What's in an Italian last name? Ask Leonardo da Vinci. Piero della Francesca. Alessandro Botticelli. Or Domenico Ghirlandaio. They were all great artists of the Italian Renaissance, and their surnames paint a picture too.
On the Map
Historically, many Italian last names were based on where a person lived or was born. Leonardo da Vinci's family was from Vinci, a town in eastern Tuscany—hence his last name, meaning "from Vinci." Ironically, during his lifetime, he was referred to solely by his first name. The sculptor Andrea Pisano, best known for his panels on the bronze south door of the Florence Baptistery, was originally named Andrea da Pontedra since he was born in Pontedra, a village near Pisa. He was later referred to as "Pisano," indicating the town famous for the Leaning Tower. The single-named Perugino was from the town of Perugia. One of the most popular Italian last names today, Lombardi, is tied to the region of the same name.
A Barrel of Laughs
Ask most people to name a work of art by Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi and they'd be hard-pressed to name even one. But mention some of his famous works that hang in the Uffizi, such as The Birth of Venus or The Adoration of the Magi, and they'd probably recognize Botticelli. His name was derived from his elder brother Giovanni, a pawnbroker, who was called Il Botticello ("The Little Barrel").
Another Florentine artist from the fifteenth century with a colorful last name was Giuliano Bugiardini, which literally means "little liars." Maybe his family was known for their story–telling skills. There are many other richly imagined, descriptive Italian last names, such as Torregrossa (big tower), Quattrochi (four eyes), Bella (beautiful), and Bonmarito (good husband).
Some Italian last names are related to a person's occupation or trade. Domenico Ghirlandaio, an Early Renaissance painter noted for his frescoes, probably had an ancestor who was a gardener or florist (the word ghirlanda means wreath or garland). Another Florentine painter, also famous for his frescoes, was known as Andrea del Sarto, but his real name was Andrea d'Agnolo di Francesco. His moniker del sarto (of the tailor) was derived from his father's profession. Other examples of Italian surnames related to jobs include Contadino (farmer), Tagliabue (ox-cutter or butcher), and Auditore (literally meaning "a hearer, or listener" and referring to a judge).
Johnson, Clarkson, Robinson
Piero di Cosimo, an Early Renaissance painter, adopted his last name as a patronym—that is, his last name was based on his father's name (Piero di Cosimo—Peter son of Cosimo). Piero della Francesca, whose masterpiece fresco cycle the Legend of the True Cross can be seen in the 13th–century church of San Francesco in Arezzo, had a matronymic surname. That is, his last name was based on his mother’s name (Piero della Francesca—Peter son of Francesca).
Left to the Wolves
Italian last names typically arose from geographic location, description, patronym, or trade. There's one other source that deserves mention, though, especially considering how prevalent the last name is. Esposito, literally meaning 'exposed' (from the Latin expositus, past participle of exponere 'to place outside') is a Italian surname commonly denoting an orphan. Typically, abandoned children were left on church steps, hence the name. Other Italian last names derived from the practice include Orfanelli (little orphans), Poverelli (little poor (people)), and Trovato/Trovatelli (found, little foundling).
Top 20 Italian Last Names
Below are the top 20 Italian surnames throughout Italy: