Emma Martina Luigia Morano was born on 29 November 1899 in Civiasco, Vercelli, Piedmont, Kingdom of Italy, to Giovanni Morano and Matilde Bresciani, the eldest of eight children (five daughters and three sons). She had a long-lived family: her mother, an aunt and some of her siblings turned 90, and one of her sisters, Angela Morano (1908–2011), died at age 102.
When she was a child she moved from the Sesia Valley to Ossola for her father's job, but the climate was so unhealthy there that a physician advised her family to live somewhere with more moderate weather, so she moved to Verbania, on Lake Maggiore, where she lived the rest of her life. In October 1926, she married Giovanni Martinuzzi (1901–1978), and her only child was born in 1937 but died when he was only six months old. The marriage was not a happy one, so in 1938 Morano separated from her husband, driving him out of the house; he died in 1978.