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 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 almost never for her own child. (Kertzer, pp. 131-33, 162-63.) 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 ability, 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 an ospizio 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. 1) and in such other countries as Germany, Hungary, the Philippines, Slovakia, South Africa, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, Czech Republic, Latvia, India, Italy, 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 the new surname was 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 a spouse, passing that surname on to the children of the couple.

Samples of Surnames Assigned to Abandoned Infants

Latin or Italian Meaning in English
Della Casagrande

 "Of the Ospizio" (of the Hospital or Hospice) 

De Domo Magna   "Of the Ospizio" (of the Hospital or Hospice)
Innocenti   "Innocent One"
Della Scala

 Name assigned by foundling home in Sienna


 Name assigned by foundling home in Rome

Esposito   "Abandoned"
Degli Esposti   "Abandoned"
Ospizio   Foundling Home
Incogniti   "Unknown"
Circoncisi   "Circumcised"

 Surname given to child born or abandoned on Palm Sunday

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 "Giuseppe Risso di Casa," 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 surname in all of Italy. Because of the stigma often formerly attached to children of illegitimate birth, and the manner in which that stigma often was perpetuated by the assignment of 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.

Samples of an Abandonment Certificate and its Related Record of Birth 


Certificate recording the abandonment of male child born of "genitori ignoti".


Record of Birth of Merico Scherzi born on 23 Apr 1902 in Orero, District of Chiavari, Province of Genoa. (Click image for transcription and English-language translation.)

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 coordinated with the birth or baptism record. The above two images show the birth and abandonment records of a baby boy named by the midwife and the priest as "Merico Scherzi"; the certificate of abandonment is interleaved in the volume of records of births facing the page on which the birth is recorded. In this case, in 1902, at a time when the system was virtually ended, the surname was given to the child at the time of baptism, without the mother or father being identified, with the birth occurring on 23 Apr 1902, the baptism occurring on 24 Apr 1902, and the abandonment occurring on 25 Apr 1902, in Chiavari, 12.6 km (13.4 miles) away from Orero.

Tracing An Abandoned Infant's Ancestry

Although the post-1865 records of birth of abandoned children usually are recorded in Parte II of the birth register for the year in which the birth occurred (as is the record of birth of Merico Scherzi shown above), usually the birth record of an abandoned child did not mention the name of either parent. If, however, the parents later acknowledged the child, a record of the acknowledgement can be found in the Atti Diversi (Miscellaneous Acts).

Both before and after unification (e.g., from the earliest to the latest times that records were kept in the town or city where you are conducting your research), you might still be able to learn the parentage of an abandoned child from other extant records. For example, when a young man would register for military service or exemption therefrom (at 21 years of age), the entry for him in the Lista di Leva (available at the Archivio di Stato for the province where the town of birth is located) might possibly reveal his parentage.

Similarly, other records should be consulted, such as notarial records (notarii), and tax assessment and census records (catasti or estimi catastali). As to the notarial records, be cautious not to interpret the title "bastardelli notarili" (illegitimate notary records) to refer to records pertaining to illegitimate children. Such records merely constitute a chronological list of the atti (acts) prepared by a notary as a sort of index or set of abstracts he kept of his own work for his own reference, considered and titled "illegitimate" only because they did not constitute legal documents themselves.


  • 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.

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