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Italian Surnames

The history of a nation can be reconstructed not only from documents and events, but also from its surnames: toponymics tell a lot about migrations, and nicknames give insights about social milieu, dialects, jobs and traditions.

Surnames Divided by Place

Latest Additions

The "Cognomen"

The Cognomen - "cognome" in Italian, "surname" or also "family name" in English, is nowadays added to an original or baptismal name, inherited until recently along the paternal line, and held in common by members of a family. The Italian word "cognome" comes from the Latin "cum nomine", a further "definition" that accompanies the name. There is a great variety of surnames in Italy also because of the many dialects, the variations of singular and plural, and the presence of derivatives consisting of a final suffix, "smaller" as in surnames ending in -ello, -etto, -ino; "bigger" (-one) or "bad" (- accio, - azzo).

Surnames in Antiquity

In ancient Greece no surnames were used, only a patronymic was added if necessary to identify the individual, as in Pelides Achilles (son of Peleus). Later on, in ancient Rome the use of the tria nomina (three names) for citizens was established. As an example, the three parts in "Marcus Tullius Cicero", consisted of "Marcus" - the prenomen, or individual's name; "Tullius", the nomen identifying the gens or family, and the cognomen "Cicero", which was a kind of nickname to identify the individual still further.

Medieval Times

The Roman custom was lost in the Middle Ages, and individuals were known just with their baptismal name, as Gionata, Giuseppe, Simeone. Surname formation was a gradual, spontaneous and complicated process, but usually developed with economic and social progress: the richer a city, the more prominent people would choose a surname of belonging, which was not necessarily that of the father, but sometimes the group, similarly to the Roman "family" that also included servants. Surnames usually rose first in urban areas, later in the countryside, first among the upper classes and then among the common people.

When it became necessary to distinguish individuals with the same Christian name, often the name of the father was added - Giovanni son of Berardo, which was shortened to Giovanni di Berardo or Giovanni Berardi, similarly to what happens in the English language with the suffix "-son". Or a color (Neri, Bianchi, Rossi) from some physical feature or the coat of arms started to be used: in Florence, for instance, at the time of Dante Alighieri, there were two opposing political parties, Bianchi and Neri.

In the place of the father's name, especially if the father had come from another place and was not known by the community, the toponymic could be used, as in Giovanni Calabrese or di Genova, or the job, as Mastro Giovanni. Descendants then would often maintain this addition to the Christian name, giving origin to the present surnames.

The Formation of Modern Surnames

In this way, about the year 1000 starting from the city of Venice, a second name (surname) was added. The custom gradually spread from the nobility to all classes of people, and by the 15th century most surnames were formed. A small, illiterate social milieu, as was a village, just needed the name, to which, at most, "son of" (as in ancient Greece) was added, and often a nickname was enough. This is still common in many villages in the countryside, where people are known by their nicknames.

In villages a small number of surnames became so common that after many generations, when no actual near relationship could be remembered, it became customary and easier to identify family groups by attaching a nickname, to the surname of the most varied kind, such as a colour, or a size, or a place. As an example, Cola (from Nicola) could become Colarossi or Colaneri (from the hair color of an ancestor?), and Bucci (from Buccio, itself a nickname from the Latin "bucca"= mouth) could become Buccigrossi.

Finally, in 1564 the Council of Trento ordered parish priests to record each individual with name and surname. But by then surnames had already been common in many areas, so this church prescription just acknowledged what had become custom.

Classes of Surnames

Surnames can be categorized as follows:

Jewish Surnames

A seminal study, Samuele Schaerf's "I cognomi degli ebrei in Italia", published in Florence by the Israel publishing house in 1925, arose from the author's belief that since the Jewish community had so generously fought for Italy in the Risorgimento and First World War, they were a full-right component of the Italian nation and their heritage could be studied and recognized. Unfortunately, this philological study became a "precious" instrument in the hands of the Fascist regime.

Actually, due to the two thousand years of diaspora and persecutions in Europe, since the early Middle Ages many city administrations had kept lists of Jewish surnames, and ancient censuses divided Christian from non-Christians because of anti-semitic, segregational laws. A notable example is the "Stato civile israelitico" that was kept in the Province of Mantova. After the unification of Italy in 1861 sensitive data could not be recorded any more, and therefore it became impossible to identify religion from a surname.

It is a common myth that all Jewish surnames are "parlanti" (=speaking surnames), that is, would point to the religion of the individuals, though there are some notable exceptions as typical Jewish surnames as Levi (priestly caste) or Coen (descendants of Levi) who performed religious duties.

Historically, surnames became associated to the Jewish identity because connected to a residence (ghettoes), profession, clothing style, etc. It was surely more common that a patronimic - as "Veneziano" - might be used for a Jewish family because of the diaspora, but it is equally true that also Christians moved to other places and in the new residence started to be known from their place of origin. As the "Genovese" pasta recipe that was invented in Naples, an immigrant either Christian or Jew might well bear a surname as "di Francia" (=from France). Therefore, toponymic surnames belong to all religions, though they might have been more common among some communities that were persecuted and had to move to other places.

A further consideration is that the contemporary "global" society is by now, and fortunately, very fluid, derived from many individual and group transformations, such as conversions and intermarriages or massive migrations, therefore to identify a religious belonging from a surname is the same as saying that all the Grossi are big and the Piccoli small, the Fabbri blacksmiths and the Molinari millers. And let us all make ours the dream that people "would be judged... by the content of their character".