Italian Infant Abandonment

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Italy Gotoarrow.png Italian Infant Abandonment

Understanding the history of the Italian infant abandonment system and its name-assignment practices may help you understand how some of your ancestors acquired their surnames and possibly help you find and identify ancestors in the records.


From the about the thirteenth century through the end of the nineteenth century, throughout the areas that in 1860 became unified Italy, a pregnant single woman, faced with the loss of her own and her family's honor, would leave her residence to give birth elsewhere and after having the baby baptized, would give (or have the midwife give) the newborn baby to a foundling home (ospizio) to be cared for by others. For about a year after giving birth, the unwed mother, in order to pay for her own infants' care, often served in the ospizio as a wet nurse for the children of others though never for her own. (Kertzer, p. *.) With few exceptions, she would have no contact with her child ever again.

Other new mothers anonymously abandoned their infants at the "wheel" (la ruota) located in the outside wall of the ospizio, sometimes leaving a sign of recognition (segno di riconoscimento), such as the image of a saint, a foreign coin, a torn piece of cloth, or other talisman, to preserve the mother's option, rarely exercised, of returning to reclaim the child, sometimes a year later or even many years later.

Meanwhile, the foundling homes attempted to place the babies with lactating women in foster families, typically in the countryside, though some of the children remained in the ospizi for up to five or ten years or even longer and in some cases for their entire lives. (Kertzer, pp. 85-6, 116.) Naples was an exception; due to lack of funding to pay external wet nurses, the foundling home there attempted to care for the bulk of its abandoned babies within the foundling home itself, without placement with outside wet nurses. (Kertzer & White, 1994, p. 454.) Large percentages of the abandoned infants did not survive infancy. Those who did survive entered a new life in a new place with a new family.

This system -- which began in the areas that later became Italy and which spread to France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Poland, and most of the Austrian provinces (Kertzer, p. 10) -- was finally abandoned in Italy and elsewhere by about the beginning of the twentieth century. Some aspects of the system have re-emerged today in the "safe-haven laws" enacted recently in all 50 states and the District of Columbia within the United States (Guttmacher, p. *) and in such other countries as Germany, Hungary, the Philippines, Slovakia, South Africa, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, Czech Republic, Latvia, India, and Pakistan, all of which strictly govern but to varying degrees permit some form of abandonment of newborns, all with the aim to help stem infanticide and make abortion rare. (Mueller & Scherr, p. 2.)

As conducted in Italy for about seven centuries, with varying degrees of success, the infant abandonment system was prompted by "great concern for the lives of women who found themselves in the desperate position of being pregnant and unmarried, with no one to care for their child." (Kertzer, p. 37.)

Name-Assignment Practices

The Italian infant-abandonment system generally but not always included the assignment of a surname to the infant upon arrival at the ospizio. Thus while in the ospizio and later when placed with a family in the countryside, the child bore a surname different from its unknown family of origin and different from the family with which it was placed. (Kertzer, pp. 119-22.) "Until the nineteenth century, foundlings in many areas were baptized with first names only and were not given a last name." (Kertzer, p. 119.)

But upon arrival at the ospizio shortly after baptism the new surname was assigned. And once the infant or child was placed with a wet nurse in the countryside, it would be assigned a surname used locally for foundlings (such as Della Casa or Casagrande or Esposito, as shown by a few examples in the table below). For the most part such new surnames were used by the child throughout the remainder of its life, though often at the time of marriage or with the births of children to that marriage, the once-abandoned child, even a male child, might assume the surname of his or her spouse, passing that surname on to the children of the family's next generation.

Thus, for example, if an abandoned child named Giuseppe were to have come from the ospizio to a local wet nurse to be taken in by a local family, the child might be raised with the "Casagrande" surname and, upon marriage to a woman maiden surnamed "Risso," might thereafter in the records of births of their children be referred to as "Giuseppe Risso Casagrande" or "Giuseppe Risso della Casa Grande" or the like. Sometimes the surnames assigned in the ospizi were used by the child throughout its life, with no new assignment in the residence location of the adopting family.

Such names were usually unique. In the Florence ospizio, sometimes an elaborate form of the first name was used for the new surname, such as by pluralizing the first name (Amato Amati, Barbera Barberi) or by abbreviating the first name (Serafino Serafi, Anselmo Selmi). In Milan, from 1475 to 1825, every foundling was given the surname Colombo ("pigeon"), still the second most common surname in Milan and the fifth most common in all of Italy. Because of the stigma often attached to illegitimate births, and the manner in which that stigma often may have been perpetuated by assigned surnames that signaled the child's early history of abandonment, efforts sometimes were made to assign surnames that hid that history.

For example, in 1862 in Bologna, wet nurses were ordered to register the births of foundlings and provide them with both first and last names, but it was suggested that surnames be derived from words descriptive of things within one of the three kingdoms of nature (minerals, vegetables, and animals), such as Gessi (gypsum), Sassi (stones), Pietra (rock), Monti (mountains), Foblia (leaf), Rosa (rose), Garofonio (carnation), Colombi (pigeons), Leoni (lions). This practice spread through much of the northern part of Italy.

On occasion, a person who was abandoned as a child might learn who one or both of his or her birth parents were, for example, when registering for the military or when marrying. Sometimes the records of the ospizio were later coordinated with the birth and baptism record.


  • David I. Kertzer and Michael J. White, "Cheating the Angel-Makers: Surviving Infant Abandonment in Nineteenth-Century Italy." Continuity and Change, 9(03): 451-480. (Cambridge University Press (CUP), 10.1017/S0268416000002423).
    • David I. Kertzer, Sacrificed for Honor: Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993).
    • David I. Kertzer and Marzio Barbagli. eds., Family Life in Early Modern Times, 1500-1789: The History of the European Family, Volume 1 (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2001).
    • Guttmacher Institute, "State Policies in Brief—Infant Abandonment" (as of September 1, 2012).
    • Joanne Mueller and Lorraine Sherr, "Abandoned babies and absent policies." Health Policy (2009), doi:10.1016/j.healthpol.2009.06.002.