Genealogical research, after all, revolves about names. The names of ancestors and relatives are one of the four keys I mentioned, that connect us and help to put flesh and bones on dry statistics. To identify individuals, most western cultures use at least two names, a given, or birth name, and a surname – a family name which we call the ‘last name’. Determining the correct name is of utmost importance when trying to identify an ancestor. A country’s naming conventions, its customs for naming children, can provide invaluable help.
Today, many children are given a name that ‘sounds nice’, or represents a favorite celebrity, sports hero, or even a color, or a food! In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there were more traditional, orderly methods of naming children. The convention used in Italy, and primarily in the ‘Mezzogiorno’ of Southern Italy and Sicily, is generally known as the ‘Sicilian naming convention’. Variations have been used in other nations, like Ireland and Greece.
The Sicilian naming convention was to name a couple’s first son after the husband’s father and the second son after the wife’s father. The first daughter was named for the husband’s mother, the second daughter after the wife’s mother. Later children might be named after great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, or favorite saints. This tradition was so strong that in many cases it was thought to be required. Naming a first son after anyone but the child’s paternal grandfather could lead to family disharmony, or even shunning of the offending couple.
For example, one couple named their first son Leonardo, after the husband’s father. They had several other children, all ‘properly’ named. After the boy Leonardo reached age eleven, sadly, he died. His parents continued to have children, and the first boy born after Leonardo’s death was named . . Leonardo. Even if the first-born Leonardo had died as an infant, the next son would have been named Leonardo – and if he died as an infant, the next son would be named Leonardo, and so on, until one survived! There was high infant mortality at the time. I have seen poignant evidence of this in birth records, where a couple would lose three or four children, all named the same, while they continued to have children and re-use the name. Usually, a birth record would be filed for every birth, even stillbirths, giving the child’s name. So, if your ancestor was the last of one of these ‘Leonardos’, you might find records for several, with the same given name and the same parents, and you’ll have to be sure that your research is applied to the right one.
Naming a child after its own parents was uncommon but not unheard of. It was done more with boys than with girls, usually not until all the ‘conventional’ names had been given to the eldest children, and several other children had been born. But if the wife died in childbirth, often the baby would be named after her. If a husband died before his wife gave birth, the child would be named after him. In both cases, the child would be named for the deceased parent, regardless of the baby’s gender. For example, if a father named Angelo died before his daughter was born, she would be named Angela. This convention was stronger than the general custom. If a man died before his first son was born, the baby would be named for him, not for the paternal grandfather.
Another factor affecting naming might be when a mother-to-be would pray to a saint for some favor: say, to St. Lucia, to cure an eye affliction. Then, if the prayers were granted (or even if not), she might break with tradition and name her first girl ‘Lucia’, or after the particular saint that was prayed to. If a very good friend or close relative died before a couple’s child was born, the normal convention might be waived and the child named after the recently deceased person.
An interesting twist might today be considered bizarre. If a wife died, leaving her children without a mother, most usually the father would remarry. The first child born of the second wife would be named after . . the first wife! Strange as it may seem, these traditions were a way of perpetuating the name and memory of ancestors – a custom too often cast off in the modern world.
The Sicilian naming convention often resulted in some interesting situations. For example, suppose Giovanni Alessi and Maria Genco had five sons, and each of them eventually married. If each son had at least one son and one daughter, there would be five boy-cousins named Giovanni Alessi, and five girl-cousins, each named Maria Alessi! While these naming conventions can be confusing to genealogical research, they can be invaluable in finding and corroborating the names not only of ancestors, but of their siblings and descendants as well.
This was so exciting to read. I feel as though you wrote this especially for me. I have several uncles named John, Steve, and Tony. So I had an uncle John T., John S., and John J. The middle initial represents their father’s first name. My great grandfather Stefano Schittone had 13 children named exactly after the tradition you explained in your article. Also, my great grandfather was the 5th Stefano Schittone born 16 Apr 1881 Villafranca Sicula. The first four boys died, all named Stefano.
I am very interested in genealogy and my Sicilian heritage. I have birth and marriage certificates of grandparents dating back to 1841. However, it has been difficult to go back any further. Your articles are a treasure. Thank you so much! Ciau a prestu…
If you check marriage and death records from 1820 forward, you may find information about ancestors dating to before 1820. For example if you find an 1825 death record of an ancestor who was 62 at his death, you have an approximate date of (1825 minus 62) 1763 for his birth, etc.
Some towns have church records that can extend research to before 1820. There are no Mormon microfilms of Villafranca Sicula church records, but such records may exist in one or more parishes in Villafranca. The town’s website notes four churches: Chiesa Madre (Mother, or main Church); Chiesa San Giuseppe; Chiesa San Giovanni; and Chiesa Carmine.
You could try writing to the Villafranca churches, including an amount you’re willing to lose if they don’t answer, say $25 or $30. You would have to be specific about what you want (the baptism record of so-and-so, etc.)
If that fails, you may have to go there personally or hire a representative to do so.
Thank you for the response. The Mormon Church now has microfilm on Villafranca Sicula: Italy, Agrigento, Sciacca, Civil Registration (Tribunale), 1862-1929 for Births, Deaths, Matrimony… If anyone needs help finding vital records for ancestors in Villafranca, I would be glad to help. I have been compiling data on that town for about a year now. I have files on birth and death rates of Villafranca 1860-2010. I recorded every Campo and Schittone child who was born and died in Villafranca 1862-1929. I have records of most common surnames in the town from 1862-1929. Again, thanks for your kindness and generosity. Bona Jurnata…
I am so glad to read your post about villafranca. My grandfather vincenzo campo was born in villafranca I would think around 1872 judging ftom his age in 1920 US census. He imigrated to America and lived for some time in louisians and my fsther told me of sn uncle who stayed in sicily. We hsve found my mothers ancestors ftom Corleone Sicily but are trying to locate my campo grandfathers birth certificate and find family still there. Both my parents have died now but our sicilian traditions and heritage is strong in our family here in Houston Tx. I wonder if we might be related. Any suggestions? Thank you in advance.
Ma certu ca semu cugini, chi beddu eni! / But certainly we are cousins, that is wonderful! I already have a good idea who your great grandfather Vinceno is and I am pretty sure I have his birth certificate and other information if you would like. I have the birth certificates and marriage certificates of all Campo’s born in Villafranca Sicula 1860-1910…please contact me, this is my email: email@example.com
Sabbenedica cugina mia!
Stephen thank you so very much. And yes thank you Angelo Coniglio for the article which may allow long lost family to reunite. Stephen I will email you soon since we very much would like to obtsin the birth and martiage record of my grandfather Vincent Campo from villa franca married to Francesca Salvaggio. Again great thanks to you cousin and Angelo! Grazie!
That’s is so nice!! You may have met your family thanks to this article. A big thanks to Angelo Coniglio and his priceless articles about Sicilian Genealogy!!! Kudos!!
Ti salutu Giovanni,
Si’ giustu, pirchi sugnu sicuru sicuru ca semu cugini, canusciu gia la so nannu, era nu cuginu cu me nannu da Sicilia, Agrigentu / You are right, because I am very sure we are cousins, and I already know who her grandfather is, he was a cousin with my grandfather in Agrigentu. This is the second time this has happened on Times of Sicily. Another reason why ToS is a valuable asset to Sicilians all over the world. We not only discover ourselves through culture and history but also discover our relatives.
Thank you for discussing What’s in a Name?
– Times of Sicily.
Thanks so much for your article. Learning about the “Sicilian naming convention” led me to find the birth of a previously unknown child. When I saw that a daughter who was presumed to be the second daughter didn’t fit the naming convention, I dug a little deeper and found this new child. She died at a very young age, and her name was lost in information passed down through generations. I love genealogy … it’s one giant mystery waiting to be solved!
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