Records management in Italy

Records management in Italy

Stephens, David O

This edition of “The World of Records Management” takes us to Southern Europe, to Italy, an ancient land with a great recordkeeping tradition that dates back literally thousands of years. We will review the nature and status of records management in both ancient and modern Italy shortly, but first, a word about Italy itself.

The Italian Republic (as Italy is officially called) is a nation of some 58 million persons, which makes it slightly less populous than Great Britain. The country is governed under a parliamentary form of democratic government, and is subdivided into a total of 20 regions and 94 provinces. At the municipal level of government, there are some 8,000 comuni, or cities and villages. These units of local authority are, as we shall see, subject to special recordkeeping requirements under Italian law.

Italy is a relatively young nation–Italian Unification did not occur until 1861–but the origins of records management in this ancient land date back at least 2,000 years, to the days of Roman Republic and its successor, the Roman Empire. Together these governments produced one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known. They also made great and historic contributions to records management. Although records management in ancient Rome has been previously chronicled in The Records Management Quarterly, this history is worth repeating here, since the discussion serves as a precursor to records management in modern Italy.


One commentator has written that “recordkeeping in the ancient world reached its zenith in Imperial Rome.” The Romans not only established a sophisticated records management infrastructure in Rome itself, but also in Egypt, Greece, and the other colonies that were governed by Rome throughout its empire. In fact, recordkeeping systems were such an essential component of public life that Rome’s administrative organizations and systems were built upon the legal foundation of these recordkeeping systems.

The Romans created their records utilizing wood as the primary recording medium (primarily because of the high cost of papyrus), but fragments of pottery called “potsherd” were also used. Roman documents created on wooden tablets were joined together when they became inactive; a group of related documents formed what was called a codex–a collection of records similar to our modern-day file folders. Within each codex, individual tablets were numbered in consecutive order and indexed for subsequent retrieval. Large quantities of these tablets were stored in a building called a tablinum (literally a “house of tablets”), a facility similar to our present-day records centers.

In the year 79 B.C., the Romans built the Tabularium, a facility adjacent to the Forum, which served as a central records repository for the entire republic. In fact, it has been reported that “every record created in the Republic was transferred to the Tabularium”; however, the republican government also administered an Aerarium, which was a separate record office for the records of magistrates and other public administrators under the jurisdiction of the state treasurer. The Tabularium was administered by a total of fourteen quasestores, and during the days of the republic free access to its holdings was granted to every Roman citizen.

As every student of ancient history knows, the Roman Republic was succeeded by the dictatorial rule of the emperors during the days of the empire, which lasted from 27 B.C. until 476 A.D. During this period the Tabularium lost its position as the central recordkeeping repository of the government, because the emperors maintained their own records in repositories called tabularium Caesaris. During the days of the Empire, separate “decentralized” records centers were established in each province, which contained the records of both the central and the provincial governments, and there were municipal record centers as well.

The underlying significance of the foregoing is that Imperial Rome must be credited with the formation of the first “nationwide” system of records management in the history of Western civilization. With its central and decentralized records repositories located throughout the Empire at the several levels of the Imperial administration, the prototype of a modern national records management infrastructure was created–a nationwide system that endures to this very day.


Perhaps to a greater degree than anywhere else in Europe, the Italian city states of the Middle Ages made substantial progress in the development of records management systems. The chancery offices of these states were subdivided into various bureaus, each of which was responsible for maintaining the records and files of the local government. Typically, the records were filed either by subject, by format, or by type of transaction, and then chronologically within these groupings. These bureaus utilized armoires or cupboards as filing cabinets, each with a label to indicate the contents.

The origins of modern “registers” date back to the Middle Ages, when the Italian city states maintained separate registers for incoming and outgoing documents. Records retention–a method of disposing of records which have outlived their usefulness, also has its origins during this period. During the 14th century, special commissions were assigned the responsibility of reviewing groups of records in order to determine which ones could be destroyed.


Although the Vatican State and the records of the Roman Catholic Church constitute ecclesiastical records of an independent state within the confines of Italy, the Holy See has played such a crucial role in the history of recordkeeping in Italy that we would be remiss not to briefly discuss the role of the Church. Indeed, after the fall of Rome in the fifth century A.D., the Church was virtually the sole recordkeeper in Italy and, for that matter, in all of Europe.

The Holy See formally established diocesan archives in 1565 A.D. at the Council of Milan. However, it was not until 1917 that provisions for records management were officially codified into canon law. The 1917 Code of Canon Law incorporated a formal mandate to maintain diocesan archives; this law specified details concerning archival content, use and methods of preservation.

Section 2 of Canon 486 states that “In every curia, there is to be established a safe place for a diocesan archive in which the instruments and writings which refer to both the spiritual and temporal affairs of the diocese, properly arranged and diligently secured, can be safeguarded.”

Later rules of the Church established requirements for records management down to the parish level. Because a large quantity of records in Italy relate to both the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian government, it was necessary to clarify the jurisdiction over these records. This was done under a Concordat executed between Italy and the Holy See in 1929.

In the global history of records management, the Holy See is significant because the Church’s canon law authorizes perhaps the most globalized records management program of any organization in the world. Records management is present in the Church’s institutions in virtually every country in the world.


Records management has been present in modern Italy since the early years of the 19th century, when the Italian states were ruled by Napoleonic France. The French government imposed a document classification and registration system that is still present in its most essential aspects. Fourteen years after the founding of the Italian Republic in 1861, the national government established its national archives, the Archivio Centrale dello Stato–the Central State Archives. Located in Rome, this institution preserves the records produced by the central administrative organs of the Italian national government. It also directs the hierarchy of state archival institutions throughout Italy and provides the framework for nationwide records management.

Although modern records management in Italy can be said to have begun with the issuance of the Royal Decree of 1900 (which contained regulations governing registry offices and archival institutions of the national government), it was not until 1963 that records management was authorized in its present legal framework. In that year, a Presidential Decree (Decreto del Presidente dello Republica) provided the regulatory framework for archives and records management that, with relatively minor changes, remains in force today. We will examine the main component parts of this framework during the balance of this article.


Previous articles appearing in this column have described the essential characteristics of document registration systems commonly utilized in Europe. In Italy, the system for document registration was formally mandated under the Royal Decree of 1900, and it is very similar to other European document registration systems. Each title or subject category of records (titolario) corresponds to a series of records appearing in a register, or protocollo. There is usually one register for each titolario, and like most other document registration systems, every document received or created by each office must be registered in a protocollo. The registered documents are numbered consecutively, and there are separate entries, in the protocollo for incoming and outgoing documents. The act of registration constitutes legal evidence not only of a record’s existence, but its authenticity as well.

Incoming documents are registered by entering the date of receipt, the name of the sender, and the subject as it appears in the protocollo. Outgoing documents are registered by entering the date of creation, the addressee, and the subject. Each document is also registered in the protocollo of the receiving office.


European registry offices generally utilize some type of standard files classification scheme in conjunction with the registers, and this is the case in Italy. Under the Royal Decree of 1900, a “systematic classification by mandate” system was implemented. This standard filing system (called the titolario) provides for both general and specific subject categories as the basis of filing in ministries of government.

General filing categories provide for the classification of administrative records common to most or all ministries (such as personnel records), while specific categories reflect the filing needs of a particular ministry’s business functions. The subject categories are organized into a hierarchy of classes and subclasses, each with its own alphanumeric file code–a system very similar to those commonly used in North America.

Registry offices in Italy also maintain a special category of registers (known as reportorio) in addition to the protocollo described earlier. This is a type of register that lists each file created under each subject category. Finally, the indices to the protocollo consist of two registers that contain alphabetical listings of the names of persons creating, sending or receiving documents, while a third register contains the subject indices for the registered documents.


Inactive records of the Italian ministries of government are housed in an elaborate, nationwide system of intermediate storage facilities (records centers) known as “deposit archives.” Each year the inactive files of a ministry’s current archives are transferred to these facilities, where they remain for a period of forty years from the date of transfer, at which time those possessing historical value are transferred to an appropriate archival repository, while the remainder are destroyed.

This national system of deposit archives usually consists of one such facility for each major ministry (directorate) of the national government, and one for each prefecture or regional government.

The 1963 Presidential Decree mentioned earlier prescribes the retention periods for all records of Italy’s governmental bodies, including those of the national government, the regions and provinces, and the municipalities.

As noted earlier, the Central Office for Archives in Rome manages the nation’s network of archival institutions, which includes the Central State Archives, the Archival Superintendences (Sovrintendenze archivistiche), the regional archives for each territory or province (Archivi de Stato), and other institutions within the system.


The Commissions of Surveillance are appointed in most of the central, regional and provincial ministries of the national government, and they play an important role in overseeing the implementation of the government’s records management program. The membership of these bodies consists of the head of the agency (or his designee), other high-level managers in the ministry, and a representative from the state archives.

The commissions are charged with the responsibility of exercising general management oversight of the ministry’s records management program, including both its current and deposit archives facilities and holdings. The commissions evaluate the quality of the recordkeeping systems for active records, and identify records eligible for disposal. Records proposed for disposal must be submitted to the Minister of Cultural and Environmental Properties, who makes the final decision concerning what can be destroyed.


These bodies function independently of the state archives; they possess regional archival responsibilities associated with non-state records–those owned by private citizens or institutions.


Luciana Duranti. “Records Management in Italy.” American Archivist. Fall, 1986. pp. 459-462.

Luciana Duranti. “The Odyssey of Records Managers, Part I–From the Dawn of Civilization to the Fall of the Roman Empire.” Records Management Quarterly. July, 1989.

Luciana Duranti. “The Odyssey of Records Managers, Part II–From the Middle Ages to Modern Times.” Records Management Quarterly. October, 1989.

Frank B. Evans. “Records and Administrative Processes: Retrospects and Prospects.” Janus. 1991.

International Council on Archives. “National System Descriptions: Italy.” In: European Archival.

Conference on the Creation and Organization of Contemporary Records.

Paris: International Council on Archives. 1985.

Ernst Posner Archives in the Ancient World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1972.

Copyright Association of Records Managers Administrators Inc. Oct 1994

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