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he etymological research carried out by the Italian Heraldic Council - Marquis Vittorio Spreti Institute, called Etimos, is the research that everyone should do to discover the origin of his surname as it was determined between the year 1000 and the twelfth and thirteenth century, after the Barbaric invasions had caused the falling into disuse of the Roman praenomen, nomen and cognomen (for example, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus is composted of the praenomen, or individual name, Publio; the nomen Cornelius, which indicated the gens that he belonged to, that is the tribe or lineage; the cognomen Scipio, which finally indicated the family; and in this particular case Africanus represents the agnomen, that is the nickname).

With the crisis of the feudal system, and the consequent strengthening of the principal towns, the Communes became centres of attention, giving rise to phenomena of important internal immigration from the villages to the large centres, with movements of goods and a more intense participation in public and social life. Only then was the need felt to identify individuals exactly, with the addition to the name – that is the particular appellative of each individual – the surname (cum nomine), that is a civil status able to distinguish each individual.

The Italian surname forms are about a million, while pure surnames are about 280,000, even though almost half of these can be considered graphic variations and other forms, related to surnames, plant names, place names, patronymic forms, matronymic forms, trades, territories, qualities, deeds, personal characteristics: for example, the Rossi derive from a nickname that stresses a precise characteristic, the red colour of the hair. At present it is the commonest surname, borne by as many as 70,000 Italian citizens; after Rossi, the most widespread surnames in Italy are Russo, Ferrari, Esposito, Bianchi, Romano and Colombo.

The process of fixing the surname was roughly concluded in the time of the Renaissance, when the family name became unchangeable by law and was thus handed down from father to son. Surnames can also derive from personal names of Latin origin (Adriani, Cesari); of Germanic origin (Carli, Federici); Greek origin (Cristofori, Teodori); from names formed in the Middle Ages, such as Bonaventura and Benvenuti; from historic names, such as Achilli, Polidori, Rinaldi and Orlandi.

Certain surnames are decidedly odd, and even our most acute scholars have to surrender before their impenetrable meaning (this is the case of Abbracciavento, Idrogeno, Tontodimamma, Sfondalmondo, Tuttoilmondo, etc. ).

There are also surnames with an ecclesiastical Latin character such as Dominus, Sicuteri, Agnusdei, Paternoster, Chiesa, Diotallevi, etc., and then those that highlight the appearance or character: Piccoli, Zoppi, Malfatti, Storti, Allegri, Onesti, Spinoso, Brutti, Belli; then ethnic names or place names: Lombardo, Trevisi, Padovani, Tedeschi, Della Costa, del Monte, Bulgari; and again Ronchi (someone who lives near a vineyard); or Brambilla, from the valley in the province of Bergamo.

Many other Italian surnames are derived from trees, flowers or fruit which were close to their home: among others, Oliva, Olmi, della Rovere, Quercia, Foresta, Uva, Boschi, Campagna, Allori, Agli, Ruta, Grano, Erba, Pigna, Buonvino, Belgrano, Fava.

Another criteria of distribution concerned civil offices, military titles or social condition - Giudice, Cardinali, Padrino, Podestà, Gonfalonieri, Capitani -, or the name of the father or mother or an ancestor, sometimes preceded by the preposition “di” or by the definite articles “lo” or “la”, and in some cases by the truncated form “fi” (Annibaldeschi, Di Maria, Di Giovanni, La Franca, Firidolfi, Filangeri, Fittipaldi – son of Tebaldo -, Serianni – di Messer Janni or Giovanni -, Soranzo – son of Signor Angelo -, Papazzoni – of Papà Azzone, etc.).

As for surnames of satiric or derisory origin, or from old trades, we can say, on the basis of statistics, that in our peninsula there are many Rasulo, a tongue that cuts like a razor; Pochintesta, empty head; Fumagalli, someone who smokes chickens; Pallavicini, who skins his neighbours; Pappalardo; Callegari, cobbler; Pistore, baker; Marangoni, carpenter; Zampari or Zangari, shoe-maker; Semerano, sower; Passatore, ferryman; Scannapieco, butcher; etc.

Another category of surnames originates from the ownership of a feud, a location of which the owners, well before the nobility was divided up with different titles, were called Signori, thus giving origin to the surnames di Savoia, di Montalto, di Montefeltro, di Ventimiglia, di Capua, di Strassoldo, d’Otranto, di Risicalla, di Villa San Giorgio, di Biancavilla, di Egnazia, di San Nazzaro, di Monforte, di Montauto, di Montenevoso; often the particle di, de, del, dei, delle, della, etc., fell into disuse, leaving only the place name, such as Gravina, Acquaviva, Capua, etc.

Then there are names taken from animals, either for similarity of qualities or defects: Gatti, Leoni, Lupi, Orsini, Cavalli, Porcu, dal Verme, Vitelleschi, Luparelli, Nasoni, Piccolomini; names from ornaments: dello Scudo, Cicogna, del Carretto, del Drago, della Croce, della Scala; from items of common use, either in peace or in war: Mazza, Spada, Lancia, Balestra, Barile, Bandiera, Panebianco, Miele, Anfora, Elmo, Nave, Ferro, Lanza, Carafa, etc.

Names from trades: Medici, Cavalcanti, Fabbri, Muratori, Caprai, Carradori, del Duca, Conti, Marchesi, Capitani, Logoteta, Semeraro, Barbieri, Bottaro, Acquaioli, Fabbri, Sarti; from city factions: Ghibellini, Reali, Popoli, Guelfi, Palleschi; from particular events: dell’Orologio, Bentivoglio, etc.

Names resulting from nicknames, which were very common in the Middle Ages, and from which even illustrious persons were not immune, such as: Umberto Biancamano, Federico Barbarossa, Baldovino il Lebbroso (Baudouin the Leper), Giovanni Senza Terra (Johnny Lackand), Riccardo Cuor di Leone (Richard the Lion heart), Pipino il Breve (Pépin le Bref), Federico il Gobbo (Frederick the Hunchback), and again, Papafava, Machiavelli, Castracani, Pisacane, Baciadonna, Trentalance, Crollalanza, Mangiacristiani, Buoncristiani, Frangipane, Bonaparte, Malaspina, Malatesta, Fieramosca, Bevilacqua, Buoncompagni, Senzadenari, etc.

Names with a religious character: Abate, Priore, Monaco, Monicelli, Chiesa, Chierici, Clerici, Chiericati, Episcopo, Arcidiacono, Frate, Papa, Prete, Cardinale, etc.

Many embarrassing surnames are still in use, such as: Vacca, Troia, Morte, Cacco, Monorchio, Muto, Gambacorta, Minchia, Grugno, Colleoni, etc.

Anyway, whatever the etymological origin of a surname, it is indubitably fascinating to recognise its meaning and, in some way, to understand its historic origin which presumably referred to the fact, event, circumstance or characteristic of a forefather who first bore our surname.

Etymological Council