Italian Censuses

Are any Italian census records available online?

Censuses have a long history in Italy, since the Roman Empire. The Censimenti are enumerations of the population classified by family units. They include names and ages of the head of the family, his wife and dependants; profession or work of the family’s head, and birth places of all the family members.

Historical background

Among European countries, Italy ranks first for its rich and very old demographic records. They were made in almost all principalities, lordships and republics, whatever their political and institutional structure was. Censuses were very important since ancient times to keep registers and to have control of population of kingdoms and empires. Censuses in Egypt are said to have been taken during the early Pharaonic period; in Greece, city states carried out censuses, creating register offices; and in Rome the population had been classified by their political or civil rights, their duties and privileges, properties, etc. The census was a list that kept track of all adult males fit for military service, or to estimate the taxes everyone had to pay to the empire.
The Republic of Venice -that existed from the late 7th century AD until 1797- made the first universal census (including its whole territory) in 1338. Demographic surveys were made in Venice, but limited to the City of Venice, only in certain occasions, and sometimes specifically for males between 14 and 60 years of age. In the middle Ages the practice of censuses declined and demographic surveys were made into each commune.

La tassa dei fuochi

Since the thirteenth century were carried out periodic surveys of population in the communes and Italian republics before the unification: these lists were intended to be an enumeration of heads of families in some books called libri dei fuochi (books of fire) , called that way in reference to i focolari (chimneys).
The fireplace of the house, in the large kitchen, was the hottest place where the elderly and children took refuge during the winter evenings. In the Italian rural communities, il fuoco, the fireplace, was the heart and life of the family, a unifying and socializing element, symbol of home and family privacy. Il Focolare, as originally conceived, was the “landing” of family members, not necessarily rural, after a day spent among various occupations. It is not a coincidence that our grandparent’s focolari were chimneys of very different dimensions that those that are built today, under primarily aesthetic reasons, and as mere accessories.
The ancient focolare was an opening in a wall whose purpose, in this case, was to locate the fire. Hosting the entire family, it was the place where closure activities of the day were developed: the preparation of dinner in the fornacella, the smoking of pipes and cigars, the cunto (stories) or the filastrocca that grandparents told to their grandchildren, or the wool yarn. As the life of the families was organized around the focolari, the first censuses counted the fuochi, it means, the households, and taxes (tasse) were paid by every fuochi. Over time this method was abandoned in favor of a single account of people.
Gradually the counting of population were left in the hands of the Catholic Church, with their parish records and the states of souls, an anticipation of the modern civil status registration. Such surveys about the natural movement of the population were systematically carried out by the church based in determinations made in 1563 by the Council of Trent (state of souls).

Pre-unification census (prior to 1860)

Each Italian region had different governments and consequently, different documents were generated in every one of them. These censuses can be found in communal archives or in the Italian state archives.
Every one of us can contact the State Archive of the province where our forebears were born, or the archive of the commune where they were born or lived, asking if they kept censuses and if they can make digital copies of them. Previously, you should check on the various websites that different Italian archival administrations have online. On these websites we can find details of documentary funds that state and communal archives preserved, and we can make additional requests for more information. We can also find that some private archives or institutions have digitized and put on line such censuses.
Many of these documents may have been damaged or missing. We need to remember that during the plague of the seventeenth century thousands of files were burned, because they believed that old paper could carry diseases. A similar situation happened during the French Revolution: to destroy old papers meant destroying privileges. And to all of this we have to add natural disasters, wars and human negligence.
Once you’ve searched on the websites that keep the heritage of those files, we must turn directly to the archives to confirm this information, and request a copy. In this case we have to ask for the possibility to digitize the documentation that interests us, because, remember, you cannot photocopy them. This digitization is, in general, a paid service.

Census after 1860

This period corresponds to the most recent Italian history, and these are the first records we should research. From the political unification of Italy until today, they have made, usually every ten years, twelve general population censuses. Maybe the most interesting, from a genealogical point of view, are those of the years 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911 and 1921.
La scheda di Censimento, proposed for the 1861 census, (the first one after the unification) was very synthetic, composed of a single sheet on which little information was required, which should be filled by the householder and if he could not read and write, filled by a trusted person. In a special section members of families and “outsiders” present on the night of December 31, 1861, must be registered, and in another section, members of the family who were outside the house at that time. In this census there’s no distinction between family and people living together (group of people who share a home). In this case, who headed the coexistence should fill the census forms as head of household.
In general, in these censuses, the same people who was censed, handwrote the information on the census forms. Only in special cases “census officers” or “rilevatori” filled the forms. In the census of 1871 was started to be used the scheda di famiglia, a more complete file, which provided even instructions for the householder emphasizing the obligation to the survey’s response with a penalty (fine) that could reach 50 liras. On the morning of January 1st 1872, all the forms should have been completed.
In the 1901 census, an individual form started to be used, which had to be filled by every member of the family, at home, or absent. People absent on the date of the census, should only be recorded if they returned on the same year to the house.

Foglio di Famiglia

During the census, data from families living in each commune were based on some books of records called Registri di popolazione or Stato di popolazione (Population Registers or status of the population), containing records (usually pre-printed) called Foglio di Famiglia (family Sheet) where data were based on each of the family members. These sheets contained columns to record subsequent modifications, such as moves, deaths, marriages, etc.
The Foglio di famiglia was meant to gather information to rectify and update records of the population (anagrafe), because the anagrafe was not simultaneously implemented throughout the whole Italian territory. These forms could be completed only by members of the family present at the moment of the census, although they not lived at home, either regularly or occasionally.

Where the general censuses of Italy are conserved?

These censuses are usually preserved in the archives of the Italian communes and in many cases could have been sent to the State Archives. Unfortunately, in many states, were eliminated almost all the files registered during the first censuses (1861-1937), leaving only the statistical data and some sheets, as samples. According to privacy laws, only can be consulted censuses until 1921, if they are still conserved in an Italian archive.

Italian census from 1700, 1800, 1900 online

This is a list of Parish census (stati delle anime = “state of souls”) and census made by the civil authority, (population, housing, “censimento”) of Italian communes, available for consultation online.