Italian is a romance language and the closest linguistically to the Latin spoken by the Romans throughout their vast Republic and then Empire in antiquity. While Rome expanded their geographical borders great distances, the heart and center still resided in Italy. As Italy evolved throughout the Middle Ages, various distinctly different dialects derived from “Vulgar Latin” sprung up all over the peninsula. Given the ubiquity of these many dialects and the cultural fidelity and identity tied to them, for many centuries it seemed impossible that Italy would come up with one cohesive language to unify the peninsula. Finally, in the early 14th century, the dialect used in Tuscan and its most vital city, Florence, began to prevail as the standard. A poet from Florence, Dante (author of The Divine Comedy) wrote his poetry in his own regional dialects and vernacular mixed with Latin. He along with a couple other early Renaissance literary artists read throughout Italy would have a profound impact on the uniformity of the Italian language. In fact, Dante is often credited for inventing the Italian language (the French call Italian “la langue de Dante”). Of course now, seven centuries later, Italian is a well-established and much admired language clearly tied to its mother tongue of Latin.
Italy’s naming practices in the Classical Era were derived from Latin which also borrowed heavily from the Greeks. See Latin and Greek Name Origins for more information. Herein we will discuss the medieval and modern baby naming practices common in Italy post-antiquity. During the Middle Ages, the one thousand years spanning between the 5th and 15th centuries, Italy had similar influences as other Western European nations. In other words, they were under the authority and pervasive power of the Roman Catholic Church. Parents mainly used Biblical names and names borne by popular early saints recognized by the Church. You have to remember that during the Middle Ages life was precarious. Life was hard, land was constantly worked, survival was year to year, superstition prevailed over science, the Plague could hit without warning and take out huge portions of the population, medicine was rudimentary and life spans were much shorter. So it’s no surprise that Italians bestowed Biblical names and those of important saints upon their children as a protective measure. Such names for medieval boys were Giovanni (John); Antonio (Anthony); Piero (Peter); Francesco (Francis) and Iacopo (James). For girls, common names were Caterina (Catherine); Antonia (Anthony); Margherita (Margaret); Piera (Peter); and Lisa (Elizabeth).
Many of these names were basically Latinized variations of Hebrew names from the Old Testament, Greek names from the New Testament, as well as names borrowed from the Germanic language. Indeed, throughout its course of history, several Germanic tribes came in contact with, invaded and/or occupied Italy. The Lombards, the Franks and the Visigoths, for example left many of their names behind. Such names of Germanic origin would include Alberto, Alfredo, Rocco, Roberto, Orlando, and Rinaldo.
Like several other cultures, Italians have traditionally venerated their families through the practices of naming. Traditionally, children were named after their paternal grandparents and then it rotated to the maternal side. For instance, the first male would be named after the paternal grandfather and the second male after the maternal grandfather. The first female would be named after the paternal grandmother followed by the maternal grandmother for the second daughter. Then the subsequent children would be named after the parents, aunts, uncles and/or other favorite family members.
Regional identity is still alive and strong in Italy so names and naming practices still vary based on regional influences (for instance, regional patron saints). The rules above are still, generally speaking, a brief snapshot into the name-giving conventions historically prevalent in Italy. In more modern times (i.e., today) naming traditions in Italy have loosed up a bit.
In 2010, the top five boy names in Italy were Francesco (Francis), Alessandro (Alexander); Andrea (Andrew); Lorenzo (Laurence); and Matteo (Matthew). There remains a dominance of important figures from the Catholic Church. Francesco and Lorenzo were both important saints who originally hailed from Italy. Andrea and Matteo were important New Testament figures. And then there’s Alessandro (Alexander) from the Greek. Alexander the Great lived in the 4th century B.C. as King of Macedon prior to the Romans conquering Greece at the battle of Cornith (149 B.C.). Yet Alexander’s military greatness was forever admired (and even envied) by future Roman generals. As such, the Italians have for centuries readily adopted this “great” name.
The current (2010) five most popular names for Italian baby girls are Sofia (from Greek for “wisdom”); Giulia (from Latin for Julius); Sara (from Hebrew for “princess”); Martina (from Latin for “Mars, god of war” and from an important early saint who is one of the patrons of Rome); and Giorgia (from Greek meaning “farmer or earth worker”). In Italy, female names have deviated from the historical norm in modern times. No longer on the Top 30 are important New Testament names like Maria (Mary) or Isabella (Elizabeth). Furthermore, some important traditional saints are missing from the list as well. Catarina (Catherine); Teresa (Theresa); and Bernardetta (Bernadette) for example. The current naming conventions in Italy for little girls have become more fragmented and original by parental choice. We see names like Aurora (Roman goddess of the dawn); Gaia (Greek mother-earth goddess) and Viola (purple).
The 30 most popular names for Italian girls are given to 41% of the babies born in a year while the 30 most popular boy names in Italy are given to 48% of the total male babies born. Compare this to the United States where the numbers are more like 16% and 21%, respectively. In other words, Italy doesn’t have the same diversity in naming practices that we do here in America, but they are definitely moving in that direction (albeit a lot more slowly), particularly when naming their figliolettas.