The high number of Italian surnames, well over three hundred thousand, and the effect of the complexity of our political, cultural and dialectal events. Michael Magno’s Notepad
“Nomen omen”: the name is an omen. The Latin phrase reflects the theory of the ancients on the non-arbitrary character of language. Surname, no less than forenames, today usually appear to us random, without meaning: we do not call ourselves Fabbri because the corresponding profession is exercised; you can be two meters tall and be called Low. But when you begin, in the beautiful country, to be apostrophized with a second name
For those wishing to satisfy this curiosity, I recommend reading a learned and amusing book by Roberto Bizzocchi, “The surnames of the Italians. A 1000 year long history “, Laterza, 2014.
According to an eminent eighteenth-century scholar, Scipione Maffei, already in 539 a certain Pellegrino Vaistrini appears in a Ravenna papyrus, to whom a certain lady Tulgila had sold land in the Faenza area. A contemporary of Maffei, Ludovico Antonio Muratori, founder of medieval studies in Italy, in his “Antiquitates Italicae” (1740) shows instead that it was a fake, and that there were no surnames before the year 1000. Behind his peremptory thesis there was not only the critical rigor of the philologist, but a historical vision. He was in fact convinced that the origins of Italian civilization were not in ancient Rome, according to the classical idea of ​​the humanists, but in the Middle Ages, an era in which upheavals had occurred so strong as to create a decisive break with the Roman world.
In any case, after Muratori began that long work of linguists on our patrimony of surnames which led to its complex subdivision into types and subtypes. Here it is enough to mention four main categories.
The first is that of patronymic or matronymic surnames, that is, formed by male or female personal names. They are presented in compound form (Di Pietro, De Luca, D’Agata, De Maria) or in simple form (Paoli, Martini, Rosi, Agnesi).
The second is that of toponymic surnames, that is, they come from somewhere. Within this category, a partition into two groups should be reported. In the first, the reference concerns geographical entities so important as to transform the toponymic surname into an ethnic surname. A surname such as Bulgari reminds us of the raids of oriental populations during the High Middle Ages. Likewise, surnames such as Longobardi (or Lombardi), Greco, Albanese, allude to the settlements of the respective peoples in the various regions of the peninsula. The second group includes surnames formed by elements of urban or natural landscapes (Della Rocca, Montanari, Della Porta, Delle Piane).
The third category corresponds to surnames derived from professions, offices, social functions exercised. It is enough to recall the aforementioned Fabbri and its synonym Ferrari (with its regional variants: Ferrero in Piedmont, Favaro in Veneto, Ferreri in Sicily). Furthermore, surnames such as Podesta, Vicar, Rectors, Chancellors; or as Compare, Godfathers, Brother, Sister. In this last subcategory the typical surnames of the exposed or foundlings (Esposito, Trovat, and others) can also be classified.
Finally, the fourth category brings together the variegated and luxuriant range of surnames formed by the nicknames: Rossi / Russo, Gentile, Sordi, Bellini; but also Falco, Volpe, Vacca, or Beccalossi, Tagliavini, Pelagatti, and so on.
Bizzocchi underlines that the high number of Italian surnames, well over three hundred thousand, is the effect of the complexity of our political, cultural and dialectal events. Although we are still far from having studied them all in depth (the largest general dictionary analyzes about a fifth), it has been calculated that patronymics and provenance each make up almost 40 percent; that about 10 per cent derives from professions and the remainder from nicknames.
Finally, it is important to make a remark on the correspondence between place name and Judaism. A touching scene from Luigi Comencini’s film, “Tutti a casa” (1960), set after 8 September 1943, shows a German soldier suspiciously examining the documents of the Jewish Silvia Modena, and the girl’s companions trying to protect her by pretending to ignore the existence of a city with that name. There is obviously a part of truth in the stereotype. Since the thirteenth century, Jews managed retail loans, thus settling in towns, large and small. Given the narrowness of the Jewish heritage of personal names, when over the centuries it became necessary to have surnames, it was natural to assume those of the places of residence.
In 1925 the Jew Samuele Schaerf published in Florence a booklet entitled “The surnames of the Jews of Italy”, accompanied by an appendix on the “Jewish noble families of Italy”. His intent was clearly patriotic and positive, that is to claim the contribution offered by the Jews, from the Risorgimento to the First World War, to the construction of a unitary state.
But shortly after, his work will be used in the opposite way: as part of the anti-Semitic campaign promoted by fascism, it provided a ready-made list on the basis of which to organize discrimination and persecution. Schaerf’s text was reprinted with this new purpose, and – when the racial laws were enacted in 1938 – his records were cross-referenced with the register of publicists to ban Jewish journalists and writers.
A cruel and fatal heterogenesis of ends, which unfortunately human history is strewn with.

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