Skip to main content
Making sense of old handwriting

Handwriting History

History of Italian Handwriting

Monk at work

While language can be an obstacle while working with foreign records, another common obstacle that genealogical researchers face are the many different styles of handwriting that appear across time.

Like how languages change and evolve over time, so too do the style and form of writing down the language changes over time. These different styles of writing down a language are called scripts. This factor is why many old documents can be challenging to read even when fluent in the document language. While reading old records, it is helpful to be able to recognize what script it is written in, as it can give clues as to where, when, and why a document was written. Furthermore, each script developed from distinct traditions and therefore has unique letter forms and conventions; thus, knowing what script a record is in can help in researching and identifying more difficult sections or abbreviations.

Italian documents from the period 1500 to 1800 can be divided into categories based on the handwriting style used:

  • Gothic or its more difficult derivative, Secretary or Court hand style, which had developed throughout Europe in the thirteenth century, is rarely seen in Italian manuscripts after 1500.
  • Humanistic style replaced the Gothic style in the early fifteenth century. This new hand was consciously developed by Italian Humanists from Carolingian, the eighth-century script of Charlemagne's empire. From Italy, the use of this lovely Humanistic script spread, both in book hand and cursive, to other countries in Europe, where it was often known as Italic or Humanistic in recognition of its Italian origins.
  • Documents written in earlier Latin handwriting styles such as Carolingian, Uncial, or Half Uncial often appear in parish records, depending on the preference and writing experience of the priest or scribe.

Reading Old Handwriting

In reading an old document written in any language, the first attitude to develop is one of "Si, puoi!" Yes, one can read these documents! It is essential to know that, with practice, anyone can learn to read any document written in Italian - especially recent documents. Likewise, reading parish records from the 1500s or 1600s can be learned, and, with patience and perseverance, longer narrative documents such as wills can be mastered.

Rest reassured that reading Italian documents in the Itálica handwriting style, especially those that are of a short format that regularly repeats, such as parish sacramental records, can be quickly mastered by anyone with practice. For those with a little fluency in Italian, the ability to extract data from longer documents in Itálica with a short repetitive format can be mastered with patience and study.

This study only deals with documents written in Italian. Although many different dialects and languages are spoken in Italy, such as Sicilian and Sardinian, most records are written in Italian with influences from the regional dialects. Furthermore, documents may frequently appear in Latin in different areas of Italy until at least 1950. To learn to read documents in Latin, then see the Latin Tutorial; for other dialects that are present in Italy, it may be helpful to look for regional dictionaries.

  • Image: Anonymous, The Scribe at Work, 1910, in Edmund G. Gress, The Art & Practice of Typography (New York: Oswald Publishing Company, 1910), frontispiece, Digital Image, Internet Archive ( : accessed 20 July 2023). This image is in the public domain.

Paleography Introduction