Deciphering names in an old handwritten document is not as easy as one might suppose. This could be due to the widespread use of abbreviations, the difficulty in reading the handwriting, or the unique naming practices found in the language. To make this process easier, below are glossaries of names and explanations of the naming practices you will encounter.
Italian, like all romance languages, assigns grammatical gender to all nouns. This grammatical gender does not necessarily correspond to biological sex, but rather it is a way that the language organizes itself. This even includes words that seem genderless in English, as they seem no more masculine than feminine. For example, the Italian word libro (book) is masculine, and the word casa (house) is feminine. Generally, it is easy to tell which gender a word is assigned based on its last letter, as most nouns ending with o are masculine, and most nouns ending in a are feminine.
This feature of the language applies to given names as well. The names Adriano, Agostino, Bartolomeo, and Eugenio are marked as masculine because they end with o. If parents wanted to give these names to a daughter, they would use the name variations ending with a such as Adriana, Agostina, Bartolomea, and Eugenia. Similarly, a name that does not end with either a or o can be used for a child of the opposite sex by substituting the letter a or o at the end of the word: Giovanni-Giovanna.
This feature becomes useful with Italian names as the sex of an individual in a birth, christening, marriage, or burial entry written can usually be determined by analyzing the gender of the first given name. If the entry is written in Latin, the sex can also be determined by the gender of the name; for more information on grammatical gender in Latin, see the Latin Tutorial. While gender is useful with given names as it corresponds to the person's sex, surnames are not helpful in this way as there is no correspondence.
Variations in Assigned Gender
While most names will end with either an 'o' or an 'a,' there are, like all languages, exceptions to the rule. Below are some of the most common ones.
Greek names. Occasionally you will find a name or other word that doesn't fit the a-o rule. The Greek masculine names Nicola and Andrea, for example, end with the letter 'a.' For this reason, you should look for other words to help you determine gender so that you will not be misled when you come across names that do not correspond with the regular pattern.
Nouns ending in 'E.' A noun ending with the letter e may be either masculine or feminine. For example, the name Natale is feminine, but the name Emanuele is masculine. Because there are no clues in the name itself, each time you determine the gender of an individual whose name ends with 'e,' it is helpful to add the name to a list of "exceptions to the rule."
Name origin. One method of determining the gender of a name is to ascertain its origin. Daniele (Daniel) was an Old Testament prophet. This name is, therefore, masculine. Inside is derived from Isis, the Egyptian goddess. It is feminine. Other examples include Matilde (feminine) and Cesare (masculine).
Nouns ending in 'I' or 'T.' Names that end with 'i' or 't' are usually masculine. Examples: Giovanni, Luigi, Tancredi, Giosafat, Iafet.
Female names with accented vowel endings. A few feminine nouns in Italian end with an accented vowel. Examples: Virtù (virtue), Castità (chastity), and Verità.
Male names ending in 'io.' Another small group of masculine Italian names ends with the letters io. Examples: Mario, Aurelio, Ambrosio, Apollonio, Gervasio.
Names referring to Mary. Respect for the Virgin Mary influenced many to name their children after her or after one of her qualities. Feminine names such as Concetta, Assunta, Annunziata, Addolorata, Immacolata, Incarnata, and Purificata are variations of the following nouns or adjectives related to the life of the Virgin Mary:
- concezione: conception
- assunzione: ascension
- annunziazione: annunciation
- addolorata: grieved/sorrowful
- immacolata: immaculate
- incarnazione: incarnation
- purificazione: purification
Some of these names may also appear in their masculine forms ending with 'o,' such as Immacolato, Assunto, Purificato, etc.
Maria (Mary) is frequently used as a second given name for males.
Examples: Mateo Maria Boiardo, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Francesco Maria della Rovere, and Giovanni Maria Cecchi.
Biblical names. In addition to Maria, there are many popular Italian names taken from the Bible, especially from the New Testament. Examples:
- Elizabetta: Elizabeth
- Gesù: Jesus
- Giovanni: John
- Giuseppi: Joseph
- Mateo: Matthew
- Paulo: Paul
- Pietro: Peter
Names of saints. The Catholic Church has honored many individuals from the Bible and from among outstanding church members by canonization (a procedure by which a person is declared to be a "saint.") Many parents named their children after saints. Often the saint's name chosen for a child coincides with the name of the patron saint of a town, city, parish, or section of a city or with the day of the year on which that particular saint is honored. In Genoa, for example, the name Battista is popular. Bernardo is a popular name in Teramo. Other popular given names honoring saints are:
Other Popular Names
Names of famous Italians. Italian history is also full of notable characters whose names have been given to male children through the years.
Examples: Antonio, Adriano, Agostino, Vittorio, Emanuele, Amadeo, Umberto, Elena, Margherita, Yolanda, Mafalda, Garibaldi, Dante, and Michelangelo.
Popular Roman Names. Many old Roman names have been given to Italian boys: Faustus, Severus, Calvus, Paulus, Taurinus, Probus, and Victor. But the '-us' ending is changed to '-o' in modem Italian. Roman numerals are also used as given names: Primo, Secondo, Quinto, Sesto, Settimo, Ottavio, and Decio.
Latin names. In the provinces of Lazio and Umbria, many old Latin names are popular. Examples: Ascanio, Catullo, Cesare, Livio, Tarquinio, and Virgilio.
Geographic variations. Because of the cultural differences between Northern and Southern Italy, many names have different forms. Examples:
Three naming customs were derived from various groups that lived in what is now Italy (early Greek settlers, the Roman republics, and the invading Germanic tribes):
- Greek: Adding the name of the father plus the name of the family or tribe to the given name.
- Roman: Adding the name of the family clan to the given name.
- Germanic tribes: Attaching an ancestor's name with a similar beginning sound to the given name: Pompeo Pomponio, Alberto d'Alberto, and Garibald Faroald or Garibald Romuald.
One of the oldest and most widespread expressions of paternity used in Italy is characterized by the preposition di (of), entered between two given names; for example, Pietro di Giovanni (Peter, the son of John). With each new generation, the combination of names increased; hence Pietro's son Leonardo would be known as Leonardo di Pietro di Giovanni.
Eventually, a hereditary name was standardized, but the Italian records from which you will be extracting data continue to use a variation of this practice that can be confusing.
A large segment of Italian names today contain the preposition di between the given name and surname: di Paolo, d'Alberto. Sometimes the records also contain individuals' names, the names of the father, and even the grandfather inserted between the given name and surname: Francesco di Giovanni d'Angelo is actually Francesco d'Angelo (the son of Giovanni). There is a general rule for extracting Italian names that holds true in most instances: Omit given names beginning with di. To be certain, it is a wise practice to compare the apparent inserted name with the name of the father and grandfather if they are given elsewhere in the record.
You will encounter a relatively small proportion of matronymic surnames (names that are derived from the name of the mother or a matriarchal ancestor). Children occasionally took the surname of a mother who was not married to the father, a mother with whom they identified more comfortably because of the long absences of the father in military service or employment, or a mother who was widowed. Sometimes they took the surname of the mother to avoid confusion with someone in the community who had an identical name. Surnames that reflect a mother's situation: La Cattiva (the mean one); Della Vedova (of the widow).
Before 1928 foundlings (abandoned children) were often given surnames by the record keepers or, in some cases, wealthy families or the godparents who assumed responsibility for the child. In these instances, a phrase such as esposito(a) nella casa di (abandoned at the home of) might appear in the record. A child abandoned at the parish church may be described as figlio(a) della chiesa (child of the church):
Surnames of Familiarity
Another group of surnames ends with "diminutive" or "augmentative" endings. Today these endings are added to given names to express endearment, but originally they were used to indicate size, age, physical and moral qualities, affection, or pity. They now comprise one of the largest groups of Italian surnames.
Adamollo : -ollo
Adamolo : -ollo
Andreozzo : -ozzo
Antonicello : -cello
Beltramello : -ello
Carluccio : -uccio
Cesarotto : -otto
Iannitto : -itto
Leoncillo : -cillo
Leonillo : -illo
Lorenzetto : -etto
Luigino : -ino
Marcarello : -arello
Marcarino : -arino
Marcherello : -erello
Martoccio : -occio
Mattiusso : -usso
Mattimo : -uzzo
Simoncino : -cino
Vitullo : -ullo
Vitulo : -ulo
Lupicino : -icino
Bernardone : -one
Bertacco : -acco
Bertocco : -occo
Bertucco : -ucco
Donataccio : -accio
Giacomaso : -aso
Giacomasso : -asso
Perico : -ico
Perisio : -isio
Perisso : -isso
Perizzo : -izzo
Robertazzo : -azzo
Ugoccione : -ione
Albeatinello : -ino + -ello
Albertonino : -one + -ino
Antognazzino : -accio + -ino
Guglielminetto : -ino + -etto
Marconcino : -one + -cino
Marcuccillo : -uccio + -illo
Martinazollo : -azzo + -olo
Pertuccello : -uccio + -ello
Petroccello : -uccio + -ello
Petruzzello : -uzzo + -ello
Petruzziello : -uzzo + -iello
For more detailed guidelines on Italian handwritten documents, we recommend the following resource, from which most of this section was taken: Italian Records Extraction - An Instructional Guide, © by Intellectual Reserve.