Many tracing their ancestry will come to the point where they cannot proceed because on a marriage or death record there are words such as “trovatello”, “proietto”, “esposito”, or “innocenti” ( meaning “foundling”). This refers to infants (orphans who aren’t really) who were ”found” at the regional ospezio (hospice), after being taken there by unwed mothers (willingly or not), or by a midwife, then given to other people, in another town. It started out centuries ago when in old Rome there was alarm at the number of dead infants found by fishermen in the Tiber River. It was first meant as an alternative to infanticide.
Somehow it later evolved into a forced system where all unwed mothers were required to give up babies (for no other reason than illigit), as a social institution got out of control. Forgetting the original reason to preserve life, hundreds of thousands died during transport, or from starvation at the foundling homes. Anonymously, babies were placed on “laRuota” (a wheel resembling a lazy susan) that turned to the inside of a local foundling home, where the baby was collected for processing at a larger regional home, and ultimately redistributed to another family. Here is one example that existed in Isernia (photos from the museum with permission).
Infants who made it alive to a foster family, usually remained in the same province. Transported by wagon over land routes, they could only attempt to go so far. Typically, the infant would bear the surname of the town where they were born to the unwed mother. But you won’t be able to link to the family of origin, unless through a DNA study. Sometimes foundlings were sent a long distance by boat, such as from Sicily up to Genoa in the north. (However, Sicilian surnames near port cities on the mainland could also indicate people who fled Sicily during the 1837 cholera epidemic). If the latter, you’ll be able to trace the roots in Sicily. If a foundling, you’ll see one of the words that indicated this. Each regional government did their own thing when it comes to details of how the system functioned. If you have a foundling in your history, it could have happened centuries ago, or relatively recently. You will know when you can no longer trace the names of the next generation back and encounter one of these terms. (Note: “ignoti” could indicate something entirely different)
For more information on the foundling system, see David Kertzer’s book, Sacrificed for Honor. The system was widespread all over Italy. In the Molise Region, an example of a typical foundling wheel can be seen at the Museum of Isernia at http://www.archart.it/archart/italia/Molise/Isernia%20-%20museo%20archeologico/index.html