Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Tracing Italian Orphans & Illegitimate Children

Tracing Italian Lineages of Adoptees & Ancestors Born Outside Marriage
found at

Investigative and genealogical research pertaining to adopted ancestors or 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 base these generalities on 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.

Before embarking on any project involving an adoptive ancestor or one born outside marriage, it is important that the researcher acknowledge and comprehend several factors. From 1860 until 1929, the Italian state (i.e. the Kingdom of Italy) did not recognize Catholic marriages. Although it is true that both ecclesiastical and civil marriages were performed for most spousal unions in certain parts of Italy (such as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) in the decades before 1860, the Kingdom of Italy refused to recognize ecclesiastical marriages altogether. This means that an act of birth from, for example, 1875, might refer to a child as the son of "an unwed mother" who in fact was married in church but not at the town hall. Terms of one of the Lateran Treaties granted retroactive state recognition of these ecclesiastical marriages in 1929. Therefore, such acts must be confirmed by consultation of parochial records.

Hearsay may provide certain general information, but its legitimate research value usually correlates in some way (often inversely) to its social value. An unwed mother might have claimed, perhaps long after her child's birth and far away from the locality where she resided when she gave birth, that the natural father was a local aristocrat; families often perpetuated such stories to salvage the dignity of both mother and child. A genealogist, however, would require more than a merely circumstantial "allegation" of paternity in such a case-namely, a formal act of recognition sworn by the natural father before the vital statistics registrar.

An act of recognition would not have "legitimized" such a child for purposes such as succession to a title of nobility, though it may have allowed him, if only under very particular conditions, to inherit certain other paternal property, but in any event a married man would not likely consent to acknowledge publicly that he had committed adultery or fornication. The principle of legitimacy relates to crown (statutory) and church (canon) laws too complex to be described in detail here. Illegitimacy in Italy has never been as rigidly defined as in English law, which distinguishes, for example, between "bastards" and "adulterine bastards." Canon law formerly dictated that only legitimately-born men could be ordained to the priesthood, but this condition is no longer required for ordination. Rigid privacy laws prohibit direct consultation of contemporary (post-1910) vital statistics records, or any such records that have not been deposited with a provincial state archive.

Historical Cases
Into the 19th century, foundlings were often given surnames which actually indicated their illegitimacy. Proietti meant "cast out," Trovato literally meant "foundling," and D'Ignoti "of unknown" parents. Esposito derived directly from the Latin ex positum (literally "of this place") which appeared in some acts of baptism of foundlings. Legislation passed in 1928 outlawed the practice of assigning such children surnames indicative of their illegitimacy or abandonment, but surnames of some sort still had to be given to these children. These were sometimes the surnames of royal and noble families, but more often they were toponymic (geographical) in nature or alluded to the day, month or season of the child's birth (i.e. Sabato, Maggio, Primavera and so forth).

An act of birth referring to an infant's paternity as "unknown" was normally necessary if the mother was unwed and the natural (biological) father had not come forth to recognize the child. Reference to "unknown" maternity was more frequent in the cases of complete abandonment of infants; this doesn't necessarily imply that all such infants were born to unwed parents. Where this kind of declaration was made by a midwife, it is reasonable to presume that she knew the identify of the woman whose baby she helped to deliver. It is presumed that the mother declaring the birth of her own illegitimate child knew who fathered the baby.

The texts of acts of baptism usually indicated "legitimate and natural" children of listed parents, and "natural" progeny of a single parent (usually the mother) or unknown parents.

Acts of recognition may be contained in particular registers covering a number of years, or they may be found in , which may also include adoptions and sundry legal acts relating in some way to vital statistics. It should be observed that atti diversi registers are not dedicated exclusively to adoptions and births outside marriage. In some localities, there are particular registers dedicated exclusively to proietti, or foundlings. Most frequently, acts of births regarding foundlings or children born to unwed mothers were filed in the same registers as other births.

Contemporary Cases
After 1860, civil acts of birth were instituted throughout Italy, whereas previously they were kept only in certain regions or were attached to acts of baptism. In general, acts of birth and marriage after 1860 provide far less genealogically useful information than will be found in acts issued prior to that date.

In considering this period, it is worth noting that Italian orphanages traditionally were sponsored by the religious orders, and therefore answered to the church before the state. Very few of their archives have been preserved for consultation, and in the event usually do not provide the explicit information (such as parentage) that facilitates lineal research. However, many children were placed in orphanages who were not "orphans" in the most traditional sense. For example, a man whose wife died might place his children in an orphanage even though they were no longer infants (for instance, children around the age of 10 years).

In the event an infant were placed for adoption (for example, by a young unwed mother) after his birth was registered, the birth record itself might include parentage, or at least indicate maternity. However, direct consultation of such acts, which may be prohibited even to most vital statistics personnel, is usually impossible, and only a "simple" birth certificate (without indication of parentage) normally will be issued. In fact, most birth certificates issued in Italy today, and all those required for official use such as school registration, are released on forms which do not even have a designated space for parents' names. This is likewise true for most contemporary baptismal certificates.

In certain cases, an infant was placed for adoption immediately, even before his birth was registered. In such cases, the birth records would contain less information.

20th century adoptions, including many of those processed after 1946, have often been undertaken through various Catholic agencies; this included newborns as well as children resident in orphanages, and until the 1970s some such adoptions were "international" (i.e. Italian-born children placed with overseas couples). Certain information pertinent to such adoptions would be retained by the agencies (many of which are now defunct) and, in most cases, by the local court responsible for registration of adoptions. Unfortunately for adoptees in search of their natural parents, such records are usually not available for consultation.

Circumstantial Evidence and Investigations
Circumstantial factors must be considered objectively in cases involving foundlings, adoptees and children born outside marriage. In the rare instances when conclusions are drawn, these must be based upon a preponderance of the evidence, and all evidence must have been reviewed carefully. This may involve parochial records as well as civil ones, and will normally require direct consultation of records in Italy, as opposed to superficial review of microfilmed records.

Sociological factors and practices are extremely important in this particular branch of genealogical research, and bureaucratic procedures (regarding access to records, etc.) are relevant. In most cases, research involving a project of this nature should be entrusted to a professional genealogist based in Italy who is experienced in investigations and studies of this kind. Especially in contemporary cases concerning living persons, such investigations may require particular strategies and tactics which have not been described here. Adoptees in search of their natural parents should invest prudently in such investigations to avoid misrepresentation or fraud, which unfortunately are commonplace in such cases.

Explanation About the Naming of Orphans in Italy at the Turn of the Last Century
Written by Mike Maddi and published in a special issue of POINTERS magazine

Proietti is the plural form of proietto, a word used in central and southern Italy for a foundling. The origin is the Latin verb proicer, with the past participle proiectus meaning thrown away.

Why was the surname Proietti given to illegitimate Italian children?

Proietti were given that surname by the state because they were abandoned and the surnames of their parents were unknown. This assigned name was retained by each proietto, male or female, throughout his or her life. In the case of a child whose mother was known (but whose father was not), that child received the surname of the mother. This was the procedure in the 19th century Molise. The surnames assigned to the foundlings varied from town to town. Some towns used surnames such as Proietto, Trovalto (foundling), Esposito (of the place), and D’Ignoti (of unknown), which reflected the status of the child. Some surnames were tongue-in-cheek, e.g., d’Amore or d’Innocenzia.

In 1928, these methods were outlawed as being detrimental to the foundlings so named. Other towns used the surnames of noted men or of families that died out.

During the early part of the 19th century in Campobasso, Esposito and Fortunata were often used. However, by the middle of that century, they mostly used variations of common surnames, e.g., Angellillo to Angellini.

My own greatgrandfather was a proietto, perhaps named after Cardinal Armellino, a noted – if often despised – cardinal of the 15th century. Giovanni da Verrazano, during his voyage to the New World, named a treacherous shoal off of present-day Cape Cod after this Cardinal; he apparently had a sense of humor. I recently encountered a proietto, born circa 1833, named Cristofaro Colombo.

In modern day America, we assume that the only reason that a mother would abandon her child is because of illegitimacy. That might have been one of the reasons a baby would be abandoned in Italy in the 19th century, but not the only one. If the child was illegitimate, the mother may have kept the baby and her surname would be the baby’s surname, not proietto. But there were a significant percentage of abandoned babies in Italy who were the children of married couples. In these cases, it was likely that they were poor peasants with several other children and they could not afford to feed another child. So they anonymously abandoned the child at the ruota (wheel), usually at the local convent or church (a ruota was a type of cabinet on a pivot, used in cloistered convents to give or to receive things from the outside, sort of a turntable in a wall).

Many times they included a little trinket with the child, so that, if their economic situation improved, they could prove that they were the actual parents and could get their child back some day. Unfortunately, for most of the proietti, the mortality rate was very high, with most not surviving past one or two years of age. They basically were raised in the foundling homes, although some cities gave them to women with families, who raised them. In some of those cases, they were treated as a servant or field laborer.

My great-grandfather, Nunzio Maddi, was probably born as a proietto baby around 1845 in Sicily, although I have not been able to find his birth record to confirm this. All the families of the children of Nunzio and his wife had a story that he was an abandoned baby, (whose father was a nobleman, of course!), who was given to a Maddi family to raise.

I found my grandfather’s 1875 birth record from Sicily on Family History Library microfilm. It describes my grandfather as Girolamo Maddi di Nunzio d’Ignoti inteso Maddi, a rough translation being Girolamo Maddi, son of Nunzio, of unknown parents also known as Maddi. The 1875 birth record of my grandfather’s sister omits the d’Ignoti and inteso phrases when referring to Nunzio. I don’t know whether this indicates that he proved that his real father was a Maddi or he just legally adopted the surname in some way. Another brick wall to knock down.

Miscelleneous Gleanings From Various Sources

Italian "Fantasy" Names
Specific surnames were most commonly given to children who were orphans, illegitimate or foundlings such as Esposito meaning "exposed" or Trovato, meaning "found". They identified the child for life as an abandoned child. This often caused shame and embarrassment to the child. After the Unification in 1865, this practice was no longer allowed. Other common foundling names include:
  • Benvenuto - Welcome
  • Conforte - Comforted
  • Salvati - Saved
  • Brutto - Ugly
  • Sventura- Unfortunate
  • Aflitto - Afflicted
Abbreviations Found on Italian Documents
  • Nomen nescio (abbreviated to N.N.) is used to signify an anonymous or non-specific person. From Latin nomen, name, and nescire, not to know, be ignorant of. Together ... I do not know the name. Genealogists sometimes use the abbreviation to signify an unknown or partially unknown name (such as N.N. Jones).
Good Reads
Abandoned Children of the Italian Rennaisance, Orphan Care in Florence and Bologna
by Nicholas Terpstra