Italian Naming Traditions: Exploring Cultural Significance and Implications

Italy has long been known for having a strict tradition regarding how children are named:

The first male was given his name from his paternal grandfather while the second male took after his maternal grandfather; finally, the first female is honored with being known by her paternal grandparent.
You will often see evidence of this tradition throughout your family tree, but do not use this naming custom as a method to assume an ancestor’s name; there may be exceptions that preclude such assumptions – for instance if your grandfather Francesco was the oldest son he didn’t necessarily share his paternal grandfather’s name! There may also be instances in which this tradition doesn’t hold. Here are a few potential exceptions.

If your ancestor had an estranged relationship with his family and was no longer close, or was orphaned and did not know their names, he may not name his children after them.

Giovanni Sorrentino found a more common exception to naming traditions evident when his first son, Luigi, was named for his late father Giovanni Sorrentino and several of their other children were given names according to custom. Unfortunately when Luigi reached about 8 years of age he suddenly died unexpectedly. Unfortunately this scenario was far too common. Italian children rarely survived into adulthood prior to the twentieth century; therefore, Giovanni decided that since none of his sons bore his name yet, Luigi would be applied to his next son who is the fourth in line for being named after their late grandfather. At first glance, this family might seem strange, with what appears to be their oldest son being named after his maternal grandfather and not paternal. Additionally, the four son is actually named for both of these men – any assumptions regarding the names of these grandfathers would be inaccurate.

At least one notable deviation to Italian naming traditions can be seen in my great-great-grandparents, Pasquale and Rosa, who were opera enthusiasts who chose to name their children after characters from operas they enjoyed watching. Due to such deviations from tradition, you cannot use Italian naming custom to adopt an ancestor’s name as your own.

Genealogists also recognize this naming tradition’s impact in genealogical research, since so many people share the same name.

Let’s examine an example.

Vito Savino marries Rosa and they give birth to three sons; Pasquale, Domenico, and Pietro as depicted below in the chart. Each son marries and has their own children as shown. According to tradition, all three Vito Savinos born within one generation share the same name – Vito after their father and Rosa after their mother. We now have three such individuals all hailing from one town or city within this particular generation – possibly even within one year! Rosa Savino falls under this same tradition; although most Italians during that era had more than three children. All children would adhere to it; even daughters named after maternal grandparents.

Now imagine you are searching for the birth record of your great-great-grandfather Vito Savino and have answered all four W’s of your research goal (where, when and why he was born). However, three Vito Savinos exist – but which one is your great-great-grandfather?

An even worse scenario could occur if, when searching for the ancestors of Vito Savino number two (son of Domenico), you mistakenly believe you have found your great-great-grandfather and stop searching. Meanwhile, Vito Savino number three (son of Pietro) could actually be your ancestor and begin following his maternal family tree instead of following what may actually be your great-great-grandfather! In such a scenario you would at best only ever end up on one side or the other and could easily end up going off track without even realizing what might happen when tracking down Vito Savino two’s maternal side!

On its face, this logic seems daunting: How can one ever know whether they have found their ancestor?

Do not panic – there are methods available to you that can help ensure you’re working on the appropriate ancestor. In chapter 4, we briefly covered some general methods; later on we will delve deeper and discuss margin notations and an effective sequence for seeking records. It is essential that due to Italian naming traditions, many individuals with identical names exist – therefore you must ensure you confirm which individual you believe to be your direct ancestor before continuing further with genealogy research.

Note: From Lynn Nelson’s A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Italian Ancestors. Copyright 1997.

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