The Etymology and Origin of Italian Surnames
One of the most intriguing aspects of discovering one's family history is exploring the basic building block of genealogy-- the surname. While most people recognize an Italian name by sight or sound, few are aware of the complexity and meaning behind the most common Italian surnames. A surname contains a wealth of information that may give clues to region of origin or even personal characteristics.
Regional and geographical cues for Italian surnames
Many surnames are derivatives of Italian words that offer a basic description of ancestral migration. Mass migration was common in Italy in the 1500s and 1600s, and this prompted many families to adopt surnames to reflect their places of origin. Most families made distinctions based upon the relative specificity of their starting point or homeland. Some identified with villages, cities or countries; examples include names like Milani (from Milan), Napolitano (from Naples) or any of dozens of smaller, provincial communities. Others chose geographical descriptors culled from landmarks or distinctive features within a community. Familiar modern examples include Fontana (from the fountain), Montagna (of the mountains) or La Porta (the door).
Informal origins of Italian surnames
As surnames became increasingly popular, many Italians were assigned names that reflected some defining characteristic. Names could convey notable personality traits (Selvaggio or Allegretti), hair qualities (Rossi, Ricci or Morelli) or even less-flattering characteristics (Mosca might indicate one who was considered small or annoying, while a Cavallo could refer to someone with large or protruding front teeth).
Outside of Italy, Italian surnames are very common. However, few people know the interesting and subtle ancestral cues that are hidden in family names as they are passed down from generation to generation. Learning about one's history is a fascinating way to gain a sense of family and background.