What’s in a Name?

As Italians, our cultural pride runs deep. One major source of that pride is our family name or cognome. Your surname tells a story that could enliven your family history. Where did it come from? Is it original or has it been changed over the years to sound more American? Learning more about your surname will certainly offer not only more insight into your ancestors, but perhaps a glance at the personalities of your ancestors and those around them.

Many surnames were related to where a person or a family came from. A study of the Renaissance confirms that many geography-related names came about during the late Middle Ages. For example, Da Vinci means “from Vinci” and Leonardo was, indeed, born near that town. Names such as Veronese or Pisano marked families hailing from Verona and Pisa. Others were more general like the name Costa which simply refers to the coast.

If your ancestors’ geography didn’t name you, perhaps their occupation did. Many Italians were named for their trade. Hat-makers became Cappellari while a count was Conte. Abate was a priest and Cardinale was a cardinal.

Some of the earliest fixed Italian cognome were parent’s first names. Piero della Francesca was Peter, son of Francesca. Names included the “della” or “di” or evolved to end in “o” such as Sebastiano or Marciano.

The etymology of your name may reveal some colorful details about your ancestors. For example, a Ricci may have had curly hair, Volpe (meaning fox) was someone cunning while Cicala (grasshopper) refers to someone who is chatty.

The spelling of Italian surnames sometimes changed after families immigrated to the U.S. Italians added letters to their name to make it more “readable” to Americans.

Whether you’re a Perugino from Perugia, a Cestaro with an ancestor who was a basket-maker, a Fabiano with a Fabio in the family, or a Biondi with a family full of blond hair, your name will definitely shine some light on your ancestors.