History Blog

History Blog: Italian Renaissance - What's in a Name?

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We take for granted, at least in many parts of the world, that each person has a first name, possibly a middle name or two, and a last name. John Anthony Smith would be called John (or Jack) by his friends, maybe he'd use the middle initial A. in his professional correspondence, and strangers might refer to him as Mr. Smith. We'd take for granted that Smith is the family name, held by his father, and his father before him.

But when we look into history, there was more to naming than we think.

Traditions, superstitions, geography, religious feeling and even dad's daily occupation influenced the choice of names in the Italian Renaissance. The Florentine Catasto of 1427 has been a gold mine of information about daily life in Tuscany in the early Renaissance. The documents have been analyzed for hundreds of topics, including names. Prominent researcher David Herlihy made a study of the naming habits of Tuscany between 1200 and 1530, basing his research on public documents and private family diaries. It's a fascinating glimpse into what choices Renaissance Italians made when a new baby came into the world.

Throughout the middle ages and the Renaissance, many names were chosen based on the time of the year when the baby was born: Gennaio, Maggio (both months), Vendemmia (refers to the wine harvest). Some names told how happy the family was with the newborn: Benvenuto, Bonaventura; and others described the child as a gift from God: Grazia, Dono. If you hoped your child would be good, you might name it Bona or Bonfilippo. If you hoped your daughter would be pretty, you could name her Piubella, Bellassai or Bellafina. Both sexes received floral names such as Fiore, Belfiore and Fiorita. Saints names were the most popular throughout the time period, and many children received the name of their home city's patron saint. In Florence, Giovanni was popular, and in Pistoia, many children were named Iacopo.

Superstitions also attached themselves to naming in the Renaissance. A child may be named after a successful ancestor in hopes that the child would gain the elder's good fortune. Parents of a child who had died sometimes gave the same name to a second child. If the second child died, the name would be considered permanent bad luck in the family and never used again.

Last names were used only sometimes. These were stabilized for tax purposes as the Renaissance flourished. More often, though, a person would be known as Giovanni of Monteleone, or Pietro of Perugia-referring of course to the cities where they came from. In some cases, a family might have taken the name of the family profession, such as Filo for tailor. But researchers say this was a much rarer occurrence in Italy than in other countries.

And now we come to the top five list of boys and girls names of the early Renaissance. Most of the data is based on the number of times the name appears in tax records of the time period.

For boys: Antonio, Giovanni, Piero, Francesco, Iacopo. For girls: Antonia, Caterina, Filippa, Giovanna, Margherita.
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