A Rosa by any other name

A Rosa by any other name

Sicilian names, first and last, are handed down through the generations.

There has probably always been someone named Lucia Marino in Corleone. If we got into a time machine and went back to any of the last 400 years, not only could we meet a Lucia Marino in this town, we could also find a man named Giuseppe Quaglino living here. Given names are nearly timeless here, because of the strong tradition of naming the first and second born of each gender, after the grandparents: first the paternal, then the maternal. Although there’s no formula for naming subsequent children, they are most often named after aunts and uncles, and sometimes great-grandparents. I’ve even found children named after a parent’s late, former spouse. In other words, children in Corleone are given family names—names with local and religious significance, that give further clues to a child’s lineage. Unlike American given names, which have been changing rapidly through the years, reflecting the individuality of our culture, Sicilian names, first and last, are handed down through the generations. As a result, a name has meaning to other Corleonesi, revealing a person’s position and connections in a way that surnames only begin to do.

When I made a count last year of the most popular names in 19th century Corleone, these were the top twelve for boys:

  1. Giuseppe
  2. Leoluca
  3. Vincenzo
  4. Salvatore
  5. Giovanni
  6. Francesco
  7. Antonino
  8. Calogero
  9. Bernardo
  10. Gaetano
  11. Carmelo
  12. Liborio

And for girls:

  1. Maria (about a third in combination with another another name)
  2. Anna (about a quarter in combination with another name)
  3. Lucia
  4. Giuseppa
  5. Francesca
  6. Biagia
  7. Rosa
  8. Carmela
  9. Giovanna
  10. Vincenza
  11. Antonina
  12. Salvatrice

Other popular names that didn’t make the top twelve include Biagio, Gioachino, and Luciano for boys, and Leoluchina, Domenica, and Caterina for girls.

Some once popular names die out, for no reason I can discern: Elena, the patron of a local church, is one that is no longer given to girls. Other saints, no longer recognized by the Catholic Church, see their popularity wane but slowly. Ninfa (St. Nympha) was one of four patron saints of Palermo before 1624, with a feast day on the tenth of November. The virgin martyr of Palermo was determined never to have existed, however, and removed from martyrology. What was a popular name for girls in the 1700s, is now rare. Spiridione, another former saint, was the onomastico of Spiridione Castro, a cab man born in 1816, and one of the only people I’ve ever found with this name.

Settimo Castro, born in 1784, may have been named in honor of Pope Alexander VII, from the previous century, but I think it’s more likely he was named “Seventh” because he has six older brothers. None of Settimo or Spiridione’s grandsons inherited these unusual monikers. But the most popular given names, even from the 17th century, continue to be handed down. I still meet people who were born after me in Corleone, and are called after a grandparent or other close relative.

Local patron saints are popular names, as are the local churches and confraternities, named after saints and Catholic dogmatic concepts: the immaculate conception (Concetta and the less common Concetto), innocence (Innocenzo and Innocenza), salvation (Salvatore, Salvatrice), the rosary (Rosario, Rosaria). Parenthood, and particularly the stepfatherhood of Joseph, are especially revered among Sicilian Catholics, and this is reflected in the enormous popularity of the given names Maria and Giuseppe: Giuseppe Morello and Giuseppe Battaglia were named in honor of Jesus’ earthly father. Morello, also named after his paternal grandfather, lost his own father when he was five, and was brought up mainly by his stepfather, Bernardo Terranova.

The most notorious gangsters from Corleone, even in the 20th century, have very common, and religiously significant, given names: Luciano Leggio is named for a Syrian ascetic. Leoluchina Sorisi is named after San Leoluca, a patron saint of Corleone. Bernardo Provenzano is named after the other patron saint of Corleone, Fra Bernardo. Salvatore Riina is named for Jesus Christ: his given name means “savior.”

Two given names that are technically different, but very often conflated, are Antonio and Antonino. Men baptized Antonio are called Antonino so frequently in the official records, that when I saw two defendants among those at Bari, Antonio Mancuso Marcello and Antonino Mancuso Marcello, with the same parents and different birth dates, that I thought at first there must be some mistake. As it turns out, even this confusion is inherited: the brothers are named after their paternal great-uncle and grandfather, respectively.


Feature image of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Stefan Lochner (circa 1400/1410–1451) – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. In public domain.