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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:
https://trentinogenealogy.com/my-tree/

REFERENCES

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

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

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

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn examines the valleys, villages and parishes in the Province of Trentino, and the people who lived there. Part 1 in series.

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

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

YAWN indeed!

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

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

Of the 49 people who responded:

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

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

Therein lay my challenge:

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

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

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

So, let’s begin…

The Four ‘Lenses’ of Geography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CIVIL STRUCTURE: Italian Regions and Provinces

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

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

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

Region –> Province –> Municipality –> Village

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

The Italian words for these terms are:

Regione –> Provincia –> Comune –> Frazione

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

Region

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

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

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

Province

Regions generally have more than one province.

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

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

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

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

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

Is Trentino the Same as Tyrol?

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

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

Comuni

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

Note that comuni are the keepers of local CIVIL records.

Frazioni

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

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

LINKS: Resources for Italian Civil Entities

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

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

ECCLESIASTICAL STRUCTURE: How the Catholic Church is Organised

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

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

In English, this is:

Diocese –> Deanery –> Parish –> Curate

Or, in Italian:

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

Diocese

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

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

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

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

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

Deanery

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

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

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

Parish

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

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

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

Curate

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

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

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

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

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

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The Diocese of Trento as Both Church and State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civil vs. Church Records

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

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

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

Rather:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catholic Deaneries and Parishes in the Diocese of Trento

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

Book - Casetti_Guida-Storico-Archivistica-Trento

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

25 Deaneries of the Diocese of Trento

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

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

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

GEOGRAPHICAL STRUCTURE: The Valleys of the Province of Trentino

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

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

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

Toponymy and Genealogy

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

BOOK - Anzilotti_Toponomastica-Trentina

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

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

The Valleys of Trentino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A note before we continue…

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

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

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

TRENTINO VALLEYS: The Relationship Between Places and People

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

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

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

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

Valleys, Deaneries, Parishes and People

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

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

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

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

Coming Up In This Series…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
23 Jan 2020

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

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

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

Not Just a Nickname: Understanding Your Family Soprannome

Not Just a Nickname: Understanding Your Family Soprannome

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

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

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

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

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

In this article, I will discuss:

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

Recording Data – The Computer as an Analogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Name, Surname, Soprannome – An Increasing Need for Accuracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Con = with

Nome = name

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sopra’ = above or ‘on top of’

‘Nome’ = name

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

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

What are Soprannomi and Why Are They Used?

As you might have already surmised:

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Think ‘Nickname’ is a Misleading Term

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is NO consistently used system for recording soprannomi.

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

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

‘Detto’ or ‘Dicti’

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

For example, consider this baptismal record from 1705:

1705 Baptismal record for Antonio Buschetti, soprannome 'Caserini'

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

1768 marriage record from Tione di Trento.

Click on image to see it larger

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

‘Vulgo’

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

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

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

Click on image to see it larger

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

Surname Followed by Soprannome

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

1760 baptismal record for Francesca Failoni of Tione di Trento.

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

‘Equal’ sign

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

1838 death record for Tommaso Viola of Cavedago

Click on image to see it larger

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

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Where Do Soprannomi Come From?

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

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

Personal names

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

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

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

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

Place of Origin

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

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

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

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

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

Family Profession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, this is JUST my own theory.

Moorish style chandelier at Castel Stenico, Val Giudicarie

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

Character or Attribute of Family or Individual

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

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

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

Soprannomi Taken from the Surname of a Matriarch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Soprannomi Become a Nightmare

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

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

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

1730 marriage record for Giovanni Battista Devilli and Margherita Caliari

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

1583 Reversi Ballina double wedding, Santa Croce del Bleggio.

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

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

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ever-Changing Nature of Soprannomi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracing the Origins of Your Family’s Soprannomi

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

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

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

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

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

Recording Soprannomi in Your Family Tree

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

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

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

OPTION 1: Soprannome as a MIDDLE NAME

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

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

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

OPTION 2: Using ‘Also Known As’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UNBREAKABLE RULE: Record WHERE You Found It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please DON’T do this!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts

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

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

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

Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
6 Oct 2019

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

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

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Kissing Cousins: Marital Dispensations, Consanguinity, Affinity

Kissing Cousins: Marital Dispensations, Consanguinity, Affinity

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

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

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

The Mathematics of Why Our Ancestors Did Not Double Every Generation

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

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

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

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

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

The reason for this is twofold:

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

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

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

Endogamy and Pedigree Collapses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consanguinity versus ‘Inbreeding’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marriage and the Church

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

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

Canon Law Regarding Consanguineous Marriages

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

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

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

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

English Thinking Versus Italian Thinking

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

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

Canon Degrees Versus Civil Degrees

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

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

This means:

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

No wonder the terminology is confusing for so many!

Affinity – A ‘Spiritual’ Relationship

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

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

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

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

Marital Dispensations – The Legal Loophole

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

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

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

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

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

More Frequent Dispensations Among the Noble Classes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recognising and Understanding Dispensations in Marriage Records

As a family historian, it’s important to:

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

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

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

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

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

EXAMPLE 1: 1836 – Third Grade Consanguinity

1836 marriage record of Giovanni Brocchetti and Cattarina Grazia Bleggi.

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

Relationship chart of Giovanni Brocchetti and Cattarina Grazia Bleggi

Click on image to see it larger

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

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EXAMPLE 2: 1883 – Second and Third Grade Consanguinity

1883 marriage record of Cesare Viola and Angela Viola

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationship chart of Cesare Viola and Angela Viola

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

EXAMPLE 3: 1778 – Third and Fourth Grade Consanguinity

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

1778 marriage record of Bonifacio Blasio Furlini and Maria Levri

Click on image to see it larger

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

Relationship chart for Bonifacio Blasio Furlini and Maria Levri

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXAMPLE 5: 1859 – Dispensation for Time of Year

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

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

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

1858 marriage record of Fioravante Giacomuzzi and Margherita Damolin

Click on image to see it larger

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

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts

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

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

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

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
12 Aug 2019

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

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.

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