Italian censuses prior to 1860

As we explained in another note, we can establish two periods in the conduct of the Italian censuses.

Pre-unitary censuses

Going back in time, we can find records detailing the composition of families. The reasons why these records were drawn up are varied: ecclesiastical or economic, and show the same information as the censuses carried out later, these are the pre-unitary censuses, that is, prior to the Italian Unification.

La tassa dei fuochi

From the thirteenth century periodic surveys of the population were carried out in the pre-unitary Italian communes and republics: the purpose of the enumeration was to list the heads of families in books called libri dei fuochi (books of fire), named after i focolari (the chimneys).

The fireplace of the house, in the large kitchen, was the hottest place, where the elderly and children took refuge during winter afternoons. In the Italian rural communities, il fuoco, the fireplace, was the heart and life of the family, a unifying and socializing element, symbol of one's own home and family intimacy. As the life of the families was organized around the focolari, the first censuses counted the fuochi that is, the dwellings, and the taxes (tasse) were paid by fuochi. With the passage of time this method was abandoned in favor of the single account of people.

Little by little the counts of the population were left in the hands of the Roman church with the parish registers and with the states of souls, which constitute an anticipation of the modern registration of the civil status. Such surveys of the natural movement of the population were systematically carried out by the church from the determinations adopted in 1563 by the Council of Trent.

Population Records

Each Italian region had a different government, with different historical processes and consequently in each of them different documents were generated, including population records or censuses, which in some way were the antecedent of the Anagrafe.

These censuses can be found in communal archives or in Italian state archives.

Census search in italian archives

We will see below some experiences in the search for censuses in Italian state archives.

My experience

Looking for data from my ancestors, I wrote to the State Archive of Alessandria asking if old censuses were preserved there and if it was possible to obtain digital copies of them. The digitization of images is a condition since Italian law does not allow photocopies of records prior to 1850 to be taken, taking into account their preservation.

I received a kind response from the director of that archive, who requested that the censuses in his archives be examined to see if they contained data from the commune of my ancestors. In his message the director provides a detail of those censuses in which data from the locality that interested me appear, in this case San Giuliano Nuevo, a frazione of the commune of Alessandria, also detailing the year in which they were carried out. The cost of digitization was 1 euro per scanned sheet, a minimum fee imposed by the Ministry per i Beni e le Ativitá Culturali.

These censuses were placed in custody in the State Archive of Alessandria by the Archive of the commune of Alessandria after a flood. They are censuses that were ordered by the Sabaudo government, when the French Savoie and Piedmont formed the Kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia and correspond to the commune of Alessandria and nearby towns.

Italian pre-university census

Then, each of us can go to the State Archive of the province where our ancestors were born, or to the archive of the commune where they were born or lived, asking if they keep censuses and if they can make digitized copies of them. You can also search the portals that list the heritage of the state archives, using keywords such as censimento, popolazione, fuocchi, etc. to see if we find information about any specific census that is preserved in the file that interests us.

Search tips

  • Many of these documents may have been destroyed or lost. It's true. If not, let us remember that during the plague of the seventeenth century thousands of files were burned because it was considered that the old paper was a carrier of diseases. The same thing happened during the French Revolution: destroying old papers meant destroying privileges. And to this we add natural disasters, war conflicts and the carelessness of men.

  • On the other hand, in the case of manuscripts of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, there is a prohibition of photocopying them, taking into account their preservation, therefore, it is necessary that an archivist or a parish priest is willing to transcribe the data we are looking for