Italian Nick-Names

— It is puzzling to a novice in the study of the history of art to find that the names by which he knows most of the Italian masters are not their family names. He reads of Pietro Vannucci, and is surprised to discover after a time that he has known that artist before under the name of Perugino ; or he sees an engraving from a picture by Antonio Allegri, and afterwards hears a photograph of the same picture spoken of as a Correggio. To one who lives in Italy this nomenclature seems most natural, as few are called by their proper names.

The Italian masters are known to us either by their Christian names, as Giotto, Raphael, or Michael Angelo, or by corruptions of the baptismal name, as Masaccio, — “ great hulking Tom,” Ruskin calls him, — Giorgione, and Domenichino. Others we know by names derived from the father’s trade or occupation, as Andrea del Sarto, Ghirlandajo, and Tintoretto. Some are called from their birthplaces or the cities of their adoption, as Luini, Veronese, Caravaggio, Romano, and Sassoferrato. Lastly, a large number are known to posterity by nicknames, — sopranomi the Italians say, — received on account of some characteristic or physical peculiarity, such as Verocchio, the true-eyed ; Moretto, the dark-complexioned; Riccio, the curly-haired ; and Pinturicchio, the little painter, or, as he was also called, Sordicchio, the little deaf man.

Among Italians of to-day we find names used in the same way. Gentlemen and ladies are known to their neighbors and retainers, as well as to their friends, by their Christian names. The first question put to a new-comer is the familiar one from the catechism, “What is your name?” and by that name he or she will hereafter be called. “ La Signora Nini ” may be a grandmother, but she still bears her baby name. " Il Signor Francesehino ” may be old, and bowed, and gray-haired, but his nursery name will cling to him as long as he lives. Often the surname is so seldom used that it is almost forgotten.

The corruption of the Christian name is also frequent. Our contadino is known far and wide as Pello, a contraction for Pietro, and our carpenter is called Tita, from Battista. We often hear young people called from their fathers’ trades, as in Germany: " Lorenzo del Sarto,” the tailor’s Lawrence, or “ Giulia del Pollajuolo,” the poulterer’s Julia. Sometimes the occupation suggests the soprannome, which is not, strictly speaking, derived from it, as that of our wood merchant, who is called " Il Stecchitin,” the little stick.

Names from the place of residence or birth are very common, and sometimes the adjectival form is used. One often hears of Il Genovese, Il Triestino, Il Novarese. A man who worked for us was always called Sesto, and it was only after some months’ acquaintance that we learned that that was his place of abode, and not his real name.

A great many soprannomi are personal, given on account of some peculiarity, but these are inherited by the children, nephews and nieces. I had a cook once who delighted in nicknames. She never called her husband by his classical name Oreste, but always “ Il Secco,” the dried-up one, a name singularly appropriate, as his face was yellow and wrinkled, like a dried apple. The butcher she called " Il Guercio,” because he was cross-eyed, or, as she would have said in the polite Tuscan phrase, because he looked in the cabbages. His rival across the street was “ Il Zucco,” the squash, and I even saw a letter addressed to him by this name. If she did not know the soprannome of any one she saw, she invented one on the spur of the moment. A dapper little gentleman who called often she dubbed " Il Frustino,” the little whip ; and a young lady who walked rather gingerly on her toes received the sobriquet of " Signorina Tippi-Tappi ; ” but the climax was reached when, one day, a neighbor’s daughter coming to call, whose red hair did not suit the cook’s taste, she announced her quite audibly as “ La Brutta,” the ugly woman.

The Italians seem rather proud of these names, and do not resent being called by them. Our grocer has over his shop door, in lieu of a sign, this inscription : —


This man rejoices in a grand name, which appears on his bill-heads, but in every-day life he is known as " Il Remagin.” On inquiring the origin of this remarkable nickname, I was told that he was small and dark, and resembled those figures of the Wise Men. or Re Magi, that are to be seen beside the preserpio, or representation of the Nativity set up in the churches at Christmas. His children are called by this name; and should they make it famous, some future biographer may puzzle himself as to how they came by it.