20 August 2006

At the ICJG: Jews in Italy

Nardo Bonomi lives in the beautiful Tuscan village of Greve, near Chianti and Firenze (Florence). He is a dedicated genealogical researcher attempting to build a database of the Jewish archives of Italy.

In real life, he is an architectural historian, documenting histories of Tuscan buildings and estates.

I’ve known Nardo for several years and his focus on these little-known records has been remarkable. For more information, take a look at Italian-family-history.com, as well as his Guide for research on Jewish genealogy in Italy.

There has been evidence of Jewish life in Italy since the Roman Empire, when some 8,000 Jews were documented during the reign of Emperor Augustus, and tens of thousands lived there under Emperors Tiberius and Claudius. In the late first century, there were 10 synagogues in Rome, which grew to 15. Around the same time, there were at least 43 Jewish settlements on the mainland and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. In addition to Rome, the largest Jewish communities were in Genova, Milano, Bologna, Ravenna, Napoli, Pompei, Siracusa and Messina.

Later additions came from Germany after the plague, and from France. A major influx shifted from Sicily to the mainland. Many of these Sicilian Jews had been expelled from Spain in 1492, then were expelled from Sicily in 1493.

According to Nardo, Italian Jewish population statistics were: in 1170 c.e., 15,000; in 1300, 50,000; in 1500, 120,000 (following the Spanish and Sicilian expulsions); in 1600, 20,702; in 1700, 26,760; in 1800, 34,275; and in 1920, 43,730.

There's a list of 1,970 family names of conversos in Sicily; half indicate a place name. That group is split evenly between Sicilian and Spanish Jews. It is believed that the place names are ancestral towns; the same indicators are found in North Africa and the Middle East.

Old names, from Roman Empire times, include de Rossi (min ha-adomim), del Vecchio (min ha-zakanim). Some are personal names (Bondi=Yom Tov); occupation (Roffe=doctor); Hebrew words (Zaddic=pious, Haggeri=Ha-geri=stranger); as well as Italian words (Tartaglia=stammerer, Gioioso=joyful).

In 1540, most had family names; only 15% didn’t.

Language origin of names range from Spanish/Portuguese (19%), Hebrew (19%), Italian (18%), Arabic (16%), Berber (5%), French (2%), others (German, Turkish) (1%), with family origins from Italy (36%), Central Europe (26%), Middle East/North Africa(19%), Hebrew (9%), Unknown (4%)and Converso (4%).

The most frequently named families were Levi/y, 101 families, 21 places; Coen/Cohen, 58 in 18 places; Sonnino, 42 in 5 places; di Segni, 38 in six places; di Veroli, 35 in six places; and di Porto, 34 in four places.

There are existing lists of 390 deaths in the Venice ghetto (1630). In 1645, the largest families (10-16 individuals) in Pisa included Salema, Leuchia, Navarro and Coronello. The Siena ghetto, established in 1658, included Italian and Spanish Jews. In 1685, the name of Agnolo Cicilia (from Sicily) in house 39 can be seen.

The Livorno (Leghorn) census shows many Spanish names among the 2,413 Jews. In fact, says Nardo, this community used Spanish until 70-80 years ago. There are surnames for 510 heads of family (1740-1802).

Given name lists indicating Italian translations replacing Hebrew: Izhak (Gaio), Eleazar (Lazzario), Rebekka (Rica), Ruben (Rubino), Mordekhai (Marco), Gershon (Grassino) and Baruch (Benedetto).


  1. Anonymous6:29 AM

    Dear Schelly,
    Re "Jews in Italy": I have a list of 13 books held in Israel libraries, each on genealogy of one family or more.
    If you need that list, please contact me.


  2. Dear amram98,
    Could you please list the titles of these books on Jews in Italy in Israel.

  3. Our family name is Cologna from the Veneto section of Italy. We surmised that our ancestors came from Cologne Germany sometime in the Middle Ages. We are Catholic, but my first clue that we may have been conversos was when I happened upon Abraham de Cologna - the Italian representative to Napolean's court.

    Also, on the JewGen website, Cologna is listed as a Jewish name. No one else in my family is interested in pursuing this line - but if you have any additional information on Italian Jews with the name Cologna, I would be very interested.

  4. The name Cologna is my Great-Great-Grandmothers name - Bunina Cologna (married Samuel Vita Zelman). I suspect she was from Trieste since her son Abram Alberto Zelman was born there in 1832. I am eager to be in touch with anyone who may be on the same trail as I am.

  5. I am interested in finding out if my name has a Jewish origin: D'Elia, which means of Elijah.