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Italians in Nice and Marseille


Something must be afoot among those of Italian descent who stumble upon ancestors born in southern France, particularly in Nice or Marseille. We usually receive a trickle of queries on the subject but they are increasing of late, not quite to flood level but, shall we say, to the level of a mighty river in full flow. What is the cause, Dear Readers? We cannot say but we can explain the presence of some of  these Italians in southern France that seem so bemusing to you.

Succinctly, both cities are on the Mediterranean Sea; Marseille, a major port,  has been French since the fifteenth century, while Nice, on a beautiful bay, was a part of the Duchy of Savoie from the fourteenth century and did not join France definitively until 1860. The culture and language of Nice were so Italian that, after 1860, a serious process of francisation was considered necessary by the authorities.

The Wikipedia article explaining that delightful word does not do justice to the concept; it limits it merely to language. We find that francisation is so much more than simply replacing a word with its French equivalent, something the sainted Fowler abhors; it is making someone or something French. Vessels can undergo francisation, wherein they are not merely sold but are treated as if they were built in France. We think a case can be made that the new, French, birth registrations created for naturalized citizens may be said to be a form of francisation. In the French mind, places, people and objects, can be transformed, by francisation,  into someone or something completely and originally French. We asked our friend, the scholar Monsieur B. about this. Over a glass of pinot, he explained the ever so precise French definitions of pays, état, et nation, country, state and nation. "Le pays est le territoire": a country is a geographical term, a place defined by its territory.  "L'état est l'administration": the state is the administration and institutions. "La nation est le peuple" : the nation is the people. The francisation of Nice would have been, he explained, across all three and, therefore, thorough and absolute. A century and a half ago the character of Nice changed dramatically as the city and her people became French, while Marseille, though as polyglot as any great port, has been very French for six hundred years.

Their close neighbour, now Italy, has had intertwined histories with both cities. Turin and Nice were part of the same duchy for hundreds of years, for example, trading comfortably with one another. Marseille has consistently been a place of refuge for Italians, some of whom we wrote about here. In the late nineteenth century, more than ninety thousand Italians migrated, often temporarily, to Marseille, seeking work. Thousands more spread across the region. So, many northern Italian families have branches in Nice and many migratory Italian families had one or two children born in Marseille.

To research Italian ancestors who lived in and near these cities, different procedures are necessary for each. Those of you with established skills in French genealogy will find Nice more complicated but not impossible. We have explained Nice research and given more history here and here . We have written about Marseille Marriage records online, and about our visits to the Municipal Archives of Marseille and the Departmental Archives of Bouches-du-Rhône. Should you be able to visit this last for your research, a number of different record series contain information on Italians in and around Marseille:

  • Police surveillance records
  • Census returns, including in some towns, special censuses of Italians
  • Tenement inspections by public health officials
  • For those who remained and took French nationality, they may appear in the naturalization application files

You may also want to search for a name in the naturalization files of the Archives nationales. These include refused applications. The French commercial genealogy websites, especially, have indexed the official publication of announcements of naturalizations (so, only those granted). 

Lastly, if you lose track of them again, be aware that many Italians in France migrated on to Algeria. To research these, you will want to go to the website of the Archives nationales d'outre-mer.

The research can be very rewarding, helping to track a family's movements between France and Italy, and finding births and marriages in French records that could not be found in Italian records.

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy