Family History Research in Italy
We recommend you conduct as much research as possible in Australia before embarking on a search of Italian archives.
Family history research is not a popular hobby in Italy. Officials are often reluctant to provide birth, deaths and marriages records to the public by post. It can therefore be difficult to get a response to written requests for information, unless these are made via email. More successful are enquiries made in person, either by the researcher or someone living in the locality where the documents are held. Anyone conducting research in Italy is advised to first visit the local cemetery, where any individual family tombstone will provide the names and dates of birth and death of several generations of one family.
Be wary of heraldic organisations which produce family crests on commission. Unless you have evidence of an aristocratic title, it is unlikely that family history research would reveal any connection with the Italian nobility. However, every regional centre has its own crest which represents its population. Crests are available from each town council.
Know Italian History
A basic understanding of Italian history will help you locate records. Prior to the Unification of Italy in 1861, the region consisted of kingdoms and city and papal states, each with its own government and recordkeeping system. From around 1540 onward, priests were obliged by the Vatican to keep records of baptisms, births, deaths and marriages in their parish. Most towns began the systematic collection of civil records from 1866. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Napoleon initiated a more centralised and consistent system of recordkeeping which was adopted throughout Italy.
Since Unification, records of birth, marriage and death have been kept by the Ufficio di Stato Civile [Registry Office], usually housed in the Comune or Municipio [Town Hall or Municipal Office]. Over the centuries, wars, changes in national boundaries and natural disaster have contributed to the loss of records.
Baptisms, deaths and marriages 1540-1866
Parish registries (Registri Parrocchiali)
From 1540 onward, priests were obliged to keep records of births, baptisms, deaths and marriages in their parish. Requests for transcriptions of certificates from the parish registries must be made to the parish priest of the town where your ancestor was born, married or died.
Be aware that churches in small towns may not have a photocopier or access to digital technology. In many cases, the priest is shared between a number of villages and has limited time to locate and transcribe family records.
Births, deaths and marriages 1866 onward
Council Registry Office (Ufficio di Stato Civile)
While you can request either a copy of the original document or an extract, it is more likely that you will receive the latter. The original document provides details of the subject and his or her parents. The extract provides only the name of the subject, and the date and place where the event occurred. The names of parents are often omitted. Italian privacy laws, introduced in the 1950s, forbid the disclosure of the names of parents in public records. This law was designed to protect the children of single mothers and those abandoned on the doorsteps of the church from discrimination.
Writing to Italy
We recommend you send a typed, rather than a handwritten letter, as there are differences between Italian and Australian calligraphy that can make it difficult to read handwriting. Note that in Italy the postcode precedes the name of the town, e.g. 20100 MILANO.
Our Fact Sheet on Family History Research in Italy also includes sample letters in Italian and English requesting family records. See our Fect Sheet section to download a copy.