Behind the Scenes: Researching Names – Part 2

Lo Schiavo Genealogica, LLC can provide professional genealogical research services onsite anywhere in mainland Italy, Sicilia, or Sardinia. There are many Italian archives that are not accessible from a distance, especially if you want to research your ancestors before 1800.

We are working with a client and in searching for a family name, we reviewed various pieces of information like military records, and discovered there were an assortment of records for the surname. With one discovery, we were then led to research another set of records – over eighty of them!

Researching abandoned children in Italy can be especially challenging, in large part because few records survive that detail the social situations that surrounded these children. In the 16th and 17th centuries the rate of infanticide due to bearing an illegitimate child reached an all-time high. At that time, there were no other choices for an unwed mother besides bringing shame upon her family or abandoning the infant. Social and political policies made it difficult to keep and raise an illegitimate child. The shame of an illegitimate pregnancy extended not only to the mother but also to her parents and siblings. Such a thing could preclude her siblings from finding good marriages.

A child whose parents were recorded as padre ignoto (meaning father unknown) and madre ignota (meaning mother unknown) was usually a foundling. You might also see an abandoned ancestor’s parents given as genitori incerti or uncertain parents. During certain time periods, a newborn whose parentage was unknown might simply been assigned a given name and a designation in lieu of their surname. These designations, like proietto or esposito, indicated he was an abandoned child and meant, “cast out” or “exposed.” The most common surnames or designations given to these children were:

  • Esposto/Esposito (a) – a designation, not initially a surname, meaning exposed
  • Trovato (a) – Found
  • Abbandonato (a) – Abandoned
  • Bastardo (a) – of obvious meaning
  • Proietto (a) – a designation, not initially a surname, meaning cast off or thrown away
  • Names that indicated a physical characteristic of the child, ex: Bruno (ugly)
  • Names that might bring God’s favor – ex: di Dio (of God) or D’Angelo (of/from the angel)
  • Location names – ex: Di Palermo (of, from Palermo)

Labeling a child as something less than legitimate at birth was not a very nice thing to do to a newborn child and put them at a disadvantage from the start. The civil authorities and the Catholic Church eventually realized this and began to give all children surnames, even those that had been abandoned. Not being given a surname had additional repercussions in inheritance matters, as well as in determining what surname future children of a male abandoned ancestor would use. The designations given to abandoned children eventually evolved into surnames out of necessity. Because of this, the surname Esposito is one of the most common surnames in Italy even today. It’s important to note that vital record index entries for abandoned children are often alphabetical, using their designation or surname.

To learn more about researching an Italian ancestor who was abandoned, please see the webinar on the subject available here:

We also have available a resource guide available for purchase:

The Family Tree Italian Genealogy Guide is the complete and up-to-date reference material on on the market today. Want to learn how to research your Italian ancestors? Want to learn about the history of your ancestors, find out where they were born, and explore where they came from? Do you want to learn how to find the Italian documents you need for your citizenship application? All can be found in this book and more! Click here to purchase.

Photo courtesy of Jason Wong.

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