In my genealogic research of Sicilian
and Italian families, I have been able to trace many back
through several generations, into the early 1800s and even earlier.
I have almost invariably found in these families that there
was at least one 'brick wall', where the line started with a
child for whom both parents were listed on the civil
registration of birth in Italian as 'genitori
ignoti'. On earlier baptismal records, the parents of these children were
listed in Latin as 'genitoribus incogniti'. The
Italian and Latin terms mean the same thing: 'parents
THE CAUSES: Infant abandonment was widespread,
for a variety of reasons. For one, unwed pregnancy was
a social disgrace, not only for the unwed mother but for her
entire family. Church authorities were, at least
outwardly, zealous in protecting the identities of unwed
mothers, saving 'face' for their families, and baptizing
infants who might otherwise have been abandoned to the
elements. Another obvious reason for abandonment was the extreme
poverty of most citizens of the 'Mezzogiorno', as
southern Italy and Sicily were known.
Civil, as well as church, officials were
concerned with these cases, as often the cost of the care of
such infants fell to the civil authorities. The
situation devolved to the point that many towns, both on
mainland Italy and the island of Sicily, installed a device
called 'la ruota dei proietti': the wheel of the
castoffs, or 'the foundling wheel'. These wheels could
be in the outside walls of churches or convents, or in
larger cities, in the walls of foundling hospitals or
THE WHEEL: The wheel was a kind of 'lazy Susan'
that had a small platform on which a baby could be placed,
then rotated into the building, without anyone on the inside
seeing the person abandoning the child. That person
then pulled a cord on the outside of the building, causing
an internal bell or chimes to ring, alerting those inside
that an infant had been deposited. In the larger
towns, foundlings were baptized, then kept in a foundling
home with others, and fed by wet-nurses in the employ of the
home. There they may have stayed for several years
until they were taken by townspeople as menial servants or
laborers, or placed with a foster family. Or,
sadly but more likely, they never left the institution,
having died from malnutrition or from
diseases passed on by the wet-nurses.
In smaller towns, the foundling wheel may have
been in the wall of the residence of a local midwife.
She would have received the child, possibly suckled it
immediately to keep it alive, or arranged for a wet-nurse to
do so, then taken it to the church to be
baptized and to the town hall to be registered.
She then consigned a wet-nurse living in or near the town
to take the child and provide sustenance, for a monthly
stipend paid by the town. If the child was near death
when found, many midwives were authorized by the church to
baptize the infant, 'so that its soul would not be lost'.
Civil officials were often similarly authorized.
Sometimes children were literally abandoned on
the street or on a doorstep, but the use of the foundling
wheel was so widespread that even these children were
referred to as having been 'found in the wheel'.
THE RECORDS: Church records, dating in some
towns from 1540, were kept of all baptisms, even those of
foundlings. When civil birth records were instituted
in Italy and Sicily (about 1810 - 1820), foundlings were
duly registered by the town's 'Uffiziale dello Stato
Civile', the Official of the Public Record, in the civil
'Atti di Nascita', or Records of Birth. For
such records gave the date, names and occupations of the
parents and the name of the child; however in the usual case there
was no description of the child, other than its gender.
Civil birth records for foundlings were
different. The 'dichiarante', or declarant (the
person presenting the child, in ordinary cases its father) was
identified by a title, which varied by town. In many,
as in Serradifalco, Sicily, it was 'ricevitrice dei
proietti', 'receiver of castoffs'. In others, like
Sora on the Italian mainland, it was 'custode della
ruota dei proietti', or 'keeper of the wheel of the
castoffs'. But the most poignant, to me, was the simple
term used in the Sicilian village of Racalmuto, namely 'ruotaia':
'wheel-lady', or 'lady of the wheel'.
Rather than simply giving the child's
gender, the civil registration document of a foundling usually
stated where it was found: 'nella ruota pubblica in
questa comune' ~ 'in the public wheel of this town'; or
if appropriate, on whatever street or doorstep it was found.
If the child had evident birthmarks (or none), that fact was
noted, along with a description of the clothing or any
'tokens' found on the baby. Some records stated that
the midwife had arranged to initially feed the child and
that it had then been consigned, according to law, to a 'nutrice',
a wet-nurse; sometimes the name of the wet-nurse was given.
In some locales and eras, abandonment of children
of unwed mothers was essentially imposed by
civil and church authorities. Town priests and
midwifes closely scrutinized young single women, and if they
discovered a pregnancy, the mother was 'encouraged' to give
the child up, to avoid familial disgrace, and, more
importantly to the church, to assure that the infant was
baptized before it died. Though the use of the wheel
was nominally secret, many institutions required alms or
payment by the mothers, so there was a 'paper trail' of
evidence even though the general public was supposedly
unaware of the particulars. If a mother was unable to
pay alms, often she was required to work for free in the
institution as a wet-nurse.
Such activities could not long be kept secret
from the community, and although the names of foundlings'
parents were not officially recorded, no doubt in small
communities the true relationships were known. In some
cases, a mother would volunteer to take her own child to her
home to wet-nurse, though 'officially' the infant's parents
Unless an abandoned child's parentage was officially
established at some later date, most commonly by a
rectification that was filed to give the names of one or
both parents, or on the after-the-birth marriage record of
its parents, the child was always officially referred to by
its imposed name and as the child of unknown parents.
When such a child married, even though he and everyone in
the community knew who his parents were, if no official
correction had been made, his marriage record would list his
parents as 'genitori ignoti'.
Like those of all citizens, foundlings' birth,
marriage, or death records, or rectifications, are kept
permanently in the Anagrafe or Registry Office of
each town, with a copy in provincial or tribunal archives.
These records may be searched in person, or in many cases
viewed on microfilm produced by the Mormon church, or
on-line at genealogy sites. Records of the disposition
of abandoned children to wet-nurses or to foster homes may
exist, but they are less easily uncovered and usually
require on-site research at the towns, churches, or
NAMES: Since their parents were unknown (at
foundlings had to be given some kind of name, and this was
done by the receiver of foundlings, or the priest baptizing
the child, or the civil official registering the event.
On an ordinary birth or baptism record, usually only the
given ('first') name of the baby was recorded, since its
surname was the same as its father's. But with
foundlings, both the given and the surname were recorded.
Both, of course, were 'made-up', and in the earliest
records, first names were recorded, followed by a 'name'
that was synonymous with 'foundling', as in Pietro
Proietto (castoff), Rosa Trovato (found), or
Giovanni Esposto (exposed). On the Italian
mainland, frequently at baptism, a foundling was given a saint's name or
other made-up name as a first name, then a surname that was
the Latin possessive form, for example Genesius
Genesi (Genesius, son of Genesius) or Amatus Amati
(Amatus, son of Amatus). Such 'first' or given
names were then Italianized in the civil records, resulting
in Genesio, Amato, etc.
The descriptive 'foundling surname'
eventually became the person's official name. When a
foundling boy grew up, was married and had children, the
children's surnames would be the same as their father's even
though they themselves were not foundlings. Many of
these surnames exist to this day, with their bearers having
no idea that somewhere in their ancestry there was a
Even the given names of foundlings were
often unusual or fantastic, like Cleopatra or
Romulo. When surnames other than Proietto,
etc. began to be used, they, too were unusual and often
stigmatic, like Abbandonata (abandoned); Urbino
(blind); lo Guasto (crippled); and Vinagra
(bitter wine). A child with such a name was marked
throughout his or her life as one with 'genitori ignoti' and
by inference, as a love child, although at least in theory,
it wasn't known whether or not the child was abandoned by a married
woman who conceived it in wedlock. Even children with
less insulting surnames were thusly scorned. Di Dio
(of god); D'Angelo (of an angel); del Popolo
(of the people); di Giugno
(born in June) and Gelsomino (jasmine) are all mild
enough surnames, but in certain towns they were used
exclusively for foundlings, and marked them just as surely
as the cruder versions.
Eventually, laws were passed
prohibiting the stigmatic names, but in small towns, because
the names were made up, they were invariably different than
the surnames usually occurring there. Coniglio
is a perfectly valid Italian/Sicilian surname, but in a town
of 1,500 souls, where no one else had the last name
Coniglio, any child with that name was obviously a
foundling. In some cases, a foundling was simply
given the name of his village as a surname: thus,
Giuseppe Vallelunga, Rosa Siragusa, etc.
However, it was more common to give foundlings the name of
some other town, again marking the child as a
'stranger' or the child of a stranger. Place names as
surnames, I believe, were more common in the latter usage
than in the former. For a more detailed analysis of
Sicilian town place-names as surnames, click
THE FATE OF FOUNDLINGS: Since civil records were
open to the public, in 'registri' or registers,
citizens could go to the town hall and ask to see them.
'Unknown' parents of a foundling could therefore see what
name had been given to their child (from the description of
tokens or clothing), and sometimes, to whom the baby had
been consigned. They might then reclaim the child,
although recorded instances of this are few. If a
legally married couple reclaimed a child, they would then go
to the civil authorities for registration of a 'legittimazione',
a correction which would officially name them as parents,
and legitimize the child's birth. Tales are also told
of many a mother who claimed her child without revealing
their relationship, being paid a stipend to wet-nurse her
In the foundling homes, hospitals or asylums of large
cities, many babies suffered horrific conditions.
Wet-nurses were often of lower classes and carried diseases
passed on to the babies. Children who survived to
early childhood could be 'farmed out' as servants,
field laborers, or worse. This didn't preclude the
consignment of foundlings to foster-families that cared for
them responsibly and raised them to adulthood. Because
of the nature of these arrangements, easily available public
records are hard to come by. At one point in Italy's
history, foundling homes became so crowded, and the total
pay required for the wet-nurses of its inmates so high, that
civil authorities hired 'external wet-nurses' to care for
some infants away from the institutions. They even
sometimes acknowledged unwed mothers and paid them a sort of
child support stipend, to nurse their own children.
This led to some bizarre situations.
In the years following Italy's 'resorgimento', or
unification, vast church property was appropriated by the
state, and church and state were at odds. Marriages
that took place solely in church were not recognized by the
civil authorities, and in order for a union (and its
offspring) to be legal, a couple was required to be married
in a civil ceremony, usually at the town hall by a public
official. When the policy of civil stipends to unwed
mothers was instituted, sometimes an expectant mother would
marry in church, avoiding family disgrace, but would not
take the civil vows. This made her child
illegitimate in the eyes of the state, entitling her to
In small towns, the fate of foundlings may
have been somewhat better than in large cities. Often
foundlings in smaller communities were not subjected to the
crowding of orphanages, but were consigned to the individual
families of the wet-nurses. There, though they may
have been required to work in the fields or the family
business, the same as the family's natural children, they
may also have found some measure of acceptance and
LEGENDS: A very common explanation many
families were given about a foundling ancestor is a
variation on the following theme: A young girl was working as a
servant in the home of the local prince (or rich
businessman, or priest). She was impregnated by the
man, who could or would not marry her, and she left the
baby, of noble or upper-class blood, in the wheel.
Some of those stories may carry a grain of truth;
however, there is usually no way to corroborate them, and I
believe the great majority were fiction, made up to assuage
the shame of families with unwed daughters who had become
pregnant. Hopefully, today the world is less
EXAMPLES: There follow some links to images of original records
dealing with foundlings from several Sicilian and Italian towns, in various years.
They're presented here to show different approaches to the
records, to shed some light on the lives of
these children, and finally, to celebrate their existence.
The above material is a
synopsis of information from my own research of
Sicilian and Italian birth, marriage and death
records, augmented by correspondence with
genealogist Ann Tatangelo (angelresearch.wordpress.com),
and by the description of foundling management
in the book
Sacrificed for Honor, by David I.