If you have Italian ancestry, you are not alone. There are tens of millions of people, possibly more, in the United States who have Italian ancestors, and even more in other parts of the world, especially Italy itself. The Italian language is a rich and descriptive one, and it has—as one might expect—equally rich and descriptive (and sometimes just plain intriguing) surnames. Knowing the history and meaning of your own Italian surname, or that of an ancestor can tell you a lot about that particular branch of your family tree, even going back to ancient times.
Here are the most important things you need to know about Italian surnames and their meanings.
The First Names of the Parents were the First Surnames
Like much of Europe, the first names of the parents were the earliest form of surname that was used in Italy. Also, as in most of Europe, the first use of surnames began in the Middle Ages. Before that, people only had a first name, and that was all. As villages became larger towns and cities, and people began moving from the villages where their ancestors had lived for centuries (usually in search of employment, marriage partners, or land that was available to buy and farm), surnames became an important way to distinguish between people with the same first name who might not be known to everyone in their community.
Using the first name of their parent as a surname was logical when villages became larger, but before people started moving out of their ancestral homes. Calling someone by their first name, followed by “son of” or “daughter of” just made sense. Everyone (or most people) in the village probably knew the parent, but with a larger population that included more than one child with the same first name, distinguishing them by the first name of their parent was a good way to keep all the kids with the same first name straight.
“Della” and “di” mean “son of” in Italian, so Pietro di Franco or Anthony della Marco mean “Peter, son of Francis” and “Anthony, son of Mark.” Many Italian surnames still use “della” and “di,” but a lot of patronymic and matronymic surnames have also evolved to just end in “o,” such as Franco and Marciano. They still mean “son of.”
Place Names were Another Early Form of Surname
When people began to move out of their ancestral villages, stating their place of origin to people in their new town, city, or village was a way for them to distinguish themselves from others living there who had their same first name. It also established a level of trust, as most people would at least be familiar with the name of the place of origin of an individual, even if they had never been there. They might even know other people from that place, so stating your original home told your new neighbors you were who you claimed to be.
Leonardo da Vinci is an excellent example of someone with an early geography-based surname, as “da Vinci” means “from Vinci.” And, Leonardo was, in fact, born quite near the town of Vinci in Italy. Names that started with “da” or “d’” indicated “from,” and still do. “D’Arezzo” is a good example of this type of use.
Surnames ending with “ino,” “ano,” and “ese” are also “from” surnames. For example, “Veronese” means “from Verona.” A geographic surname might be a more general Italian word, as well, such as “Costa,” which is a popular Italian surname and means “the coast.”
Trade Names were Literally Surnames
Using one’s trade as one’s surname was a popular way of choosing a surname in the Middle Ages in most European nations, and Italy was no exception. Especially when someone moved to a new town or city, distinguishing oneself by declaring one’s trade as one’s surname let others know to come to you for that service or product. It was an excellent way to get new customers in a new place.
As an example, hat makers were called “Cappellari,” and wool merchants were called “Lanaro.” If someone was of the nobility or a high ranking church official, they sometimes took on a surname to reflect that status, such as “Conte” for a count, or “Cardinale” for a cardinal.
Your Ancestor’s Surname May Be Influenced by Regional Dialect
Italy was not always a unified country, and its many regions each had their own unique dialect. This dialect may be reflected in the surname your ancestor chose. The Florentine dialect, which is the official Italian language used today, was not adopted until 1861. You might have a Sardinian surname, which usually ends in the letter “u,” like “Soru” or “Nieddu.” If your Italian surname begins with an “S” plus another consonant, it probably originated in Friuli. Sbarro, as in the famous pizza chain, is a good example of this. And, surnames starting with “Im” or “In” usually come from Palermo.
Personal Details, Like Physical Descriptions, Sometimes Became Surnames
If someone had a really distinguishing physical characteristic, it might have been used by others to describe that person, becoming a de facto nickname, and eventually a family surname. Names like Biondi and Ricci describe hair (blonde and curly, in these instances). Personality traits made their way to surnames, as well. Someone who was talkative may have been referred to as “Cicala,” while a cunning person would be called “Volpe” (which means “fox”).
In fact, the most common surname in Italy today is a descriptive one. The name is Rossi, and it describes someone with red hair. It has another variant in Italy that means the same thing… Russo. While Rossi is the most common surname in Italy, the Russo variant is the most common Italian surname in the United States.
Once you know a little bit about Italian surnames and their history and meaning, you will find your Italian family history research to be much more rewarding and meaningful. You will also know a little bit more about your ancient Italian ancestors, as well
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)