Italian Orphan Names

Italy has a millennia-old tradition of abandoning unwanted infants. The Romans exposed them on remote hillsides to be (hopefully) adopted by someone who needed a child or (more likely) eaten by wolves. In more recent times, babies were left on church steps, in most cases to be raised by the Church. Since no one knew who their parents were, these abandoned children were given surnames denoting their orphan status:

  • Orfanelli – little orphans
  • Poverelli – little poor (people)
  • Peverelli – slightly disguised version of the above
  • Trovato, Trovatelli – found, little foundling
  • Esposito – exposed. BTW, it’s pronounced eh-SPO-sih-toe, not ess-po-ZEE-to

These names have by now been inherited for generations, but, somewhere along the line, these folks’ ancestors were abandoned as infants.

Nicole over at sent me the following:

“Innocenti and Nocentini are both common names of orphan origins in Florence, from the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents)… where babes were left, no questions asked, in a little revolving door in a corner… It’s still there, with a little iron grate over it.”

19 thoughts on “Italian Orphan Names

  1. carlos colangelo

    I am looking to see if there was an orphanage that had records of child, that would of been adopted back from 1895 to 1900 can u let me know what steps I need to take. I am doing Geo. on my dad he said that he was adopted when he was around 2 or 3yeras old . I just need to know what to do

  2. Donna Buchignani

    I am looking for information on an orphan, Paul (Paolo) Dogali, born in the late 1800’s in Parma, Italy. No known records. Immigrated to US & married Giulia Gargini from Pestoia, Italy.

  3. Robert A. Erbetta

    My grandfather was born an orphan from Gaeta, Italy late in the 19th century and was raised by nuns who gave him the name ‘ERBETTA” (little herb). About 20 years ago I came across a real estate agent with the name “ERBAFINA”. I bet him that someone in his family was an orphan from Gaeta, Italy. He said it was his grandfather and was amazed I knew as a complete stranger. We compared notes and found that both grandfathers grew up in the same orphanage. I’d be curious to know if there are any others with “ERBE” or “ERBA” in the prefix of their last names and if they know the name of the church (if it’s still there) in Gaeta that took in foundlings around the turn of the century.

  4. Victoria McNeely

    My great grandfather Luigi Raio was an orphan in Minori Italy around 1881. Rumor has it he was left with the nuns. I can’t find any record of his birth etc. Any help would be appreciated.

  5. Diane Valentine Pare

    My great grandfather Leonzio Peperoni was found at a church in L’Aquila on Jan 13, 1865.
    I do not know where to start looking for records. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

  6. Patricia erbetta

    My great-grandfather was Greek but was raise with the reverts Family I just found out threw DNA THAT IAM PART GREEK NOW IAM TRYING TO FIND MY FAMILY

  7. Patricia Erbetta

    Hi it patricia erbetta,,in the 1950-1960 we all put in a orphan home but now is gone that was in Hopewell n.j. I think the family on my father side came from abrizzo italy n/s but would love to find family with that name or if it was spelled different.any info would be greatly appreciated

  8. Kim

    I just found a record of my great-grandfather’s birth. The index to the Civil Registry denotes “di ignoti” (of unknowns) and the record itself says “projetto,” which someone in Italy told me means orphan, and then I saw online it can be interpreted it as “thrown away.” However, his name is Gabriele Cirasunda, so I’m wondering about the origin of that? Any help would be appreciated!

  9. Beth Rieman

    I am looking for information about my great-grandmother, Teresa Corani Conti (married to Vincenzo Conti). She lists Corani as her maiden name on documents, but all of her children list Belli as her maiden name so I am wondering if this is an adopted name. She was born on March 21, 1881 and was a twin. Her family could not afford to raise both children, so she was given to an orphanage. All we know is that her father had red hair, like her own, and baked bread in outdoor ovens; we know this because she somehow met him later in life. My family is from Patrica, Italy, and I believe she would also have been born there, but it is possible that she was born somewhere else.

  10. Rosanna Pucci


  11. Patricia Luquis

    We are searching for information on our Great-Grandfather, Anibale (Hannibal) Saldibar. He was born in 1881 or 82 in San Vito Tagliamonte, Province of Pordenone, in northeast Italy. He lived with his father’s family, said to be wealthy, possibly a duke or count, but he was illegitimate, the son of a housekeeper. His father died from a fall from a horse and the grandfather raised him until he was approx. 8 or 9 when he was placed in an orphanage. Since he had no name, he was given the name Saldibar, which I’ve read was sometimes given to orphans (Salt of the earth, more or less.) Per genetics, his ancestry is most likely French/Italian/Welsh/Scottish. He was a tall redhead. He married Catherine Nardo, emigrated to the United States, and had 14 children, 3 of whom were born in Italy. We are trying to locate orphanages possibly run by the Church which would have kept records on these children, possibly even family names. Any information is greatly appreciated!

  12. Anton Sherwood

    There’s a French bishop, if memory serves, whose surname is a number like Vingt-Trois; I gather that his ancestor was abandoned/found on that date.

    … The comments here remind me that one language blog kept getting the question “Is my surname Jewish?”

  13. Patricia Luquis

    Try…Very extensive info and Molinari is a huge family in Northern Italy Friuli region with records going back to the 1500’s. I have found a lot of family history there. Good Luck!

  14. Patty Barrett

    I stumbled upon a source called Antenati Benicultural. Records are in Italian and are copies of originals. This site opened up the ancestry on my Mom’s side. It’s a lot of work, but I use a translator on my phone. After a while I began to get familiar with many common words. The only problem is that there may be missing records, but luckily I haven’t had that problem often.

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