Understanding Italian History – Part 1

An Historical Overview and Pre-Unification Italy

Understanding the basics of Italian history is important as you dig into your Italian ancestry, as knowing the wider historical trends can clue you into why your ancestors emigrated and made the decisions they did. Learning from your ancestors’ historical era can help provide a glimpse at what everyday life may have been like for your relatives, informing your research, and filling it with rich detail. 


La famiglia (the family) was the central force in Italian life – as it is still today – with the actions of each family member reverberating throughout the whole family. But the macro-history, or historical events like wars, epidemics, feudalism, and revolutions, also make up the complicated and fascinating timeline of Italian History.

On the world stage, Italy is considered a rather young country. It was formed from multiple city-states around 1865 during a time period and process known as Italian Unification. Written records useful for genealogical research began in the mid 16th century ( with some notarial and university records beginning earlier ). For the purpose of genealogy, Italian history can be divided into two main time periods: pre-Unification and post-Unification.


Medieval Italy (and other areas of Europe) saw the development of communes, religious and political entities based around a town or city that historians say are the foundation of Italy’s modern regionalism. Communes were governed with the towns’ needs and security in mind, especially important as the population increased, agriculture production changed, and people moved en masse to cities to find jobs. The communes became city-states, and the cities built walls surrounding them to defend against bandits and other criminals (many, like those In the north, still standing today). Religion was important to these towns’ governments and people, aided by a cities proximity to the theocratic Papal States.

City-states were more common in northern and central Italy, but the Papal States south of Rome were a kind of city-state to themselves. These states began in the 9th century and continued being founded through the 15th century (although some historians say they were still being founded in the 16th century). 

Between the 14th and 15th centuries, industrious city-states expanded their power through military might, making them more regional than municipal. They waged battles with each other to control key infrastructure needed for trade both on the peninsula and throughout the world, including ports, bridges, and mountain passes. Despite their differences, the city-states often shared commonalities in religion, language, culture, and law – aiding the growth and expansion of these states and the trade between them. 

The Republic of Venice, once part of the Byzantine empire, is considered the first city-state. Another early city-state, the Republic of Ragusa, came under the Kingdom of Italy’s control in 1808, and it consisted of Dalmatia (the southern part of today’s Croatia).

While city-states were self-governing, they sometimes came together to form alliances. one such partnership, the Lombard League, began in the 12th century and initially included all northern city-states except for Venice. The league fought against the land-hungry Holy Roman Emperors and later became known as the Veronese League. The League’s city-state lineup varied throughout time, and it eventually gained political support from the Republic of Venice. Here we see the many layers of history, war, and politics play out on the national stage long before Italy became a republic. The laws of the city-states laid the foundation for regional statutes and civil law across the country.

Historians and others interested in Italian History often romanticize this period before the Spanish dominated Italy, as it laid the foundation for modern Italian culture and produced some of the world’s greatest advancements. Called the Renaissance (literally meaning rebirth ), this golden age of artistic, scientific, musical, literary, and intellectual awakening extended from the 14th through the 16th century across Europe. Galileo, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci are just a few Italians whose work greatly influenced the Renaissance. Florence and Venice, in particular, were centers of art and culture during the Renaissance, dominating many of the historical texts about this time period. 

Images from Wikipedia

Perhaps the first major event relevant to Italian genealogists was the Council of Trent, when a body of Catholic church leaders met in the city of Trent to reform various policies of the church beginning in 1545. After the council’s adjournment in 1563, priests and bishops were required to begin to maintain baptismal, marriage, and death / burial records. More reforms came to Roman Catholic parishes when, in 1614, status animarum (state of the souls) records were mandated. These records can be used to track the vital statistics of parishioners and the sacraments they received. 



For next month’s blog post, we will continue our overview of this time in Italian history.

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