga ‘senior’.

I mentioned Tommaso earlier, in the section on his brother Giovanni Battista, when I referenced a document from the Trento Municipal Library.

Parents of at least 12 children (all but the first was born in Ronzone), they are the ancestral parents of the all the Borzaga of Ronzone, a line which continues to this day.

Family group of Tommaso Romedio Borzaga, patriarch of the Ronzone line
Click on image to see it larger

Borzaga in Brez

Situated just to the west of Sarnonico, the nearby parish of Brez was home to many Borzaga over the centuries.

The earliest Borzaga I have found in Brez was not a family, but the priest Antonio Borzaga from Cavareno, who served as the parroco (pastor) of the parish of San Floriano in Brez from 1634 until 1651.[lxxxiv] Unfortunately, I don’t know who his parents were, and he was either born before the beginning of the Sarnonico records, or his baptismal record is missing.

Later, Brez became the home of two different ‘waves’ of Borzaga families, arriving there at different periods of time, one from Cavareno, and the other from Ronzone.

Wave 1: Family of Andrea Borzaga and Maria Cattarina Bertoldi

The first ‘wave’ began when an Andrea Borzaga of Cavareno married a Maria Cattarina Bertoldi of Brez in 1695.[lxxxv]  Sadly, Andrea’s father’s name is not mentioned in the marriage record, nor in the baptismal records of any of his children, nor in his 1745 death record, when he is said to be about 80 years old.[lxxxvi] I have also looked exhaustively in the Sarnonico records for an Andrea or Giovanni Andrea who would have been born around the right time, but I was unsuccessful. Although the couple had at least six children, only one son (Baldassare) grew up to have a family, while a younger son (Giovanni Andrea) became a priest.

Andrea and Maria Cattarina’s younger son Giovanni Andrea was born in Brez on 15 May 1706.[lxxxvii] Rather than marrying, Giovanni Andrea became a Catholic priest.[lxxxviii] At the age of 33, he became the curate (equivalent of a pastor) of Proves in South Tyrol, where he served for 27 years.[lxxxix] [xc] He died 25 Feb 1781, when he was nearly 75 years old.[xci] In addition to mentioning his former role as the curate of Proves, his death record also says he a beneficato for a member of the Ruffini family[xcii], and the founder of the ‘Benefici Borzaga’ apparently another legacy of funding for local priests.

Their elder son Baldassare was born in Brez on 24 December 1698.[xciii] He married Maria Maddalena Betta of Cagnò (parish of Revò) on 26 April 1729.[xciv] After suffering a massive stroke, he died at the age of 45 on 13 November 1744,[xcv] four months before the birth of his last child (who was named Baldassare in his memory).

The couple had at least 6 children together, including three sons. Of these, the only one who appears to have lived to adulthood is their son Giovanni Luigi, who was born 1 February 1736.[xcvi] Although he married twice, he does not appear to have had any children of his own, as the marriages were

Giovanni’s first wife, Domenica, who died 26 January 1791 at the age of 64, was apparently nearly a decade older than he was.[xcvii] I haven’t found a marriage record for them, but it is possible it took place when she was already widowed and beyond childbearing age. A few months later, on 29 April 1791, he married his second wife, Maria Antonia Zuech, widow of Romedio Gilli.[xcviii] Again, the marriage produced no children (she was already 38 and he was 56), but the couple lived out their days together.

With the death of Giovanni on 6 March 1809[xcix], this first ‘wave’ of the Borzaga in Brez died out.

Wave 2: Family of Tommaso Antonio Cirillo Borzaga and Maria Flor

A few years before the death of the last Borzaga from the ‘first wave’, another Borzaga line established itself in Brez, this time coming from the Ronzone line. The founding father of this second wave was Tommaso Antonio Cirillo Borzaga, who was born in Ronzone on 30 March 1778, the son of Tommaso Romedio Borzaga and Maria Domenica Gius.[c] He was the 5X great-grandson of the notary Simone Borzaga ‘senior’.

This younger Tommaso married Maria Flor of Brez on 25 September 1800,[ci] and opted to settle in his wife’s home village to raise their family. However, after his wife Maria Flor died Brez on 25 March 1848,[cii] Tommaso moved back to his native village of Ronzone, where he passed away from respiratory issues on 3 March 1853, just a few weeks before his 75th birthday.[ciii]

Of the couple’s nine children, three were sons; the youngest (Nicolò) died in infancy, but the other two sons (Baldassare and Giovanni), went on to have many children of their own, all born in Brez. Baldassare’s line does not seem to have endured, as five of his six sons died as children or young adults.[civ] Giovanni’s descendants continued well into the 20th century, and we find references to 10 of his great-grandchildren cited in the indices of the Brez register, who were born between 1935-1952, although all but one of the males died in their teens. [cv]

One other great-grandson and many great-granddaughters were still alive as of 1965; some of these may still be alive today, so I cannot share specific information about them, although the Cognomix website does not show any Borzaga families living in Brez today.[cvi] Writing in 2005, however, author Bruno Ruffini alludes to this Borzaga line in his book L’Onoranda Comunità di Brez, saying that they arrived in Brez the second half of the 1700s, and have since gone extinct.[cvii] If this is indeed the case, the Borzaga surname would have gone extinct in Brez sometime within the past generation.

Borzaga in Amblar

On the Nati in Trentino website, you will find a line of Borzaga living in Amblar beginning in 1858. As Amblar is a curate of the ‘mother’ parish of Romeno, you will find these births register in both Amblar and Romeno.

The founding parents of the Amblar line are Gaspare Melchiore Borzaga of Cavareno and Barbara Pellegrini of Amblar, who married on 24 January 1857[cviii]. Born in Cavareno on 15 January 1828, Gaspare was the 6X great-grandson of the notary Simone Borzaga ‘senior’.[cix]

Gaspare and Barbara had only 6 children, as Gaspare died from pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 40.[cx] Although at least two of their four sons died in infancy, their son Luigi Lorenzo had at least 12 children with his wife, Cattarina Francesca Malench (also of Amblar).

Family group of Luigi Lorenzo Borzaga, patriarch of Amblar line
Click on image to see it larger

Of their five daughters, two died in infancy (Maria Giuseppina and Maria Cattarina). The baptismal records of the other three daughters tell us they all married,[cxi] but of course they did not pass on the Borzaga surname.

Of their seven sons, one died in infancy, and two (Lino and Enrico) perished on the Eastern front during World War 1, when they were still young, unmarried men.[cxii] The baptismal records for three of the other sons (Ernesto Augustino, Silvio Giuseppe, Emilio Giuseppe) tell us they all married.[cxiii] The Cognomix website says there are presently for Borzaga families currently living in Amblar, and another in Don (also part of the parish of Romeno),[cxiv] so I presume these are the descendants of these sons.

Borzaga ‘On the Road’: Alta Garda, Rendena, Giudicarie, Trento

Towards the end of the 19th century, we find a Borzaga who not only appears to have had an interesting life travelling throughout the province, but he was also the father and grandfather of two widely renowned Trentino personalities. Here is a map showing all the ‘stops’ this family made over a 20-year period:

MAP: from Ronzone through Arco, Strembo, Carisolo, Preore and Tione
Click on image to see it larger

The man in question is BASILIO GIAMBATTISTA BORZAGA. Born in Ronzone on 29 November 1856, Basilio was the second son of Giovanni Battista Antonio Borzaga and Marcellina Maria Gius.[cxv] He never really knew his father, however, as Giovanni Battista died tragically from a serious fall when Basilio was only 3 years old.[cxvi]

Basilio married Cattarina Thaler of Bronzolo (South Tyrol) on 7 November 1883.[cxvii] Although the marriage took place in Ronzone, the record tells us that Basilio was then living in Arco, which is about 90 km to the south (56 miles) in Alta Garda, just above Lake Garda, in the southernmost part of the province of Trento (see map above).

Cattarina was obviously pregnant at the time, as only three months later, she gave birth to their first child, Augusto Basilio Borzaga, who was born in Arco on 3 February 1884.[cxviii] Augusto, who was better known as GUSTAVO BORZAGA grew up to become a famous painter. We will look at his life and work a bit later in this report.

The following year, we find the family has travelled north to Strembo, in Val Rendena in the northern part of Val Giudicarie Interiore, where their daughter Giuseppina Marcellina is born.[cxix] The record also has a margin note telling us she died on 29 August 1940, but it does not give a place of death or whether she had been married.

At first, I was unsure whether Giuseppina Marcellina was the daughter of Basilio or his brother Giuseppe Giambattista, because the record says the child’s father was ‘Giambattista Borzaga, son of the late Giambattista and the living Marcella’. It also says the mother’s name is Cattarina Furletti (which is similar to Cattarina Toller’s mother’s surname of Furtarelli). It specifies that the family came from ‘Ronzone in Val di Non’. Although Furletti is a surname in nearby Preore, my colleague James Caola, who has done extensive research with the Rendena parish records, has found no such marriage between a Borzaga and a Furletti either in Preore or in the Rendena parishes. Additionally, the record says the godparents were Giuseppe Borzaga and Marcellina Borzaga, ‘uncle and aunt of the child’. Surely the ‘uncle’ godfather must be Giuseppe Giambattista Borzaga, the elder brother of Basilio, which confirms to me the parents must be Basilio Borzaga and Cattarina Toller. Moreover, the ‘aunt’ named Marcella is surely referring to the child’s grandmother, as we know she was still alive (I will explain more about this shortly).[cxx] Thus, I presume the record is simply full of errors due to the priest being unfamiliar with this family, as they apparently were there only for a brief time.

A year and a half later, we find the family in Carisolo, also in Val Rendena, a bit north of Strembo and not far from Pinzolo. There, another son was born, Urbano Cornelio Pietro, on 25 February 1887. [cxxi] Known alternatively as Urbano Cornelio and Cornelio, he served in the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War 1.[cxxii] His baptismal record tells us that married a Carlotta Bertotti at the Duomo of San Vigilio in the city of Trento on 13 Jul 1914. The Nati in Trentino database tells us the couple had two children, both born in Trento, in 1914 and 1920, respectively. He passed away at the age of 77 on 30 September 1964.

After the birth of Urbano, Basilio and Cattarina moved again. This time, they went south to Preore in Val Giudicarie, where two more two daughters were born – Marcellina Pierina Maria Elisabetta (30 June 1888) and Elvira Daria Maria (29 December 1889). In the baptismal record for Marcellina, we see the godmother is ‘Teresa Borzaga, aunt’.[cxxiii] This surely refers to Basilio’s younger sister, Domenica Teresa Borzaga, who was born in Ronzone on 18 June 1859, and was apparently still unmarried although in her late 20s. The following year, in Elvira’s baptismal record, we see her godmother is ‘Marcellina Borzaga’, again surely referring to Basilio’s widowed mother.[cxxiv]

After Preore, the family makes one more shift to Tione di Trento, which is only a short distance from Preore, still in Giudicarie Interiore. Here, Basilio and Cattarina had four more children: two daughters and two sons. The only one of these for whom I currently have any information is their son and youngest child, Eduino Borzaga. Born in Tione on 29 August 1899, Eduino became a Trento-based lawyer, who was active in his profession at least through the end of 1958.[cxxv] Eduino’s daughter was the prolific author and poetess GIOVANNA BORZAGA (1931-1998). Again, we will look at her life and achievements in the next section of this report.

To sum up the movements of Basilio and Cattarina’s family, here is a screenshot showing the births of their children in the various villages, as well as their death dates/estimates, where known:

Family group of Basilio Borzaga and Cattarina Thaler
Click on image to see it larger

We know the family stayed in Tione at least until 1902, because this is where we are told Basilio’s widowed mother Marcellina passed away on 26 May 1902.[cxxvi] When I first saw this notation in her records, I was bewildered as to why she would have died in Tione, but it now is clear that Marcellina and her other two (adult) children accompanied Basilio and his family throughout their travels.

Sometime after his mother’s death, Basilio returned to his native village of Ronzone, where he passed away on 12 September 1915. Only from his death record do learn he was a retired travelling schoolteacher.[cxxvii] Thus, we finally have an explanation for Basilio’s interesting and unconventional lifestyle.

I feel it also gives us some insight as to how so many skilled and educated children and grandchildren came from one family, and why at least three children from this family left rural life forever, settling in the city of Trento.

Five Distinguished Borzaga from the 20th Century

Gustavo Borzaga – Painter

Born in Arco on 3 February 1884,[cxxviii] the renowned painter GUSTAVO BORZAGA (born Augusto Basilio Borzaga) was the eldest son of Basilio Borzaga and Cattarina Thaler.

Although Gustavo’s family left Arco when he was only a few months old, he was nonetheless hailed as being a ‘native’ of that comune in an exhibition held in 2004 at the Palazzo dei Panni, the seventeenth-century residence of Count Emanuele d’Arco.[cxxix] In the promotional material for that exhibit, we are told that Gustavo’s talent was discovered when he was a mere 14 years old, when the artist Angelo Comolli, a professor at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milano, came to Tione in 1898 to paint some frescoes at the church there. Comolli took the young Gustavo back to Milano with him as his student. By the time Gustavo was 22, we find him living in the city of Trento, working on numerous commissioned frescoes in many palazzi and public buildings.

His major projects in the city of Trento included Fozzer house in Via Cervara, the frescoes of the Brunner house in Via Grazioli (now disappeared), the friezes that adorn the Palazzo delle Scuole Civiche on via Verdi, now the seat of the University of Sociology. In 1910 he decorated the walls of the art deco Eden cinema, located in Piazza Silvio Pellico, which has since been demolished. [cxxx] [cxxxi]

His activities during World War I appear to have been recorded incorrectly in some sources. Although Nicoletti and Weber both say he was drafted in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, I believe this is an error, as his name does not appear in the online database of men enlisted in the military.[cxxxii] Moreover, Nicoletti tells us that he was held at Katzenau (near Linz) in 1915,[cxxxiii] which was not a POW camp but, rather, an internment camp for civilians suspected as ‘irredentists’ (i.e., pro-Italy), and thus considered enemies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.[cxxxiv] During his internment, Gustavo decorated the church at the camp.[cxxxv] Later, from 1916-1918, he was moved to Benešov (today part of Czechia), and was held at the Company of Political Suspects, [cxxxvi] where he again kept himself busy by painting the meeting room for officers.

With the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, Gustavo was no longer a political prisoner. He returned to the city of Trento, where he continued to work on commissioned projects. During this period, he painted a Madonna on the door of Casa Cappelleti on Via Grazioli, and frescoes at the halls of the regional governor on Via Grazioli.

On 12 July 1920, he passed away in Trento at the young age of 36. He had never married.

Giovanna Borzaga – Storyteller and Poetess

Born in Trento in 1931, we meet the prolific author, storyteller and poetess Giovanna Borzaga.[cxxxvii]

From the beginning, Giovanna was immersed in an environment full of educated, articulate, and artistic people. Her father was the Trento-based lawyer, Eduino Borzaga, the youngest brother of painter Gustavo Borzaga. Her mother, Francesca Zanini, was the elder sister of the renowned painter and architect, Gigiotti Zanini (1949-1967).[cxxxviii]  Giovanna even wrote a biography of her uncle Gigiotti’s life.[cxxxix]

About her life and work, we read this on the back cover of a republication of her 1971 book Leggende del Trentino:

‘Giovanna Borzaga (1931-1998), journalist, collaborator at RAI [Radiotelevisione italiana], poetess, author of books for children and adults, as well as theatrical texts, passionate scholar of local culture and traditions, represented for years the ‘critical conscience and regret’ of a Trentino which exists no more, but remained in the consciousness and memory of many.’[cxl]

Her passion for a ‘Trentino which exists no more’ refers to her commitment to the preservation and retelling of Trentino folk tales and legends, drawn from the rich ‘pagan’ culture of rural Trentino[cxli], in which the natural world and the mystical are inextricably intertwined. Alongside ‘fairy tale’ characters like kings, princesses and knights, these tales contain ‘magical characters of the valleys and forests,’ including dragons, witches, wood elves and gnomes. Her writing also illustrates her clearly defined ecological perspective. Her book 3-volume series Clausilia e Moscardino is even subtitled fiaba ecologica (an ecological fable).

Below is a partial bibliography of her published works:

  • Leggende del Trentino. Magici personaggi di valli e boschi
  • Come vivevamo noi trentini
  • Leggende dei castelli del Trentino
  • Clausilia e Moscardino: fiaba ecologica (3 volumes)
  • La civiltà dei minatori tirolesi
  • Nel bosco verde
  • Nano Pen
  • Nella valle di Genova: romanzo
  • I teschi d’avorio ed altri racconti trentini
  • Noi Fantasmi
  • La ferrovia della Valsugana: da spazzacamini ad Eisenbahner

In addition to writing of fables, Giovanna was one of a handful of poets and playwrights who published works in vernacular (i.e., local dialect), as seen her Sta nossa tera: dramma in tre atti in dialetto Trentino, as well as El Filò: Terza Raccolta Di Poesie Dialettali Trentine, and other works in which she was a contributing author.

Giovanna passed away in Trento in 1998, at the age of 67.

Francesco Borzaga – Environmentalist

Born in the city of Trento on 15 September 1934 (and still alive as of this writing), Francesco Borzaga is the younger brother of author Giovanna Borzaga, whom we just discussed. Like his sister, Francesco also developed a profound respect for the natural world at an early age. But where his sister used the medium of fiction to express this respect, Francesco became one of Trentino’s most distinguished environmentalists.Francesco Borzaga, environmentalist in 2018

After graduating in Law in Bologna in 1958, Francesco working briefly at his father Eduino’s law firm, but soon found himself entering public debates on the issues of the protection of nature, and the heritage of Trentino’s historical-artistic-landscape.[cxlii] Soon, the young Francesco choose to shift his direction so he could devote his energy to the protection of the natural environment – a service which has continued to embrace for more than 60 years.[cxliii]

Early in his career, he collaborated with the Movimento Italiano Protezione della Natura (Italian Nature Protection Movement), and with the Pro Cultura and Italia Nostra association, where he served as Secretary of the Trento section until 1970. In 1968 he founded the Trentino-Alto Adige Delegation of the WWF-World Nature Fund – with the main purpose of supporting bear protection initiatives– where he served as President until 2010. [cxliv]

In 1968, he met environmental activist Donatella Lenzi, whom he would later marry in 1977. Throughout the decades, Donatella has participated in and supported her husband’s environmental activities. Since retiring, she has also become a painter. [cxlv]

In 2018, his extensive collection of writings on environmentalism and urban planning, spanning six decades from the 1950s to the present era, along with hundreds of letters, press releases and press reviews, were compiled into an archive for the benefit, education and inspiration of future environmentalists. A full inventory of the archives can be found online in the publication Francesco Borzaga. Inventario dell’archivio (1942 – 2017).[cxlvi]

Fr. Mario Borzaga – Martyr of Laos

Born in the suburbs of the city of Trento on 27 August 1932, Mario Borzaga was the third of four children of Costante Borzaga of Cavareno and Ida Conci (I believe she was from Cogolo, Trento).

1935: Emilio, Fabio and Mario Borzaga, brothers
1935: Emilio, Fabio and Mario Borzaga, brothers

Drawn to the priesthood from an early age, he began his studies at the seminar in 1948.[cxlvii] Responding to a powerful an inner calling to become a missionary, he departed his homeland become a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate on 7 November 1952.[cxlviii] [cxlix] He was ordained on the 24 February 1957, performing his first Mass as a priest the following day.[cl] On 28 April 1957 he celebrated High Mass in at the Duomo di San Vigilio in Trento, while contemplating what his next mission should be. Soon after, he volunteered to be sent to Laos, where he felt he could be a better missionary ‘to the nations.’[cli] He departed for Laos in the autumn of that year with five other Oblates.[clii]

In the autumn of 1956 Fr. Mario began a diary, which he entitled Diario di un Uomo Felice (Diary of a Happy Man). The part of this diary that dealt primarily with his missionary experiences in Laos was published under that title (in Italian) in 1985. Other sections, which covered his seminary years and his decision to become a missionary priest, were later published under the title Verso la Felicità (Towards Happiness) in 1986.[cliii]

1957. Fr. Mario Borzaga, at ordination
1957. Fr. Mario Borzaga, at ordination

In his diary, Fr. Mario writes of his difficulties with learning basic survival skills, like fishing, recognising the sounds and tracks of animals, working with wood, fixing engines.[cliv] The threat of serious and unfamiliar illnesses was also every-present.[clv]  But perhaps the most persistent challenges he writes about is feelings of loneliness and isolation due his difficulty in learning the language well enough to communicate well with the local people. It seems his fluency did improve over time, however, as he eventually became brave enough to try to learn Hmong as well as Laotian.[clvi]

In 1992, his younger sister Lucia, herself a member of the Secular Institute of Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate, published a personal and emotive biography (in English) of her brother’s life, in which she sharers her own observations about her brother’s memoires:

His diary was written closely, without correction or afterthought, in the certainty that no-one would ever read it. He wrote rapidly, about what happened during the day. Between the lines there emerges his whole personality. The shyness disappears and what bursts through the quickness of his pen is his romantic soul, ecstatic before the beauty of creation, without hiding his aversion for manual labour, his pain and suffering, his moods, his preferences. And, intimately part of the community as he was, he sculpts in a few words the figure of his companions and friends, of the professors and superiors, without ever permitting himself superfluous observations and rash judgements.[clvii]

Biographer Gianpiero Petteti adds:

The days of the mission [in Laos] are meticulously recounted in his “Diary of a Happy Man”, which expresses in the title all his joy of being where he believes the Lord has called him, but between the lines he hides all the fatigue of his immersion in the new culture, of learning its language and customs, of adapting to the climate, of doing everything for everyone.

But all of these challenges were far less of a threat to his survival than the intense political turmoil that was shaking the entire nation of Laos during this period. In 1959, North Vietnam communists had occupied areas of eastern Laos. They found sympathetic supporters in the form of the Pathet Lao (AKA Lao People’s Liberation Army), which was a communist organisation in Laos, which would ultimately assume political power of the country in 1975.[clviii]

In the years that Fr. Mario was in Laos, ‘there was the ever-present threat of the Pathet-Lao; the danger of ambush lay in every mountain track.’[clix] Outbreaks of massacres to Christians and spiralling guerrilla warfare would frequently force him to go into hiding.[clx]

The details of his death is subject to some uncertainty, if not a bit of local legend.

We do know that, on 25 April 1960, Fr. Mario set out on a missionary visit to the village of Pha Xoua, accompanied by a 19-year-old catechist Thoj Xyooj Paj Lug (who also used the Christianised name Paolo Thao Shiong). The journey took them near the border of China. Sworn testimonies say the two were ambushed by guerrillas of Pathet Lao.[clxi] Some say this happened because they had lost their way to their destination, but Fr. Mario’s sister says the pair had reached their destination, administered the sick and ministered the sacraments, and then vanished on their return journey. [clxii]

Accounts by locals say the attack was initially aimed a Fr. Mario only, as he was a priest and a foreigner, and that his young Laotian companion was offered the chance to flee. However, Thoj Xyooj Paj Lug reportedly replied, ‘If you kill him, you kill me too. If he dies, I will die’ and he was indeed killed along with his mentor. [clxiii] [clxiv] Some sources say their remains were tossed into a pit, but they were never officially identified.

Fr. Mario Borzaga and Thoj Xyooj Paj Lug are among 17 priests and laymen venerated as the ‘Martyrs of Laos’, all of whom were killed between 1954-1970 during a time of anti-Christian sentiment. In 2015, Pope Francis officially approved their ‘beatification’, [clxv]with their beatification ceremony taking place on 11 December 2016. [clxvi]

Mario Borzaga was only 27 years old.

Frank Borzage – Hollywood Film Director

At a global level, perhaps the most famous Borzaga was Hollywood film director Frank Borzage (at some point after immigration, the family changed the spelling of their surname).

Frank Borzage, film director
Frank Borzage, film director

Frank was one of at least 10 children of Francesco Luigi Borzaga (but known as ‘Luigi’) of Ronzone and Maria Ruegg (or possibly Ruigg) of Switzerland.[clxvii] According to one biographer, Luigi Borzaga met his future wife when he was working as a stonemason in Switzerland. Like many other Trentini men, he emigrated to Hazleton, Pennsylvania in the early 1880s to work in the coal mines; Maria joined him later and the couple married in Hazelton sometime between 1882-1883.[clxviii] [clxix] After the birth of their first child, Henry Domenico, in 1885, the family moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where all their subsequent children were born.

Frank was born in Salt Lake City on 23 April 1894.[clxx] In 1912, when he was still in his teens, he started working in Hollywood as a silent film actor. But his true passion for directing emerged quickly, and he made his directorial debut in 1915 with the film, The Pitch o’ Chance.[clxxi] His directing career continued for nearly 50 years, starting in the silent film era, and continuing until the year before his death in 1962. Wikipedia has attributed a whopping 113 film titles to him (although a few of the earlier ones were actually films he acted in, not directed), of which about 45 were sound pictures.[clxxii]

Having already made a breakthrough success with his silent film Humoresque in 1920,[clxxiii] Frank gained widespread critical acclaim with his 1927 film 7th Heaven (again, a silent film), for which he won the first ever Academy Award for best director of a dramatic film.[clxxiv] Shifting then into the new technology of ‘talkies’, his next major success was the Bad Girl (1931), for which he again won the Oscar for best director.[clxxv]

Film posted: A Farewell to Arms

The following year, in 1932, he made what is probably his most famous film, A Farewell to Arms, based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway. Despite powerful performances from box office favourites Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, it is said that Hemingway was ‘grandly contemptuous’[clxxvi] of Borzage’s treatment of his work when the film came out, and the New York Times critic panned it brutally. And although it was nominated for four Academy Awards – including Best Picture and Best Art Direction (but NOT Best Director) – it won only for its cinematography and sound recording.

Happily, later generations have seen the film through more receptive and appreciative eyes. Dan Callahan of Slant Magazine (2006) says, ‘time has been kind to the film’ adding that it ‘launders out’ Hemingway’s dry pessimism, and replaces it with ‘a testament to the eternal love between a couple.’[clxxvii] Writing in 2014, London critic Tom Huddleston calls it ‘remarkable film’, and adds (with typical British sarcasm):

‘Ernest Hemingway was scornful of this rich, romantic 1932 adaptation of his semi-autobiographical novel set in Italy during WWI.
Luckily, he was a better author than he was a movie critic.’[clxxviii]

It would be beyond the parameters of the present article to discuss more about Frank Borzage’s truly impressive catalogue of films. For those interested in reading more about his life and work, you might wish to check out the book Frank Borzage: The life and films of a Hollywood Romantic by Hervé Dumont.[clxxix]

At least three of Frank’s brothers were also active in the Hollywood film industry. His brother Lew[clxxx] worked as Frank’s assistant director for several years/ His brothers William[clxxxi] and Danny[clxxxii] were both actors. He married actress Lorena Rogers in 1916; after their divorce, he married stage manager and script writer Edna Stillwell in 1945.[clxxxiii] [clxxxiv]

Towards the end of his life, Frank received many awards in recognition of his prolific and significant contribution to the film industry. In 1955 and 1957, he received The George Eastman Award, for distinguished contribution to the art of film. On 8 February 1960, he was given motion pictures star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (located at 6300 Hollywood Blvd).[clxxxv] That same year, he was received the D. W. Griffith Award.[clxxxvi]

Frank Borzage passed away in Los Angeles on 19 June 1962.[clxxxvii]

He was the 8X great-grandson of patriarch Simone Borzaga ‘senior’, notary of Cavareno.


In this report, we discussed the Tuenno origins of the Borzaga family, and their arrival in Cavareno. We looked at the early generations, with specific detail given to the two patriarchs, Giovanni and Simone. We looked at the many generations of Borzaga notaries and their noble titles. We looked at how the Borzaga spread to other parts of Trentino, and how all of these lines could ultimately be traced back to the patriarch Simone Borzaga ‘senior’, sixteenth century notary of Cavareno. And, finally, we looked at the lives and contributions of five distinguished Borzaga of the 20th century.

The Borzaga continue to flourish in the province of Trento today, with the majority still living in and around Cavareno (including Ronzone and Sarnonico), with the next highest numbers in Trento and the Romeno area (Amblar, Don), respectively. Aside from these, we also find a few families in Ton, Roverè della Luna, Baselga di Pinè, Fondo and Rovereto.[clxxxviii] While I have not researched these last few families, it seems probably that they, like the others, are descended from patriarch Simone Borzaga ‘senior’, the Cavareno notary from the late 1500s.

On that same website, we also find there are a dozen Borzaga families currently living in the province of Bolzano (South Tyrol), with the largest numbers appearing in Merano and the city of Bolzano. Cognomix also shows five Borzaga families currently living in in other regions of Italy: two in Vicenza in Veneto, one in Como in Lombardia, one in Siena in Toscana, and one in Rome in Lazio.[clxxxix] It would certainly be interesting to discover if and how all of these non-Trentino families are connected to the Borzaga of Cavareno.

I hope you found this report to be interesting and informative, especially if you have Borzaga ancestors. In researching this family, I have constructed a ‘Borzaga Master Tree’ with nearly 800 people whose births span nearly 500 years, from 1485 to 1952.[cxc]

If you are seeking help researching your Borzaga family, or if you have any additional information about the Borzaga that would make a good addition to my Borzaga Master Tree, please do not hesitate to contact me at https://trentinogenealogy.com/contact.

If you enjoyed this article, you can help support my research by purchasing it as a 37-page downloadable, printable PDF, complete with clickable table of contents, colour images, charts, footnotes and resource list. Price: $3.75 USD.
CLICK HERE to buy this article in the ‘Digital Shop’, where you can also browse for other genealogy articles.

This article and others on this blog are ‘working drafts’ of research for my ‘in progress’ books entitled The Birth of Your Surname: The Origins, Evolution and Genealogy of 15 Ancient Trentino Families (although it might end up being more like 20 families), as well as a multi-volume set covering many hundreds of surnames called ‘Guide to Trentino Surnames for Genealogists and Family Historians. It will take me a few more years to complete these book projects, but I am offering these PDF eBooks while they are still in progress.

Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
8 August 2022

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[i] ANZILOTTI, Giulia Mastrelli. 2003. Toponomastica Trentina: i nomi delle località abitate. Trento: Provincia autonomia di Trento, Servizio Benni librari e archistici, page 321. The original image is greyscale; I have highlighted Cavareno in yellow using Photoshop.

[ii] ENDRIZZI, Cristoforo. 1967. Cavareno: spunti di paesaggio di storia e di vita, page 18.

[iii] BERTOLUZZA, Aldo. 1998. Guida ai Cognomi del Trentino. Trento: Società Iniziative Editoriali (S.R.L.), page 53.

[iv] BERTOLUZZA, Aldo. 1998. Guida ai Cognomi del Trentino. Trento: Società Iniziative Editoriali (S.R.L.), page 53.

[v] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Compravendita’, 24 August 1501, Pellizzano. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/1008967. Accessed 10 July 2022.

[vi] The Pellizzano baptismal records start in 1626, marriages in 1653, and death records in 1664. As of this writing, I was only able to check the indexes for each.

[vii] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Consegna di dote e assicurazione di dote’, 22 November 1595, Condino. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/1141567. Accessed 10 July 2022.

[viii] STENICO, P. Remo. 2000. Sacerdoti della Diocesi di Trento dalla sua Esistenza Fino all’Anno 2000. Indice Onomastico, page 69.

[ix]CASETTI, Albino (dottore). 1951. Guida Storico – Archivistica del Trento. Trento: Tipografia Editrice Temi (S.R.L.), page 249-254. Due to this damage, the registers for Condino begin in 1919, although archivist Albino Casetti says there are some copies of 19th century baptismal and marriage records.

[x] LEONARDI, Enrico. 1955. Tuenno nelle sue Memorie. Trento: Arti Grafiche Saturnia, page 39-40.

[xi] TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. 2005. Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine. Trento: Società di Studi Trentini di Scienze Storiche, page 60.

[xii] ODORIZZI, Paolo. ‘Genealogia famiglie di Tuenno (e nobili di Tuenetto)’. Annotated spreadsheet at: http://www.dermulo.it/DermuloStory/PaoloOdorizzi/Genealogia%20famiglie%20di%20Tuenno%20(e%20nobili%20di%20Tuenetto).xlsx. Accessed 12 July 2022 from ‘Dermulo: Storia di un piccolo paese’. http://dermulo.it.

[xiii] LEONARDI, Enrico. 1955. Tuenno nelle sue Memorie. Trento: Arti Grafiche Saturnia, page 39.

[xiv] ENDRIZZI, Cristoforo. 1967. Cavareno: spunti di paesaggio di storia e di vita, page 26.

[xv] ODORIZZI, Paolo. ‘Genealogia famiglie di Tuenno (e nobili di Tuenetto)’.

[xvi] ODORIZZI, Paolo. 2018. La Val Di Non E I Suoi Misteri – Volume I, page 305. PDF version downloaded 20 February 2022 from https://www.academia.edu/38068122/1_LA_VAL_DI_NON_E_I_SUOI_MISTERI_VOLUME_I_Aggiornamento_dicembre_2018. Odorizzi discusses many aspects of the Borzaga genealogy throughout the book, but his chart on ‘Genealogia famiglie di Tuenno (e nobili di Tuenetto)’ provides an easy visual summary of his conclusions.

[xvii] ODORIZZI, Paolo. ‘Genealogia famiglie di Tuenno (e nobili di Tuenetto)’.

[xviii] STENICO, P. Remo. 1999. Notai Che Operarono Nel Trentino dall’Anno 845. Trento: Biblioteca San Bernardino, page 76. Stenico only lists him as ‘Bartolomeo Borzaga of Tuenno’ but he does not say he was the son of Benvenuto. On the same page, he also mentions lists Baldassare Borzaga of Tuenno as the son of Antonio.

[xix] ODORIZZI, Paolo. 2018. La Val Di Non E I Suoi Misteri, Volume I. PDF version downloaded 20 February 2022 from https://www.academia.edu/38068122/1_LA_VAL_DI_NON_E_I_SUOI_MISTERI_VOLUME_I_Aggiornamento_dicembre_2018, page 295.

[xx] ODORIZZI, Paolo. 2018. La Val Di Non E I Suoi Misteri, Volume I, pages 295, 305 and others.

[xxi] ODORIZZI, Paolo. ‘Genealogia famiglie di Tuenno (e nobili di Tuenetto)’.

[xxii] LEONARDI, Enrico. 1955. Tuenno nelle sue Memorie. Trento: Arti Grafiche Saturnia, page 39.

[xxiii] ODORIZZI, Paolo. ‘Genealogia famiglie di Tuenno (e nobili di Tuenetto)’.

[xxiv] ODORIZZI, Paolo. ‘Genealogia famiglie di Tuenno (e nobili di Tuenetto)’.

[xxv] AUSSERER, Carl. 1985. Le Famiglie Nobili Nelle Valli del Noce: Rapporti con i Vescovi e con i Principi Castelli, rocche e residenze nobili Organizzazione, privilegi, diritti; I Nobili rurali. Translated by Giulia Anzilotti Mastrelli from the original German work Der Adel des Nonsberges, published in 1899. Malé: Centro Studi per la Val di Sole, pages 112 and 172.

[xxvi] TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. 2005. Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine. Trento: Società di Studi Trentini di Scienze Storiche, page 60.

[xxvii] Archivio Arsio, n. 155. 18 December 1560, in Cavareno, Giovanni, son of the late Simone Chanarz (?) sells to Romedio, son of the late Baldassare Borzaga, a plot of land in Cavareno and Campaz. This is cited by Odorizzi in his online tree.

[xxviii] The last Borzaga descendant of Giovanni I have found was Giovanni Luigi, born in Cavareno on 16 June 1778. Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 7, page 74-75.

[xxix] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Locazione temporale di decima’, 27 February 1594, Sarnonico. Drafted by Simone Borzaga of Cavareno, notary by imperial authority. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/1104675. Accessed 10 July 2022.

[xxx] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Costituzione di censo’, 11 May 1603, Cavareno. Drafted by notary Simone Borzaga of Cavareno. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/3568069. Accessed 10 July 2022. There are many other documents for him; I have only included the earliest and the latest I have found..

[xxxi] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Costituzione di censo con dichiarazione di obbligo’, 18 August 1599, Cavareno. Cites the name of Simone Borzaga’s wife, Chiara. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/1085107. Accessed 10 July 2022.

[xxxii] Romeno parish records, marriages, volume 1, page 6-7.

[xxxiii] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 180-181.

[xxxiv] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 2, page 80-81.

[xxxv] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 2, page 118-119.

[xxxvi] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Costituzione di censo’, 25 April 1625, Sarnonico. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/1089297. Accessed 10 July 2022.

[xxxvii] Nicolò Borzaga, son of Giovanni, was born 28 January 1588. Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 26-27. No mother’s name is mentioned in the record.

[xxxviii] TIROLER LANDESMUSEEN. Tyrolean Coats of Arms. Landing page: http://wappen.tiroler-landesmuseen.at/login.php. Borzaga stemma accessed 10 July 2022 from http://wappen.tiroler-landesmuseen.at/index34a.php?id=&do=&wappen_id=4062&sb=borzaga&sw=&st=&so=&str=&tr=99.

[xxxix] TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine, page 331.

[xl] ENDRIZZI, Cristoforo. 1967. Cavareno: spunti di paesaggio di storia e di vita, page 26.

[xli] LEONARDI, Enrico. 1955. Tuenno nelle sue Memorie. Trento: Arti Grafiche Saturnia, page 40.

[xlii] TABARELLI DE FATIS, Gianmaria; BORRELLI, Luciano. Stemmi e Notizie di Famiglie Trentine, page 60. They specifically say the for men were brothers. They also say it was Count Alessandrini who awarded the stemma in 1626, but Enrico Leonardi (Tuenno nelle sue Memorie, page 40) says it was the Prince-Bishop, who was confirming the earlier award.

[xliii] GIACOMONI, Fabio. 1991. Carte di Regola e Statuti delle Comunità Rurali Trentine. 3 volume set. Milano: Edizioni Universitarie Jaca, volume 2, page 532; 549.

[xliv] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 2, page 2-3.

[xlv] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 156-157. Antonio also had at least one daughter, but while females could INHERIT their father’s noble titles and privileges, they could not pass these privileges onto their children.

[xlvi] Romedio was born 7 December 1589. Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 38-39.

[xlvii] STENICO, P. Remo. 1999. Notai Che Operarono Nel Trentino dall’Anno 845. Trento: Biblioteca San Bernardino, page 76. One of these four is an Antonio Borzaga, but I am positive Stenico has combined citations from two different Antonios, one who was the grandfather of the other.

[xlviii] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Costituzione di censo’, 19 December 1602, Castelfondo. Drafted by notary Antonio Borzaga of Cavareno. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/3568044. Accessed 10 July 2022.

[xlix] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Compravendita’, 20 October 1635, Sarnonico. Land sale agreement drafted by notary Antonio Borzaga of Cavareno. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/1089455. Accessed 10 July 2022. Again, there are numerous surviving documents written by him in between these dates; I have cited only the earliest and the latest of those on the Provincia Autonoma di Trento website.

[l] GIACOMONI, Fabio. 1991. Carte di Regola e Statuti delle Comunità Rurali Trentine. 3 volume set. Milano: Edizioni Universitarie Jaca, volume 2, page 532; 549.

[li] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 1, page 156-157.

[lii] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 3, page 120-121.

[liii] Sarnonico parish records, marriages, volume 2, page 165-166. 28 April 1667. Adamo, son of the late Michele Zogmaister of Ruffré’ married Barbara Borzaga, daughter of ‘spectabilis’ Simone Borzaga (of Cavareno).

[liv] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Costituzione di censo’, 24 May 1627, Seio. Drafted by notary Simone Borzaga of Cavareno. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/51172. Accessed 10 July 2022.

[lv] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Compravendita’, 7 June 1632, Revò. Drafted by notary Simone Borzaga of Cavareno. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/1396100. Accessed 10 July 2022.

[lvi] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Cessione di censo’, 13 May 1646, Castelfondo. Drafted by notary Simone Borzaga of Cavareno. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/3568375. Accessed 10 July 2022.

[lvii] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Compravendita’, 6 November 1649, Cavareno. Drafted by notary Simone Borzaga of Cavareno. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/3568432.  Accessed 10 July 2022.

[lviii] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 2, page 108-109.

[lix] Sarnonico parish records, marriages, volume 2, page 145-146.

[lx] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Compravendita’, 19 April 1660, Castel Thun (Ton). Drafted by notary Antonio Borzaga of Cavareno. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/3565190. Accessed 10 July 2022.

[lxi] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Testamento’, 26 February 1666, Ronzone. Will of Giovanni ‘Palma’ of Ronzone drafted by notary Antonio Borzaga of Cavareno. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/1091866. Accessed 10 July 2022.

[lxii] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Cessione di Censi’, 25 June 1671, Sarnonico. Drafted by notary Antonio Borzaga of Cavareno. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/1092125. Accessed 10 July 2022.

[lxiii] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Donazione con obbligazione’, 13 September 1671, Sarnonico. Drafted by notary Antonio Borzaga of Cavareno. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/1092315. Accessed 10 July 2022.

[lxiv] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Cristoforo Riccardo Thun (1604-1668) – Corrispondenza’. 1659-1667. Six letters sent to Count Cristoforo Riccardo Thun by Antonio Borzaga (sent from Cavareno and Trento between 1659-1667). Fascicolo, cc. 12. https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/1721404. Accessed 10 July 2022.

[lxv] Maria Sofia Zini, wife of Antonio Borzaga, died on 22 December 1676. Sarnonico parish records, deaths, volume 1, page 438-439.

[lxvi] Sarnonico parish records, deaths, volume 2, page 122-123.

[lxvii] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 5, page 16-17.

[lxviii] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 5, page 560-561.

[lxix] STENICO, P. Remo. 1999. Notai Che Operarono Nel Trentino dall’Anno 845, page 76.

[lxx] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Rinnovazione di locazione’, 11 January 1745, San Michele all’Adige. Drafted by notary Giovanni Battista, son of Antonio Borzaga of Cavareno. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/995030 . Accessed 24 July 2022.

[lxxi] ENDRIZZI, Cristoforo. 1967. Cavareno: spunti di paesaggio di storia e di vita, page 26.

[lxxii] Biblioteca Comunale di Trento. ‘Contratti, 26 August 1721, Convenzione stipulata tra il prelato della Prepositura di San Michele all’Adige ed i fratelli Giovanni Battista, Tomaso ed Antonio Borzaga. Archivi di famiglio. Collocazione: BCT1-5334/4; Estremi Cronologici:1721; Data di Acquisizione e Provenienza: Campi di Montesanto (famiglia). Note that, as of this writing, this is not viewable online.

[lxxiii] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 5, page 82-83.

[lxxiv] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 5, page 438-439.

[lxxv] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 5, page 348-349.

[lxxvi] STENICO, P. Remo. 1999. Notai Che Operarono Nel Trentino dall’Anno 845, page 76.

[lxxvii] 20 August 1731. ‘Giovanni Battista Vigilio, son of the noble and ‘spectabilis’ Carlo Borzaga, notary of Cavareno’. Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 5, page 630-631.

[lxxviii] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Processus criminalis formatus ad instantiam Georgii Gerri Casetii’, etc., 2 November 1750-19 March 1759, Cles. Fascicolo, cc. 122. Notary, Carlo Antonio Borzaga. Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/3375508 . Accessed 24 July 2022.

[lxxix] Sarnonico parish records, deaths, volume 3, page 21.

[lxxx] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 5, page 568-569.

[lxxxi] STENICO, P. Remo. 1999. Notai Che Operarono Nel Trentino dall’Anno 845, page 76.

[lxxxii] Sarnonico parish records, deaths, volume 3, page 232-233.

[lxxxiii] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 5, page 60-61.

[lxxxiv] WEBER, Simone (Sac.). 1992. Le Chiese delle Val di Non Nella Storia e Nell’Arte. Volume II: I Decanati di Cles e di Fondo. Mori (Trento): La Grafica Anastatica, page 132. Looking at the signatures of the priests in the baptismal register for Arsio e Brez, Pr. Antonio must have either retired or died sometime between June and September 1651.

[lxxxv] The couple married 27 Jun 1695. Sarnonico parish records, marriages, volume 2, page 80-81.

[lxxxvi] Andrea Borzaga died 29 January 1745. Sarnonico parish records, deaths, volume 3, no page number.

[lxxxvii] Arsio e Brez parish records, baptisms, volume 2, page 380-381.

[lxxxviii] STENICO, P. Remo. 2000. Sacerdoti della Diocesi di Trento dalla sua Esistenza Fino all’Anno 2000. Indice Onomastico, page 69.

[lxxxix] WEBER, Simone (Sac.). 1992. Le Chiese delle Val di Non Nella Storia e Nell’Arte. Volume II: I Decanati di Cles e di Fondo. Mori (Trento): La Grafica Anastatica, page 97. Although part of the diocese of Bolzano today, Proves was then considered a curate of the parish of Revò in the diocese of Trento. Weber says Giovanni Andrea served as curate from 1739-1766.

[xc] Provincia Autonoma di Trento. ‘Spese e rendite di don Giovan Andrea Borzaga’, etc. An inventory of his expenses says he left the curate of Proves on 2 April 1766.  Archivi Storici del Trentino, https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/unita/957345. Accessed 24 July 2022.

[xci] Arsio e Brez parish records, deaths, volume 3, no page number.

[xcii] A beneficiato or ‘beneficio’ is a priest who was paid in money or land to celebrate a certain number of Masses. In other words, he was there to perform specific service for the benefit of the parish or a specific patron of that parish. In this case, his patron was a someone from the Ruffino family, who had left the funds to the church as part of his legacy.

[xciii] Arsio e Brez parish records, baptisms, volume 2, page 340-341.

[xciv] Revò parish records, marriages, volume 2, page 45.

[xcv] Arsio e Brez parish records, deaths, volume 3, no page number.

[xcvi] Arsio e Brez parish records, baptisms, volume 2, page 652-653.

[xcvii] Arsio e Brez parish records, deaths, volume 3, no page number.

[xcviii] Arsio e Brez parish records, marriages, volume 4, page 17.

[xcix] Arsio e Brez parish records, deaths, volume 4, page 38-39.

[c] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 7, page 72-73.

[ci] Arsio e Brez parish records, marriages, volume 4, page 19. The marriage record has an inserted note that Tommaso came from Cavareno, but the baptismal record of their daughter Maria Antonia says he was actually from Ronzone. The only ‘Tommaso, son of Tommaso’ born in this era was from Ronzone, so I would disregard the note in the marriage record as an error.

[cii] Arsio e Brez parish records, deaths, volume 6, page 68.

[ciii] Sarnonico parish records, deaths, volume 5, page 122-123.

[civ] There was one son, Tommaso, born 13 Feb 1843, but I cannot find any further information about him.

[cv] The parish records themselves have not been microfilms/digitised past the year 1923, but names and years (not full dates) of births, marriages and deaths in Arsio e Brez appear in the indices of the same register that contains the 1923 records. This is where I have drawn the information about events taking place after 1923. Note that not all parish registers will have microfilmed their indices past 1923.

[cvi] COGNOMIX. ‘Borzaga’. Mappe dei Cognomi Italiani. https://www.cognomix.it/mappe-dei-cognomi-italiani/BORZAGA/TRENTINO-ALTO-ADIGE/TRENTO. Accessed 22 July 2022.

[cvii] RUFFINI, Bruno. 2005. L’Onoranda Comunità di Brez. Fondo: Litotipo Anaune, page 241 FF.

[cviii] Romeno parish records, marriages, volume 5, page 70.

[cix] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 8, page 129. Gaspare’s parents were Pietro Antonio Mattia Borzaga of Cavareno and Cattarina Covi of Seio.

[cx] Gaspare died 27 April 1868. Amblar parish records, deaths, volume 2, page 27-28.

[cxi] Amblar parish records, baptisms, volume, 3, pages 30, 42 and 52.

[cxii] This info is in their baptismal records, and they are also listed on the ‘caduti trentini della I guerra mondiale’ (Fallen Trentini of the First World War) database on the Trentina Cultura website at https://www.cultura.trentino.it/portal/server.pt/community/caduti_in_guerra_-_cerca/309/cerca_nella_banca_data/19671

[cxiii] Amblar parish records, baptisms, volume, 3, pages 37, 39 and 44. The baptismal record of the youngest son (Antonio Luigi, born 13 June 1906, page 49) tells us he died in Cles, but it does not say whether he had married. I believe the date of death is 3 February 1976, but it is difficult to read. I did find him in the military registry on the Archivio di Stato database. Both his baptismal record and the military entry indicate he was known by his middle name, ‘Luigi’.

[cxiv] COGNOMIX. ‘Borzaga’. Mappe dei Cognomi Italiani. https://www.cognomix.it/mappe-dei-cognomi-italiani/BORZAGA/TRENTINO-ALTO-ADIGE/TRENTO. Accessed 22 July 2022.

[cxv] Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 9, page 243.

[cxvi] Giovanni Battista died 13 July 1860. Sarnonico parish records, deaths, volume 5, page 172.

[cxvii] Sarnonico parish records, marriages, volume 7, page 158. I have written Cattarina’s surname as ‘Thaler’ here, as that is how it appears in all the Trentino records, but it is spelled ‘Toller’ in her Bronzolo baptismal record (02 July 1861). Bronzolo parish records, baptisms, 1861-1913, page 3.

[cxviii] WEBER, Simone; RASMO, Nicolò. 1977. Artisti Trentini e Artisti Che Operarono Nel Trentino. Trento: Monauni.  Originally published in 1933, this is the 2nd edition, page 66. Date also on Nati in Trentino website.

[cxix] Strembo parish records, baptisms (May 1888), page 131.

[cxx] Marcellina’s baptismal record has a note saying she died in Tione on 26 May 1902: Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 8, page 93-94. This same info is recorded in a note in her 1853 marriage record to Giovanni Battista Borzaga: Sarnonico parish records, marriages, volume 6, page 146.

[cxxi] Urbano’s marriage information and his date of death are in his baptismal record in the Carisolo parish register (sorry, my copy does not have the volume and page number). It does not say where he died.

[cxxii] Urbano Borzaga of Carisolo, born 1887, is listed in the Ruoli Matriculari database on the Archivio di Stato website at http://www.archiviodistatotrento.beniculturali.it/index.php?it/222/ruoli-matricolari-1867-1911.

[cxxiii] Preore parish records, baptisms, June 1888, page 10.

[cxxiv] Preore parish records, baptisms, July 1889, page 13.

[cxxv] He is one of several lawyers mentioned in a lawsuit described at https://www.consiglio.provincia.tn.it/leggi-e-archivi/giurisprudenza-costituzionale/Pages/giurisprudenza.aspx?uid=22266 . Accessed 29 July 2022.

[cxxvi] Marcellina’s baptismal record has a note saying she died in Tione on 26 May 1902: Sarnonico parish records, baptisms, volume 8, page 93-94. This same info is recorded in a note in her 1853 marriage record to Giovanni Battista Borzaga: Sarnonico parish records, marriages, volume 6, page 146.

[cxxvii] Sarnonico parish records, deaths, volume 6, page 269-270. It is difficult to make out one of the words, but a Trentino historian and I both believe it indicates he was some sort of peripatetic teacher, rather than a local schoolteacher.

[cxxviii] WEBER, Simone; RASMO, Nicolò. 1977. Artisti Trentini e Artisti Che Operarono Nel Trentino. Trento: Monauni.  Originally published in 1933, this is the 2nd edition, page 66. Date also on Nati in Trentino website.

[cxxix] Cultura Trentino. 2004. ‘Gustavo Borzaga. Mostra a cura di Giovanna Nicoletti’. Description of exhibition of the works of Gustavo Borzaga, which was held at the Atelier Segantini in Arco, June-August 2004.

https://www.cultura.trentino.it/eng/layout/set/print/Events/Gustavo-Borzaga. Accessed 28 July 2022.

[cxxx] WEBER, Simone; RASMO, Nicolò. 1977. Artisti Trentini e Artisti Che Operarono Nel Trentino, page 66.

[cxxxi] Cultura Trentino. 2004. ‘Gustavo Borzaga. Mostra a cura di Giovanna Nicoletti’.

[cxxxii] Ministero della Cultura. ‘Ruoli matricolari 1867-1913’. Database of Trentino soldiers born between 1867-1913, who were enlisted in the military. http://www.archiviodistatotrento.beniculturali.it/index.php?it/222/ruoli-matricolari-1867-1911. We do, however, find the name of his younger brother Urbano among those enlisted. Urbano was surely active during the war, as there is a 6-year gap between the births of his children (1914-1920). It would be interesting to know whether or not he shared any of his brother’s political views.

[cxxxiii] Cultura Trentino. 2004. ‘Gustavo Borzaga. Mostra a cura di Giovanna Nicoletti’.

[cxxxiv] ‘Katzenau internment camp – Internierungslager Katzenau’. 2020. Second Wiki website. https://second.wiki/wiki/internierungslager_katzenau. Accessed 30 July 2022.

[cxxxv] Cultura Trentino. 2004. ‘Gustavo Borzaga. Mostra a cura di Giovanna Nicoletti’.

[cxxxvi] Weber and Rasmo (page 66) say Gustavo painted the frescoes for municipal hall in Beseno (in Trentino), where he was stationed as a soldier during the war. I believe this is surely an error, and that they confused the name ‘Benešov’ with Beseno. Besides, I cannot imagine a soldier on active duty during such a major war would be allowed to spend all his time painting.

[cxxxvii] Giovanna’s birth year is published in numerous books, but I have yet to find her precise date of birth.

[cxxxviii] Gigiotti’s name at baptism was Luigi Francesco Antonio Zanini. He was born in Val di Fassa on 10 March 1893. ‘Zanini Gigiotti’. Recta Galleria d’Arte website. Biography of the artist at https://www.galleriarecta.it/autore/zanini-gigiotti/. Accessed 30 July 2022. Date confirmed on Nati in Trentino website.

[cxxxix] Archivio di Riccardo Maroni. ‘Note biografiche’, 1964. Text by Giovanna Borzaga with the biography of her uncle, Gigiotti Zanini. http://cim.mart.tn.it/cim/pages/documenti_c.jsp?sid=&method=ric&lang=it&expand=375142&fromp=ris_ricerca.jsp. Accessed 30 July 2022.

[cxl] BORZANA, Giovanna. 2011. Leggende del Trentino. Magici personaggi di valli e boschi. Trento: Reverdito. Reprint of original 1971 edition. The quote is my translation from the Italian.

[cxli] In Leggende del Trentino, she narrates tales from Valle dell’Adige, Valle dei Mocheni, Valsugana, Valle di Primiero, Val di Fiemme, Valle di Cembra, Val di Sole, Val di Genova, Valle di Chiese, Val Giudicarie, as well as Terlago, Lago del Garda and Vallarsa.

[cxlii] Various Authors. 2019. Francesco Borzaga: 60 Anni Per La Difesa Della Natura E Dell’ambiente Del Trentino. Trento: Accademia degli Accesi, Sezione trentina di Italia Nostra, page 91. PDF version downloaded from http://www.uomoenatura.it/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Francesco-Borzaga.pdf. Accessed 30 July 2022.

[cxliii] Alongside his environmental work, Francesco also worked for many years as a German language teacher. I know one of his former students who studied with him at the middle school in Vigolo Vattaro.

[cxliv] Studio associato Virginia (cura). 2018. Francesco Borzaga. Inventario dell’archivio (1942 – 2017). Trento: Soprintendenza per i beni culturali. Ufficio beni archivistici, librari e Archivio provinciale, page 107. Trento: Soprintendenza per i beni culturali. Ufficio beni archivistici, librari e Archivio provinciale, page 7. PDF downloaded from https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/inventari/esporta/5753270. Accessed 31 July 2022.

[cxlv] Studio associato Virginia (cura). 2018. Francesco Borzaga. Inventario dell’archivio (1942 – 2017), page 17 and 107.

[cxlvi] Studio associato Virginia (cura). 2018. Francesco Borzaga. Inventario dell’archivio (1942 – 2017).

[cxlvii] BORZAGA, Lucia. 1992. To Be a Happy Man. Mario Borzaga, O.M.I., 1932-1960. Rome, Italy: Oblate Heritage Series, number 4, page 7. Downloaded 22 July 2022 from https://www.omiworld.org/wp-content/uploads/04-Mario-Borzaga.pdf

[cxlviii] For definitions of the term ‘oblate’ see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oblate

[cxlix] BORZAGA, Lucia. 1992. To Be a Happy Man. Mario Borzaga, O.M.I., 1932-1960, page 9.

[cl] BORZAGA, Lucia. 1992. To Be a Happy Man. Mario Borzaga, O.M.I., 1932-1960, page 13.

[cli] PETTITI, Gianpiero. 2017. ‘Beato Mario Borzaga, sacerdote e martire’. Santi Beati e Testimoni. http://www.santiebeati.it/dettaglio/91548.  Accessed 20 July 2022.

[clii] BORZAGA, Lucia. 1992. To Be a Happy Man. Mario Borzaga, O.M.I., 1932-1960, page 14.

[cliii] BORZAGA, Lucia. 1992. To Be a Happy Man. Mario Borzaga, O.M.I., 1932-1960, page 10 (footnote).

[cliv] PETTITI, Gianpiero. 2017. ‘Beato Mario Borzaga, sacerdote e martire’.

[clv] BORZAGA, Lucia. 1992. To Be a Happy Man. Mario Borzaga, O.M.I., 1932-1960, page 16.

[clvi] BORZAGA, Lucia. 1992. To Be a Happy Man. Mario Borzaga, O.M.I., 1932-1960, page 16.

[clvii] BORZAGA, Lucia. 1992. To Be a Happy Man. Mario Borzaga, O.M.I., 1932-1960, page 10-11.

[clviii] Wikipedia. ‘Pathet Lao’. Accessed 31 July 2022 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pathet_Lao

[clix] BORZAGA, Lucia. 1992. To Be a Happy Man. Mario Borzaga, O.M.I., 1932-1960, page 18.

[clx] PETTITI, Gianpiero. 2017. ‘Beato Mario Borzaga, sacerdote e martire’. Also in Lucia Borzaga, page18.

[clxi] PETTITI, Gianpiero. 2017. ‘Beato Mario Borzaga, sacerdote e martire’.

[clxii] BORZAGA, Lucia. 1992. To Be a Happy Man. Mario Borzaga, O.M.I., 1932-1960, page 19.

[clxiii] PETTITI, Gianpiero. 2017. ‘Beato Mario Borzaga, sacerdote e martire’.

[clxiv] WIKIPEDIA. ‘Martyrs of Laos’. Accessed 22 July 2022 from https://wiki.beparanoid.de/wiki/Martyrs_of_Laos?lang=en

[clxv] ‘Beatification’ is the term used when a person is acknowledged as a saint at a local level, as opposed to ‘canonisation’, which means that person’s sainthood is recognised throughout the Catholic Church.

[clxvi] WIKIPEDIA. ‘Martyrs of Laos’. Accessed 22 July 2022 from https://wiki.beparanoid.de/wiki/Martyrs_of_Laos?lang=en

[clxvii] I have found memorials for 10 of their children Find-A-Grave, but there may have been one or more not listed on that site. Frank’s entry on Wikipedia says there were actually 14 children, only 8 of whom survived childhood; however, they provide no sources for this information, so I cannot say where this is correct.

[clxviii] WIKIPEDIA. ‘Frank Borzage’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Borzage/ Accessed 20 July 2022.

[clxix] The Wikipedia article gives a date of 1883 for the marriage, but the 1900 US census says the couple had been married 18 years, which would infer they married in 1882.

[clxx] FIND-A-GRAVE. ‘Frank L. Borzaga’. Memorial page at https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/4379/frank-l-borzage. Accessed 2 August 2022. Info also on Frank’s Wikipedia page.

[clxxi] WIKIPEDIA. ‘Frank Borzage’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Borzage/ Accessed 20 July 2022.

[clxxii] LA TIMES. ‘Frank Borzage’. 1962 (20 June). https://projects.latimes.com/hollywood/star-walk/frank-borzage/. Accessed 2 August 2022.

[clxxiii] WIKIPEDIA. ‘Humoresque (1920 film)’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humoresque_(1920_film). Accessed 2 August 2022.

[clxxiv] IMDB. ‘Frank Borzage’. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0097648/. Accessed 2 August 2022. Also on Frank’s Wikipedia page.

[clxxv] IMDB and Wikipedia, as above.

[clxxvi] CALLAHAN, Dan. 2006 (27 July). ‘A Farewell to Arms’. Slant Magazine. https://www.slantmagazine.com/film/a-farewell-to-arms-2311. Accessed 2 August 2022.

[clxxvii] CALLAHAN, Dan. 2006 (27 July). ‘A Farewell to Arms’. Slant Magazine. https://www.slantmagazine.com/film/a-farewell-to-arms-2311. Accessed 2 August 2022.

[clxxviii] HUDDLESTON, Tom. 2014 (28 May). ‘A Farewell to Arms’. Time Out London. https://www.timeout.com/movies/a-farewell-to-arms-2.  Accessed 2 August 2022.

[clxxix] DUMONT, Hervé. 2015. Frank Borzage: The life and films of a Hollywood Romantic. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. Reprint of 2006 publication. Translation from the 1993 French publication, Frank Borzage: Sarastro à Hollywood. Limited preview of this book is available on Google Books at https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Frank_Borzage/FL3wCQAAQBAJ?gbpv=1

[clxxx] FIND-A-GRAVE. ‘Louis Borzage’. Lew’s birth name was ‘Louis;’ he was born in Salt Lake City on 30 January 1898. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/201915183/louis-borzage. Accessed 2 August 2022.

[clxxxi] FIND-A-GRAVE. ‘William Borzage’. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/12751/william-borzage. Accessed 2 August 2022.

[clxxxii] FIND-A-GRAVE. ‘Danny Borzage’. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/18328/danny-borzage. Accessed 2 August 2022.

[clxxxiii] WIKIPEDIA. WIKIPEDIA. ‘Frank Borzage’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Borzage/ Accessed 20 July 2022.

[clxxxiv] Some sources say he had a third wife named Juanita, but I have found no mention of her in any obituaries of vital records. One website, made by an independent researcher, says he had her name was Juanita Scott, but they have offered no sources to support this. Another site mentions this same Juanita Scott, makes no mention of her being the widow of Frank Borzage.

[clxxxv] HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME. ‘Frank Borzage’. https://walkoffame.com/frank-borzage/. Accessed 2 August 2022.

[clxxxvi] WIKIPEDIA. ‘Directors Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award – Feature Film’.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Directors_Guild_of_America_Lifetime_Achievement_Award_%E2%80%93_Feature_Film. Accessed 2 August 2022.

[clxxxvii] FIND-A-GRAVE. ‘Frank L. Borzaga’. Memorial page at https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/4379/frank-l-borzage. Accessed 2 August 2022. Info also on Frank’s Wikipedia page. Several sites say he died of cancer, but I have not confirmed this via a death record of obituary.

[clxxxviii] COGNOMIX. ‘Borzaga’. Mappe dei Cognomi Italiani. https://www.cognomix.it/mappe-dei-cognomi-italiani/BORZAGA/TRENTINO-ALTO-ADIGE/TRENTO. Accessed 22 July 2022.

[clxxxix] COGNOMIX. ‘Borzaga’. Mappe dei Cognomi Italiani. https://www.cognomix.it/mappe-dei-cognomi-italiani/BORZAGA. Accessed 22 July 2022.

[cxc] I have entered most (if not all) of the Borzaga births from Cavareno, Ronzone, Sarnonico, Brez, Amblar, Romeno and the city of Trento, with the additional births in Arco, Rendena and the Giudicarie.





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

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

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

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

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

Linguistic Origins of the Surname

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

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

Geographic Origins of the Family

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

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

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

Arrival, Migration and Branching Out

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

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

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

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

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

Below is a map where I have highlighted:

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

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

Betta Notaries

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

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

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

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

Brief Mention – Betta of Val di Fiemme

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

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

Article continues below…

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Bonifacio Betta – From Arco to Val di Non

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

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

Ancient Nobility and ‘Caesarean Privilege’

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

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

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

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

The Sons of Bonifacio Betta

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

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

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

Pantaleone Betta, Founder of the Betta di Malgolo

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

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

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

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

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

ROVERETO – Betta della Beta

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

ROVERETO – Betta del Toldo

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

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

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

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

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

VAL GIUDICARIE – Betta of Stenico

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

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

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

Betta Artisans

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

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

Betta Priests

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

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

Other Betta of Note

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

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

Closing thoughts

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

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

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

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

Coming Up…

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

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

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

Until then…

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
26 October  2020

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

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

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

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

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

View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trento in the 1800s. Frazioni, Occupations, Surnames

Trento in 1800s. Frazioni, Occupations, Surnames.

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

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

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

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

What I Will Discuss in this Article

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

In this article, we will explore:

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

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

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

The Municipality of Trento TODAY

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

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

MAP - Municipality of Trento in 2020

Frazioni of the Municipality of Trento

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

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

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

BolleriBolleri vecchia; Bolleri nuova
CognolaMaderno; Martignano; Tavernaro; Villamontagna
Cristo Re
GardoloPalazzine; Spini; Steffene
MattarelloMattarello di Sopra; Mattarelli di Sotto; Acquaviva; Novaline; Palazzi; Ronchi; Valsorda
MeanoVigo Meano; Camparta Bassa; Cirocolo; Cortesano; Gorghe; Gazzadina; San Lazzaro
PovoCasotti di Povo; Celva; Dosso Moronari; Mesiano; Oltrecastello; Pante'; Ponte Alto; Sale'; Spre'
San Martino
San Nicolò
SopramontePra della Fava
Vigolo Baselga
VillazzanoCastello; Negrano

Trento in the First Half of the 19th Century

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

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

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

Trento in 1809

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

Trento in 1821

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

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

Trento in 1842

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

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

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

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

Trento (presumably, within the city walls)1,118

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

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

1890 Survey of the City of Trento

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

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

1890 Demographic Overview

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

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


Two details especially stand out to me:

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

Occupations in Trento in the Year 1890

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

DAY WORKERS (odd jobs, etc.)627WEAVERS19
POOR (so, no job listed)215UMBRELLA MAKERS12
HOSTS (at tavern or hotel)163CHIMNEYSWEEPS6

Some Comments and Context

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

Comparison to Rural Communities

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

Poverty Level

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

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

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

Article continues below…

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Some Surnames in the City of Trento in 1890

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

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

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

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

Bertoluzza’s Study of the History of Trentino Surnames

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Up Next Time: The DEANERY of Trento

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
22 May 2020

P.S. As you probably know, my spring trip to Trento was cancelled due to COVID-19 lockdowns. However, I do have the resources to do a fair bit of research for many clients from home, and will have some openings for new clients from 15 June 2020.  If you would like to book a time to discuss having me do research for you, I invite you to read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. Then, we can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

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

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

View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:


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

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

And Google Maps. 

Trento – The City and Surnames Before the Year 1600

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

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

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

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

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

What We’ll Look at Today

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

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

Getting Oriented – Trentino vs Trento

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


MAP: Valleys of the Province of Trentino (Trento)

Click on map to see it larger

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

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

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

A Snapshot of Trento Before 1600

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

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

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

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

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

CIVIL RECORDS – Libro della Cittadinanza di Trento (1577)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Idea of ‘Citizenship’

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

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

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

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

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

Some Trento Surnames Before 1577

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some Trento Surnames Between 1577-1600

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    • Brissiani = Bresciani / Bressiani
    • Nassimbeni = Nascimbeni

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

Notable Citizens from the Rural Valleys

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

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

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

People and Places

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

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

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

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

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

The Fate of the ‘Liber’

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

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

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

Coming Up Next Time

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

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

Click HERE to read that article now:

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

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

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

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

Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
28 April 2020

P.S. As you probably know, my spring trip to Trento was cancelled due to COVID-19 lockdowns. However, I do have the resources to do a fair bit of research for many clients from home, and will have some openings for new clients from 1 June 2020.  If you would like to book a time to discuss having me do research for you, I invite you to read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. Then, we can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

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

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

View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YAWN indeed!

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

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

Of the 49 people who responded:

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

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

Therein lay my challenge:

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

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

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

So, let’s begin…

The Four ‘Lenses’ of Geography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CIVIL STRUCTURE: Italian Regions and Provinces

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

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

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

Region –> Province –> Municipality –> Village

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

The Italian words for these terms are:

Regione –> Provincia –> Comune –> Frazione

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


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

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.


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’):

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’.


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.


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

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

LINKS: Resources for Italian Civil Entities

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

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

ECCLESIASTICAL STRUCTURE: How the Catholic Church is Organised

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

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

In English, this is:

Diocese –> Deanery –> Parish –> Curate

Or, in Italian:

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


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.


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.


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.


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

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

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

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

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

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The Diocese of Trento as Both Church and State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civil vs. Church Records

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Catholic Deaneries and Parishes in the Diocese of Trento

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

Book - Casetti_Guida-Storico-Archivistica-Trento

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

25 Deaneries of the Diocese of Trento

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

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

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

GEOGRAPHICAL STRUCTURE: The Valleys of the Province of Trentino

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

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

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

Toponymy and Genealogy

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

BOOK - Anzilotti_Toponomastica-Trentina

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

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

The Valleys of Trentino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A note before we continue…

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

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

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

TRENTINO VALLEYS: The Relationship Between Places and People

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

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

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

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

Valleys, Deaneries, Parishes and People

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

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

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

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

Coming Up In This Series…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
23 Jan 2020

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

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

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View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:


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

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

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

Not Just a Nickname: Understanding Your Family Soprannome

Not Just a Nickname: Understanding Your Family Soprannome

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

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

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

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

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

In this article, I will discuss:

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

Recording Data – The Computer as an Analogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Name, Surname, Soprannome – An Increasing Need for Accuracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Con = with

Nome = name

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sopra’ = above or ‘on top of’

‘Nome’ = name

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

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

What are Soprannomi and Why Are They Used?

As you might have already surmised:

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Think ‘Nickname’ is a Misleading Term

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is NO consistently used system for recording soprannomi.

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

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

‘Detto’ or ‘Dicti’

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

For example, consider this baptismal record from 1705:

1705 Baptismal record for Antonio Buschetti, soprannome 'Caserini'

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

1768 marriage record from Tione di Trento.

Click on image to see it larger

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


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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please DON’T do this!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts

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

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

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

Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
6 Oct 2019

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

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

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Kissing Cousins: Marital Dispensations, Consanguinity, Affinity

Kissing Cousins: Marital Dispensations, Consanguinity, Affinity

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

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

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

The Mathematics of Why Our Ancestors Did Not Double Every Generation

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

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

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

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

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

The reason for this is twofold:

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

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

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

Endogamy and Pedigree Collapses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consanguinity versus ‘Inbreeding’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marriage and the Church

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

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

Canon Law Regarding Consanguineous Marriages

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

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

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

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

English Thinking Versus Italian Thinking

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

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

Canon Degrees Versus Civil Degrees

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

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

This means:

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

No wonder the terminology is confusing for so many!

Affinity – A ‘Spiritual’ Relationship

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

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

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

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

Marital Dispensations – The Legal Loophole

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

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

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

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

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

More Frequent Dispensations Among the Noble Classes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recognising and Understanding Dispensations in Marriage Records

As a family historian, it’s important to:

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

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

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

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

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

EXAMPLE 1: 1836 – Third Grade Consanguinity

1836 marriage record of Giovanni Brocchetti and Cattarina Grazia Bleggi.

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

Relationship chart of Giovanni Brocchetti and Cattarina Grazia Bleggi

Click on image to see it larger

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

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EXAMPLE 2: 1883 – Second and Third Grade Consanguinity

1883 marriage record of Cesare Viola and Angela Viola

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationship chart of Cesare Viola and Angela Viola

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

EXAMPLE 3: 1778 – Third and Fourth Grade Consanguinity

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

1778 marriage record of Bonifacio Blasio Furlini and Maria Levri

Click on image to see it larger

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

Relationship chart for Bonifacio Blasio Furlini and Maria Levri

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXAMPLE 5: 1859 – Dispensation for Time of Year

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

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

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

1858 marriage record of Fioravante Giacomuzzi and Margherita Damolin

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts

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

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

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
12 Aug 2019

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

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

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

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Without Prejudice. Honouring All the Heroes in Our Families

Without Prejudice. Honouring All the Heroes in Our Families

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

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

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

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

Luigi the Trailblazer

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

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

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

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

Families Separated By An Ocean

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

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

Mentor and Guardian of the Next Generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great War Arrives

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

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

The Great Political Divide

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

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

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

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

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

Trentini Soldiers in Russia

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

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

Luigi Parisi: ‘Missing in Russia’

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

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

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

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

The Family Left Behind

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

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

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

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

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

What Do We Mean By ‘Hero’?

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

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

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

My personal belief is:

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

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

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

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
27 May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOPIC 4: Cultural Identity in a New World

Nationality vs. Local Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fragile Identity of Youth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuzzy Labels. Fuzzy Sense of Self.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Losing A Surname – The Cruellest Cut of All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austrian, Tyrolean, Italian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

This stunning image gives us an historical snapshot not only of the official designation of ‘Tyrol’ during this era, but also of the diverse cultural identity of the people who thought of themselves as ‘Tirolesi’.

However, let us bear in mind that this painting is 400 years old, and what it depicts is not necessarily what people meant by ‘Tirol’ when our ancestors left the province, nor indeed what most people mean by the term today.

The fact is, the ‘official’ boundaries of Tirol were constantly changing. Frankly, if I try to figure it all out, it just makes my head spin. Rather than attempt to explain it, I refer you to this website with maps showing how these designations shifted after this painting was make, between 1766 and the present day: http://www.zum.de/whkmla/region/germany/tyroladm.html.

But while official boundaries of any administrative entity come and go like tides, the cultural identity of the people from these entities are far more resistant to change.

How Cultural Identities Get ‘Frozen’ in Time

Most descendants of Trentino ancestors know that their ancestral homeland was once under Austrian rule and was incorporated into Italy after World War 1. But, in my observation, fewer of them seem to know that, while the province of Bolzano is still known as ‘South Tyrol’ (Sud Tirol), the province of Trentino hasn’t been known by the term ‘Tirol’ for the past 100 years.

These days, if you say ‘Tyrolean’ to anyone living anywhere in Europe, they always take it to mean Bolzano and/or Austria. And this INCLUDES the Trentini themselves. I have yet to meet a living native Trentino who refers to him/herself as ‘Tirolesi’. In fact, the first time I visited the province and used the word ‘Tyrolean’, people looked at me with bewilderment, if not a bit of amusement.

‘No, Trentino is not Tirol,’ they said. ‘You are confusing it with Bolzano’.

One person who had family abroad said to me, ‘No, we do not call ourselves Tirolesi. But I’ve heard there are some Americans who think like that.’

So, at the risk of ruffling a few of my readers’ feathers, I have to say that all my experiences and observations have led me to conclude that:

The ONLY people today who use the term ‘Tyrolean’ to describe someone from Trentino are descendants of 19th and 20th century emigrants.

In fact, in 1923, an organisation called the ‘Legione Trentina’ actually made it ILLEGAL to use the word like ‘Tirol’ and its variants (Tyrol, Tyrol, Tiroler, Südtirol etc.) to refer to the land now known as Trentino and its people. One leaflet says that by 1931, fines were issued of ‘up to 2,000 lire (about three average monthly salaries) and three months in prison’ for anyone who used these terms. 

After all, when most of our ancestors came from Trentino, the  province was either still under Austrian rule, or had only just become part of Italy. When they migrated to their new, adopted homelands, the culture – and cultural identity – they brought with them was from THAT era. We, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, inherited all those things.

BUT the thing is:

When cultures become displaced, the old traditions and ways of thinking do not evolve the same way they would have if they had stayed in their native homeland.

In fact, if anything, they tend to get ‘frozen’ in time. I believe this happens because people who live in places far removed from their ancestral homelands desperately need to feel a connection to their past. And, as they don’t always have any living, breathing connection to those homelands, they will hold onto whatever they’ve got like a life raft.

Moreover, to relinquish that label or change the way of thinking brought across the sea by their emigrant ancestors is seen as a kind of disloyalty – or even betrayal. For this reason, thousands of descendants of Trentino emigrants around the world staunchly retain the a ‘Tyrolean’ (if not ‘Austrian’) cultural identity, despite the fact the label is no longer used by most present-day Trentini.

And no ‘official’ change in nomenclature is going to nullify those powerful feelings.

So, does that mean it’s ‘wrong’ to think of yourself as ‘Tyrolean’? Of course not. Just as my surname ‘Serafinn’ has its own cultural significance, the label ‘Tyrolean’ has its OWN meaning and cultural significance. It doesn’t need to mean what it means in Trentino today or even what it used to mean to our ancestors. It stands on its own as what it is.

For myself, I prefer to use the label ‘Trentina’. And that doesn’t make me ‘wrong’ either. I prefer this term because I have lived in Europe for 20 years, and I go to Trentino frequently. People understand what I MEAN when I use it. So, that designation makes more sense in my situation. But for me, it also carries great meaning. To me, the word represents the thing that makes me feel most connected to my ancestors – the land itself. When I say I am ‘Trentina’, I become part of those glacial mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and waterfalls. Through that word, I feel connected to every ancestor and blood relation whose very existence was owed to that majestic land.

But that is simply MY cultural label. It has meaning for me, but perhaps not for you. Never EVER in my life would I ever suggest that someone should reject or change the word they use to identify themselves if that word fills them with joy and makes them feel alive.

Schisms Triggered by Cultural Identity

Challenging another person’s chosen cultural designation is, in fact, a sure-fire way to get yourself into an argument.

One such argument within my own family sticks clearly in my mind even after nearly half a century. I was in my teens visiting at the home of one of my father’s sisters, when an argument broke out between my aunt and her cousin (son of my grandmother’s brother, with the surname Onorati).

Our cousin was complaining that he was tired of having to explain to people that he was ‘Tyrolean’, and that now he just told people he was ‘Italian’.

He argued, ‘I look Italian. I have an Italian name. I’m Italian. What’s the big deal?’

At this point, my aunt entirely lost it. She flew into a rage and shoved our cousin against the wall. She started pounding her fists on his chest and screaming, ‘How could you possibly betray our family by saying such things?’

In hindsight, what is most interesting to me about this incident is the fact that this aunt (my dad’s youngest sister) was actually born in America (in Brandy Camp, Pennsylvania) after my grandparents had emigrated with my dad and two other sisters. At the time of this incident, she was in her mid-40s, and had never even been to her parents’ homeland. In fact, she was apparently confused about where they actually came from, as evidenced by a story she wrote about her parents’ mythical home in Merano (in the province of Bolzano) – a place where they never lived.

I bring this up not to criticise my late aunt (I actually adored her), but to underscore how cultural identity has nothing whatsoever to do with cultural awareness. It lives and breathes in complete independence from historical or geographical accuracy.

One of my father’s 1st cousins (whom, unfortunately, I never met) was the late author Marion Benasutti, who wrote a book called No Steady Job for Papa. Marketed as a ‘novel’, it really is a memoire of her experiences growing up in a Trentini immigrant family in the early 20th century (the family emigrated before World War 1). A strong, recurring theme in that book is the ‘Austrian/Tyrolean’ versus ‘Italian’ cultural identity, and how her father used to argue with friends and family members over their chosen designations.

Lest you think these schisms were limited to first-generation Americans, this ideological divide is still very much alive amongst Trentini descendants today. For example, I recently received this message from a prospective member of my Trentino Genealogy Facebook group:

‘I am 100% Tirolean-American. I am interested in tracing our roots back to the days before the Fascist Italianization of our land when it was Austria-Hungary, of which my grandparents were citizens.’

While Austria-Hungary died 100 years ago, and Mussolini died over 60 years ago, the passion contained within these words is still palpable. You can certainly feel how this person would find it challenging – if not impossible – to think of himself as ‘Italian’. To expect (or force) him to do so would not only be highly insensitive, but utterly futile.

Arguably one of the strongest spokespeople for ‘Tyrolean’ cultural identity is Lou Brunelli, founder and editor of Filò: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans. In his editor’s introduction to volume 20 of that magazine (January 2019) he says just as ‘the one and only Tyrol… was ‘usurped’ and ‘annexed to Italy’, the magazine therefore:

‘…usurps the authentic right and privilege to ignore the line and draw a circle embracing, engaging and uniting us to what we were as affirmed by our emigrants who, over and over, declared themselves Tirolesi, Tyroleans and, for us, Tyrolean Americans.’

As you can see, the debate over the cultural identity of Trentino is far from ‘settled’ even after a century has passed.

An Unaddressed Moral Responsibility

I’ve taken this time to talk about cultural identity because I think it has tremendous implications for companies who offer DNA tests.

Whether or not we choose a specific cultural ‘label’, we cannot simply dismiss or ignore them. In my work as a genealogist, most of my clients come from the US, with a handful from South American, Australia and New Zealand. Many of them come to me with a feeling of longing or even emptiness. They are searching for a missing piece of themselves and are often (quite understandably) confused about where their ancestors came from.

Most of the people I know who have taken a DNA test did not embark on their genetic journey just for ‘fun’, but to find answers to deeply personal questions that have been challenging their happiness and/or sense of belonging – sometimes for their entire lifetime.

And, as we’ve just seen, cultural ‘labels’ can often have a powerful – if not EXPLOSIVE – impact on people. You cannot just call people something and expect them to embrace it (or even accept it).

This is something I believe the big companies who handle DNA tests have yet to understand. Knowing how delicate and emotionally charged cultural identities can be, companies who provide DNA ethnicity reports have a HUGE moral responsibility. You cannot play with people’s sense of self – especially not for profit. The labels these companies choose to put on people in their ethnicity reports can sometimes only INTENSIFY the confusion people had that led them to take the DNA test in the first place. 

I will be returning to this point in the final article in this series, but for now I want to suggest three crucial shifts that need to occur if we are to increase the value – an minimise the damage – of ethnicity reports offered by DNA testing companies:

  1. Testing companies need to become more educated about cultural identities around the world, so they can create profiles that are more sensitive and relevant to their customers.
  2. There need to be greater numbers of DNA test-takers in under-represented cultural groups.
  3. DNA  test-takers need to be more educated about the  wider story of the ethnic history of their ancestral homelands.

Only when all three of these things are met can DNA testing truly serve the purpose for which so many people turn to them.

TOPIC 5: What Does History Tell Us About Northern Italian Ethnicity?

Building upon what we’ve discussed so far, the next crucial question we need to ask is:

Does our CULTURAL IDENTITY as ‘northern Italians’, ‘Trentini’ or ‘Tyroleans’ (or whatever) have any foundation in GENETICS?

In other words, are the people from northern Italy genetically ‘different’ from other people, including those from the more southern regions of the Italian peninsula? Or are all these designations simply things we’ve ‘made up’ in order to feel a sense of belonging? Do the DNA tests currently on the market support what northern and southern Italians believe about themselves? Moreover, are their findings consistent from company to company?

We’ll look at the last of those questions in Article 4, when we look at DNA ethnicity reports. But in order to understand what we’ll discuss in that article, let’s first consider northern Italian ethnicity through an historical lens.

Just who were the people who populated Trentino and other parts of northern Italy over the centuries? Below is a short, whistle-stop tour through the millennia.

The Rhaeti and the Celts

About 2,600 years ago, and through the first centuries of the Common Era (A.D.), much of northern Italy was inhabited by Rhaetian and central European Celtic tribes.

Once hypothesised to be related to the Etruscans (ancient people of present-day Tuscany), many scholars today believe the Rhaeti were indigenous Alpine tribes (‘indigenous’ itself being an admittedly vague term). The precise origin of the Celts is much less clear to historians, and many preconceptions about who they were and where they came from are being challenged (although they are most widely believed to have from somewhere in central Europe).

Languages in Iron Age Italy, ca. 6th c. BC
Languages in Iron Age Italy, ca. 6th c. BC By Dbachmann, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3336779

Above is a map showing which languages were spoken around the Italian peninsula circa 600 B.C.

Notice ‘Raetic’ in the orange area at the top, which overlaps with the modern provinces of Trentino and Veneto. The term ‘Gaulish’ in the upper left is another term for Celtic languages. Later, some Rhaeti in south Tyrol (Alto-Adige), Trentino and Veneto, as said to have adopted the Celtic language, at least in part.

Some scholars say that the Alpine language Ladin (NOT the same as ‘Latin’) which is still spoken by an estimated 30,000-60,000 people today (mostly in South Tyrol, Trentino, Belluno and Friuli) is has roots in both Rhaeti and Celtic.

The Romans

Between around 100 B.C. and 400 A.D., Romans were certainly present in places like the city of Trento. There are, in fact, the remains of the old Roman city beneath Trento, but some historians suggest Trento was kind of a ‘holiday spot’ for the Romans rather than a true settlement. Thus, some historians believe the Romans may not have played a huge part on changing the ethnicity of the area, although others dispute this theory.

What is indisputable, however, is that they brought the Latin language, permanently changing the linguistic landscape of northern Italy. The majority of Trentini speak dialects and have names based on Latin roots.

The Longobards (Lombards)

After the fall of Roman (ca. 400 A.D.), we start to see invasions (and settlement) from Germanic and/or Scandinavian tribes. The most notable of these were the Longobards (called ‘Lombards’ in English), from which the northern region of ‘Lombardia’ (or ‘Lombardy’, in English), gets its name. Today, most scholars believe they originated from somewhere in Scandinavia.

circa 700 AD, the Longobards (Lombards) in Italy
Aistulf’s Italy-it.svg: Castagnaderivative work: InvaderCito [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Above is a map showing the Longobard Kingdom (in blue) when it was at its peak in the mid-700s. Although defeated as a political force by Charlemagne around 800 A.D., their nobles lasted in some parts of southern Italy until the 11th century.

A formidable political force, they also influenced many other Germanic tribes – including the Saxons – to settle in Italian lands during their reign. Note: Many people associate the word ‘Saxon’ with England, but they originally came from central Europe; the Germany state of Saxony was once their settlement, before they were defeated by Charlemagne.

The Cimbri and Other Germanic Tribes

During the middle ages (1,000-1,200 A.D.), new waves of Germanic tribes, such as the Cimbri people, migrated and created communities in various parts of Trentino and Veneto. My great-grandmother’s parish of Badia Calavena in the province of Verona is a known Cimbri settlement and, until recently, the people there spoke Cimbro, which, while a distinctly Germanic dialect, also sounds like ENGLISH to my ears. One Veronesi historian I know says he believes this is because Cimbro is related to Old English as spoken by the Saxons. Linguistic connections do not always indicate a genetic connection, but sometimes they might.

What I find so interesting about my great-grandmother’s ancestry, however, is that so many of their surnames – even back to the 1500s – are of Latin/Italian origin, despite their being German speakers. I suppose this is evidence of how long they had lived in that valley, and how thoroughly they had become assimilated into the local culture over the centuries, but again this is pure speculation.

Later Germanic Migrations

Much later, when under Austrian rule in the 1700s-1800s, you will see other scattered Germanic surnames appearing in the church records of the northern provinces, but in a more organic (and less invasive) fashion. As these migrations are relatively recent, you can more easily identify Germanic ‘blood’ through these lines through genealogy alone.

The Ethnic ‘Soup’ of Northern Italy

So, based on what we know about the history of northern Italy, what conclusions can we draw about northern Italian ethnicity?

The truth is, nobody seems to agree.

For example, some historians believe the Longobards, (who comprised an estimated 10% of the population of northern Italy at their peak) had minimal impact the genetic profile of northern Italy because they chose to breed amongst themselves without mixing with other ethnic groups present in the region at the time.

But I’m not so sure. I don’t see how any culture can be in a region for half a millennium and create no impact on the genetic landscape. The Longobards were known to have adopted Roman customs and dress and, although they were always at loggerheads with the Pope, the did actually convert to Christianity.

Given that the Longobards had assimilated, at least in part, to local culture, it seems implausible to me that there was NO inter-breeding between cultures over all that time. My logical brain says at least SOME of that Scandinavian Longobard DNA (and that of all the other ‘imported’ peoples) surely must have mingled – at least to some degree – with that in other ethnic groups in the region.

Moreover, while Charlemagne conquered the Longobard leaders in northern Italy, I cannot imagine they simply ‘vanished’ as an ethnic group. I have seen dozens of Longobard artefacts in many churches and museums in in Trentino. Even the church of my father’s parish in Santa Croce del Bleggio (Val Giudicarie) was built upon the ruins of an old Longobard church.

Even after a political coup, if people have lived in an area for a long time, they tend to stay put, unless they are forced to leave by economic, environmental or political circumstances. And while Charlemagne ousted the Longobard leaders, I have read nothing about any kind of wholesale exodus of the Longobard people from Italy.

At this point, it seems to me the next logical question must surely be:

Can DNA testing shed light on how – or IF – these medieval tribes intermingled?

And if it can…

Will our that DNA profile look different from those of other Italians?

And finally…

What kind of ‘labels’ will DNA testing companies like Ancestry DNA slap on people like us in their ethnicity reports?

Coming Up Next Time…

Those are the questions we’ll address in fourth and final article in the series on DNA tests.

In that article, we will finally look in depth at ethnicity reports – how they come up with their data, what the data means, and how we genealogists – from ALL ethnic backgrounds – can help improve the future of DNA research.

I will also share examples from my own reports, so you can see how data can be interpreted (and misinterpreted) in context.

You can now read that article here:

MORE READING:   DNA Ethnicity Reports. Who You Are Vs. What They SAY You Are

I invite you to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog, to make sure you receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing, as well as all our future articles. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all these articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing online, you will find the subscription form on the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

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

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento is coming SOON 18 February 2019 through 14 March 2019). If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: Whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

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Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research

Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn explains why DNA tests alone cannot tell us everything about our ancestry. Article 2 of 4 of ‘DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity’.

This article series has been written in response to the hundreds of questions and comments I have personally received or read on social media around the matter of DNA tests. More specifically, it is a response to the many discussions – often impassioned and angry – about recent changes in AncestryDNA’s algorithms, which caused many people to receive ethnicity reports that made no sense to them, and were at odds with what they knew and/or believed about themselves.

As this is a complex subject, I decided to break it into FOUR articles (I originally thought I could do it in three, but in writing this instalment, I realised four were necessary). 

Last time, in Article 1, we covered:

  • TOPIC 1: Our Unrealistic Expectations About DNA Testing, in which we discussed how and why people often develop misunderstandings about the purpose and value of DNA tests due to misleading presentations in the media, and

  • TOPIC 2: Entry Level Genetics for Genealogists and Family Historians, in which we looked at the different kinds of DNA tests and why it is essential to know what you want to gain before deciding to do one. We also examined how autosomal DNA is passed down through the generations and introduced the concepts of ‘endogamy’ and ‘pedigree collapses’.

If you missed Article 1, or you would like to re-read it, you can catch up by clicking the link below:

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

Today, Article 2, our topic will be: 

  • TOPIC 3: Why DNA Testing is NOT a Substitute for Genealogical Research

In this article, we will examine some of the misconceptions people have about DNA tests, how relationship estimates are formed to identify ‘DNA Matches’, and the many the challenges around identifying your connections with DNA matches. We’ll also look at the technique of ‘triangulation’, as well as how ‘endogamy’ can sometimes blur relationship estimates.

NOTE: Be sure to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog using the subscription form at the right so you can receive Articles 3 and 4 in the special series on DNA testing. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all these articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

DISCLAIMER. Once again, as you read this article series, I ask you to remember that I am a genealogist, not a scientist or academic historian. All opinions and observations are based on my own research both personally and within the context of my professional experience in genealogy.

What Many People Imagine About DNA Tests

Earlier this week I was in a computer repair shop returning a refurbished unit that was defective (I ended up having to buy a new computer, which I am using now). During my conversation with the shop owner – who was of southern Italian descent (Puglia) – I described some of the genealogy software programs I use, so I could illustrate why the computer wasn’t working properly.

Suddenly, he shifted the topic from computers to genealogy and blurted out, ‘I’m thinking of getting my DNA done. What’s the best one out there?’

‘It’s interesting you asked me that,’ I replied. ‘I’m writing an article series about this very topic. But to answer your question, it all depends on what you want from it. What is it you want to find out?’

‘I just want to know my ancestry,’ he said.

‘OK. But what do you mean by that?’ I queried. ‘Do you want to know your ethnicity, meet living relatives or find out who your great-grandfather was?’

‘Yes. I want to know ALL of that.’

I explained to him that these are all very different objectives, and that DNA testing might shed light on some of them, but not all – and not consistently from company to company.

After making a few more enquiries, I learned he knew little about his own Puglian ancestors and had never done any kind of research to find them. Based on what he had seen in the media, he had formed a belief that DNA testing was the key to unlocking all these mysteries.

But he is not alone in thinking this. In my experience, most people who are new to the idea of DNA testing seem to have developed similar misconceptions, largely based on misleading suggestions (which verge on promises) in advertising and television programmes. 

In fact, many people I meet also have the impression that ‘science’ (i.e. DNA testing) can give them answers to genealogical questions, i.e. names and details about specific ancestors.

But barring a few exceptions, which we’ll look at shortly, this simply isn’t true.

Finding Close Relations Through DNA Tests

One group of people for whom DNA testing has proven to be a godsend is adoptees. We see many heart-warming success stories in the media where DNA testing has helped to adopted children, parents and/or siblings to find each other. And for these kinds of close biological relationships, DNA testing can be extremely effective.

As we discussed in Article 1, parents and their children share 50% of their DNA, and full siblings can also share up to 50% of their DNA. Half-siblings share roughly half the amount of DNA as full siblings, i.e. up to 25%. When it comes to DNA, these percentages are extremely high and there would be no mistaking such a relationship if it popped up in a database (unless the family were severely inbred, such as in the case of the royal Hapsburg family*, wherein the inherited DNA of Charles II was actually MORE ‘collapsed’ than if his parents had been brother and sister).

All these close relationships – probably up to 2nd cousins – are fairly easy to identify using DNA tests. But there is one important condition without which none of this would be possible: BOTH parties need to have done a DNA test through the SAME testing provider.

And therein lies the fly in the ointment. When we are seeking to connect (or reconnect) with close family, no DNA test can help us unless the other party (or someone closely related to that person) has their DNA in the same database as ours.

And if that isn’t the case, the only alternative we have is to use traditional ‘paper trail’ genealogical research.  

* The genetic history of the Hapsburgs is discussed in detail in Chapter 3 of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford.

DNA Relationship Estimates

When we take an autosomal DNA test from one of the big companies, our results will be added to their database and compared with other test takers. From these comparisons, we will receive a list of ‘DNA Matches’ or ‘DNA Relatives’, depending on which company you use. Next to each person on the list you will see an estimated relationship, derived from the number of ‘centimorgans’ (cM) shared between you.

I’m not qualified (nor am I going to attempt) to explain centimorgans, but on the AncestryDNA site, you can find tables showing the ranges of cMs of different relationships:

AncestryDNA, table of centimorgans

Click on image to see it larger in a new window

What is most striking about this table is how the variability in cMs increases as your relationships get more distant. A parents/child relationship is a fixed number while full siblings have a slight variability of about 7-8%. But once you get to grandparents, uncles, aunts and half-siblings that variability LEAPS up to 30-40%. And then, when you get to 2nd cousins and beyond, the statistical variability is actually greater than the number of cMs they are likely to share. Ancestry has even put a disclaimer at the bottom of the table saying the exact amount of shared DNA can go beyond the ranges shown in the table.

The primary reason for these variables is that siblings (except identical twins) do not inherit exactly the same genes from their parents (as we explored in Article 1). Thus, specifying how much genetic information blood relatives will share becomes less predictable and more ‘mixed’ as you move through the generations.

But another reason for these inevitable variables is ‘pedigree collapse’ (also discussed in Article 1); I’ll come back to this point in a few minutes.

DNA Relatives – And THEN What?

Knowing these variables, you can probably get an idea of the challenges of trying to piece together your family through DNA alone. If your DNA results are like mine, the majority of these ‘matches’ will be distant relatives, i.e. 4th to 6th cousins or sometimes more distant, depending on which company you use.

I have hundreds of ‘DNA matches’ on the four sites where my data appears. Every now and then, someone amongst them ‘pops out’ on the list to me, and I feel pretty confident I can connect them to my already extensive tree. Just this morning, in fact, I was able to confirm two new DNA matches as 4th cousins by comparing their genealogical info to my own. The whole process took me only a few minutes, as I already had their ancestors in my personal database. This could never have been possible but for the fact that my research extends well beyond my own pedigree, as I have been transcribing the records for an entire parish for the past few years.

Unfortunately, discovering the link between yourself and a DNA match is rarely a quick or easy process. I cannot COUNT the number of times one of my matches contacted me because I have a large family tree and expected me to be able to tell them about their ancestry, when they have done little (or NO) research of their own. Many of these people have no family tree, or one that is so minimal as to be of no practical help to finding a connection.

While, of course, I feel for these people, it is also frustrating for me to have to explain to them that DNA cannot fill in the blanks without at least having tried to construct a tree – or hiring a genealogist to do the research for them. And even if I do manage to figure out how that person is related to me by blood, DNA is not the tool that will help me solve that puzzle – genealogy is.

Again, I feel this kind of expectation is down to misleading advertising and media representation, wherein DNA is touted as ‘the answer’ to our ancestral mysteries. And given the number of times a year I have to explain this to my DNA matches, I think it’s a BIG ethical issue.

The bottom line is this:

DNA testing can point you in a DIRECTION.
But if you REALLY want to ‘meet your ancestors’,
GENEALOGY is the ONLY way.

SIDE NOTE: AncestryDNA used to show ‘distant cousins’, such as those predicted at 5th to 8th cousin level, but they discontinued this deeming these relationships to be ‘not useful’ and too uncertain. Ironically, I have ‘lost’ some DNA connections to some Trentino 6th and 7th cousins I KNOW personally because we are all avid genealogical researchers. I feel Ancestry should have allowed its users to choose whether they wished to retain all that old information, rather than just wiping the slate clean for us.

How Endogamy Can Blur Relationship Predictions

I’d like to return to the idea of ‘endogamy’ and ‘pedigree collapses’, in which some of our ancestors may be  related to us via more than one line (refer back to Article 1 for a detailed explanation of these concepts).

Let’s say you’ve received a DNA match for someone predicted to be a 4th cousin:

  • If you were indeed 4th cousins, it means you share 3X great-grandparents.

  • Each of you has a possible 32 great-great-great-grandparents – 64 between you – and only one pair (or possibly only one PERSON) of these is common to you both.

  • If both of you have done enough genealogical research to trace ancestry back to those 3X great-grandparents, finding the link between you will be relatively straightforward.

But what if endogamy is blurring the estimate? In other words, what if there were many pedigree collapses in both of your trees? Pedigree collapses are common to all of us, but when they occur repeatedly in subsequent generations, your DNA becomes less varied than if it were ‘new’ every generation. This can sometimes cause predicted relationships to be estimated as being closer than they really are.

For example, back when Ancestry used to show more distant DNA relations, it predicted one of my matches was likely to be my 5th cousin. But when we did the genealogical research to find our connection, we discovered we were actually 6th and 7th cousins – via multiple lines. This was all down to pedigree collapses in both of our trees.

So, let’s suppose you and a DNA match are – unbeknownst to either of you – actually 7th cousins as in my example above:

  • This would mean you share a pair of 5X great-grandparents (or at least one 5X great-grandparent, if a husband/wife died and the widower/widow remarried). 

  • Each of you has a maximum of 128 5X great-grandparents – as many as 256 between you (128 pairs). I say ‘a maximum’ because there could (and most likely ARE) fewer, due to pedigree collapses.

  • Possibly only ONE of these 128 pairs – or possibly only one PERSON – is common to you both.

  • Depending on your age and the ages at which your ancestors had children, your 5X great-grandparents may have been born any time between 1670-1750.

Now, the question is this: have BOTH you and your DNA match traced your pedigree back that far through genealogical research? If not, unless one of you has traced your ancestors FORWARD in time (i.e. traces all of their descendants, even if they are not their own direct family), you are unlikely to make anything more than an educated guess as to how you are connected.

Again, DNA testing can make predictions, but even these predictions can be OFF. They cannot tell you how many times your pedigree has collapsed and at what points in your ancestry they occurred. The only methodology that can tell you these things is genealogy.

Comparing Genes – Triangulation

One method many DNA enthusiasts use to try to establish connections between them is ‘triangulation’. This is where you compare cMs that are shared by three or more people, to see if you can discover the common ancestor. If you wish to try out triangulation, 23AndMe has a DNA comparison tool that allows you to compare a group of up to five DNA matches; GEDMatch also has a tool where you can compare the data from multiple DNA kits.

To demonstrate, here’s a screenshot from the comparison tool on my 23AndMe account, showing how I share the same segment on ‘Chromosome 16’ with four of my DNA Matches:

DNA Triangulation on Chromosome 16, 4 people.

NOTE: Before I continue, I will tell you that I am 50% Trentini/Veronesi via my dad and 50% Irish via my mom. The reason why this is important to know will become apparent in a minute.

About five years ago, when I was new to DNA testing, all of us in this ‘Chromosome 16 group’ were trying to figure out what this triangulation could tell us. Many of us had Irish surnames in our recent history (i.e. great-grandparents), so we assumed our connection was probably via Ireland. Unfortunately, at that time, few of us in the group had done enough research on our Irish sides to find the common ancestor, who was probably born around 1800 or slightly earlier. Again, the answer to the riddle of how we are related lay in genealogy, but none of us had yet found the documentation to prove anything.

The Trouble with Triangles

I kind of ‘parked’ that whole ‘Chromosome 16’ experiment for some time. But then, one day, I decided to run the test again, adding someone ELSE to the test group: one of my 1st cousins on my TRENTINO side.

Imagine my surprise when this image came up on my screen:

DNA triangulation, chromosome 16 - 5 people with 1st cousin
My 1st cousin (represented by the big green segment above) appears to share the same segment of Chromosome 16 as our Ch16 group.  

I was baffled. Could we have gotten it wrong all these years? Were we NOT related by Irish ancestry after all, but rather by a common Trentino ancestor? It seemed really unlikely, but the image seemed to imply it.

I say ‘seemed’ because it turns out I was completely WRONG.

What I hadn’t actually DONE was create a ‘triangle’. Yes, I compared how all these people were related to me; but I hadn’t examined if or how these people might be related to each other. That is the crux of what ‘triangulation’ is.

I already knew all the people in the Ch16 group had been triangulated against each other, and that they were all DNA Matches. But when I compared my Trentino cousin with each individual in the Ch16 group, he shared ZERO DNA with them.

There’s Two Sides to Every Chromosome

So how can it be that my cousin shares nearly all of my 16th chromosome with me, but shares no definable DNA with anyone in the Ch16 group?

What the chart from 23AndMe above does not show is that every chromosome in your bodies has TWO strands. That’s why you sometimes hear of DNA referred to as ‘the double helix’. We inherit one strand from our father and one from our mother.

If my Trentino cousin and I share nearly all of the same DNA on Chromosome 16, and all the other DNA Matches share Ch16 with me but NOT with him, it means my Trentino cousin and the Ch16 group are on different halves of the same chromosome.

In other words, the DNA I share with my Trentino cousin comes from a DIFFERENT parent from the DNA I share with the Ch16 group. And as I know my Trentino cousin is not a blood relation of my Irish mother, this became (to me anyway) ironclad proof that those of us in the Ch16 group WERE connected via a common Irish ancestor after all. So, actually, adding my Trentino cousin to the mix was a way to exclude any alternative theories. 

As of this writing, our Ch16 group has not made any big breakthroughs in discovering WHO our common Irish ancestor is, although one of the members is trying to find a birth record for one of my Irish 3X great-grandmothers. 

In other words…

It’s back to GENEALOGY.

Maybe we’ll break through that brick wall this time.

How DNA Tests Can MISS Known Blood Relations

There is one last, important point I wish to make on this topic of DNA Matches:

You can be related to someone and NOT show up as DNA Matches in DNA test websites.

NOTE: I’m not implying my 1st cousin is related to my Ch16 group; there is nothing to indicate he is. I am talking about people who share a known genealogical connection, but who do not show up as matches on DNA testing databases.

The randomness with which we all inherit DNA from our ancestors does NOT mean we will all inherit the same genetic material, even if we KNOW we are related. Of course, the more closely we are related, the more likely common cMs will show up in our test results. Conversely, the more distantly we are related, the more likely DNA tests will either miss or filter out shared DNA we inherited from our common ancestors.

I have had this happen with numerous known relatives – mostly at the level of 6th cousins (also bearing in mind that AncestryDNA no longer delivers matches at this level). I know of at least three people to whom I am related as 6th cousins – many of them connected to me in more way than one – and we don’t show up as DNA matches.

Whether we don’t actually share any DNA, or the DNA we do share is beyond the current abilities of DNA testing technology, I cannot say. All I know is that we have all done exhaustive, well-documented genealogical research (we often help each other, in fact), and we are 100% certain of our blood connections.

Yes, it would be nice to see a DNA test confirming this, but I am really not concerned. We know we are cousins, and that is all that matters.

Patience vs. Our ‘I Want It Now’ Culture

A few days ago, one of my clients sent me this nice message while he was on holiday in Bora Bora (!):

‘I am very excited, looking at the documents you use to do this is amazing… I don’t know how you do it. You must have incredible patience and be incredibly detailed, and I bet you are a wiz solving puzzles.’

Of course, I smiled a LOT when I received this. But apart from being very kind words, they also contain some important insight into the nature of genealogy, and how it challenges our modern way of thinking.

Genealogy DOES require incredible patience. It DOES require fine attention to detail, and an obsessive passion for solving puzzles. It requires you to be able to hold a great deal of information in your head, and to make connections between those pieces of information – sometimes years after you’ve recorded it.

This kind of thinking truly is in sharp contrast to our modern ‘I want it now’ mentality, where 80% of people click away from a website if it takes more than a few seconds to load. DNA testing companies KNOW THIS about us. They KNOW we are impatient. They KNOW we ‘want it all – now’. They KNOW we want to get stuff, make money, lose weight or whatever with the least effort possible.

And they also KNOW our society, especially those who have lost connection with their blood relations and/or ancestral homelands, suffers from an endemic identity crisis and are searching for ways to heal it – NOW.

And that is how they reel so many of us in.

Coming Up Next Time…

In Article 3 in this 4-part series, we will look at this issue around this delicate issue of ‘identity’. It’s available NOW at the link below:

MORE READING:   Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?

In that article, we’ll move away from the technical side of DNA testing and shift our attention to more ideological questions about who we all are as people. In that article, entitled ‘Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?’ we will explore: 

  • TOPIC 4: Cultural Identity in a New World

  • TOPIC 5: What Does History Tell Us About Northern Italian Ethnicity?

While much of that article will give special attention to people of Trentino and/or northern Italian ancestry, I invite you to read it even if you have no such ancestry in your own tree, as it might give you some ideas about your own beliefs and approaches to ethnicity.

Finally, in Article 4, we will finally look in depth at ethnicity reports – how they come up with their data, what the data means, and how we genealogists – from ALL ethnic backgrounds – can help improve the future of DNA research. In that article, I will also share examples from my own reports, so you can see how data can be interpreted (and misinterpreted) in context.

I invite you to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog, to make sure you receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing, as well as all our future articles. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all these articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing online, you will find the subscription form on the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

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

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento will be in February and March 2019. 
If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site.
Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: Whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

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