Percy Shelley praised Italy as “thou paradise of exiles”. But migration runs in both directions. In the past 150 years or so many native Italians have left the peninsula. Italy has only been a unified country since 1861, and the post-unification period marked the beginning of mass emigration, with later waves occurring during the build-up and aftermath of the First and Second World Wars.

Of the estimated 18 million Italians who emigrated between 1861 and 1985 in one of the biggest migrations in history, a relatively small percentage settled in the UK. Many who came here were musicians, artists or craftsmen, or were lured by specific job opportunities.

Fortunately, you can research your ancestry for many of Italy’s 107 provinces from the comfort of your own home. What’s more, many civil birth, marriage and death records are available for free online.

Italian civil records

Italy today is divided into 20 regions that are further broken down into 107 provinces with 7,926 comuni (cities/towns). Civil records (atti) are recorded and kept at the local municipality (comune) level, with a copy deposited annually at the state archive in each provincial capital. You will find birth, marriage and death records beginning in 1809, with a few exceptions dating to 1806, and they are organised by province and town at the time of the event. This means that you’ll need to know the town where your Italian ancestors lived to pinpoint which archive will have the records.

In 1975, free genealogy website FamilySearch began working with the Istituto Centrale per gli Archivi (the Italian national archive) to preserve the civil records from each provincial archive. Microfilms of the birth, marriage and death records for each town were painstakingly created.

These records have now been converted to digital images, which can be viewed on FamilySearch, and are gradually being indexed. FamilySearch and Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism are making the searchable indexed images available to everybody on the website Antenati.

As the images are published on Antenati, they are ‘locked’ on the FamilySearch website, becoming restricted to users at a Family History Center or an Affiliate Library, or who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

There are three main types of Italian civil record you can access: birth, marriage and death. In each case the name of the individual is listed, and usually their parents’ full names. Sometimes the grandparents’ names will also be listed as an identifier for the family. The date and time of the event is included. The street name and sometimes house number where the family lived is noted, along with the occupations of each individual.

Italian Catholic records

Baptism, marriage and burial records kept by the Catholic Church will be needed if you wish to take your Italian ancestry research back further. Again, you will need to know where your ancestors lived to find records of their parish. Once you know the town, Communi-Italiani is a useful website for finding local churches. You will need to make an appointment if you wish to visit the church archive or employ a local researcher.

Some church records are held at diocesan archives (archivio diocesano). Look for a status animarum (also called stato d’anime). These were family books kept by parish priests, a kind of church census, and can be a genealogical goldmine with information about many generations living within a household. As Italy used them for tax purposes they were updated and can help to track down when people left a household, perhaps to emigrate. Ancestry also has some useful Italian collections.