Sicily Genealogy and Family History

Discovering a living legacy over generations

Discovering a living legacy over generations

In Sicily the existence of genealogical records and the use of a surname in a specific family over many centuries often permits a lineage to be traced, generation by generation, to circa 1500. Sicily’s oldest baptismal and marriage records date to around that time, with tax census records (rivelli and catasti) every few decades from the same period. No other place on earth offers such extensive genealogical information over so many centuries for so much of its population. Based on the preservation of these records, at least 50% of Sicilians can trace lineages well into the sixteenth century; in a parish archive one morning we traced the lineage of an ordinary (non-aristocratic) family in the Nebrodi Mountains from 1850 directly to 1550, and later supplemented this with land census records. (In most of Europe, by comparison, a proven, generation-by-generation pedigree to 1600 is exceptional.) Sicily also enjoys Europe’s best-preserved feudal (land) records, permitting ready identification of the successive owners of feudal estates from the late Middle Ages until the nineteenth century. (Few regions of Europe enjoy anything comparable.)

Relatively little of this information – particularly for the centuries before 1800 – is available online (Wikipedia presently has no entry for Sicilian genealogy) or in other secondary sources; scans and microfilms for pre-1800 may not be very legible. The challenge is finding what interests you. A general strategy follows.

Firstly, you should speak Italian reasonably proficiently in order to communicate with people who can help you, and you’ll have to be able to read the information they provide.

The most useful records you can consult at provincial state archives (usually open weekday mornings) are vital statistics acts of birth, marriage and death between 1820 and 1860. Concentrate on acts of birth and marriage rather than acts of death, which do not provide as much accurate information which will advance a lineage. This presumes that you can read nineteenth-century Italian script and are familiar enough with Italian social history to understand the historical context of the information you are reading. (Sicilian weddings, for example, entailed certain traditional practices, and country life was different from city life.) You’ll have to fill out a few forms to consult these records, and photocopying is not permitted, but you may order scans.

The vital statistics office of the town hall may be able to assist with more recent records, but due to privacy laws usually will not allow you to consult these directly, and in larger localities the personnel might be too busy to help you very much. Parochial records, which are handwritten in Latin, are useful for periods before 1820, but pastors are often reluctant to grant direct access to these old registers, and in any event are not obligated to assist you; many are downright uncooperative. While it is never a guarantee of success, an offering (in advance) to the parish is presumed if you hope to have access to the archive. It should be at least two hundred euros in banknotes, sent via courier or registered post with a polite letter requesting access. Tax census records (described in the chart below) can also be useful in some cases.

Until around 1880, some seventy percent of Italians (Sicilians as well as Lombards, Tuscans and Piedmontese) were illiterate tenant farmers, farm workers, and day workers. Most owned a house and perhaps a small parcel of land. About twenty percent were skilled craftsmen, scholars, jurists and other professionals. Except in the rare case of an aristocratic or professional family, your Sicilian ancestry will reflect these demographic realities.

If you can’t research yourself, you may be better off employing a professional genealogist to research your family history, and costs are not usually prohibitive.

But don’t expect free services. If your heritage is worth anything to you, plan to spend at least Euro 500.00 to discover it; no professional genealogist in Sicily will accept a project for much less.

A professional will also be more objective, better able to distinguish genealogical fact from family folklore, and is more likely to be able to produce accurate results, even if months or years are required. Beware of firms that sell coats of arms or attach one to a genealogy they’ve researched for you. Several “distinguished” research firms based in Florence are infamous for this practice. In Italy, only noble families (barons, counts, et al.) are entitled to coats of arms; nobody can ethically claim the coat of arms of a family with which he is unrelated just because he coincidentally shares a surname with that family.

Some people would like to visit Sicily to meet distant cousins, but telephoning people who happen to share your ancestor’s surname in an attempt to foster ties with distant relatives is never advised.

They may not be related to you closely enough to determine precise kinship, and they probably will not welcome your intrusion into their privacy.

It’s best to approach these folks indirectly by sending letters a few months before you go to Sicily, enclosing a clear, simple family tree (like the pedigree shown here) indicating lineage at least from the mid-1800s. For a fee, a competent genealogist can assist you in constructing such a chart. This should be a lineal tree showing descent from a single ancestor or couple in the direct male line, not a multilineal pedigree like the ones favored by the Mormons and most American genealogists. Telephone or email only those people who express a willingness to meet you.

You will find that Italian genealogical research is an eclectic subject. Don’t believe everything you read in web sites, books and magazine articles dedicated to Italian genealogy, especially those published in English (even when these are published by genealogical organizations). Being written by foreigners or amateurs who have little genuine knowledge of Italian history, most of these works are full of historical misinformation and inaccuracies serious enough to impede your success in identifying your ancestors. Understandably, most of the folks who research their own family histories rely a great deal on the stories they’ve heard from their grandparents, but the discovery of genuine family history requires much more than this. Tour of Sicily is not a genealogical service. We do not undertake searches either for dead ancestors or living relatives. At best, we may be able to recommend a genealogist, but we cannot respond to personal queries of a genealogical nature or requests for free advice, such as “Can you help me find my uncle in Agrigento?” or “Please send me the genealogy of Giovanni De Carlo born in Castrogiovanni on May 4th 1878.” The right person for these tasks is a competent genealogical researcher

Genetic Research

Beyond actual documentary records, currently available genetic (DNA) analysis is useful in establishing kinship with cousins through the patrilineal line of ascent (i.e. your father’s father’s father et al.). As this corresponds with surname inheritance, its value to genealogical research is obvious. Genetic analysis in female matrilineal research (your mother’s mother etc.) is less practical in genealogy. See our genetic genealogy page for more information.

Research Strategy

Here’s the basic one for Sicily which gets results at least 90% of the time.

1) Unless you already have a precise knowledge of ancestral information before 1860, consult the stato civile records of birth, marriage and death at the municipio (town hall) in the locality where the ancestor lived. This is the only place to consult records from 1860 to the present. Some town halls retain the records from 1820 until 1860 (duplicates of those at the provincial state archives) as well, but many do not. You may not be permitted to search the records personally, on your own, but they do exist. Make an appointment for this at least a month in advance of your arrival.

2) To extend the line backward in time, consult the stato civile records at the provincial state archive for periods from 1820 until 1860. The processetti matrimoniali (marriage document attachments) may also be available, depending on province.

3) Assuming you have established the lineage to circa 1790 with civil records, the next step is the parochial archive. Be warned that access may require prior approval from the bishop. Catholic parishes are not obligated to assist you, and with the dearth of pastors and personnel it is quite possible you will be denied access. Whereas the LDS Church has microfilmed many civil records, that is not usually the case for church records. As we mentioned, you should make a substantial offering, in advance, if you hope to consult these records, and episcopal permission may be necessary nevertheless. Remember that some localities have more than one historical parish, and therefore more than one archive to consult. This is obviously true in larger cities but even occurs in some towns. In that event, you may end up alternating research between parishes.

4) As supplementary records, you may wish to consult the rivelli, the Sicilian version of the catasti. These are available at the Palermo state archive. Microfilms of these documents are not always legible, especially for those prior to the 18th century. Some are conserved from circa 1500. The most useful riveli are those up to and including the one for 1748; those for the 19th century (beginning in 1811) list property and sometimes the paternity of each taxpayer but not the names of his wife and children. Land plots listed in the riveli may be identified by their locations in manors (or fiefs); this is where feudal and nobiliary records come into play even for families which aren’t descended from the aristocracy. Some knowledge of feudalism may be helpful here.

5) The significance of these records is explained in the following chart (links open to examples) and in our introductory article. Local histories have been published for many towns, and these are sometimes useful as they may provide maps and might even mention the family you are researching.

Professional Genealogal Research Assistance

We’re often asked to recommend a genealogist and we can sometimes do so if you email us indicating the nature and locality of the research. 

The Records: now that you have at least a suggested research strategy, the following chart describes important genealogical records sources in Sicily. The numbers in the column headed by an asterisk (*) indicate the relative level of expertise required to effectively use these records, level 5 reflecting the highest degree of training. Several descriptions link to images of the documents mentioned, which will open in a pop-up window (please activate this feature in your browser’s preferences) or – if you’re using a tablet – a new tab.

RecordDescriptionSource*Consultation, Observations
Vital Statistic Acts
Acts of birth, marriage, death, some adoptions.Stato Civile office of the Municipio (city hall).1-2Public access usually restricted to ensure privacy, especially for acts after 1910. Better to request certificate for act that interests you. By post, send request (in Italian) enclosing €10.00 per certificate, asking for estratto (extract) if you want parentage indicated.
Vital Statistic Acts
Acts of birth, marriage, death, some adoptions.Provincial Archive of State (Archivio di Stato), more rarely Municipio Stato Civile office.2Several volumes may be consulted each day at Provincial Archive of State; some have been microfilmed by LDS Church (Mormons).
Processetti MatrimonialiMarriage background documents.Provincial Archive of State for some (but not all) provinces.3These documents required for marriages before 1860 sometimes include acts of baptism or death for spouses’ parents.
Parochial ActsActs of baptism, marriage, death, some confirmation and parish census records.Parish archive. Note that some towns had more than one parish.3-5Access usually restricted. Recorded in Latin script, sometimes in Greek for Eastern Rite parishes (in Greek & Albanian towns). Oldest acts may date from circa 1530, a few from circa 1500. Paleography skills required, especially for acts before circa 1700.
RivelliTax census records.Tribunale del Real Patrimonio and Deputazione del Regno, retained at Archive of State of Palermo.4-5Similar to catasti of other regions, these registers date from circa 1500 for some localities. Recorded in old script in Italian, Sicilian, some Latin. List residents, with ages for males, taxable assets. Paleography skills necessary for older acts (before circa 1670).
Atti Notarili
Notarial ActsProvincial Archive of State.5Useful for searching dowries and land transfers, some wills. Catalogued by name of notary and unindexed. Page by page consultation is time consuming, often unproductive.
Heraldic & FeudalVarious recordsProvincial Archive of State, especially Palermo.3-5For identifying manors (fiefs) and noble families. Presumes knowledge of nobiliary and feudal law. Some works published in book form as heraldic armories.
Medieval ActsVarious records.Provincial Archive of State, especially Palermo.5Royal decrees, tabulari and other records relating to nobles, monasteries, etc. Usually in Latin. Genealogical value for all but aristocratic families limited but useful for some historical research.
Military Records
Service acts.Provincial Archive of State. Rarely preserved.2Limited genealogical value.

Opening the Door to Sicilian Genealogy

I vividly recall a conversation at White’s in London with a Scotsman and an Englishman who both expressed disappointment that neither could trace his family’s patrilineal ancestry (father to son, etc.) to a point earlier than around 1780. The Scot believed his family to be associated with a Highland clan, but that didn’t compensate for his lack of direct lineage through known ancestors. Both men were incredulous when I mentioned that my own family’s pedigree dated from around 1490, not merely as a vague outline but as an unbroken, generation-by-generation chain of descent from male ancestors bearing my surname. They asked whether it were a noble family and I explained that, no, it was a very “ordinary” family and that indeed most Sicilian pedigrees could be traced well into the sixteenth century.

Both men were further astonished when I remarked that White’s was founded by an Italian, but that’s another story. Let’s talk about what makes Sicilian genealogical research something different.

With the growing interest in family history – particularly in the US and the UK – it’s worth considering the question of Sicilian genealogy for those in the “Sicilian diaspora,” the descendants of Sicilians around the world.

The good news is that Sicily has the best, most complete genealogical records in the world, meaning that the majority of “ordinary” (non-aristocratic) Sicilians can trace a lineage to circa 1500. (Here “majority” means more than fifty percent but, realistically speaking, not ninety percent.)

European genealogists like to talk about the first Catholic parochial (church) records of baptisms, marriages and deaths beginning around the time of the Council of Trent in 1545. The problem is that in England (where the first were recorded in 1538), Ireland, France and the German states these have not always been preserved, while in Sicily they usually have been – barring a catastrophe like a church burning down or the registers being damaged by water or eaten by hungry country mice. What is more, some Catholic parishes in Sicily actually began recording these acts decades before 1545, as early as the latter years of the fifteenth century. The reality is that in most countries you are unlikely to find a record of this kind before 1600, and in fact it is quite exceptional to find one for the years before 1700. In Orthodox Europe (Russia, Greece, Romania, etc.) the parochial acts are rarely preserved for periods before 1800. Yes, there are occasional exceptions to these generalities, and with luck you’ll encounter one if you’re researching in those countries.

Sicilian Jewish genealogy presents special challenges; by 1500 most Sicilians were Roman Catholic, though a few Albanian immigrant parishes belonged to the Byzantine Rite and recorded their earliest parochial acts in Greek. An interesting point here is that in Sicily the names and surnames of many medieval Jews (and Christian converts or anusim after 1493) are known, while in central and eastern Europe few Jewish families even had hereditary surnames before being ordered to assume them by the Russian and Austrian emperors circa 1800.

Civil records (vital statistics acts of birth, marriage and death) were widely instituted in Europe during the nineteenth century, but here again inception varies greatly from one place to another. In southern peninsular Italy the first ones date from 1809. The first in Sicily are in 1820 (in most of northern Italy they began circa 1865). For comparison, in England the vital statistics records began in 1837, and in 1855 in Scotland and in 1864 in Ireland. But in practice a Sicilian marriage record from 1820 may be much more useful than its date implies because it may include marriage contract documents called processetti matrimoniali, attachments such as baptism certificates of the spouses and information about their parents, and this can extend a lineage well into the eighteenth century. The Sicilian vital records also list occupations and places of residence and some contain ancestors’ signatures. Civil records before 1860 list the subject’s parish, thereby giving the genealogist a good idea of where to pursue the next phase of research into the past.

Census records are very important. These took various forms and in most of Europe they were extremely rare before the eighteenth century. The earliest one conserved in England is from 1841, the country’s first ever being taken in 1801.

In Sicily the principal census record is the rivelo (somewhat similar to the catasti of other regions), which is chiefly a land tax record that lists homes, each registrant’s parentage, spouse and children. Everybody is listed, even if all he owned was a house or a horse. Here is where the records of the Kingdom of Sicily shine. This state existed in some form from 1130 to 1860, and a detailed rivelo was taken every few decades from the end of the fifteenth century into the nineteenth century. These have been preserved in a central archive, and genealogists sometimes consult them to fill in the blanks for an early period during which a parochial record does not exist – for example in a town founded in the Middle Ages but whose parish church records were destroyed in 1700. In practice, the riveli are much more than complementary information; they list land owned (with its general location) and sometimes provide an indication of citizens’ social status or professions.

Contrary to the myth about “landless peasants,” most of the people listed in the riveli of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the most prosperous state of pre-unitary Italy, owned a house and at least a tiny parcel of land.

Notary records are notoriously difficult to research, generally being unindexed and catalogued according to the name of the notary rather than by locality. As notaries were not limited by geographical jurisdiction, any notary could notarize any act anywhere in Sicily. Yet notaries certified land purchases, dowries and wills, and their acts, preserved at Palermo’s state archive, span over five centuries.

Land records take various forms. While they are typically identified with research on aristocratic lineages, the feudal records are worth mentioning because until the abolition of feudalism in 1812 most land – even small plots owned by ordinary people – was identified by the manor (fief) in which it was located. Typically, a town might have from a dozen to thirty manors of varying size surrounding it, and some modern frazioni and contrade are contiguous to these territories, bearing the names of the manors they once were. The earliest feudal compendia (comprehensive rolls) date from the Norman era, and England’s Domesday Book (completed in 1086) is the best known. The Catalogus Baronum was compiled in 1150 during the Kingdom of Sicily’s Norman period but the surviving copy only covers peninsular southern Italy. For Sicily itself, the so-called Roll of Muscia was compiled in 1296. At issue is the question of preservation of documents recording continuous feudal succession, from one owner to the next, over the centuries. In Sicily these records date from circa 1458 (in some cases earlier) until 1812 and are retained in a central public registry, with basic details published in book form in the twentieth century. In most cases, establishing a historical chain of ownership of feudal property over several centuries is not too difficult.

This makes identifying historical possession of feudal lands (manors, baronies, counties, etc.) in the Kingdom of Sicily a fairly straightforward process, and it is not at all unusual to consult actual, original feudal land transfer documents dating from 1500. Although England’s earliest extant feudal record, Domesday Book, pre-dates Sicily’s Roll of Muscia by two centuries, that nation’s public depository (H.M. Land Registry) was established only in 1862, and many English feudal records are still in private hands (in formats such as the “pipe rolls”). This sometimes complicates the identification of legitimate holders of the manorial lordships mentioned in Domesday Book. No such problems await Sicilian researchers.

There are other records. While in Sicily few of the libri memoriales of the monasteries have been preserved, a few parishes have lists of parishioners going back to an early date, and there are, of course, published compilations of medieval pedigrees.

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