From early history, names were used to identify individuals, but rarely was a family name included. Even Jews, who are believed to have been the first to place emphasis on family lines and genealogy, usually failed to permanently identify a family line by one surname.
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 (family name or last name). 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.
My Italian name for example, Andrea, a popular name on the Middle Ages, demonstrates how a personal name can become the root for many surnames. Andrea is a Latin variation of the Greek root Andros, which means “man”. This name was common throughout the Holy Roman Empire and Italy based on the prestige of the apostle Andrea (an evangelist and brother of Simon Peter), who preached Christianity throughout Italy and Europe. If the head of the household was named Andrea in the period of initial record keeping, his children might have been called by their given names and Andrei (Latin) or Di Andrea (Italian) to indicate that they were children of Andrea. As the records and surname became standardized, one of the variations remained the surname or became the root of the surname variation. Andrea is today the root of at least sixty surname variations, among them De Andrea, Andreotti, Andreoni, Andreaccio, Andrat, and Drei. Each of these spelling variations has a specific meaning that depends upon the prefixes or suffixes that are added.
Italian Emigration 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 surname such as Celotto could have become anglicized or changed to become Celotti, Celot, Cellot, or even Cellotto. 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, Canada, South America, including Brazil. 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, Celotto Genealogy Services can help you with your search.
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.
Once again, using my Italian name “Andrea” as an example. While the root Andrei is common throughout Italy, the spelling variations D’Andrea, and De Andrea are common in the south; Andreotti, Andreini, and Andreaccio are found predominantly in central Italy’ and Andrean, Andreasi, and Andrat, belong to the northeast region. Finally, Slavic variations such as Andrich, Andreassich, and Drei are found only in the Friuli region near Yugoslavia. Therefore, spelling variations of any surname that are specific to a particular region can be very important to genealogical research.
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.