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Reading old Italian records requires a knowledge of basic Italian genealogical terms and familiarity with Italian handwriting. Difficulty in reading a record may not result from a record keeper’s poor penmanship but rather the use of a different style of handwriting. European handwriting differs greatly from American handwriting, and ancient writing differs even more. Church records in Italy were and many still are kept in Latin. Since handwriting varies from person to person, the handwriting in your record may vary from the forms shown on the chart. This guide introduces common letters and handwriting used in Italian records, both in Italian and Latin.
The modern Italian alphabet has no J, K, W, or Y. Earlier Italian did use the J and I interchangeably in some dialects. Latin has no K or W. Occasionally vowels will be accented which will change the pronunciation and/or meaning of a word, but not the way in which that word files alphabetically.
Common Problems in Interpreting The Handwriting
The handwriting style from the 1700s and 1800s differs somewhat from the style today. Usually, when a double s occurs in a word, it is easily confused with a lower case f. When a double s does occur, often the first s is elongated and the second is the short s we use today. However, they may also appear with the first being short and the second being elongated.
As seen in the handwriting samples, the uppercase E may resemble an uppercase G or C; the uppercase R and B can be quite similar; the uppercase I and J are nearly identical in many cases; and the uppercase F, T,and S can be quite confusing, not to mention an uppercase R resembling a lowercase v. Many lowercase letters also resemble one another.
Many given names and surnames are unique to certain areas and will be repeated frequently in the records. If a name is illegible in one record, it may be easier to decipher in another. Indexes may be written more neatly than the record itself and many times a name that is confusing can be read easily in the index. When a letter cannot be identified in a document, look for the same letter or word in another part of the document. It may be more clear, or the context may make it easier to figure out.
Interpreting handwriting improves with practice. The more you research in the civil and church records for your ancestors, the easier it will be to decipher what is written and record the necessary information for your family history.
Below are some examples of handwriting found in Italian church and civil records from the 1500s to the 1900s.