Italian Last Names: Their Meaning, Origin, and Significance

August 13, 2018  - by 

Do you think you have an Italian surname? It ends in an “o,” “e,” “a,” or “i,” so it must be Italian, right?

Odds are it could be, but to be sure, you can explore in several places to learn more about your name.

Italians didn’t generally use surnames until the Italian population started to grow and more families needed to be distinguished one from another. So beginning in the 15th century, Italians in the upper classes started to add a surname. By the time of the Council of Trent (1545–1563), using a surname was a common practice and further solidified by that council when they emphasized the need to record baptisms, marriages, and burials.

Origins of Italian Last Names

Italian surnames generally come in a few main categories as far as their origins are concerned.

Where did my Italian last name come from?

  • Patronymics (The surname comes from an ancestor’s first name)—d’Alberto, d’Angelo, d’Alessi
  • Geographical areas—Lombardo, Di Genova, Napolitano
  • Descriptives or Nicknames—Franco, Betto, Zello, Gambino
  • Occupations—Ferraro, Carpenteri, Muratori

Some names even come from animals, insects, birds, objects, anatomy, and so on.

Some surnames, such as Esposito, Innocenti, and Incogniti, can even be used to identify a family who had an abandoned child somewhere in their family.

Use these excellent resources to learn more about the origins of your own Italian surname and how first names are passed down to future generations.

Italian Emigration and Surname Changes

If you have Italian immigrants among your ancestors, their names could have been changed as they assimilated into their new home country.

A common surname such as Russo could have become anglicized or changed to become Russe, Russa, Russell, or even Russ. A surname could also have been translated into English directly from Italian. Examples include Piccolo becoming Little, Chiesa being changed to Church, and Bianco changing to White.

Italian woman with a young child. Learn the meaning of Italian last names
Italian last names: meanings and origins. Family on a boat.

Watch for these changes on documents in the countries where your Italian ancestors immigrated to. If you are still exploring records, try to locate your ancestor on a passenger list such as those from the United States Ellis Island Immigration Station. The way your ancestor’s name was spelled on the passenger list is most likely the way the name would have been spelled in Italian records. The lists were often filled out at the port of embarkation before the ship left Italy.

Tracking down original birth records for your ancestors, as well as other Italian records such as marriages, christenings, deaths, and so on, can give you clues about how your surname has changed over time. If you need help getting started with your Italian genealogy, FamilySearch has great Italy research resources.

Common Italian Last Names and Surname Distribution Maps

Top 10 Italian Surnames

Most Requested

Most Common in Italy

1. Rossi 6. Russo 1. Rossi 6. Romano
2. Berlusconi 7. Colombo 2. Russo 7. Colombo
3. Ferrari 8. Brambilla 3. Ferrari 8. Ricci
4. Puddu 9. Greco 4. Esposito 9. Marino
5. Esposito 10. Ricci 5. Bianchi 10. Greco

Understanding the meaning and origin of your surname can help you not only distinguish between families of the same name, but in Italy it could be a key to locating an exact place of origin for your ancestors. Why? Simply put, because certain surnames exist only in certain localities in Italy or are more commonplace to specific regions of the country.

Do I have an Italian last name?

You can explore several websites that show on maps or in a tabular form where a surname is most prevalent in Italy. These websites often use modern phone directories and historical records to give a good representation of where a surname exists in Italy. This information can be extremely useful to narrow down where your family may have come from, especially with uncommon surnames.

Let’s face it, these searches are also a lot of fun!

This website maps your Italian surname. On the home page, look for the box that says cerca un cognome. Type your surname into the box, and then click Trova. You will see how many comuni, or towns, your surname exists in.

The Italian Surnames site is a little different. This site allows you to enter a name region by region in Italy to discover how prevalent your name might be in specific towns. As an example, I put the surname Accetta in the box for “Sicilia” and find a list of towns with the estimated number of people in a town with that surname. When you click on the name of a town, it also gives you the ten most common surnames in that town. You can also search for the most common surnames by town.

The Cognomix website is sort of a combination of the two—it not only maps the surname for you, but also tells you an estimated number of people or families in a town with the surname, ultimately drilling down from region to province and then to town on a colorful map.

Is my last name Italian?

If you just want to see a good list of Italian surnames, there are also several good sources online.

So, give it a try—you might be surprised by what you find.

Exploring your surname can be a lot of fun, but ultimately, I hope it leads you to discovering more about your ancestors’ lives and where they lived. FamilySearch has undertaken a massive project to digitize and index civil registration records throughout Italy. Once you have located where your ancestors lived—odds are you will find them in this collection of Italy records now available online!


Want to learn more about your Italian roots? Visit “Your Italian Heritage” on the FamilySearch blog.

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Comments

  1. Hola buenas noches,estoy buscando mis raices Italianas,mi tatarabuelo Pascual gerlo,hijo de Juan Gerlo,creemos que eran de la region de Pavia o Lombardia. No encontramos mas datos,desde ya gracias a quien pudiera ayudarnos.

    Translation: Hello good night, I am looking for my Italian roots, my great-grandfather Pascual Gerlo, son of Juan Gerlo, we think they were from the region of Pavia or Lombardia. We do not find more data, thanks to who could help us.

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  3. Hello. I have been taught that my grandfather’s surname was Skarpalezos but in Italian is two different words : Scarpa and lezzo ( stinky shoe). I will really love to know about my Italian heritage. If anyone could help me that will be amazing.

  4. Buenos días por favor ando buscando información sobre el apellido CUOTTO. Me dijeron que era italiano pero si alguien sabe alguna información sobre ese apellido por favor dígame. Gracias…Sólo se q la abuela de mi bisabuela se llamaba CARMEN CUOTTO y mi bisabuela MARIA EUCEVIA CUOTTO mi abuela ROSARIO CUOTTO y mi madre se llamaba MARIA DEL VALLE CUOTTO
    Gracias…

    Translation: Good morning please, I’m looking for information on the last name CUOTTO. They told me I was Italian but if anyone knows any information about that last name please tell me. Thank you … I only know that my great grandmother’s grandmother was called CARMEN CUOTTO and my great grandmother MARIA EUCEVIA CUOTTO my grandmother ROSARIO CUOTTO and my mother was called MARIA DEL VALLE CUOTTO
    Thank you…

    1. Good afternoon, if I already saw that article and it does not appear and my last name is CUOTTO.
      Thank you very much for answering my search.
      Kairú …

  5. El apellido Escala de q región de Itala nace.

    Translation: The last name Escala from the Itala region is born.

  6. Estoy buscando, a los antepasados de mis hijos.
    Los de mi hijo mayor, me frené en lombardia.
    Sé que el tatarabuelo de él, nació en algún lugar de Lombardia.
    Emigró a Costa Rica, antes de 1888, porque aquí aparece en i. Revuelta de sindicatos, en ese año
    Se llamo, Antonio Baroni, y se supone q nació, alrededor de 1869.

    Translation: I am looking for the ancestors of my children.
    Those of my oldest son, I stopped in lombardy.
    I know that his great-great grandfather was born somewhere in Lombardia.
    He emigrated to Costa Rica, before 1888, because here he appears in i. Union revolt, in that year
    His name was Antonio Baroni, and he was supposed to be born around 1869.

  7. I’m wondering if the name Buonviso was one frequently given as a last name to foundling children.

    Also, my husband’s family name is Torsone. The only Torsone’s we’ve found in the world are relatives. Is it considered an unusual name for Italy?