A name in the Italian language consists of a given name (Italian: nome), and a surname (cognome); in most contexts, the given name is written before the surname. (In official documents, the Western surname may be written before the given name or names.)
Italian names, with their fixed nome and cognome structure, have little to do with the ancient Roman naming conventions, which used a tripartite system of given name, gentile name, and hereditary or personal name (or names).
The Italian nome is not analogous to the ancient Roman nomen; the Italian nome is the given name (distinct between siblings), while the Roman nomen is the gentile name (inherited, thus shared by all in a gens). Female naming traditions, and name-changing rules after adoption, for both sexes likewise differ between Roman antiquity and modern Italian use. Moreover, the low number, and the steady decline of importance and variety, of Roman praenomina starkly contrast with the current number of Italian given names.
In Italy, one portion in person's name may be determined by the name day (onomastico). These name days are determined according to the sanctorale, a cycle found in the General Roman Calendar, which assigns to a day a saint (or as to the great majority of days, several saints), so that different names often are celebrated on that day. Traditionally, parents fix the name day of their child at christening, according to their favourite saint; in case of different ones (on different days) with the same name; that child will carry it throughout life. In the case of multiple given names, the child will celebrate only one, usually the first.
Typical Italian male given names:
Typical Italian female names:
A few names end with an accented vowel, for instance Niccolò and Giosuè.
Almost every base name can have a diminutive form ending with -ino/-ina or -etto/etta as in Paolino/Paoletto and Paolina/Paoletta from Paolo and Paola, -ello/-ella, as in Donatello/Donatella from Donato and Donata, or -uccio/-uccia, as in Guiduccio from Guido. The forms -uzzo/-uzza, as in Santuzza from Santa, are typical of Sicilian language.
The most common names are:
Since the ancient Romans had a very limited stock of given names (praenomina), very few modern Italian given names (nomi) are derived directly from the classical ones. A rare example would be Marco (from Marcus).
Some nomi were taken from classical clan names (nomina) for their meanings or because they are euphonic, such as Emilio/Emilia (from Aemilius), Valerio/Valeria (from Valerius), Claudio/Claudia (from Claudius), Orazio (from Horatius), Fabio (from the cognomen Fabius), Flavio/Flavia (from Flavius) and Fulvio from Fulvius.
When combined with a second given name, Giovanni and Pietro are commonly contracted to Gian- and Pier-, as in Giancarlo, Gianfranco, Gianluca, Gianluigi, Gianmarco, Gianmaria, Giampaolo (Gianpaolo), Giampiero (Gianpiero), Giambattista, Pierangelo, Pierantonio, Pierfranco, Pierluigi, Piermaria, Pierpaolo, and so on.
Italian unisex names are very rare (e.g. Celeste), but the feminine name Maria is common as a masculine second name, as in Gianmaria, Carlo Maria, Anton Maria etc.
Italy has the largest collection of surnames (cognomi) of any country in the world, with over 350,000. Men—except slaves—in ancient Rome always had hereditary surnames, i.e., nomen (clan name) and cognomen (side-clan name). However, the multi-name tradition was lost by the Middle Ages. Outside the aristocracy, where surnames were often patronymic or those of manors or fiefs, most Italians began to assume hereditary surnames around 1450.
Registration of baptisms and marriages became mandatory in parishes after the Council of Trent in 1564.
A large number of Italian surnames end in i due to the medieval Italian habit of identifying families by the name of the ancestors in the plural (which has an -i suffix in Italian). For instance, Filippo from the Ormanno family (gli Ormanni) would be called "Filippo degli Ormanni" ("Filippo of the Ormannos"). In time, the middle possessive portion ("of the") was dropped, but surnames became permanently pluralized even for a single person. Filippo Ormanno would therefore be known as Filippo Ormanni. Some families, however, opted to retain the possessive portion of their surnames, for instance Lorenzo de' Medici literally means "Lorenzo of the Medici" (de' is a contraction of dei, also meaning "of the"; c.f. The Medicis).
Some common suffixes indicate endearment (which may also become pluralized and receive an -i ending), for example:
Other endings are characteristic of certain regions:
As in most other European naming traditions, patronymics are common. Originally they were indicated by a possessive, e.g., Francesco de Bernardo, meaning "Francis (the son) of Bernard". De Luca ("[son] of Luke") remains one of the most common Italian surnames. However, de ("of") was often dropped and suffixes added, hence de Bernardo evolved to be Bernardo and eventually pluralized as Bernardi (see Suffixes above).
The origin or residence of the family gave rise to many surnames, e.g.,
Ancestors' occupation was also a great source of surnames.
Nicknames, referring to physical attributes or mannerism, also gave rise to some family names, e.g., Rossi (from rosso "redhead"), Basso ("short"), Caporaso ("shaved or bald head"), Pappalardo ("lard-eater", an insult for someone claiming to be devout but ate meat and fatty dishes in forbidden times), and Barbagelata ("frozen beard").
A few family names are still in the original Latin, like Santorum, De Juliis and De Laurentiis, reflecting that the family name has been preserved from Medieval Latin sources as a part of their business or household documentation or church records.
In some areas of Italy, individuals may have taken a second surname. In records this second surname may be preceded by the words detto, vulgo, or dit. This practice was used to distinguish between different branches of the same family, especially when the families remained in the same town for generations.
Occasionally, a very similar name to the one already used by the family was adopted in order better parallel local naming styles. For example, when they settled and founded their firm in France, the Mellerio family of jewellers, from Valle Vigezzo, modified their name to Mellerio dits Meller.
The traditional rule, which is the common usage especially in Tuscany, is that in referring to people by their surnames alone, the definite article should be used (il for most parts, lo before some consonants and consonant clusters and l' before vowels). Mario Russo, therefore, is called il Russo ("the Russo"). Now, some prefer to use the article only or chiefly for historical surnames ("l'Ariosto", "il Manzoni", etc.)
Male given names are never preceded by an article except in popular northern regional usage.
However, in Tuscany and the rest of Northern Italy, given names of females are usually preceded by articles (la Maria, la Gianna) unless one is speaking of a woman who is personally unknown (such as Cleopatra, Maria Stuarda, with no article). That is also the traditional grammar rule.
Articles are also used (more often than with those of men) with the surnames of women: Gianni Rossi can be called il Rossi or (especially nowadays) simply Rossi, but Maria Bianchi is usually la Bianchi (also la Maria Bianchi).
Placing the surname before the name is considered incorrect except in bureaucratic usage and is often seen as a sign of lack of education.
Names that are derived from possessions of noble families normally never had articles preceding them such as the House of Farnese (from a territorial holding) and the Cornaro family (from a prince-bishopric). Articles were also omitted for surnames with an identifiable foreign origin (including Latin ones) such as Cicerone.
That practice somewhat resembles the Greek custom of placing definite articles before all names (see Greek names). The Greco-Italian practice even spread to French in the 17th century, especially in writings regarding figures in literature and painting such as le Poussin. For example, some Italian surnames of Greek sound descent: Papasidero, Papadopulo.
1200–1500 […] the habit, peculiar to Italian, of considering the members of a given family as a collective unity and referring to them by the name of an ancestor in the plural, with the definite article. […] An individual was referred to as So-and-so of the So-and-sos: messer Ormanno degli Ormanni, Alepro de' Galigai, etc.
In a large part of central and northern Italy, the development of the singular surname went one step further. […] Our hypothetical d'Alberto family acquired power[, …] it became known as degli Alberti, of the Alberts. […] In due time, the singular surname disappeared, and the plural with or without the preposition remained to refer to both family and individual.