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Italian Surnames: Etymology and Origin

The SURNAME, also called FAMILY NAME, is nowadays added to an original or baptismal name, inherited and held in common by members of a family. The Italian word "cognome" comes from the Latin "cum nomine", something that accompanies the name.

Surnames listed alphabetically

Surnames divided by place

In antiquity no surnames were used, then for the first time in ancient Rome the use of the tria nomina for the 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.

This custom was lost in the Middle Ages, and individuals were known just with their baptismal name, as Gionata, Giuseppe, Simeone, until about the year 1000, when starting from Venice already a second name was added, to avoid confusion. The custom gradually spread from the nobility to all classes of people, and by the 15th century most surnames were formed. Finally in 1564 the Council of Trento ordered parish priests to record each individual with name and surname.

When it was 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". In the place of the father's name, especially if the father was not known by the community since the individual had come from another place, the toponymic could be used, as in Giovanni Calabrese or di Genova, or the job, as Mastro Giovanni.

His descendants then would often maintain this addition to the Christian name, giving origin to the present surnames. There is a great variety of surnames in Italy also because of the many dialects, the variations such as Grasso/Grassi (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). The following are the main classes of surnames: patronymics | toponymics | occupational | nicknames | foundlings


The widest category, present almost in all cultures, identified a person by his connection with another person, usually his father, more rarely his mother: the father's name with "son" immediately after it in English, or "van", "von" "di" "de" in other European languages, example: Di Giovanni, Johnson; most of these Italian surnames end in -o (masculine name) or in -i derived from a Latin masculine genitive (example: Bernardi means "of Bernardo"). The same origin appears in the preposition "de" or "di" as in De Luca, D'Angelo, Di Francesco. In case of a double name it is possible that the second identified the grandfather, as in Colaianni meaning son of Nicola (Cola), grandson of Giovanni (Ianni).


To identify where a person or family lived or came from, for example: Montagna, Milani, Wood, York.
  • Local area: the surname was associated to a place well known to the community, as for example Fontana, Della Valle, La Porta, Montagna (from the fountain, the valley, the door, mountain)
  • Geographical origin: this was applied as a consequence of the migrations of people; the place had to be known to the community that applied the toponimic, therefore if the individual came from near villages, the name of the village was used; if he came from a more remote city, region or country, a more general name was used, like Milani, di Genova, Napolitano, Pugliese, Albanese.

Occupational names

The job, especially an artisan's job in a small village, was possibly held by only one person or family, so that the profession was added to the Christian name, example Fabbri, Ferrari, Carpenter, Smith. The activity was often also shown with a typical object or animal connected to the profession, as Farina or Forni for a baker, Zappa for a farmer, Tenaglia or Martelli for a carpenter or smith.


Some features of the personality or appearance, at times ironical, identified an individual and his descendants, example Piccoli, Short, Selvaggi, Savage. The nickname was often associated to the color or form of the hair (some of the most common surnames have this origin) as in Rossi, Morelli, Ricci, size, like Corti, Grossi, Testa; more creatively, the (often ironical) nickname was made with a verb and an object indicating an action typical of the individual as in Pappalardo (that who eats lard). Other surnames may have come from moral features, as Selvaggio or Allegretti. Names of animals could serve to the same purpose, so there were Mosca (someone small or annoying), Cavallo (someone big, noisy or with large front teeth), Gatto, Grillo, Lepore, Volpe. Finally a nickname may have come from some feature in the coatsofarm of the family, like De Argento, Mazzei, D'Arco.

Surnames of Foundlings

This kind of surnames was chosen by religious institutions or, after the establishment of Civil Records, by the civil officer; they vary according to places and traditions, so that we have Esposito in Campania, Proietti in central Italy, Trovato in Sicily, Casadio in Emilia Romagna.

In the late 19th century the custom was introduced to give to foundlings surnames of non-residents, of flowers, months, of famous people, or surnames invented on the spot.