Italian Genealogy – The Do It Yourself Guide to Researching your Italian Roots
Italian Genealogy – here we come! Hello my name is Anthony Fasano. Like you, I am an Italian American, but I only became interested in my Italian American family history a few years ago when I was in my mid-thirties. While I am no expert in Italian Genealogy, in just a few years I was able to gather critical family history information from my relatives, find family documentation online, locate and connect with living relatives in Italy, plan a forty day trip to Italy, learn conversational Italian, and take my family on the forty day trip and spend time with my newfound relatives.
Why is this important to you?
It’s important because like I said, I was not, and still am not, an Italian Genealogy expert, however, I was able to accomplish all of these things, and now I have crafted this post to help you do the same.
I am going to walk you through the steps I took, and please feel free to leave comments and questions on the bottom of this post as I plan to check them regularly and try to respond.
Italian Genealogy Research Step #1 – Learn Everything you Can from your Living Relatives
While this step may sound obvious, do you know how many Italian Americans that I talk to say something like, “All those years, I never asked my grandmother about her parents, and now she’s gone and I’ll never know anything about them.”
Your relatives, especially your elder relatives most likely contain a treasure chest of information inside of their brains, you just have to get it out of them. How do you get it? You ask them questions. Better yet, you ask them questions over a nice Italian American meal, maybe over Sunday dinner.
When I decided to start doing this, I called my grandmother up and told her that I wanted to come question her, and she told me to come on over for lunch. I give more details about our conversations in my book Forty Days in Italy, but here are some questions that you can ask your relatives.
What was the last name of all of my great-grandparents or my relatives that immigrated to the U.S. from Italy?
You can start with your grandparents and work backward. I was lucky to easily find seven out of eight of my great-grandparents’ surnames.
What village in Italy did our family originate from?
This is a critically important question. If you know this or can obtain this answer, then at a minimum you can visit the village and start to understand where you really came from. You might even find living relatives or at least people who know your family, by mentioning the last names.
What are the birth years of my great-grandparents or my relatives that immigrated to the U.S. from Italy?
This is another critically important piece of information. If you have both the village of origin and birth year of one of your relatives, you can most likely obtain or view their birth certificate by visiting the village. I give examples of this in Chapter 2 of my book Forty Days in Italy.
What are the death years of my great-grandparents or other relatives that never immigrated to the US?
If you know of a relative who was born and died in Italy and have both the village of origin and death year of that person, you can likely obtain or view his or her death certificate by visiting the village, which may have a lot of interesting information. I also give examples of this in Chapter 2 of my book Forty Days in Italy.
What year did our family members immigrate to the U.S.?
If you can figure this out, you can attempt to find the manifest of the ship that they came to the U.S. aboard by searching online (I will tell you where in the next section).
If your Italian American grandparents are alive, this is an easy step, you just have to do it, and you don’t have to be an Italian Genealogy expert!
Italian Genealogy Research Step #2 – Use an Online Genealogy Website to Further Research Your Family Roots
Speaking with your relatives will give you a great start, and while they may have some documentation, they will probably mostly share stories and memories with you. While their stories and memories are priceless, you also want to find some hard documentation. Not only will this allow you to build a family tree, but it will potentially help you to trace your roots back to Italy and visit your ancestral villages. Even better, like in my case (see my video here), you may find living relatives and have the opportunity to meet them.
You’ll have to choose an online genealogy platform to utilize. I chose Ancestry.com and it was really easy to use. Within 15 minutes, I had an account, and I was doing searches for my relatives.
Once you are up and running you can do searches using the last names of your ancestors and other pieces of information you have gathered.
Some of the documents that you may be able to find in you Italian genealogy research efforts include:
- Manifest of the ship your relatives arrived at the United States on – these are valuable because they often give a lot of information including the Village they were from, occupation, age, parents names, etc. You can also find these at https://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/
- Census Reports – These reports are helpful in that they usually list the entire family and the ages of each person. Therefore they can help you learn how many family members there were and also maybe provide you with a street address for your family that you weren’t aware of.
- Draft Cards – I found both of my great-grandparents draft cards. They both immigrated from Italy, but fought in the was as US soldiers. These cards told me so much about them, and they were in their own handwriting! In my case, my great-grandfather listed his profession as a self-junk dealer which prompted more stories from my grandmother of how he used to collect old newspapers and sell them to people that would have a need for them.
- Other Important Documents – Some of the most important documents include birth certificates and marriage certificates. These are harder to find online, but if you can get them from your relatives, you can use the information on them to find more documentation online such as some of the documents I have listed above.
The world wide web is a wonderful thing when used wisely, and these online genealogy sites, again made me feel like an Italian Genealogy expert when I was a novice at doing this kind of research.
Italian Genealogy Research Step #3 – Try to Find Living Relatives in Italy
If you followed the first two steps, odds are that you have the names of the village(s) where your Italian ancestors were from (or still live). In this section, I am going to share with you a great strategy that I used to find living relatives in Italy.
- Visit this website: https://www.paginebianche.it/
- Enter the last name of your relatives and the village they are from at the top of the webpage.
- Then click the button that says ‘Trova,’ which means ‘find’ in Italian.
The site will return the addresses and phone numbers of anyone with that last name in the Village you indicated. I did this for both my relatives in Salerno and in Sicily and found contact names in both.
Then you can reach out to these people. Remember, there is no guarantee that they are related to you, but odds are good since these villages are so small. You can either try to call them if you can speak Italian, or write them letters.
I wrote them all letters in English and then translated them using Google Translate and then sent them out in Italian.
Believe it or not, I received responses from both families and in both instances, I was able to 100% confirm that they were my relatives! I started building a relationship with them and knew I had to go and meet them.
I didn’t find this treasure of a website in any Italian Genealogy articles or resources, I just found it on Google when I was doing some research, but what a find!
Italian Genealogy Research Step #4 – Plan a Trip to Visit your Ancestral Villages
Okay, now this step is a big one, and I know it may not be financially feasible for everyone, but if it is, you must do it. Visiting my ancestral villages was one of the richest experiences of my life, and also the step that really made me feel like I was successful in my Italian genealogy research. I wrote about the feelings I experienced in the second part of my book Forty Days in Italy.
To help you with this step, I want to provide you with some guidelines from my experience that might make planning a trip easier and the trip more affordable. A trip to Italy is an essential part of Italian genealogy research.
- Cast a Vision for the Trip – Create a clear vision of what you hope to take away from your trip. Is your goal to see many historical and tourist sites? Visit your ancestors’ birthplaces? Or maybe both?
- Timing Matters – Select times of the year that will best help you to achieve your vision for your trip based on any scheduling limitations you have. I recommend traveling during off-peak seasons if possible; your trip will cost less and there will be fewer crowds.
- Length of Stay – Select a length for your trip that will also allow you to achieve your vision. Again, you may have limitations due to work or other responsibilities, but I recommend trying to stay for at least two to two-and-a-half weeks, especially if you plan to do some Italian genealogy research while there.
- Location, Location, Location – Decide on the regions of Italy you want to visit, again based on your vision for your trip. If your time and budget permit, consider spending one portion of the trip sightseeing and the other portion visiting family or ancestral villages. If you are lucky, maybe you can do both in the same region of Italy.
- Save Money with Travel Rewards – Use travel rewards to save money on transportation to and from Italy. There are many good credit card rewards programs available and air travel rewards are a great way to save a substantial amount of money.
- Getting Around – Travel wisely within Italy; use trains as often as possible as rental cars and car services can be expensive. That being said, if you prefer to travel by car, attempt to book drivers and rentals in advance of your trip. When renting a car, opt for manual transmission if possible to save money.
- Saving on Room and Board – Consider saving money by renting apartments through websites like AirBnB and Booking.com instead of using hotels—especially if you are traveling with children or other relatives. Also consider shopping at supermarkets and cooking in your apartment to save even more money.
- When to Spend Money – You can spend your money as you see fit of course, however I recommend that you spend on items that are truly important to you and your family, like tours and other educational resources, excursions, travel upgrades (where it makes sense), and, of course, safety.
I know that this gives you a lot of things to consider, but by implementing a few of these items, you can save thousands of dollars—and possibly stay in Italy longer.
Italian Genealogy Research Step #5 – Learn the Italian Language
Alright, so this step isn’t as easy as it sounds. Learn the Italian language? Seriously? Whether or not you travel to Italy as part of your Italian genealogy research, learning Italian will help you in your research efforts. Even from here in the US, you might have to call the Commune (Village Hall) in one of your ancestral villages, or hopefully get to speak with relatives over Facebook or Skype.
I spent a year leading up to my forty day trip to Italy learning Italian and I became conversational. I knew that doing this was critical if I was going to maximize my Italian genealogy research while in Italy, but also just to enjoy and connect with my relatives there.
Here are some language learning tips that I can share with you based on my experience:
- Start with a vision. This step requires only some thought and a blank piece of paper. Set goals for what level of Italian you want to progress to by the time of your trip. This will not only be affected by the amount of time you have until your trip—but also by your budget. For example, if you have a sizeable budget, then you can work with a language teacher on a weekly basis—or perhaps even more often.
- Learn the alphabet again. Start simple. I recommend starting the process by learning the alphabet, as well as the pronunciation of key letter combinations. I don’t have specific books for this step, but I recommend you start by visiting your public library and taking out children’s books and DVDs on learning Italian.
- Use song to make learning fun. Before getting into vocabulary, sing songs in Italian that will allow you to get used to pronouncing these new sounds. Not only will this be fun, but it will also make conversations easy when the time comes, as it will help you get used to the pace of the Italian language. I sang Bocelli’s Time to Say Goodbye over and over. Here’s a video of me singing in Italian.
- Learn Consistently Through Different Formats. To learn a new language, you must work on that language every day. Doing so through various formats will make it easier. For example, I mentioned that I listened to a free podcast and also read a book on Italian Grammar. [Resources: Coffee Break Italian Podcast at RadioLingua.com, and the book Living Italian: A Grammar Based Approach by Maria Valgimigli & Derek Aust]
- Create Accountable Conversation. You must converse in Italian as often as possible to become conversational. Obviously spending time in Italy is the best way to do this, however I was able to find instructors and native Italian speakers to engage with over Skype prior to my trip abroad. You should also consider local community schools that often offer affordable, small-group Italian classes. [Resource: italki.com]
In addition to those indicated above, here are some other language learning resources: • fluentin3months.com (website) • duolingo.com (website) • rocketlanguages.com (website) • Italian Now! Level 1: L’italiano d’oggi! By Marcel Danesi, Ph.D. (book)
Remember, speaking a new language is not a skill you are born with—but anyone can learn languages with some consistent hard work and determination, and it will make the world of a difference in your Italian genealogy research efforts.
Italian Genealogy Research Step #6 – Maximize your Time in Italy by Being Prepared
This is an important step in the process. If you have followed the first 5 steps and are planning to visit Italy to possibly meet family members, or just to do more research, you MUST be prepared.
Here is a simple list of items you can do to prepare for your trip:
- Bring copies of all of your important documentation like relatives birth certificates, marriage certificates, ship manifests, etc.
- If you don’t have much information, do your absolute best to have the birth year of your relatives. As I stated earlier, if you know the Village and have the birth year, you can go to the Comune in Italy and obtain the birth certificate.
- Consider hiring someone in Italy to accompany you to the Comune to translate and assist you. This is especially important if you do not have relatives in Italy and you can’t speak Italian. Even if you can speak Italian, it is still worth it to have someone local, who can speak the local dialect, to help you. This can literally be the difference as to whether or not you find the information you are looking for. I interviewed Helene Stapinski author of the wonderful book Murder in Matera and she claims that a big part of the reason she was able to solve her Italian family’s murder mystery is because she hired two individuals in Italy ahead of her own trip back there.
- Be absolutely sure that the Comune or other locations you plan to visit to search for records are open. I drove two hours to Sarno, only to find out the Comune was closed for the day. Remember, many Southern Italian villages still practice the afternoon siesta also known as Riposo, so everything is closed for a period of time after lunch.
Your time in Italy will most likely be limited, you must take full advantage of it.
Italian Genealogy Research Step #7 – Never Stop Doing Family History Research
If you actually made it all the way to the end of this post, I commend you! Italian Genealogy research is analogous to this post. It’s a long process and can be arduous, but it can also be rewarding if you do it consistently and follow through.
Please know that you are never finished doing family research. There is always more to uncover, which is what makes it such an interesting subject.
You must persevere through the valleys of your research to get those peaks like I experienced when I found my great-grandfather Antonio’s birth certificate in the Comune in the Village where he was born. I detail this story and share photos in my book Forty Days in Italy.
I hope I have proven to you that you DON’T have to be an Italian Genealogy expert to discover your family history. Just follow these steps, and you will find some level of success.
Author of Forty Days in Italy Con La Mia Famiglia
In his mid-thirties, Anthony Fasano grew tired of always telling people that he was of Italian origin, but not really knowing what that meant. He has since made it a mission to discover everything he can about his family history and also help other Italian Americans do the same. Anthony co-founded The Italian American Experience and built The Italian American Podcast to help Italian Americans deepen their heritage. He also followed the steps in this post to learn about his family history, find living relatives in Italy and spend forty days with them in the summer of 2016. Anthony Fasano details the journey and the exact steps taken in his book Forty Days in Italy Con La Mia Famiglia.