Italian is a rich and colorful language, with equally descriptive — and enigmatic — surnames. However murky their origins, the names practically gesticulate, telling a story that enlivens a family history. Here are some facts to keep in mind as you trace the roots of your own cognome.
1. Many surnames refer to geography
Centuries ago, surnames were often related to where a person or his family came from. Such names evolved around the late Middle Ages, as a study of great Renaissance names confirms. Da Vinci means “from Vinci,” and indeed Leonardo da Vinci was born near that town. De Tivoli, d’Arezzo, Perugino, Pisano, and Veronese similarly marked people as coming from Tivoli, Arezzo, Perugia, Pisa, or Verona. Other geographic references are more general, such as the popular name Costa, which refers to the coast.
2. Parents passed down their first names
The earliest fixed Italian surnames were linked to a parent’s name, as in Peter son of Francesca, or Piero della Francesca. These patronyms often include “della” or “di” but have also evolved to end in “o,” such as Marciano, Fabiano, and Sebastiano.
3. People were known by their trade
As with the English name “Smith,” Italians sometimes bear surnames based on an ancestor’s occupation or title. Those making hats became Cappellari, someone associated with the wool trade became Lanaro, and a basket maker, Cestaro. A count was Conte and a cardinal Cardinale.
4. Regional dialects matter
When Italy became a unified country in 1861, it adopted the Florentine dialect as the official Italian language. Before then, each independent state had its own dialect, which is reflected in regional surnames that have not been Tuscanized. For example, Sardinian surnames often end in -u, as in Soru, Nieddu, or Madu, according to Our Italian Surnames by Joseph Guerin Fucilla. A surname beginning with S plus a consonant, like Scarlo or Sbarbaro, likely hails from Friuli, in northeast Italy. Those starting with Im- or In- may come from the Palermo region.
5. Italian nicknames can last centuries
The etymology of your name might reveal some colorful details about a distant ancestor. Are you a Biondi or Ricci? Someone in your lineage probably had blond or curly hair. Malatesta translates to “bad head” and would have been a nickname for a malicious person. Quattrochi means “four-eyes”; Cicala, meaning “grasshopper,” denoted a chatterbox; Volpe, meaning “fox,” was someone cunning.
6. Don’t take surname spellings at face value
The spelling of Italian names sometimes changed after families immigrated abroad. This often happened because the name was not spelled phonetically, so people added letters that made names legible to non-Italian eyes. In Finding Italian Roots, John Colletta explains that the name Checati, for instance, could have been changed from Cecati, since in Italian, “ce” is pronounced “che.”