Surnames in Italy trace their origin back to the 1400s, when it became necessary to add a second name to distinguish between individuals with the same given name. Italian surnames are often easy to recognize because most end in a vowel, and many of them have been derived from descriptive nicknames.
If you think your family name may have come from Italy, then tracing its history may yield important clues to your Italian heritage and ancestral village.
Origins of Italian Last Names
Italian surnames developed from four major sources:
- Patronymic Surnames – These last names are based on a parent’s name (e.g. Pietro Di Alberto – Peter son of Albert)
- Occupational Surnames – These surnames are based on the person’s job or trade (e.g. Giovanni Contadino – John the farmer)
- Descriptive Surnames – Based on a unique quality of the individual, these surnames often developed from nicknames or pet names (e.g. Francesco Basso – Francis the short)
- Geographical Surnames – These surnames are based on a person’s residence, usually a former residence (e.g. Maria Romano – Mary from Rome)
While Italian last names come from a variety of sources, sometimes the spelling of a particular surname can help focus the search on a specific region of Italy.
The common Italian surnames Risso and Russo, for example, both have the same meaning, but one is more prevalent in northern Italy, while the other generally traces its roots to the southern part of the country. Italian surnames ending in -o often come from southern Italy, whereas in northern Italy they can often be found ending with a -i.
Tracking down the sources and variations of your Italian surname can be an important part of Italian genealogical research, and unveils an interesting look into your family history and Italian heritage.
Italian Surname Suffixes and Prefixes
Many Italian surnames are basically variations on a root name, made different by the addition of various prefixes and suffixes. Especially common are endings with vowels enclosing double consonants (e.g. -etti, -illo). The Italian preference for diminutives and pet names is the root behind many of the suffixes, as seen by the large number of Italian last names ending in -ini, -ino, -etti, -etto, -ello, and -illo, all of which mean “little.”
Other commonly added suffixes include -one meaning “big,” -accio, meaning either “big” or “bad,” and -ucci meaning “descendant of.” Common prefixes of Italian surnames also have specific origins. The prefix “di” (meaning “of” or “from”) is often attached to an given name to form a patronym. di Benedetto, for example, is the Italian equivalent of Benson (meaning “son of Ben”) and di Giovanni is the Italian equivalent of Johnson (son of John).
The prefix “di,” along with the similar prefix “da” may also be associated with a place of origin (e.g. the da Vinci surname referred to someone who originated from Vinci). The prefixes “la” and “lo” (meaning “the”) often derived from nicknames (e.g. Giovanni la Fabro was John the smith), but also might be found attached to family names where it meant “of the family of” (e.g. the Greco family might become known as “lo Greco.”)
In some areas of Italy, a second surname may have been adopted in order to distinguish between different branches of the same family, especially when the families remained in the same town for generations. These alias surnames can often be found preceded by the word detto, vulgo, or dit.