Italian surnames that tell a sad story

Photo: Supplied

From medieval times or earlier, the practice of abandoning newborn babies was tragically widespread.

In 1198, Pope Innocent III was distressed by the number of infants that were drowned in the Tiber River, and he declared that foundling wheels should be installed so women could anonymously leave their unwanted child in the care of a church, instead of killing it.

The “ruota pubblica”, a public wheelset in the outer wall of a house, church, or hospital was used for mothers to abandon infants they could not care for.

The wheel had a small basket on which a baby could be placed, then rotated into the building, without anyone on the inside seeing the person abandoning the child. The mother then pulled a cord on the outside of the building, causing an internal bell to ring, alerting nuns who would then receive, baptize, and register the new addition to the orphanage.

The infant in the wheel, left, and then taken in by nuns.

At first, Foundling wheels were used in Italy; then the practice soon spread to France, Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere in what was to become Catholic Europe.

In the 1830s-1860s, approximately 33,000 Italian newborns were being abandoned every year by desperate parents for a variety of reasons. These children had to be given names, and often these tell a little story in themselves about the child’s circumstances.

Many of these surnames exist to this day, with the bearers having no idea that somewhere in their lineage was an unwanted child.

As family researchers try to ‘build’ their family trees further and further back, many are frustrated by the ‘brick wall’ presented by a foundling ancestor.

Esposito and Colombo are the most common surnames that reflect a harsh reality that existed in the Italy of our grandparents or great-grandparents.

These names below have by now been inherited for generations, but, somewhere along the line, these folks’ ancestors were abandoned as infants.

SurnameMeaning# in U.S.
Espositoplaced outside, exposed22,651
DeVivoabout life1,772
DiDio(child) of god1,652
Buonocorefrom 'buon cuore' good-hearted1,475
Infantinosmall child1,149
Venturini(child) left to fate1,469
Bellaviabeautiful road1,149
Venturellagood luck or good fortune952
Aprileapril (month abandoned)985
Innocenti'Innocent one'899
Sposito'expositus' meaning 'outside'863
Proiettithrown away, abandoned child651
Melucciloud but respectful598
Colombinifrom 'colombo' meaning dove492
Casasantathe holy house394
Loggiaa roofed area365
Infantichild, infant363
DiMondaof the world321
Casadeifrom 'casadio' house of god303
Pampinellaplant with its leaves263
Proiettothrown away, abandoned child249
Febbrarofrom 'febbraio' february245
Zoccolacame from a slut, whore242
Boncorefrom 'buon cuore' good-hearted219
Del Signorebelonging to the lord181
Bonocorefrom 'buon cuore' good-hearted156
Settembreseptember (month abandoned)153
Cancelligates, crossbars153
Lobasciopopped up out of nowhere148
Del Popolo(child) of the people142
Alunnistudents, pupil138
D'Aprilefrom april (month abandoned)134
Nichilomeaningless, valueless126
Spurioof illegitimate birth120
Febbraiofebruary (month abandoned)103
Buoncuorefrom 'buon cuore' good-hearted102
Bonafigliafrom 'buona figlia' good daughter101
Giumentofemale horse78
Bompadrefrom 'buon padre' good father78
Orfanellilittle orphans76
Paradisiplural of paradiso72
Demundofrom 'del mondo' of the world59
Attivissimovery active57

How we made this list…

We used a number of different sources to find surnames that were used for abandoned infants in Italy.

The main source of information was Ettore Rossoni’s “L’Origine dei Cognomi Italiani: Storia ed Etimologia” (“The Origin of Italian Surnames: History and Etymology”).

We then used U.S. Census Bureau data to determine roughly how many Americans have these surnames today.

• Because Mr. Rossoni identifies Aprile, D’Aprile, Febbraio, Febbraro, and Settembre (April, February, and September) as surnames for abandoned infants derived from the names of the months in which the infants were abandoned, it may well be that the names of other months were similarly used.

The foundling surnames below are less common with fewer than 50 Americans with each surname.

Abbandonato, Aflitto, Angiolilli, Bonasorte, Boncordo, Buccafusca, Buonasorte, Buonerba, Cancello, Canciello, Casadio, De Chiara, Del Deo, Della Ventura, Devivi, Dimondo, Dimundo, Diotaiuti, Diotallevi, Infantini, Iuorno, Monasteri, Nocenti, Pensato, Perchiacca, Posati, Posato, Poverelli, Provvidenza, Puttin, Servodidio, Spavento, Trova, Trovati, Viavattene, Vinagro, Zoccolo.

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Written by
Joe Battaglia
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