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Making sense of old handwriting

Introduction to Italian Paleography


About this Website

This tutorial will introduce you to basic record formats; that is, it will focus on the specific information contained in each record and locate where the information may be found.

Old Italian Records

Reading old records written in Italian is not the same as reading, for example, a modern newspaper written in Italian. Besides having to become familiar with a different set of words, you will need to adjust to such things as old styles of handwriting, unfamiliar abbreviations, misspelled words, ink blotches, and torn pages. While some of these things may cause you concern, you will find that in a very short period of time, you will be able to read old Italian records with ease and accuracy.

We recommend studying the linked sections below thoroughly before reading old manuscripts. Doing so will help you be more confident in your ability to understand these records and minimize misinterpretations or missing the information you are searching for. Note also that certain areas of Italy have been influenced by other Romantic languages.



Latin Influence



Types and Formats

When the records you will be reading were kept, Italian speakers were almost 100 percent Catholic. Of all the records mentioned on this site, Catholic records are the most important for family historians and genealogists with Italian ancestry. The Catholic Church, at the Council of Trent (1545-63), required that each of its parishes keep records of the baptisms (christenings) and marriages performed in the parish. The church also prescribed the form in which these records, or parish registers, were to be kept. Each time a child was christened or a couple married, the parish priest or one of his assistants was to make an entry in the appropriate book, telling who did what to whom, when, and where.

Although the specific requirements for keeping registers have changed from time to time, the formats have stayed basically the same. This tutorial will introduce you to those basic formats; that is, it will focus on the specific information contained in each record and wherein the record that information is usually found. Those just beginning to learn to read and understand old Italian records should go to ​​Techniques and Tools linked above or found on the sidebar. Then read each of the pages there before going to the Civil Registers pages under Documents. We suggest beginning with the page about birth records. Those with more paleographic experience can go to a specific document type under Documents for sample transcribed and translated documents with explanatory notes and commentaries about that document type and its essential components.

The image below is a sample record illustrating the challenges one could find while reading old manuscripts.


Image Credit:


Paleography Introduction