How to understand FAMILY NAMES

I was inspired for this series of posts by the many requests for help that are posted on Facebook groups, where assistance in understanding handwritten records is asked.

Handwriting can be an issue, and not only for foreigners. Sometimes, even Italians struggle with unintelligible words and sentences.

Well, believe it or not, in some cases it is possible to bypass the handwriting problem.

We could call it…


Here is my third post and it is dedicated to FAMILY NAMES

The previous ones were dedicated to PLACE NAMES and FIRST NAMES, here are the links, if you missed them:



I am not going to teach you how to read a particular calligraphy. I am going to give you some hints which may be helpful to interpretate the correct name.


  1. In the Italian rural society of the past, families were usually deeply rooted in their town of origin. For this reason, some surnames were very common in a specific town and absent in other towns.
    If you cannot figure out the correct spelling of a family name, browse other pages or possibly the INDEX of the register: you may discover more occurrences and find out the correct spelling.
    Do not limit your search to the index of the same register you are browsing: if the handwriting of the record is bad, that of the index may be the same one.
    Search for a better index, even many years before or after: as said, families were rooted in the town and so, you may find the same names reported also in the usually clearer 20th century registers.

2. If this is not possible, check if the surname is still present in town.

I use the following link, it’s a telephone guide.

Unless other online telephone guides, providings results only if you input the correct surname, this one shows you the list of all surnames in town.

This is very useful especially if you did not catch the initial letter of your surname: check all initial letters and you may find the correct surname.


Select the province

Select the town

Select the initial letter

This website is based on search entries, not only on surnames, so you may find entries like “hotel” or “taxi” (besides a lot of annoying ads, I am sorry).

3. If the researched surname is definitely not specific of that town, you may double-check the surnames of the surrounding towns: people were not usually moving to distant towns, so it is possible that the person you are searching for was coming from a nearby one.

To find out the neighboring towns, use the Italian version of Wikipedia: digit the town and you will find them listed on the right margin (Comuni confinanti).

Choose indexes written in a readable way and browse through the surnames.

4. Check if your ancestor signed at the bottom of the record: his handwriting may be clearer than that of the clerk or priest (and you also win a copy of your ancestor’s autograph!)

5. Just like I explained for first names, Italian family names follow the rules of Italian grammar, so some combinations of letters are more likely than others. Here are some basic rules to help with the correct spelling.
The letters C, D, F, G, L, R, S, T, V and Z are not preceded by M, they must be preceded by N.
Examples: Bianchi, Conti, D’Angelo
The letters P and B are not preceded by N, they must be preceded by M Examples: Colombo, Campi.

Surnames usually end with a vowel, like the majority of Italian words.

Only in a few cases they end with a consonant, and this is usually N (especially in Veneto and North-Easter Italy), R, S, T or L.

Surnames ending with other consonants (Kovac, Martinez) hint at a foreign origin.

6. Many Italian surnames derive from patronymics, hence referring to an ancestral patriarch: De Luca, De Angelis, D’Adamo, De Bernardi etc.
If the surname you are struggling to understand starts with De or Di, maybe the following word is a first name (in Italian or perhaps in Latin).
In many cases, the De is omitted, and the surname is resembling more closely a first name: Bernardi, Mauri, Tonietti (from Antonio), Tommasini

7. Surnames deriving from toponyms are also very frequent. They refer to the ancestral place of origin of the family: a nation, a region, a city, a town or even a hamlet of a town.
It’s the case of surnames like Spagnoli, Pugliese, Siciliano, Romano, Milano, Messina, Gissi (my surname and also a town in Abruzzo).
If you have doubts about the correct spelling of your researched surname, you may find inspiration on Google Maps!
Perhaps it originates from the name of a nearby place.

8. If you are struggling to spot your family on registers written in Latin, consider that the family name may have been translated into Latin!
For example,
Rossi may have been recorded as Rubeis.
The following image shows the Latin version of the surname
Della Casa Grande (meaning: From the Big House, hence the orphanage. It was a typical surname for foundlings)
Della Casa Grande was translated “De Domo Magna“, which has the equivalent meaning in Latin, but it’s not so easy to catch if you don’t know both languages.

(Don’t despair! Even if you do not know the meaning of the researched surname, and you wouldn’t be able to translate it into Latin, I must admit I stumbled upon this circumstance only occasionally).

I hope these few tips were helpful and I wish you good search!

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