A name isn’t just used to differentiate one person from another. If you dig deeper, many names are filled with centuries worth of history. If you’re trying to trace back your family legacy, names are a good jumping-on point for your search.
Nowadays, we hear Italian names almost everywhere – from TV screens to real life. If you’re looking to delve into the meanings of the most common Italian surnames or hope to research your Italian heritage, this guide has you covered. Read on to find out all the essential information to know when it comes to Italian names!
Naming Conventions In Italy
The average Italian name follows a general structure adopted in most of the Western world: a given name followed by a surname. Some Italians also have a second given name.
To fully understand how naming conventions in Italy work, there are three things you need to understand:
When Did Italians First Use Surnames?
Surnames started coming into fashion in the 15th century among Italian nobles, as a way to distinguish families from one another. They were then made mandatory for the rest of the country after the Council of Trento in 1564 as a requirement for baptisms and marriages.
Many Italian surnames end in -i because medieval Italians identified families by their ancestors in the plural. So in the Middle Ages, a person named Marco from the Ormanno family will be called Marco degli Ormanni.
Eventually, the possessive degli would disappear – however, the family name would still be pluralized. So, Andrea degli Ormanni would be just Marco Ormanni in modern times.
Two common suffixes are still used in Italian surnames today, which are:
- Terms of endearment: For instance, the suffix -ino used in the name Bernardino could mean “Little Bernardo”.
- Regional characteristic: Some suffixes are closely tied to certain regions of Italy. For example, the name Manganiello likely comes from Campania, where the suffix –iello is often used.
Common Name Origins
Similar to many European countries, many Italian last names come from four key sources:
One of the most common origins for European last names is patronymics – a name based on the family patriarch’s first name. For instance, someone named Giuseppe De Luca would translate into “Joseph, Son of Luke”.
A surname can describe where a person’s ancestors hailed from. Names based on place of origin are further broken down into three types:
- Specific towns and regions: Someone may take their town or region of origin as their last name. For instance, the last name Fiorentino and its variations mean “Of Florence”. Meanwhile, a Romano’s ancestors might have hailed from the city of Rome.
- Nearby landmark: Your ancestor may have taken their name from landmarks near where they lived. For instance, the name La Porta means “the gate”, while Fontana means “fountain”.
- Natural features of the region: Natural features were also taken as surnames. For instance, the ancestors of someone with the surname Della Valle might have lived in a valley.
One’s occupation or tools of their trade is also a common source for a surname. For instance, the ancestor of someone named Fabbri was likely a smith, while someone named Zappa (“hoe” in Italian) may be descendants of a farmer.
Nicknames Or Personal Characteristics
A person’s nickname or personal characteristic was sometimes adapted into their last name. For instance, a person named Fortuna might have had an ancestor known for their good luck.
How Italian Last Names Change Over Time
Many Italians who moved to other countries changed their Italian surname to fit in with the locals. This is especially true when talking about Italian immigrants to America, many of whom anglicized their last name.
The spelling of the name may be changed, like a Russo changing their name to Russell. Some other names may be translated directly, like a person named Bianco changing their last name to White.
If you’re trying to delve into the origins of your Italian ancestors, anglicization and the variants of spelling may make your search tougher. However, you can try looking into an Italian genealogy site for clues on how your Italian surname has changed over time. Researching immigration records from when your ancestors first came into America may also help you find their original last name.
Common Italian Surnames
With over 350,000 surnames, Italy is the country with the largest collection of last names in the world. Here, we present some of the most common Italian surnames found around the world to help you connect with your Italian heritage.
Since some of these Italian last names also work as first names, this list can also help you name a baby or a fictional character!
As a note, this list is not an exhaustive list of common surnames. Some of these popular Italian surnames may also have slight spelling variations, depending on regional dialects.
- Rossi, Russo: Both of these names mean “red”. Rossi is typically used in the north of Italy, while Russo is mostly found in southern Italy.
- Ferrari: This common surname comes from the plural of Ferraro, which means “blacksmith”.
- Franco: This name is derived from the word “Frank”, a Germanic tribe who invaded the Gauls.
- Greco: This name means “Greece” and is usually taken by people of Greek descent.
- Di Genova: This name means “Of Genoa”.
- Neri: While this surname means “black” and usually refers to a person with dark hair or dark complexion, there is another possible origin. This surname was said to originate from a noble family in the 12th century that was believed to be the descendants of Roman Emperor Nero.
- Bruno: This name means the color “brown” and was likely used to refer to people with brown hair.
- Agosti: The name Agosti is a patronymic originating from Agostino that means “favored with good omens”.
- Esposito: Literally meaning “exposed”, this name is usually given to a baby that was given up for adoption or placed in an orphanage.
- Conti: This name originated from comitis, a Latin word that means “companion”. Eventually, this word evolved to mean the same as the English word “count”.
- Gallo: This name means “rooster”. The ancestor of someone named Gallo may have had a strong voice like a rooster.
As one of the longest-lasting legacies of your family, surnames can hold a lot of history. If you’re curious about your Italian heritage and would like to know who your ancestors were, researching your surname is a good place to start.
In addition to surnames, old photos of your ancestors may also help. However, you may need to repair any wear and tear caused by Father Time before examining them or submitting them to genealogy websites.
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