In its most general sense, the term genealogy refers to the study of family history, while encompassing such related fields as ethnology, onomatology and --in rather few cases-- heraldry. It is important to bear in mind that genealogy forms part of the framework of general history. The best genealogist is a competent historian, but also a good detective. While a knowledge of such topics as kinship, languages, paleography and canon law are important, the non-professional family historian cannot be expected to learn everything about these subjects. For the majority of Italian descendants embarking upon the quest for ancestral knowledge, the most important thing to know is where to obtain the necessary assistance as it is required. The purpose of this concise guide is provide you with the means to chart your course to the path of discovery of your Italian ancestors. In other words, to offer you some sound advice.
There has been a strong custom in Italy that determines how children are named:
The first male is named after his paternal grandfather.
The second male is named after his maternal grandfather.
The first female is named after her paternal grandmother.
The second female is named after her maternal grandmother.
Investigative and genealogical research pertaining to adopted ancestors or those ancestors born outside marriage presents particular challenges. While each case is unique, certain generalities can be considered based upon the nature of social conditions, as well as available records. For the most part, we shall consider such generalities as related to civil (vital statistics) records, as opposed to church records (parochial acts of baptism, marriage, etc.). Historical topics relate to births from circa 1810 to circa 1860; subsequent births will be said to be contemporary, births in the twentieth century being considered investigative cases rather than genealogical research projects per se.
The typical Italian lineage dates from circa 1600, and for most of us that's reasonably profound. But who wants to be "typical" when you might be able to trace a lineage into the 1500s or even into the Middle Ages? Because success in this field requires practice and perseverance, as well as skills more specialized than those needed to perform research in modern records, very few genealogists are involved in medieval research. However, even the genealogist who does not engage in medieval projects can benefit from knowing how it is pursued. Here's a general guide.
The most important factor to consider in the development of profound lineages is the availability of records. In many instances, the records that would facilitate such extensive pedigrees simply don't exist. In other cases, however, these records exist and may even be accessible, but first you have to know what you're looking for and how to interpret it once you've found it..
Which conditions may have an effect - positive or negative - on your Italian family history project. The following insights, based on many years of experience in Italy, pertain to factors that have very little to do with Italian genealogy per se, but involve vast cultural differences that influence archival access, documentation and research progress. Research conducted in Italian records (such as microfilms) outside Italy does not bring the researcher into direct contact with these factors. However, the researcher who deals directly with those responsible for Italian records retained in Italy will probably encounter challenging conditions at some point. These involve, among others, factors such as negotiation for archival access, apathetic attitudes on the part of civil or church officials, and the lengthy delays imposed by these issues.
Contrary to popular belief, not all Italian given names have Christian or classical roots. Many names encountered in older records are almost whimsical, and some cannot be translated into Latin or any other language. In order to avoid possible mistranscription of a given name with which the researcher may be unfamiliar, it is helpful to know some of these names, or in most cases at least the onomastic patterns on which they are based.