I was inspired for this series of posts by the many requests for help that are posted on Facebook groups, where assistance in understanding handwritten records is asked.
Handwriting can be an issue, and not only for foreigners. Sometimes, even Italians struggle with unintelligible words and sentences.
Well, believe it or not, in some cases it is possible to by-pass the handwriting problem.
We could call it…
INVESTIGATE INSTEAD OF INVENT
Here is the first post dedicated to PLACE NAMES
In the above record, the writer was probably confident to be smart and to create something artistic in his bureaucratic job, thanks to this fancy calligraphy.
Just the opposite, 150 years later these words are hardly readable (and the fuzzy scan doesn’t help).
Now, I am not going to teach you how to read this particular calligraphy. I am going to explain you the
TRICKS TO UNDERSTAND
the most important info about places.
If you can’t understand a place mentioned in the record, start from what you know, i.e. the town of the record (if you have the record, you should know which is the municipality or church that issued it).
At first, try to isolate some letters composing the “mystery place”.
In the above record issued by the municipality of Castel San Giovanni (province of Piacenza, region Emilia Romagna) other two towns are mentioned.
The first “mystery place” starts with Borgo, but there are hundreds places starting with BORGO, in Italy. Which is the right one?
Second example from the same record: this place name is a long name, ending with “GO” and having a “O” as a second letter. Can you understand more? That’s even better!
Go to the Italian page of the known town – Castel San Giovanni, in this case – and check its hamlets under the section FRAZIONI (right column) as well as the neighboring towns in the section COMUNI CONFINANTI.
Very often, the mystery place falls into one of these two options.
Ok, the place from the first example is surely BORGONOVO, a neighboring town. Can you read it now?
Checking the hamlets of all neighboring towns is also very useful, if this first attempt fails.
The place from the second example does not look like anyone in this list, though. We must go further.
Use ELESH (http://www.elesh.it/storiacomuni/cercacomuni.asp)
This site provides info about all Italian towns and cities, both existing and no longer existing.
Digit some letters of the “mystery place”, the ones you understand, and you will get many records sorted out by region and province. Usually, the “mystery place” is close to the known place.
For example, by digiting simply “GO” and filtering by region Emilia Romagna and province Piacenza, you will get the following results
GOSSOLENGO is the town that matches with the place mentioned in the record. A quick check with Google Maps will help you discovering that it is very close to Castel San Giovanni.
You can use this site to search any town name in Italy, even if you don’t know where to start from.
For example, if you have a non-Italian record mentioning the town, without any clue about where it is situated, try with Elesh and you may find the correct town name.
If you can’t find a place which has been transcribed, try reading it on the original, handwritten record: it is better to search a place knowing only a few correct syllables than a full name which is wrong.
Use GOOGLE MAPS
Perhaps the place mentioned in a record was a very small area within a town.
Especially in rural areas, Italian towns were often made by several scattered hamlets or areas that were called Località XXX, or Contrada XXX, or Regione XXX.
Search the known town followed by Via (street) and the mysterious toponym: usually, the old area was re-named as a street and it is now called Via XXX.
In the following map, the ancient Località Cabella is today Via Cabella.
In Italy, very often people were not travelling far. They usually moved to nearby towns in search of better working conditions, so your mystery town is probably situated close to the area you already know.
If a person mentioned in a record was coming from very far, its place of origin was often described with more precision.
So, do not wear your eyes out by trying to read difficult handwritings, and do not invent town names basing of what you think to interpretate, but investigate among existing towns and toponyms.
I hope you found this post useful.
I will be back soon with the second post of this series:
HOW TO UNDERSTAND FIRST NAMES