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Written by John Cofrancesco   
Saturday, 02 August 2008

A Brief History of Italian Parish and Civil Vital Records(1)

archivio1.jpgPrior to the mid 1500s records of births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths in Italy are practically nonexistent, with the few exceptions of those found for nobility and other people of note.  In 1545 the Council of Trent was convened for the purpose of reforming certain practices and doctrines of Catholicism.  The work of the Council was concluded in 1563.  Among the many basic procedures, doctrines, and practices that it established was a requirement that every parish priest would maintain written records of the baptisms, marriages, and deaths of all parishioners.  No details were set forth concerning the format for these records or even the language in which they were to be written.  As a result each priest recorded the basic information that was required in a handwritten documents using a format and language of his preference.  Some were written in Latin, some in classic Italian, and others in various Italian dialects.  No copies were made of the original, which was kept in the individual parishes.

Some parishes started to keep these records as early as 1545, but most were started in the period from 1563 to 1595.  Initially one parish may have served people in a widely scattered area, but as populations grew or shifted new parishes developed.  These parishes initiated their own record keeping, leaving prior records for their parishioners in their former parishes.  In some cases parishes were abandoned, leading to uncertainty as to the disposition of the records.

The records themselves were usually written on goatskin or low quality paper using homemade ink.  Measures were seldom taken to store the records in a protected environment, often ending up in damp basements where they were damaged by moisture or eaten by insects.  Some were lost in fires or otherwise destroyed.  Since no copies were made, once the original was lost the information was gone forever.

andreaappiani_napoleonkingofitaly_1805-230.jpg No significant changes were made in the keeping of clerical records until Napoleon invaded Italy in 1797, and by 1806 took control of a large part of the country.  He enacted many administrative reforms, including the keeping of civil records.  These records had two important requirements.  First they were kept on standardized preprinted forms with blank spaces provided where handwritten information was to be recorded.  Second, a copy of the record was to be made and kept in a separate place from the original record. The benefits of these requirements are obvious.  The standard formats made records uniform and easier to read, and the copy maintained in a separate location helped to preserve the information should one version be lost or destroyed.  While these records, known as the Napoleonic Civil Records, were discontinued in some regions after 1815 when Napoleon lost power, the Church in Italy saw the benefits of the preprinted forms and copies of the records, and adopted these features into the clerical records.
With the unification of Italy between 1860 and 1870 the keeping of official State Civil Vital Records was initiated, based largely on the recording keeping system established by Napoleon.

Thus we see that while the State Civil Vital Records are a relatively new data base, and the Napoleonic Civil Records were not maintained, with some exceptions, for many years, clerical records were initiated in 1545, greatly improved in the early 1800s, and have been continually maintained to this very day.  Despite the difficulty of locating and interpreting many of the clerical records, they remain an invaluable resource for individuals engaged in genealogical research.

(1) Based on, Cole, Trafford R. Italian Genealogical Records: how to use Italian civil, ecclesiastical, and other records in family history research. Ancestry Incorporated, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1995
Last Updated ( Saturday, 02 August 2008 )
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