19 March 2024

5 Tips for Success with Italian Vital Records

In 2009 I began a long process of viewing 1809–1860 vital records from my grandfather's hometown. I had to pay to view the microfilmed records at a Family History Center on crummy old equipment once or twice a week. In 2017 the same documents came online in pristine high resolution.

I didn't begin this journey with any knowledge of Italian vital records. I figured it out with experience. And so can you—especially with these 5 tips for success.

These 5 tips will make you an Italian vital record expert.
These 5 tips will make you an Italian vital record expert.

1. You Need to Know the Name of the Town

Before you can find a vital record for your Italian ancestor, you must know their hometown. Why? Because they keep vital records in a book. One book per year, one type of record (birth, marriage, or death) per book. And each book is for ONE TOWN only.

I'm lucky my grandfathers were vocal about the names of their hometowns. My grandmothers were another story. On one side, we had my great grandmother's obsolete town name in her heavy accent. It took some sleuthing to figure that one out, but I did (read how in "Case Study on 'What If There's No There There?'"). On the other side, we had one generalization and one misunderstood town name.

As recently as 2002, my grandmother's sister said what I'd always heard about her side of the family. They came from Pastina (like the tiny star-shaped pasta, but accent on the PAS) and Avellino. There are a few towns in Italy named Pastina, plus the similar Pastena and Pastene. It was my family's 1898 ship manifest that pinpointed the location. It's Pastene, a hamlet of the town on their ship manifest: Sant'Angelo a Cupolo.

As for Avellino, it's both a city and a province filled with about 118 towns. I used an unlikely resource to find out which town in Avellino is my ancestral hometown. My great grandmother's brother's World War II draft registration card said he was born in Tofo, Avellino. There is no Tofo, but there's a Tufo, and that's where I found his birth record. (See "Case Study on 'Where Did Grandpa Come From?'") But his parents, my 2nd great grandparents, did not marry there. The Tufo vital records led me to the neighboring town of Santa Paolina, Avellino. That's where I found their 1871 marriage record.

So, before you search for any Italian vital records, figure out that town name. See "6 Places to Discover Your Ancestor's Town of Birth."

2. Learn a Few Basic Words

I didn't know how to read Italian vital records when I began. But I dove right in and learned how. The most important thing you can do is learn:

  • Numbers. Years are rarely written out in digits. You won't see 1836. You'll see milleottocento trentasei. A person's age is also written in longhand most of the time.
  • Months. The Italian word for each month is not so different than the English word. Once you run through the list (linked below), febbraio, settembre, novembre, etc., should not slow you down.
  • Relationship words. Make note of the most common relationship words found on vital records and you'll soon get used to them. Padre and madre should come as no surprise, but you need to know:
    • vedovo/vedova (widower/widow)
    • marito (husband)
    • moglie (wife)
    • avo/ava (grandfather/grandmother)
    • zio/zia (uncle/aunt)
    • padre ignoto (father unknown), madre ignoto (mother unknown), genitori ignoti (parents unknown)
    • levatrice or ostetrica (midwife)
    • projetto/a or proietto/a (foundling)

For all these words and more, go to the Italian Genealogical Word List on FamilySearch.org.

As you go along, you'll see that different types of records have their own format. On birth records, you'll first find the name, occupation, and age of the person reporting the birth. It's usually the father of the baby, but it can be the midwife or a grandparent of the baby. Then you'll see the mother's name, occupation, and age, and finally the actual date of birth and the baby's name.

Death records begin with a couple of witnesses. They do not have to be relatives, and usually aren't. Then comes the name of the deceased and their father and mother's names.

Marriage records tell you the groom's name and details, including his parents' names. Then comes the same information about the bride.

Practice picking out the key words, and don't get bogged down in all the boilerplate language. Remember: Any word or name is a shape. You can recognize that the shape of my name, DiAnn, is different than the shape of my aunt's name, Stella. Your job is to scan a vital record for the shape you're looking to find.

Remember, too, that a lot of people in any given town may have the same name. When this happens, a person's name is followed by their father's name. Samuele Consolazio is listed as Samuele Consolazio di Florentino. If Florentino were dead at the time, it would say Samuele Consolazio fu Florentino. This can be a very valuable clue.

3. Find the Index Pages

Whether you're looking on the essential Antenati, FamilySearch, or elsewhere, a search-by-name is never enough. The reason is simple. Not every document is searchable by name. You're going to have to put your eyes on the pages.

Most often you'll find a name index at the back of each vital records book. Sometimes, though, the index comes first or it's near (not at) the end. Keep in mind:

  • The index may list the names:
    • Chronologically by date of birth, marriage, or death.
    • Alphabetically by first name.
    • Alphabetically by last name.
  • If it's a list of marriages, the man's name always comes first. Sometimes the index omits the bride altogether.
  • The best indexes will name the person and their parents (or at least their father). That way, if you're looking for Giuseppe Bianco who was the son of Giovanni, you don't have to waste time paging through to see a record for Giuseppe Bianco who was the son of Nicola.

Do not for a moment think you can't find what you want in an index because you don't read Italian. You can read Italian names! Giuseppe, Giovanni, Pietro, Annamaria, Mariangela, Liberantonia. Do you need to understand Italian to read those names? Scour the index for the name you're seeking. Then see if the index gives you either a record number or a date to go to in the book.

4. Don't Believe Their Age

If a marriage record states the bride and groom's ages, they're pretty reliable. Why? Because a couple marrying in Italy had to provide their birth record. People didn't have their birth certificates at home like we do. But a clerk would locate the original record and write out a copy.

In my experience, the stated ages on death records in the 1930s and 1940s are also reliable. I've never found one that was more than a year off.

The rest of the time, do not take the stated age as gospel. Many people honestly didn't know how old they were! In my ancestral hometowns, nearly everyone was illiterate. They were hard-working farmers or tradespeople. It's not like today where every visit to the doctor or drug store requires you to give your date of birth. They could easily forget how old they were. Even I have to do the math if you ask me how old my husband is.

Here's a good rule to follow: The earlier a clerk records someone's age, the more reliable it is. Let's say a baby is born in 1822 and the birth record says both parents are 40 years old. That would mean they were born in 1782. Then you find a much earlier baby, born to the same couple in 1810. The record says both parents are 22 years old. That means they were born in 1788.

The 1810 record is more reliable because the couple has had less time to forget when they were born. If you're only 22 years old, you're more like to be correct when stating your age than you are 12 years later.

It's very common to find a person's age misstated on their death record (outside of the 1930s and 1940s). So, believe the earlier record. If their child's birth record says they were born in 1788, but their death record says 1782, believe the earlier document.

5. Go Through All the Marriage Documents

Depending on the year and the town, you may find a jackpot of records associated with the marriages. These are called the matrimoni allegati or the matrimoni processetti. They're not kept with the marriage record or the banns (the matrimoni pubblicazioni).

This valuable packet of documents can include:

  • The bride and groom's birth/baptism records.
  • The death record of either mother, giving you her parents' names.
  • The death record of either father, as well as their fathers' death records. Now you know the names of the bride and/or groom's paternal great grandparents!
  • The death record of a previous spouse. If there were 2 previous spouses, you'll see only the more recent one's death record.

One of my ancestral hometowns in Benevento has matrimoni processetti online for 1817–1860. My ancestral hometown in Avellino has no processetti at all! But most of that town's marriage records include all the pertinent dates of birth and death.

I recently discovered that one of my great uncles married a woman from a neighboring town. That town's matrimoni processetti gave me the names of a pair of my missing 5th great grandparents!

I see people asking for an Italian vital record translation every single day on Facebook. I'm happy to help them, but I believe they're not really trying. If you do only one thing from this list, it should be #2: Learn a Few Basic Words. Don't let another language frighten you—especially a language that uses your alphabet. Train yourself to scan for familiar shapes: names, numbers, months, relationship words. If you can do that, you'll be able to handle almost every document all by yourself. And think how far you'll get!


  1. All very good advice for searching in Italy, if only the documents were available for me before 1860 in the region where my ancestors come from! But your five tips are also very true when your search leads you to the French archives of each department in France. Your tip about the language is the same for French and also Latin that was the Church language until the revolution. I am cheating since I am French, but I had to do what you said for Italian and Latin records. Annick H.

  2. Annick, I'm grateful for your comment because the rules do hold true for other languages. I even got used to Latin documents by learning the basic words & numbers using the Family Search Wiki. My grandmother's family is very limited because the family town was part of the Papal States, and they didn't start keeping records until 1861. It's so frustrating!

  3. Thanks for this great advice. After 40+ years of doing genealogy I took on Italian research last year for my daughter-in-law's maternal grandmother in Castelpizzuto. I did exactly what you have described and I relied heavily on familysearch's Italian genealogy word glossary to decipher documents and in no time it made sense and was easy to follow. I had noticed that ages seem to fluctuate so good to know its fairly common. It too bad Antenti records end at 1900 (at least they do for the towns I have focused on) as I have a couple of lines that I really need that early 1900s marriage to confirm parentage. Any suggestions? Thx again. Steve M.

    1. You may be able to view newer records in person at the state archives in Isernia. Otherwise, you can hire someone in Italy to seek out the records you want. Also take advantage of DNA matches and online trees. You may find someone who has the info you want.