In my genealogic research of Sicilian and Italian records, I have been able to trace many families back through several generations, into the early 1700s and even earlier.  I have almost invariably found that there was at least one 'brick wall' in each of these families, where the line started with a child for whom both parents were listed on the civil registration of birth in Italian as 'padre ignoto' and 'madre ignota' or 'genitori ignoti' (father unknown, mother unknown, or parents unknown). Another way it was expressed was to follow the individual's name with the term "d'ignoti", e.g. "Maria Esposta d'ignoti",  meaning "Maria Esposta of unknown [parents]".  

       On earlier baptismal records,  the parents of these children were listed in Latin as 'genitoribus incogniti' or 'parentis incogniti'.  The Italian and Latin terms mean the same thing.  A more pejorative term is used in some towns: 'padre incerto' (father uncertain).  Church records may also describe foundlings as 'filius/filia universitatis' (son/daughter of the community).

(Note: this page is about abandoned children, whose parents are unknown.  For a discussion of orphans, whose parents are known, but deceased, see

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.  Another obvious reason for abandonment was the extreme poverty of most citizens of the 'Mezzogiorno', as the southern Apennine peninsula and insular Sicily are known.  And in some regions, large complements of men, often far from home at sulfur, salt, or potash mines brought high prostitution rates and subsequent illegitimate births.

      At least outwardly, church authorities were zealous in protecting the identities of unwed mothers, and saving 'face' for them and their families.   A more important motive was that the church considered newborns as 'Turchi' (Turks) or heathens, who could not be saved unless they were baptized.  Sadly, its concern for these children after baptism often was not as great, once their souls were saved.
      In addition to the church, civil officials were also concerned with these cases because 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 (or rota) 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 orphanages.

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.
    As bizarre as the concept of the foundling wheel may seem to some, the practice still exists to this day, in countries around the world.

    Instead of a wheel, unwanted children are placed in a receptacle similar to a bank's 'night deposit box', a called a 'baby hatch' or 'baby box'.

    The article at the right was published by the Associated Press on 13 February, 2023.

      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 often referred to as having been 'found in the wheel'.  The painting below, by Giaoacchino Toma, a 19th-century a artist from Galatina, in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, is entitled 'La Guardia alla Ruota dei Trovatelli' ('The vigil at the foundling wheel').


      Below is my interpretation of a story about foundlings that was posted in Italian at the site

The Real Casa Santa Annunziata [Royal Holy Annunciation Home] of Naples was an ancient institution devoted to the reception of abandoned babies. It was created in the fourteenth century along with the "ruota [wheel]", a kind of wooden cylindrical drum where the children were placed, then gathered inside by nurses ready to intervene at every call. The "wheel" was closed June 22, 1875, but infants were admitted to the foundling home until 1980.

Residents of the institution were called "sons of the Virgin," "Children of Nunziata" or "espositi [exposed ones]", that is, exposed to the protection of Our Lady. Hence the surname Esposito, of which we have the first written evidence in the archives of the Royal House of Naples [in what was then the Kingdom of Sicily] with a "Fabritio Esposito, age two years, cast off" at the Annunziata on 1 January 1623 at three-thirty AM.

This surname was used for all the "abandoned" until 1814 when Joachim Murat, the French general, brother of Napoleon Bonaparte and finally the King of mainland Sicily, eliminated the practice. The surname Esposito is still the most widespread in the region of Campania.

The wheel in which foundlings were placed

The surname Esposito, regarded as a stigma, could no longer be used: it was the duty of the civil authorities, therefore, who recorded the arrival of the children, having to invent a surname every day.

The foundling home staff let themselves be inspired by everyday life: if the sun was shining, the orphans of that day would be called Splendente [Shining]; if someone knocked on the door at the time of the first abandonment of the day, the last name would be Tocco "Tapping", and so on.

The eminent sculptor and designer Vincenzo Gemito was placed in the wheel on 17 July, 1852 (the day after his birth), and was given the surname Genito ("that which is generated, a son"), which later, due to an error in transcription, became Gemito. paraphrased the above from an October 2013 article in il Mattino which says: "That name, 'Esposito', which tells the child's origin, was considered a stigma, which made life impossible for people who grew up at the Annunziata."

Il Mattino
adds: "The foundling wheel was created to accommodate only babies, but desperate mothers also left older children, sprinkling them with oil to allow them to fit into the mechanism. Too often, that passage caused fractures and internal injuries; so to prevent abandonment of older children, the space to lay the children was reduced from a hand's-width to three quarters of a hand's-width."

Throughout Europe, church records, dating in some towns from 1540, were kept of all baptisms, even those of foundlings.  Generally, church records didn't even give any surname for a foundlings, just a 'given name' and the notation 'parentibus ignoti' as in 'Phillipus parentibus ignoti' (Filippo, unknown parents).  Such children went through life with only a first name and the handle 'foundling'.   Often they simply adopted a nickname or descriptive surname to distinguish themselves from other 'Filippo's'. 

       From about 1809 - 1820, influenced by Napoleon's 'civil code', civil records of birth were instituted in northern Apennine duchies and principalities like Venice and Genoa and in the Kingdom of Sicily stretching from Abruzzo and Napoli on the mainland to Messina and Palermo on insular Sicily. From that time, not only were foundlings' baptisms recorded at churches, but each child was civilly registered by the town's 'Uffiziale dello Stato Civile', the Official of Civil Status, in the civil 'Atti di Nascita', or Records of Birth.  For ordinary births, such records gave the date; names and occupations of the parents; and the name of the child.  In the usual case, there was no other description of the child, besides 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, on the island of Sicily, the title was 'ricevitrice dei proietti', 'receiver of castoffs'.  In other towns, like Sora on the 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'.  In other towns variations such as 'rotaia' or 'rotara' were used, with the same meaning.

Note: Often, "proietto" and "ruotaia" are written as "projetto" and "ruotaja".  The letter that looks like the English letter "j" is not a "j" at all, but the letter "i" with a long tail.  It was often written that way when it appears between two other vowels, and it is pronounced the same way as "y" is pronounced in English: hence "pro-YETT-oh" and "ruoh-TY-uh".  The "i with a tail" often appears in other words and proper names, such as "calzolajo" (shoemaker), Ajello, Saja, and so on.  The Italian word "progetto" meaning "project", as in a building project, is pronounced "pro-JETT-oh" (where the "g" sounds like the English "j"!) and has a completely different meaning.

       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. 

       From the early 1800s until 1865, civil records were kept on pre-printed forms in a format originally specified by the Napoleonic Code. The extra information recorded for foundlings did not fit in the blanks, so often the written information did not fit the preprinted category.  In some cases, the information was 'squeezed' into the preprinted form, but frequently the civil Register of Births had a 'Parte Seconda' (Part 2) and the foundlings were registered in that section, filed after the main portion (Part 1) of the register.  These Part 2 foundling records were completely handwritten.  Other non-standard births (e.g. late announcements) might also be filed in Part 2.

      In some towns, including Palermo and Catania, there was a complete separate register for foundling births, In some larger cities, all foundlings were abandoned at, or brought by their discoverers to, an ospedale, orfanotrofio, or brefatrofio (foundling home), which prepared its own records and also submitted the information to civil authorities to be registered. The earliest civil records followed the church's policy of simply giving foundlings first names, with the suffix 'foundling', later, they would give a concocted surname followed by 'foundling', as 'Filippo Faccilorda, esposto'.  Civil records after 1865 gave only a made-up first name and surname, but the body of the record itself clearly indicated that the child was a foundling.

      In some locales and eras, the abandonment of children by their unwed mothers was essentially imposed by civil and church authorities.  Town priests and midwives closely scrutinized young single women, and if they discovered a pregnancy, the expectant 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 were unknown.

     Unless an abandoned child's parentage was officially established at some later date, most commonly by a rectification (specifically, a "legittimazione" or "legitimization") that was filed to give the names of one or both parents, or on the post-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 might have known who his parents were, if no official correction had been made, his marriage record would list his parents as 'genitori ignoti'.

     Some children may have been abandoned because their parents were unmarried, or married in church ceremonies not recognized by civil authorities. If the couple was later married in a civil ceremony, the names of the children they had abandoned and their birth dates would be stated in the couple's civil marriage record, thus acknowledging and 'legitimizing' the former foundlings.

     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 provinces involved.

    These original birth records often reflect the large proportion of foundling births in a town.  In Racalmuto, for example, in the year 1880, there were five hundred and twenty four legitimate births recorded, and eighty-three infants left in the wheel, a staggering fourteen percent of all births!   Other years, and other towns, show similar statistics.  For example, the index of baptisms of the Mussomeli church records for the years 1831 through 1845 lists baptisms alphabetically by the first name of the infant's father.  There are several pages of names beginning with "P", dozens of them reading 'Parentis Incogniti' ~ 'parents unknown'.


       In some cases infants were not actually left somewhere, but were reported by a midwife as having been delivered by her, from "una donna che non consente essere nominata" - "a woman who does not consent to be named", and neither was a father named.  In these cases, even though the midwife obviously knew the identity of the mother, she was officially unknown, as was the infant's father.

'FOUNDLING' (trovatello) versus 'ABANDONED CHILD' (abbandonato): There is a tendency to use these two terms to mean the same thing.  There can be a difference, however.

Clearly, infants who were found in 'the wheel', on a doorstep, in the woods, or in the middle of the road were abandoned before they were found.   But there is another class of abandoned children, as noted above; those who were delivered by a midwife to a woman who would not or could not name the child's father.  In these cases, the mother of the child abandoned the child to the midwife and hence to the local authorities.  She was known only to the midwife, not reported in the record of birth, so she was 'officially' unknown, as was the father.  Hence, while all foundlings were abandoned children, not all abandoned children were strictly foundlings.

       In its effect on the future of the infant, the results were the same, whether the child was abandoned to the wheel or abandoned to a midwife.  While not strictly 'found', the latter, just as for an actual 'foundling', was given a concocted name, consigned to a wet-nurse or home for abandoned children, and future official references to his parents would list both of them as unknown.  See the case study for Santa Venerdi Proietta, below.

NAMES:  Although their parents were at least 'officially' unknown, 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, 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 word that was synonymous with 'foundling', as in Pietro proietto

        'Proietto' meant 'castoff' or 'thrown away' in early Italian, and consideration of the word's Latin origin sheds some light on the way foundlings were looked upon.  The origin of 'proietto' was the Latin 'proiectus' (written 'projectus' in cursive), and early church baptisms used 'Projectus' as a surname for foundlings.  One meaning of 'proiectus' was 'cast' or 'thrown'.  But Latin dictionaries give secondary meanings: 'lowlife'; 'miserable'; 'deplorable'; 'honorless'; 'lamentable'; and many more similar meanings.  Such was the view they had of these parentless infants.

         Other surnames clearly meaning 'foundling' or 'abandoned' include Trovato (found), Abbandonata (abandoned), or Esposto/Esposito (exposed).   In the  various duchies, principalities and other states on the mainland, at baptism, frequently 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 of the same name, 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 for Genesius; Amato for Amatus, etc.  Sometimes a foundling listed by only its first name and followed by "d'ignoti" eventually had the descriptive term capitalized and evolved into a surname, D'ignoti or Dignoti.

       In Roma, where a foundling's mother was often listed as "m. ignota" (madre ignota, mother unknown), a pejorative term was "figlio di Mignotta!" that is, "Son of an unknown mother!" Since most foundlings were illegitimate, that was a 'polite' way of calling someone a bastard.

Note:  On the death record of a foundling, their parents' names were invariably listed as padre ignoto and madre ignoto, or the foundlings were referred to as d'ignoti.  These terms did not mean that the parents' names were simply unknown to the clerk or declarants of a record, they meant that the person was a foundling.  If it was intended to convey that the person was not a foundling, but their parents were not known to anyone in the proceeding, in the place for the parents' names, the clerk would enter "s'ignorano" (the names are not known to us).

       The descriptive 'foundling surname' eventually became the person's official surname. 
When a foundling boy grew up, 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 foundling child.

       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 Urbino (blind); lo Guasto (crippled); Milingiana (eggplant); and Vinagro (bitter wine).  A child with such a name was marked throughout his or her life as one with 'genitori ignoti' (unknown parents) 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); degli Uomini (of the men); 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.

       Below is a poignant example of a name given to a child found in the town of Montemaggiore Belsito on the morning of 29 June 1835, in the public wheel of the 'House of Castoffs'.  She was found and presented by the Ruotara (female wheel-keeper) Francesca Ippolito, age 29.  The infant was a girl, wrapped in ragged digapers, without any birthmark or token, and was given the name Diana, and the surname Cacciatrice.  In Italian, the word "cacciatore" signifies "hunter"; the feminine form is "cacciatrice", meaning 'female hunter", or "huntress".  So a flippant official gave the unfortunate child the name "Diana the Huntress", possibly to show off his knowledge of Roman mythology.

      Regardless, it would be recognized by one and all as a "foundling name", and the girl would bear that stigma all her life.

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.  Often such names carried a 'foreign' implication: Lopez, Romagnoli, Suez and even Miller have appeared as surnames in Sicilian birth records.   These may be valid names, derived from ancestral ethnicities, or they may have been names concocted for foundlings. The surname Miller, for example, may have been given to a foundling because the midwife, receiver of foundlings or civil official knew (without officially revealing it) that the infant's father was an Englishman named Miller; or assumed that to be the case; or simply chose Miller to show that the child was 'not from here, not legitimate'. 

is a perfectly valid Italian/Sicilian surname, but in a town of only 1,500 souls, where no one else had the surname 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, or a modification of a town name to indicate 'from the town', such as Barese, Palermitano, Tirminisi, etc.  This also marked the child as a 'stranger' or the child of a stranger.  Place names as surnames, I believe, were more common as foundling names than they were as places of origin. For a more detailed analysis of Sicilian town place-names as surnames, click HERE.

Typical Foundling Surnames and Towns in Which They Were Prevalent




Abbandonata abandoned Sora (Frosinone)
Asinello little ass Mussomeli (Caltanissetta)
Cagnazzi bitches Santeramo (Bari)
di Dio [child] of God Castrogiovanni (now Enna, Enna)
San Piero Patti (Messina)
Valguarnera Caropepe
exposed Serradifalco (Caltanissetta)
numerous others
Gelsomino jasmine flower Montemaggiore Belsito (Palermo)
Giumento mare San Cataldo (Caltanissetta)
Milingiana eggplant Serradifalco
Miller [yes, Miller] Serradifalco
del Popolo [child] of the people Castiglione (Catania)
Montalbano di Elicona (Messina)
Linguaglossa (Catania)
Pampinella leaflet, sprig Altavilla (Palermo)
Baucina (Palermo)
Santa Flavia (Palermo)
Portoghese Portuguese Trapani (Trapani)
Proietto castoff Racalmuto (Agrigento)
Spavento fright Mussomeli
Spurio spurious Mussomeli
Trovatello little foundling Sant'Angelo Brolo (Messina)
Trovato foundling Acireale (Messina)
Alcamo (Trapani)
Valguarnera (Enna)
numerous others
Tulipano tulip Mussomeli

 ALIASESWhile abandonment of children born out of wedlock was sanctioned by both Church and State, it was illegal for a married couple to abandon a child.  Though there were some cases in which legal parents saw no other recourse, the overwhelming majority of foundlings were illegitimate children, to the extent that the word 'foundling' or any of its variations was synonymous with 'illegitimate'.  If you were a foundling, you were a bastard child, considered by society the lowest of the lowest social class.

Because of such stigma, on reaching adulthood, many foundlings took less stigmatic surnames rather than Proietto, Esposito, or the formulaic, contrived, and unique surnames that had been concocted for them.  These self-chosen names were usually simply common surnames in their villages, not necessarily with any familial connection. In some cases the new names were legally granted by the judicial system, but in many instances, the foundling simply 'went by' a name of their choosing, to the extent that after being used for some time, it essentially became their name.  Such persons often had both names recorded, for example, as follows: Giuseppe del Popolo, inteso Marconi, that is, 'Giuseppe del Popolo, going by Marconi'; or Ciro Gelsomino, detto Faso (Ciro Gelsomino, called Faso); or Paolo Proietto, alias Burgio ('alias' has the same meaning in Latin, Italian, or English).

When foundlings emigrated, many immediately changed or modified their names and revised their family stories, claiming to be orphans, or 'love children' of important figures, nobles, or officials, or having living legitimate parents left behind, since often there was no one in teir new surroundings who could refute their claims.

 Civil records were and are 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 date and 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 own child.

       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: often, boys were indentured or sold to sulfur mine owners or workers as 'carusi' (mine-boys) to carry raw sulfur out of the mine; and girls were often sold into prostitution. 

      These horrendous possibilities, of course didn't preclude the consignment of foundlings to foster-families that did care 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 the unification of Sicily with northern Apennine states (the 'resorgimento'), 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 a stipend!

       In small towns, the fate of foundlings may have been somewhat better than in it was in large cities.  In smaller communities, they may not have been subjected to the crowding of orphanages, but instead were consigned to the individual families of the wet-nurses.  There, though they may have eventually 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 normality.  However, their names marked them as foundlings.  In a class-conscious society, sons of landowners married daughters of landowners, daughters of tradesmen married sons of tradesmen, and foundlings married foundlings.

As family researchers try to 'build' their family trees further and further back, many are frustrated by the 'brick wall' presented by a foundling ancestor.  Unfortunately, exactly because foundlings were intentionally abandoned by unknown parents, it is virtually impossible to determine the names of their biological parents.  In many cases, it isn't even possible to determine the names of the families that raised them. 
       As early as the 1500's, churches kept records of baptisms for all children, including those for whom only one parent was known as well as for foundlings.  In the 1800's, civil registrations of births began to be recorded.  So there can be some clues in foundlings' birth and baptism records.  Civil records give the name of the receiver of foundlings or the midwife who presented the child for registration, along with the names of two witnesses to the registration, and often the name of the wet-nurse or institution to which the child was consigned.  It's possible that one of those named belonged to a family that raised the child.   Baptism records give the names of the foundlings' godparents; again, possible foster parents of the infant.
       However, remember that the parents of a foundling were unknown for a reason: the anonymous abandonment of children was sanctioned by church and state to protect the 'honor' and therefore the anonymity of unwed mothers and their love partners.  Even in the rare cases in which official consignment, fostering or adoption documents were created, THE BIOLOGICAL PARENTS OF THE FOUNDLING WOULD NOT BE NAMED in such documents.
       With the recent trend towards DNA testing, it's possible that descendants of relatively recent foundlings may be able to locate close relatives who can help to clarify their lineage, but the farther back the 'brick wall' occurred, the less likely that even DNA methods can help. 
        Briefly, DNA venues test your DNA, then compare it to others who have tested, and provide a list of persons, some of whose DNA matches some of yours.  DNA is measured in centiMorgans, or cM, and the more cM you share with a "DNA match", the closer your relationship.   If these "DNA matches" have family trees and are willing to share information with you, you may find that they have ancestors in common with you.  This may help you to determine the identity, or at least the close family of the parent or parents of your foundling ancestor.
       For example, say one of your grandparents was a foundling.   That would mean that two of your eight great grandparents were unknown.  We share great grandparents with our second cousins, however, not every second cousin is descended from the unknown couple.  To isolate one or both members of the couple, you would first have to develop your own 'pedigree' or family tree that identified the six great-grandparents who were NOT the foundling's parents.   Then if you could analyze the trees of all the second cousin "DNA matches" that you have, you might be able to determine those who were descended from your known ancestors.  By elimination, any second cousins who were not descended from your known ancestors must be descended from one or both of the foundling's parents, so one or both of those second cousins' great grandparents are your ancestor(s).

Second cousins, on average, share 238 cM of DNA (actually, from 43 cM to 504 cM), so you'd have to study your DNA matches in that range and hope they have trees back to their great grandparents. In the diagram, great grandparents 7 and 8 are the unknown parents of the foundling, and obviously would have different names than your known great grandparents.

The same logic could be applied if your foundling ancestor was your great grandparent, but in that case, its unknown parents would be your great-great grandparents, of which you have sixteen.  So you'd have to know fourteen of the sixteen, and find enough DNA matches who are third cousins who had trees that could allow the same process of elimination. 

Needless to say, that would be a Herculean task, not likely to be successful.  In general, we usually have to resign ourselves to the fact that we'll probably never know our foundling ancestors' true parents.

  I have found no official records pertaining to the formal 'adoption' of foundlings.  In most Sicilian and Italian towns, from early on through the early nineteen hundreds, adoption was not common and even illegal, and the only formal adoptions allowed were those of orphans, that is, children whose parents were known, but one or both of whom died before the child reached adulthood. 

     Adoption of foundlings, whose parents were unknown, was generally not permitted.   Foundlings may have lived out their lives in a foundling home, or in private homes as menial servants, or worse; they may have been consigned to families as persons who worked in exchange for room and board, or to owners of the quarries or mines in which they toiled.  Even though foundlings' parents were officially 'unknown', a relative of the foundling, an aunt, mother or sister of the 'disgraced' true mother, may have raised the child.

      In some cases, they were formally consigned to official guardians, whose families became the foundling's foster family.  One case of foster parenting can be seen in the case study of Genesio Genesi, linked below.  Even where there are official consignment papers, since the foundlings' parents were unknown, that is how the parents were listed.  No names of birth parents are given in such papers.

     There generally are no official records of any of these dispositions, however in certain instances couples who had abandoned children born to them prior to having been married in a civil ceremony may have later married civilly, and in their marriage record declared the names of the children and acknowledged them as their own. For more detail, click HERE.    

      In cities or larger towns, a child may have been 'farmed out' (even for pay to the institution): boys as 'carusi' or child mine workers; girls as servants, or, sadly, as prostitutes.  In many cases, in small towns, these infants were raised in the families of the wet-nurse to whom they were consigned, or families which needed an extra set of hands for field work or other family enterprises.        

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 (or his son, etc.), 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 judgmental.

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 (, and by the description of foundling management in the book Sacrificed for Honor, by David I. Kertzer.

I've been privileged to be asked to do foundling research for Henry Louis Gates' PBS series 'Finding Your Roots'

I've contributed to three episodes so far, two with research on the ancestors of Marisa Tomei, and one future episode that deals with the heritage of a (presently undisclosed) Hollywood actor.  Click the image below to view the recent show involving Marisa Tomei.


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.

Click on a name below for the foundling's record.

LIBERTINO LO GUASTO ~ from his age of fifty years, given on his 1846 death records, he was born in about 1796 in Serradifalco, Caltanissetta Province, Kingdom of Sicily.  His birth or baptism records were not found, but this foundling survived and eventually married.  He was a contadino (peasant sharecropper), and was my great-great-great-grandfather.  He had many other known descendants (four hundred eighty-six, by my count), and the surname in the United States has been modified to Lo Quasto and Loquasto.

GIUSEPPE COPPOLA ~ according to his death record, he was found in about 1820, presumably in Aci Sant'Antonio, Catania Province, Sicily.  He later took the surname Mancino, married, and had children.  An example of an abandoned child who knew his parents, but even so, was officially regarded as a foundling.

GIUSTO SFORZA SPERA ~ found on 27 August 1835 in the 'wheel of castoffs' of the town of Mussomeli, Caltanisetta Province, Kingdom of the Two Sicilies by the keeper of the wheel, 'Rotara' Rosalia Lupo.  He survived and married Salvatrice Spoto in 1860.  They are known to have had three children, only one of whom survived.  She was Giuseppa Sforza Spera, my wife's maternal great-grandmother.

GIUSEPPE FIORENZO ~ found on 28 December 1869 in the wheel in Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, Messina Province, Sicily, by Angela Alosi, Ricevitrice di proietti (receiver of castoffs).  Apparent age, one day.  Consigned to nutrice (wet-nurse) Angela Consiglia, thirty-six, a filatrice (spinner of thread).  The baby was avvolto in cenci (wrapped in rags).

FERDINANDO URBINO ~ found on 30 May 1871 in the wheel of castoffs at Strada Sferrazza in Serradifalco, Caltanissetta Province, Sicily, by Concetta Digiugno, Ricevitrice dei proietti (receiver of the castoffs).  Apparent birth, 'recent'.  No note was made of any consignment to a wet-nurse.  The baby was wrapped in threadbare white diapers and bands of linen, with a cap of white muslin, without apparent birthmarks.   He survived, married Maria Venera Saldi in 1898, and fathered at least four children by her.   He worked as a 'bracciale' (day laborer), and later as a 'zolfataio' (sulfur miner).

GENESIO GENESI ~ found on 27 August 1874 in Castelleone, Cremona Province, Lombardy, Italy. The baby was assigned to the Brefotrofio di Cremona (Foundling Home of Cremona) on 29 August 1874.  He survived and was later consigned to a family whose husband became his legal guardian.  He emigrated to the United States and has descendants living there.

RAFFAELA SCAFATA PROIETTA ~ found on 19 November 1880 in the Wheel of the castoffs at Via Serpe number two, in Racalmuto, Agrigento Province, Sicily, by Rosa Esposto, Ruotaia (Lady of the Wheel).   The baby was left with her, for consignment to a paid Nutrice (Wet-nurse).  The infant was found wearing two caps, one yellow; a white shirt; a short blue jacket; and a new, striped sash.

FELICE CORDOVA ESPOSTO ~ born and given up on 2 March 1881 in the foundling wheel located in the home of Rosalia Giambruno, ricevitrice dei trovatelli (receiver of foundlings) at Via Bonarroti No. 54 in Grotte, Girgenti [Agrigento] Province, Sicily.  Found when he was a few hours old, wearing swaddling clothes, and a vest, a shirt and two bonnets, all of worn muslin.  He was consigned with the items found with him to the ricevitrice, for sustenance and care.  Thirty-seven years after his abandonment, when he was in the United States with a family, his biological father Gaetano Butera acknowledged him and stated that he should be known as GIOVANNI BUTERA.

SANTA VENERDI PROIETTA ~ born and given up on 15 April 1881 in the home of Girolama Danile, a 'civil employee' at Via Orazio number fourteen, in Girgenti [Agrigento], Girgenti Province, Sicily, born to 'a lady who does not consent to be named.'  She was found on the Friday before Easter in 1881, and her name, Santa Venerdi, literally means "Holy Friday".The newborn girl was consigned to the Girgenti Hospice for Foundlings, along with the items found with her: a blouse of lambskin, a small diaper, a white waistband and sash, and a kerchief on her head, all used items.  Santa survived, emigrated to America, and married.

RESTITUTA ABBANDONATA ~ found on 10 May 1887 in the public wheel of castoffs in Sora, Frosinone Province, Italy, by Felicia D'Orazio, Custode della ruota dei proietti (Keeper of the wheel of the castoffs).  The baby, about one or two months old, was left with the wheel-keeper, to be consigned that day to a wet-nurse, Vincenza Alonzo. The infant was avvolto ad alcun panni di tela lacera (wrapped in some ragged linen cloths).  This foundling survived, and was married in Sora in 1906, to Francesco Mammone. They eventually emigrated to Massacusetts, where they had seventeen children.

ANGELO MILINGIANA ~ found on 4 April 1904 in the public wheel of castoffs at Via Dante Alighieri No. 2 in Serradifalco, Caltanissetta Province, Sicily, by Teresa Barrile, Ricevitrice dei proietti (receiver of the castoffs).  The baby, about four days old, was left with her, to be consigned for nutrition and custody, according to legal requirements.  The infant was found wearing an embroidered white muslin shirt; a jacket of white pique; a sash and ribbons of 'rigalino'; a white muslin apron with small stripes; two caps, one of muslin and the other of wool, gray with white lace; and a gray woolen shawl.  There were no apparent birthmarks.  A death record was registered for this child less than four years later.

CARMELA VINAGRO ~ found on 19 July 1906 in the Wheel of the castoffs  in Mussomeli, Caltanissetta Province, Sicily, by Maria Santa Petisi, Ricevitrice dei proietti (receiver of the castoffs).  Consigned to an un-named nutrice (wet-nurse).  The baby was involta in nuovi panni (wrapped in new cloths).


   A fellow Sicilian genealogist, Laurie Galbo, recently made me aware of a striking sequence in the 1936 motion picture 'Anthony Adverse', which clearly shows the function of 'la ruota' (the wheel) in the disposition of abandoned children.  Below are screen shots from that movie.  Click on the thumbnails to enlarge the images.

Rest in peace.

A married woman dies after giving birth to her lover's child.

Her husband takes the child

to a convent in Livorno.

Out of the coach.

Opening the foundling wheel.

The wheel (la ruota) was a rotating cylindrical drum, set in the outside wall of the convent.

He lifts the bundle.

Places it in the wheel.

The infant in the wheel.

He rotates the wheel closed.

To alert 'la Ruotaia' (the wheelkeeper), he rings the bell . . . .

. . . . and runs away.

The nuns find the infant.

The child is registered and given a made-up name.

He was found on 17 January, the feast day of St. Anthony the Great, and named Anthony in his honor.

In the original, the record would have said, in Latin:

"Infantem masculum, parentibus ignoti, baptizatus die 17 Januarii 1873, cui impositum est nomen Antonius."



Formal Regulations:  Below is the first page of a twelve-page document that was embedded in the 1726 through 1826 baptismal records of the City of Acicatena's Church of Santa Lucia.  It appears between the records for June 1812 and July 1812, and references royal Kingdom of Sicily decrees from the 1750's. The document was called to my attention by Frank Santoro, moderator of the facebook group Italian Genealogy.

The document is too lengthy for a complete translation here: a translation of the first page will be posted soon, as well as of key portions of the remainder. 

A N D   F O R M U L A S

Which must be followed by the Roman Rite Parishes of this Kingdom.

All the Roman Rite Archpriests, Pastors, Curators of every City, Territory, Settlement, etc. of this Kingdom of Sicily, in their regular duties, under the orders of all the Prelates, according to the Government and Royal Decrees of 11 January 1751, 12 April and 20 September 1752, and 29 April and 20 November 1756, must in every Semester [semi-annually] regularly report to the Deputation for Children, located in Palermo.

A R T I C L E   I.

para. 1. Whether or not in such City, Territory or Settlement there exists a Wheel for the aforesaid castoff Children: and whether in the course of the Semester, that is, 6 Months, for which they give account, if it [the Wheel]  has been properly available, with its chimes, and it is well-attended, especially at night.

. . . . more to come . . . .

    The above is an official document of the Regnu di Sicilia, the Kingdom of Sicily, which during the era involved refers to the insular kingdom, with its capital at Palermo.  At that time, there was another, mainland country also called the Kingdom of Sicily, with its capital at Napoli. 

     In 1816, shortly after the years represented in these records, the two nations recombined, forming the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, comprising the lands of the original Kingdom of Sicily founded by Ruggieru II in 1130, which extended from Abbruzzo and Campania, to and including insular Sicily.  Rules for the mainland kingdom and the combined kingdoms are not presented here, but undoubtedly, similar regulations were in force there as well.

    The complete document is viewable on by clicking HERE.

NOTE; if an on-line translator is used: as in many archaic Sicilian documents, this one often presents a letter that looks like "j".  It is not, there is no "j" in the Italian alphabet.  It is an "i" and should be typed into any translator as an "i".  Also the "long s" is common.  This looks like the letter "f".  If a word seems strange, like "cafa", substitute an "s" for the "f": casa = "house"; and so on.


Other on-line articles on foundlings:


In Korea, in 1950, as this fuzzy clip shows, the fate of foundlings was the same as in Sicily hundreds of years earlier.

NOTE:  "foundling" and "orphan" do NOT mean the same thing:  CLICK HERE to see the difference.


Other "Sicilian Studies"


The Lady of the Wheel is a fictional account of events in the life of one foundling. Click on the book's cover, below, for more.


SICILIAN LINKS Sicilianit Is Sicily 'Italy'? The Sicilian Languge
Cognomi ~ Sicilian Surname Origins Ngiurii ~ Sicilian Nicknames Place-names as surnames Sicilian Coats of Arms
Foundlings The Sicilian Naming Convention

Given Names

Convert Latin given names to Sicilian
La Bedda Sicilia ~ My history of Sicily Heritage Path ~ original Sicilian records Civil Record Format ~ 1820 - 1910 I'm a Sicilian American
My Lectures on Sicilian Genealogy Sicilian Occupations in Civil Records Sicilian Records at the Buffalo FHC Orphans, Illegitimates, and Foundlings
Li Carusi ~ The Mine-boys Shortened Sicilian Given Names There is no letter "j" in Sicilian The Thing
  Womens' Surnames Masculine and Feminine Names  




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