Surnames Divided by Place
Sections on Italian Genealogy
Etymology of Surnames (Listed Alphabetically)
Surnames in Antiquity
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
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
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".