Italian Naming Traditions: Exploring the Influence and Implications of Names in Italian Culture

Italy has long had a custom that governs how children are named:

The first male is named after his paternal grandfather; while his maternal counterpart shares his name. And, finally, the first female bears her paternal grandparent’s surname.
You will likely see evidence of this tradition throughout your family tree. While this custom may be widespread, you should never use it as an effective means for guessing an ancestor’s name based on who their oldest son was – for example if Francesco is your grandfather’s oldest son don’t automatically assume that his paternal grandfather also was named Francesco; there may be exceptions that prevent such assumptions – let’s consider some possible ones here:

If your ancestor had fallen out with their family and was estranged from them, he likely did not name their children after them. Or perhaps he was orphaned without knowing their identities.

Giovanni Sorrentino takes an unconventional approach to naming tradition with his first son Luigi after his own father; all his other children are named according to custom. When Little Luigi reached 8 years of age he suddenly died. This tragic event was not uncommon. Pre-20th-century Italy saw many children not reach adulthood, and since Giovanni no longer has any named after his late father Luigi, Giovanni will give that name to his next-born, who happens to be fourth son. At this moment, if we take a look at this family, one would notice that what would appear to be their eldest son is actually named after his maternal grandfather rather than paternal grandfather; indeed, that individual named after paternal grandfather is actually fourth son and not first. So any assumptions made regarding who were the grandfathers in this situation would be entirely incorrect.

My great-great-grandparents Pasquale and Rosa provided another nontraditional example of Italian naming custom by naming all their children after characters from operas they loved – this means the Italian tradition cannot be used to assume an ancestor’s name.

Name tradition has an even larger impact in genealogical research, as its pervasiveness will likely reveal many people sharing a name.

Let’s examine this example.

Vito Savino marries Rosa, and they have three sons together – Pasquale, Domenico and Pietro as outlined below in the chart. Each of their sons marries and raises his own children. According to tradition, all Vito Savinos were named Vito after their father and Rosa after their mother. We know of three Vito Savinos from within one generation living in the same town; perhaps even born at around the same time! Rosa Savino had three children; this example is oversimplified as most Italians in this time period had multiple offspring! All children followed the tradition for naming their second son and daughter after maternal grandparents, although daughters would sometimes make exceptions when giving names of second grandchild as the main priority.

Now, imagine you have found the birth record of Vito Savino – but only know where and when he was born; yet you do not know his parents’ names or who his siblings were. There are three Vito Savinos around who look similar; how will you identify which one is really your great-great-grandfather?

And then there’s the unfortunate situation of finding Vito Savino number two (son of Domenico), but mistakingly believing you have found your great-great-grandfather instead of discovering that Pietro Vito Savino number three was really your ancestor! Now, while Vito Savino number two on both his paternal and maternal sides is probably worth searching, you could end up down an incorrect family tree without even realizing it!

Initial consideration of this logic can be daunting; how do you ever know whether you’ve located the right ancestor?

Well, don’t panic: there are methods available to you that can help ensure that you are working on the appropriate ancestor. In Chapter 3, we discussed some generalized strategies. Later we will go deeper by covering margin notations and appropriate order of records searches. Keep this point in mind: because of Italian naming traditions, many people with identical names exist, so be certain to confirm that you have located your direct ancestor before proceeding any further with genealogy research.

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