Thoughts and experiences

Finding Your Roots with Christopher Meloni

OK, here we are!

After 16 months, the episode of Finding Your Roots with Christopher Meloni was finally aired!

A shot from PBS’ Finding Your Roots – Season 7 Episode 4

PBS had contacted me in September 2019 and hired me to research the genealogy of their guest, the Italian-American actor Christopher Meloni.

It was a brand new challenge for me, that I tried to accomplish as best as I could, working for 5 days and in 8 different archives in Liguria and Emilia Romagna.

In the end, the result was:

– two family trees (for two different family lines) totalling 49 direct ancestors

– the most ancient ancestor, Christopher’s 8th great grandfather, born around 1630

– 4 military lists

– identification of 2 houses where Christopher Meloni’s ancestors had lived

– 1 notary’s deed for the purchase of a house

– 1 local history book that a priest gave me as present

– maps, picture of places and other documents

and, of course, many stories of people who lived, worked, married and died without leaving a sign in this world except for their name in the parish records: men who were farmers, others who died of an epidemic, families who were fostering foundlings and – of course – the most striking story, that of Christopher’s great-grandfather Enrico Melone, a baby who was abandoned at birth.

It was clear from the beginning that this would have been the key story of the show and although PBS dropped all the rest – the vast majority of my job – it is clear that they couldn’t do anything else: there must be a single story or two to focus the attention on.

So, you will never know the rest about Christopher’s ancestors, I am sorry!

But don’t worry, there are other interesting and touching stories to discover: those about your own family!

Some pictures of Velva, the place where Christopher’s ancestors were from: an amazing, picturesque village on the Ligurian hills. The town center does not have roads, only stone stairs and narrow paths.

Old registers
The Missano church with the typical risseu: decorations for squares and courtyards made with small, round stones in different colors

Link to access the video:


In 2019 I had the honor to work for the PBS TV channel, researching the genealogy of a guest at the show Finding Your Roots with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The guest is Christopher Meloni, a famous Italian-American actor, and his episode will be aired on Tuesday, February 9th – Season 7, Episode 4

I can’t wait to see how Christopher will react to the things I discovered about his family!

Christopher Meloni watching his family tree at Finding Your Roots by PBS

But I will have to wait, instead, because PBS is not broadcasted in Italy and I will only be able to stream the episode some days later.

If you can, watch it and… enjoy!

(the picture of Christopher Meloni is a screenshot from the official Season 7 trailer that you can watch here:

Ricercare informazioni genealogiche nei documenti delle visite pastorali

Cosa sono le visite pastorali?

Sono i viaggi che ogni vescovo organizzava periodicamente per visitare tutte le parrocchie della diocesi al fine di controllare lo stato dei beni ecclesiastici (luoghi di culto, opere d’arte, reliquie), per accertarsi che la situazione contabile fosse ben gestita ecc.

Quando si effettuavano le visite pastorali?

La frequenza è variabile, solitamente l’intervallo tra una visita e la successiva è di qualche anno.

L’obbligo per il vescovo di visitare le parrocchie a lui sottoposte è stato sancito con il Concilio di Trento, quindi i primi documenti risalgono alla fine del 1500 circa.

Che cosa sono i documenti delle visite pastorali?

Tra i documenti si trovano i rapporti stilati dai cancellieri, che riportano i dettagli della visita (l’itinerario, le parrocchie visitate, i beni e le reliquie che il vescovo ha controllato ecc.), le schede biografiche di tutti i preti e gli altri ecclesiastici, nonchè i rapporti che i parroci erano obbligati a redigere con l’indicazione dei beni, dei debiti e crediti, e delle eventuali problematiche concernenti la parrocchia.

Dove sono conservati questi documenti?

Presso gli archivi storici delle diocesi e arcidiocesi


Le finalità per cui questi rapporti venivano stilati non avevano nulla a che fare con la genealogia o con le famiglie in generale, pur tuttavia vi si trovano elenchi di persone e questo potrebbe permettere, con un po’ di fortuna, di trovare informazioni preziose su un antenato.

In pratica, i documenti delle visite pastorali potrebbero essere una fonte alternativa dove cercare informazioni quando si è di fronte ad un ostacolo, oppure quando si desidera approfondire la conoscenza del proprio antenato.

Le informazioni più consistenti sono ovviamente quelle relative ai religiosi, che possono rivelarsi utili nel caso in cui il religioso facesse parte della famiglia che stiamo cercando.

Inoltre, la ricerca in questi documenti può essere un valido aiuto per capire qual era la parrocchia di riferimento, che in caso di paesi molto piccoli poteva anche non trovarsi in loco: nei documenti si potrebbe quindi scoprire che l’oratorio del paese A si appoggiava alla parrocchia del paese B, e risalire quindi al luogo dove sono conservati i registri parrocchiali relativi agli abitanti di A.

Qui di seguito ecco alcuni esempi.

Introduzione agli atti della visita pastorale del Vescovo di Novara, Ignazio Rotario
Sanseverino, in data 5 maggio 1752 con l’indicazione dei comuni visitati

Elenco dei documenti richiesti dal Vescovo, che i parroci della diocesi erano tenuti a presentare durante la visita del 1752

Esempio di tomi delle visite pastorali (non voglio scoraggiare nessuno, ma è meglio essere preparati…)

Elenco delle religiose presso il Monastero di S. Antonio Abate in Intra (anno 1752)

Prima pagina della scheda personale del parroco don Angelo Francesco Scaramuzzi, città di Intra

Inventario dei crediti spettanti all’oratorio di Cambiasca (derivanti da affitti) con i nomi degli affittuari

Esempio di importanti informazioni familiari che si possono rinvenire in questi documenti: menzione di un legato da distribuirsi ai poveri, lasciato dal fu Pietro Baratto nel suo testamento rogato dal notaio Colla con atto del 22 dicembre 1751. Sarebbe sufficiente in questo caso accedere al testamento per scoprire l’intera parentela del Baratto.

Altro esempio: persone che si impegnano ad una donazione alla parrocchia

Con la speranza che possa essere di aiuto nella Vostra ricerca, auguro buon lavoro e buona fortuna!


P.S. Se volete, qui sotto potete scaricare la versione in PDF di questo articolo.

Some interesting stories discovered in 2020

A foundling who was named after an island

A man who fought with Garibaldi

A woman who said she had fought with Garibaldi (in fact, she was interned for that)

An ancestor who was killed by a man

An ancestor who killed a man (well, a different case than the one above, of course)

A family who emigrated for the sake of a train

An ancestor who died for the sake of a train

A woman who had 16 children

A man who had 40 grandchildren (at least)

Many ancestors who died because they ate too much polenta

Many ancestors who fought at our Independence Wars

An ancestor who rescued people under an avalanche

An ancestor who was in a secret society (you may wonder why I know that, if it was secret…)

An ancestor who, 400 years ago, was living in a house that was 400 years old (and it’s still standing and inhabited, by the way)

And then farmers, smiths, builders, beggars, merchants, soldiers, inn-keepers, shop-owners, stone cutters, artists, Carabinieri and a few nobles, too.

I am looking forward to 2021 to discover which other amazing stories are there, just waiting to be brought to light.

A podcast to tell the story of a MYSTERIOUS LADY IN BLACK, of Traci from Utah researching her, and of a woman who had her destiny changed because of this (me)

A new, amazing experience was offered to me by Bob Sorrentino and his blog as I was proposed to record a podcast together with my friend Traci Stevens Callister from Utah.

Use the link below to listen to the amazing story of Traci’s research of her ancestor – the mysterious Lady in Black – how this brought her to an adventurous journey to Italy and to unveil her genealogy as far back as 1600!

You will also discover how this unknown Lady born in the 19th century tangled with my destiny and changed my life forever!

Thank you to Bob for hosting us and giving us a voice to tell our story!

If you have an interesting story about genealogy to tell the world, get in touch with him!

My luckiest research job about foundlings, so far

If you think a foundling in your family tree is a brick wall
read on!

Depending upon your ancestor’s birth place and period, the result may vary a lot: usually, orphanages were recording abandoned babies, but everyone had its own procedures and rules and beside this, many or all documents may have been lost or destroyed.

My experience with the COMO foundlings, however, was brilliant.

The orphanage in Como was called PIO LUOGO DEGLI ESPOSTI and it was part of the hospital. It worked until 1872 and its documents about exposed babies are saved and accessible at the Province Historical Archive (contacts below).

I had been requested to investigate about Amilcare and Adelaide: two abandoned babies who will later become husband and wife, and of whom only the birth place and date were known (second half of 19th century).

The info I collected were no less than a short novel: the story of their childhood. Something that you would hardly learn about any ancestor.


The Como Province Archive sent me a 12 PAGES DOSSIER and thanks to these documents I learnt that Amilcare was left at the orphanage soon after birth and was adopted some days later.

There were info about his look at birth and the clothes he was wearing, including a SIGN to be eventually recognized by his natural parents afterward.

His first days of life were also reported: his medical visits, vaccines, his baptism and also the name of the woman who breast-fed him.

He was then FOSTERED BY A FAMILY. There were details about who they were and where they lived, and why his foster mother was supposed to be a good mother.

The documents go on telling his story: his FOSTER MOTHER DIED when he was only 2 years old and he was raised by his foster grandparents until his foster father married again, when he was 5 years old.


The most striking info contained in her 22 PAGES DOSSIER was the name of her BIOLOGICAL MOTHER!

I do not even know if Adelaide herself ever knew that she was born from ANASTASIA, a girl who had been an abandoned baby herself.

Adelaide was adopted by FOSTER PARENTS who – we learn from the dossier – were USING HER AS A SERVANT for other families, speculating on her salary to their own benefit.

At the age of 12 the Como orphanage (who always kept control on the fostered babies) took her back and sent her to another foster family, but she RAN AWAY, travelling for more than 50 km, to get back to her first foster mother, who she LOVED DEEPLY.


A 37 PAGES DOSSIER about the NATURAL MOTHER of your foundling granny is priceless. Something you would never dream of!

She was fostered by a family together with another abandoned girl from the orphanage, but her foster mother died when she was still young, leaving Anastasia and her “sister” to live ALONE WITH AN ADULT MAN: their foster father.

The local priest called for a scandal and the father had to send back the two girls. Anastasia was fostered by another family and, the moment she turned major age, she could INHERIT the goods that her first foster mother had left for her (gold and silver objects, and some clothes).

She will give birth to Adelaide and, some years later, she will MARRY, starting a new life.

A foundling in your family tree may not be a brick wall.
It may be an ancestor whose life is a new story
ready to be discovered!

Contacts of the Como Province Archive:

Mr. Antonio Endrizzi
Responsabile Servizio Protocollo Archivio e Privacy
Provincia di Como
Via Borgo Vico, 148 – CAP 22100 Como
+39 031 230286

Why 8 means October and not August

Why abbreviating the months names?

If you were a priest living a couple of centuries ago and forced to write with a quill, trying to save your precious ink, you would do the same. Abbreviations were used everywhere possible, sometimes even a bit too much.

One of the most frequent abbreviations regards the last four months of the year:

September – October – November – December

Unlike today, however, they were never abbreviated using the month sequence number (in this case 9, 10, 11 and 12) which is a modern practice.

They were abbreviated according to their etymology, i.e to the words that compose the month names.

Here the roots of the names:

September = sette = 7

October = otto = 8

November = nove = 9

December = dieci = 10

The reason why the 12th month of the year has the number 10 in its root dates back to the Roman period, when the year started in March. But of course the way Julio Caesar was counting months is not the reason why a 19th century priest must abbreviate October putting an 8 at the beginning.

The reason lies in the way they sound, of course.

If months name in English were





You would like to abbreviate them just the way explained above, and you would not think twice in transcribing them the correct way.

This way of abbreviating months name can be found both in Italian and in Latin.

Months in Italian are:





Months in Latin are:






7bre = settembre (Italian) = September


8BRIS = octobris (Latin) = (of) October


9bris = novembris (Latin) = (of) November


10bre = dicembre (Italian) = December

A few more words about December.

The abbreviation 10bre is not very common. The abbreviation I found more often is Xbre, whereas X is 10 in roman figures. Why using a roman figure? Well… to abbreviate it more! In fact, 10 is made of 2 characters, whereas X is only one.

For the same reason, the roman figures are not used for the other months: they would be longer to write.


xbre = dicembre (Italian) = December

Something about your ancestor that you can… touch!

ritaglio filtro

What remains – physically speaking – of your ancestors?

What is left of what they produced during an entire life?

As per my experience, in most cases nothing. Their names are reported on a few documents that were not written by them, and you are lucky if your great-grandparents were literate enough to sign them, so at least a signature is left.

Yes, in most cases all what’s left of them is their signature. Or at least, this is what we are able to find now, because surely they produced many things during their lifetime but most of these things do not exist any longer, or we do not know they produced them.

For this reason, it is so unique and amazing when you find out that the seeked ancestor was no less than the builder of the local church doors!

The way this was discovered can be called serendipity: I was not making an in-depth investigation, I had just started the research in the parish archive when, on the birth act of Angelo Malnati from Besano – Karen’s 2nd great-grandfather – I stumbled upon a note that the local priest wrote, perhaps for gratitude or for (successfully) keeping memory of this important event.

Birth act

“Note: in 1886 basing on a project of Eng. Pietro Prestini, he built the three doors of the parish church”

And here they are. These are the doors that Karen’s ancestor made. After 134 years they are still there, a part of Besano’s life, doors that are used every day, something that everyone can see and touch and take photos of. Surely also Karen, who is going to come to Italy in a few months and who will surely enjoy touching the same figures that had been carved by her “grandpa” Angelo Malnati.

Once a first bit of info is discovered, others come at hand more easily, so it was quite straightforward to find the confirmation that the doors were still the same ones built by Angelo Malnati in 1886: a book about the history of Besano reports, in fact, all restorations made to the church, including the Malnati artifacts, with no subsequent work on the doors.

Screenshot bookBook cover

Courtesy of BookSprint Edizioni: Salvatore Merlino, Besano Storia-Cronaca, BookSprint Edizioni


Best experiences of the year 2019


It’s been an amazing year, with many interesting research works that helped me improve my skills and allowed me to learn new things about this wonderful job.

Here are my “best experiences of the month” for 2019.

January 2019

Meeting a customer is always a thrill and it’s even more exciting when you managed to discover his unknown Italian cousins and they join the meeting. Being the witness of the reunion between the two long lost branches of the family was a touching experience!

February 2019

Genealogy is not only names and dates, it’s storytelling. This year’s winner for “gosh-looks-like-a-movie” research is a family from an ill-famed area in Milan, a honest business co-living with a tendency to be involved in thefts, with prison as a result. Researching on old newspapers was like reading a crime novel. The only problem was… how to tell it to my customer!

March 2019

… then my phone rings and the man the other side of the line has got the same surname I’ve been researching a few weeks ago. He sounds surprised and curious. I think: “it worked again!”

One of the several ways to find unknown relatives is leaving a message at the cemetery. This year it worked several times.

April 2019

The more ancient are the books, the harder it gets: the bad handwriting is not the only problem (try writing with a goose feather, at candle light and with no glasses!), the worst is when important data are missing, such as parents’ names. When it happens, every new ancestor found is a real joy. In one of the April research works I reached year 1603.

May 2019

The most important research in May was in a very nice mountain area close to Vicenza, some 400 kms far from where I live. In a 2-days research I could develop my customer’s family tree for many generations and for all branches, and – last but not least – I met very nice people who made of my travel and my research an unforgettable experience.

June 2019

Top of this month was finding the burying of a soldier died during WWII in Greece. The family had never been informed of the place where his remains had been buried, but thanks to very helpful people in Athens and in Italy the right cemetery was finally found, and a lost grave was given back to the prayers of the family.

July 2019

I met M., a wonderful woman from the USA, in Switzerland. In the 19th century her ancestors had travelled a lot across the border between Switzerland and Italy and together we followed the same path, visiting the villages where they had lived and stopping, finally, at the church that they had contributed to build with their own hard work.

It was a fascinating “tour in space and time”.

August 2019

OK, I admit, it was not the result of a single research, but adding the name of the 76th direct ancestor to my customer’s family tree was a big satisfaction! I did not take into account the many siblings of these ancestors and their families, ony direct lines. But the job is not over yet: an entire branch of this tree is still to discover!

September 2019

Surely the most complete researching experience of this year! It included a pre-job to make sure the town of origin was correct, an on-site research on the beautiful mountains of Tuscany, a visit to the now almost abandoned village and its cemetery, the issuing of birth certificates to obtain Italian citizenship and a transfer to Lucca to have the documents signed and stamped. For me it was a very interesting experience; for my customers, a chance to become Italian citizens.

October 2019

The October job was intriguing and challenging: discovering the family history of a famous American actor with Italian origins for the PBS TV serie “Finding Your Roots” by Henry Louis Gates jr. It was my first time working for a TV and I had to focus my mind on what could be suitable for a TV program rather than delving into the tiniest details of old records as I usually do. The hunt for interesting stories, the kind and helpful people that I met and the new places I travelled to, made this job one of the most exciting ever.

November 2019

When I was asked to search the birth acts of grandparents who were both abandoned children, I knew the research couldn’t go far. Well, I was wrong. The relevant archive stored the dossiers of all abandoned babies, and these dossiers include certificates, names of the foster parents, letters with the updates about the baby’s condition… a very deep insight into an ancestor’s life! And – as rare as a gold nugget – the name of the natural mother!

December 2019

The year ended with the easiest research ever: the parish repository stored a “register of population” written in year 1900 and listing all families that had lived in town since 1634. A single book contained all info of all people of all families. It was definitely too easy to search! The enourmous amount of data filled the previously empty family tree of my customer!

Which surname for grandma?

post women surnames

During my research I noticed that the surname of female ancestors is often an issue, especially for people from the USA.

In fact, in the US as well as in other countries, women take the husband’s surname when marrying. On the contrary, in Italy women keep using their maiden surname, with a mention of the husband’s one. But to make things more complicated this is not a general rule, especially when dealing with records: it depends from the place, the time, the circumstance and probably also from the clerk’s habit.

This post is thought for those of you who find this lack of a rule discouraging, for the ones who made mistakes with a grandmother’s surname and ended up following a wrong family branch and for the ones who faced a brick wall until they discovered the surname to search was another…

I will not tell you when and where women are recorded by which surname, but I will make you a list of (hopefully) all possible cases you may face during your research.

This can be used also for graves inscriptions, which follow no rule at all!

Your “grandmother and grandfather” in these examples will be MARIA ROSSI and GIUSEPPE FERRARI (two very common Italian names!)

Here is how Maria Rossi may be recorded after having married Giuseppe Ferrari.


This is the most common case

post 5 tab 1


post 5 tab 2


This is the worst case and a potential brick wall to find out Maria’s birth act

post 5 tab 3

And now, some cases that DID happen to my customers, and so they may happen again: watch out!

Case 1: husband emigrating first, wife emigrating later. At the arrival at Ellis Island she gives her maiden name and enters the US with that. My customer thought she arrived as a single and got crazy searching for the marriage record in the US. Actually, the woman had married before emigrating but the husband surname was not shown

Case 2: husband emigrating first, wife and children emigrating later. At the arrival at Ellis Island she is recorded with her maiden name. The clerk, assuming that this is the husband’s surname, register all children by the mother’s maiden name. Result: all children enter the US with a wrong surname. Passenger list records show wrong surnames too!

My suggestion: unless you are 100% sure that your female ancestor was recorder ALWAYS with her maiden surname or with her husband’s surname, take the effort of checking the other option, too: you may tear a brick wall down!

Last but not least, if you stumbled upon other forms or records, let me know so I can interpretate the meaning for you and add it to the list. Also, feel free to share any comment!

I hope this was useful