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.
- 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.
- The FamilySearch Wiki on Italy Names
- The Ganino Database of Italian Surnames
- Fucilla, Joseph. Our Italian Surnames. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1987.
- Malossini, Andrea. I Cognomi Italiani. Milano: Vallardi, 1997.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!