Civil vital records are an important starting point for American genealogists to begin searching for their Italian roots. Once the ancestral hometown in Italy is discovered, they are one of the first sources that should be consulted. Dating from the early nineteenth century, these registers document the lives of the large group of New Wave Italian immigrants, who came to the United States between 1890 and 1914, back in the home country. They include births, publication of banns, marriages, and deaths. Napoleon introduced the idea of using civil in addition to ecclesiastical records to document vital information about individuals in his empire. This system first emerged in what is now Italy in the French controlled Southern and Central regions; but by 1870, the newly unified nation of Italy had extended this practice throughout the remainder of the country.
In order to read Italian civil vital records, only a basic knowledge of the Italian language is required. In contrast to Catholic parish registers, which were often composed in Latin, civil records were written almost entirely in Italian. Each of the civil record types, birth, publication of banns, marriage, and death, follows a unique formulaic pattern. Reading a few of each will familiarize the genealogist with the terminology needed to successfully trace his or her ancestry.
There are several nuances that the genealogist encounters when using this source. Annual indexes, normally located at the end of each book, provide quick reference to the person of interest. However, occasionally the index is in alphabetical order by given name rather than surname, and in many instances decennial indexes also exist. Beware that there are multiple dates listed in a single document. For example, in a birth act the date at the beginning of the record is when the birth was registered, the actual birthdate not appearing until later in the text. In marriage and death acts, the preposition fu, positioned before the name of a parent, indicates that the parent is deceased. If the preposition di (literally of) and a given name follows the surname of an individual, such as Vincenzo di Lauro di Michele, the record is stating that Vincenzo di Lauro is the son of Michele di Lauro, who is living. Pay close attention to marginal notes listed by the entry as they often contain marital, emigration, or death information. Also be careful not to confuse the witnesses–whose names, ages, and occupations are listed–with the parental data.
In order to locate the civil registration records of interest to your family tree, first identify the comune to which your ancestral hometown or village pertained. Civil vital records are stored at the township level (comune) and a township often has jurisdiction over several villages (frazioni). Many nineteenth century Italian civil vital records are available on microfilm from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and its 3,400 satellite Family History Centers located throughout the world. Use the place search of their on-line library catalog (available at: http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHLC/frameset_fhlc.asp), to find your township. Follow the link labeled Civil registration to identify the filmed records. If your registers are not available on microfilm, you can request an extract of the original document from the civil vital records office (ufficio de stato civile) of the township of interest in Italy. For additional information on obtaining an extract, consult a good Italian genealogical reference book such as Italian Genealogical Records by Trafford R. Cole.