What’s in a Name? A Short Tutorial on Trentini Surnames

1937 - Romeo Fedele Serafini (aka Ralph R. Serafinn), age 17
Born Romeo Fedele Serafini in 1919, my dad’s name changed to Ralph Serafinn around the time this shot was taken in 1937.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn shares tips for researching your Trentino family history, and tells what you need to know about your ancestors’ surnames.

When it comes to family history, all research springs from one thing: a NAME.

Our Trentini ancestors had wonderful names – rich in meaning, culture and history. Having a solid understanding of the names of Trentino is crucial to constructing an accurate picture of your family history. That’s why, over the next few articles on this blog, I’ll be looking at some of the idiosyncrasies of our ancestral names so you can more easily identify your ancestors in historical records, and have a better understanding our colourful heritage. In today’s article, we’ll be taking a look at cognomisurnames.

SIDE NOTE:  I’ve made a searchable database of Trentini surnames on this site. CLICK HERE to view it and see if your surname is currently on our “One Tree” project family tree. 

Changes to Surnames after Immigration

The first thing to remember is that many of our ancestors who immigrated to the Americas changed their surnames to make them sound less “foreign”. Surprisingly, some descendants might not even be aware this change occurred. Such was the case with me. When I was growing up, neither I nor many of my cousins knew our family name was actually Serafini. But after my dad died, I discovered our original name when I started digging into our family history. I even found the official change of name request my grandfather had filed in the 1930s. This meant that my dad had been known by the surname Serafini until he was in his late teens, but (for reasons unknown) he chose not to tell me. It was a bit of a shock to discover that something I had been told since childhood was an untruth. Be prepared for the possibility of unearthing a few of your own skeletons as you do your research!

Natural Evolution of Surnames Over Time

Prior to the 18th century, surnames were still in a state of evolution, and your surname will probably look very different the further back you go in time. One example is the surname Gusmerotti. This name is likely to be written as Gosmero or Gosmeri in records from the 1500s and early 1600s. This is because Gusmerotti comes from the masculine first name Gosmero plus the suffix -otti (meaning large).

Click on the image below to see it larger.

Santa Croce del Bleggio - Example of surname Gusmerotti spelled as Gosmeri in parish records
Santa Croce del Bleggio – Example of surname Gusmerotti spelled as Gosmeri in parish records

Another example is the surname Devilli. Prior to the 19th century, you will typically find it written as either “de Vigili” or simply Vigili. The term “vigili” refers to someone who keeps guard. As a name, it was first used to refer to specific branches of the military during the reign of the Prince Bishops. Thus, knowing the origins of your surname can sometimes give you a clue as to what some of your ancestors did for a living.

Latin Version of Names in Parish Records

Until the late 18th century, Latin was the language used in Trentini parish records, rather than Italian. While this practice was nearly always used in the spelling of first and middle names (which we’ll explore next time), it could occasionally also alter the spelling of surnames. One example is the surname Onorati, which was frequently written in its Latin forms, Honoraty, Honorati or Honorato.

Click on the image below to see it larger.

1596. Baptismal record of Francesco Onorati, son of Valerio and Giustina. The surname is spelled "Honorato".
8 Feb 1596. Baptismal record of Francesco, son of the noble Valerio Honorato (Onorati) of Bono and the lady Giustina. Santa Croce del Bleggio parish records.

Forget About Spelling!

Even after modern surnames began to “stick”, there was no concept of standardised spelling until relatively recently. For example, the surname Caliari can also appear as Calliari, Cagliari or Caliary.

Along the same lines as the Devilli example above, any kind of “conjunct surname” (one that was originally two separate words) could appear either as a single word or two separate words. For example, the name Daldos might show up as Dal Dos or Dal Doss.

Generally speaking:

  • Consonants in between vowels might be doubled or left single (Benassuti, Bennasuti, Bennassuti)
  • The letter “a” is often interchangeable with the letter “o” (Bonomi, Bonami)
  • The letter “e” is often interchangeable with the letter “i” (Rocche, Rocchi, Roche, Rochi)
  • A “g” can sometimes appear before an “ni” or “li” (Cagliari, Caliari, Benini, Benigni)

This flexibility means it is not uncommon to see different surname spellings in the birth, marriage and death records for members of the same family (or even for the same individual). So, it’s important to remember that variations in spelling do not normally indicate the person is from different family, as it would in modern English-speaking culture.

SIDE NOTE: Research become even more complex when you add to this the plethora of variations you will see in first and middle names (which we’ll look at next time)!

Surnames of Women in Trentino

When researching your female ancestors, you need to remember that women in Trentino do not take their husbands’ name when they marry, but retain their fathers’ surnames throughout their lives. So, when researching your female lines, don’t try to find them under their husbands’ names, as you won’t find them. Also, if you use software for your family tree, make sure it is set so it doesn’t automatically change the women’s surnames to their husbands’.

Sopranomi – A Blessing or a Curse for Family Historians

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning “sopranomi” (plural). A sopranome (singular) is an add-on or nickname sometimes given to one branch of a family to distinguish it from other branches. While saying “Giovanni son of Giovanni” can help distinguish that person from “Giovanni son of Pietro”, sometimes there are just too many Giovannis to know who is who. That is where a sopranome can be useful. For example, the branch of the Serafini family from which I am descended was given the sopranome “Cenighi”. This sopranome was chosen because Margherita Giuliani, the wife of my 4x great-grandfather Alberto Serafini, came from the village of Ceniga in Drò parish.

For the genealogist, a sopranome can be a blessing OR a curse. You might come across a baptismal, marriage or death record where the priest used ONLY the sopranome, omitting the person’s surname completely. When that happens, if you don’t know the sopranome (or you’re not paying attention) you might accidentally gloss over the record you’re looking for.

Coming Up Next…

BOOK: Guida cognomi del Trentino, by Aldo BertoluzzaI hope this article has got you interested in knowing more about all the wonderful Trentini surnames that make up your heritage. If you’d like to dive more deeply into the subject, there are many excellent books available in Italian. One I use almost on a daily basis is Guida Cognomi del Trentino by Aldo Bertoluzza.

Next time, we’ll be looking at things every family historian needs to know about our ancestors’ first and middle names. If you subscribe to Trentino Genealogy blog (see the form on the top-right side of this page), you’ll be sure to receive that article via email, along with all upcoming articles.

Until then, I look forward to reading your comments or questions below. And if you have any comments or questions, I cordially invite you to drop me a line with me via the contact form on this site.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn


Lynn Serafinn
Lynn Serafinn

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author, online marketing consultant and genealogist specialising in the families of the Giudicarie, where her father was born. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

Through extensive research, Lynn has already linked together thousands of Trentini in an extended family tree.  Her current research project is called ‘One Tree, One Family, One Humanity,’ the goal of which is create a genealogical ‘map’ of everyone either born in Bleggio, or whose ancestors came from there, from the 1400s to the current era, to serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

CLICK HERE to read about Lynn’s genealogical research project:
“One Tree. One Family. One Humanity”.

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES
currently being researched in the “One Tree” project.

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What is the ‘One Tree, One Family, One Humanity’ Project?

Serafinii Family Tree - screenshot

Lynn Serafinn tells how the genealogy research project ‘One Tree. One Family. One Humanity.’ aims to create a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all connected.


Welcome back to Trentino Genealogy. As this blog is brand new, before I start writing articles on genealogy, I thought it would be best to start out by describing WHY I made this blog in the first place.

I created this blog to be the home of a research project I am calling ‘One Tree. One Family. One Humanity.’ I have chosen that name because the more I do my research, the more I am convinced that ALL human beings are connected at a fundamental level. I believe the key to understanding our global connection starts by understanding our personal ancestries. That’s why this project will start with the research of a single parish, to serve as a ‘protype’ for other projects to follow.

This prototype will be the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio in Trentino, Italy. Years of research of this parish has convinced me that EVERY person who has even the smallest degree of ancestry from this parish, is related by blood. This is because the vast majority of people in rural Trentino married within their own parish. This creates a rich tapestry of inter-marriage between families. This means, if you look hard and long enough, you can discover a family connection — even if a distant one — with pretty much anyone whose family once lived in Bleggio. And this interconnectedness is not just found in Bleggio, but in any of the ancient and historic parishes throughout the province of Trento.

Today, as a result of mass migration at the beginning of the 20th century, thousands of descendants of Bleggio are dispersed throughout the world – especially in the United States. Many of them have little or no idea of their ancestral roots, nor even that they may have many living relatives still in the land of their Trentini ancestors. Conversely, many of the people of Bleggio have become disconnected from their relatives on the other side of the ocean.

To reconnect our long-lost mutual family, the goal of the project will be to identify and ‘map’ everyone either born in that parish, or whose ancestors came from there, from the 1500s to the current era, and to create a rich collection of information and resources for living descendants.

The hope is to achieve this goal by doing the following, over the next 5 years:

  1. Create research tools to aid those who are interested in tracing their family origins in the Giudicarie Valley of Trentino, Italy (former part of Austro-Hungary, prior to World War 1).
  2. Catalogue the complete parish records (birth, deaths and marriages) from the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio from the 1500s (when the records begin) to 1923 (when the scanned images end)
  3. Cross-reference all entries so family GROUPS can be collated.
  4. Construct a parish-wide FAMILY TREE from these family groups, to be referred to as the ‘One Family Tree of Bleggio’ (unless we come up with a catchier name!)
  5. Identify as many descendants of these family groups as possible (both in Italy and abroad — especially in the United States, where so many descendants currently reside).
  6. Incorporate the vital information, photos, etc. of these descendants into the ‘One Family Tree of Bleggio’.
  7. Programme all this data into a searchable, online resource for the public to research their ancestry.
  8. Write and publish a series of books on the history of the various family lines of Bleggio, incorporating local history of the times (in both English and Italian).
  9. Provide help to descendants of Bleggio in accessing and using these resources, so they can preserve their own family history.
  10. Train others to maintain the system and/or to develop the same kind of project for other Trentini parishes…and perhaps in other parts of the world as well.

This project is already underway, and many elements of aims 1-5 are partially complete. As of this writing, over 4,000 names (mostly of Bleggio origin) have already been catalogued, funded solely by myself. I’ve already spent thousands of work hours AND thousands of dollars/pounds/Euros. I haven’t taken a single dime for my work (not yet, anyway).

There is no way to complete this project without help from independent funders. For that reason, starting in 2016, there will be a series of fund-raising projects to raise money to complete the various steps of the project. If you would like to see this vision become a reality, I invite you to subscribe to this blog, so you can receive our articles and be informed when the first round of fundraising will take place.

Everyone who supports this project via our fundraising events will receive some sort of genealogical ‘gift’ in return for their support (I will tell you more when we get closer to the time).

Thanks so much for taking the time to read about the ‘One Tree. One Family. One Humanity.’ project. If you’d like to speak to us about the project, please drop us a line via the contact form here on the Trentino Genealogy website. 

I look forward to hearing from you.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn


Lynn Serafinn
Lynn Serafinn

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author, online marketing consultant and genealogist specialising in the families of the Giudicarie, where her father was born. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

Through extensive research, Lynn has already linked together thousands of Trentini in an extended family tree.  Her current research project is called ‘One Tree, One Family, One Humanity,’ the goal of which is create a genealogical ‘map’ of everyone either born in Bleggio, or whose ancestors came from there, from the 1400s to the current era, to serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

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Welcome to Trentino Genealogy by Lynn Serafinn

Serafini family in Brooklyn, 1928
Serafini family in Brooklyn, 1928. Luigi Serafini, Maria Onorati and their children came to the USA from Santa Croce del Bleggio after World War 1.

Author & genealogist Lynn Serafinn reveals the ancient roots of the Trentini people, and tells why she prefers the term ‘Trentini’ to ‘Italian’ or ‘Tyrolean’.

Welcome. My name is Lynn Serafinn. A quick hello to welcome you to my new blog, ‘Trentino Genealogy dot com’.

My late father, Romeo Serafini (later known as Ralph Serafinn) is the 9-year-old boy on the right side of the above photo. Romeo was born in the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio, in the Giudicarie Valley in Trentino, Italy in 1919. My genealogical research has shown that our ancestors were present in the Giudicarie at least as far back as the early 1500s, when parish records first were used to record births, deaths and marriages. In all likelihood, if older records existed, we’d probably learn that the roots of our family — and many hundreds of others — can claim ancestry in Trentino possibly for millenia.  In fact, archaelogists have unearthed many paleo-villages in the region, showing the that an argiculturally-based culture, much the same as our more recent ancestors, was present in this region at least as long as 4,000 years ago.

Earlier I referred to Trentino as ‘Italy’ because that is what it is today. However, for many centuries, up until the end of World War 1, Trentino was actually part of the Austrian (and later, Austro-Hungarian) Empire. In fact, many descendants of the Trentini who immigrated to America at the end of the 19th century (or the beginning of the 20th century) don’t think of themselves as Italians, but as ‘Tyroleans’, as Trentino used to belong to the old County of Tyrol. Today, however, it is part of Italy. As this can sometimes create a confusing sense of identify for those who are descended from Trentini immigrants, I prefer to use the term ‘Trentini’ rather than either ‘Italy’ or ‘Tyrolean’ to describe us, as I believe it transcends the political designations, and refers more our ancestors’ connection to the land itself.

In my opinion, the unique history and vibrant culture of the Trentini people make them a truly special people. In fact the more I study about ‘our people’, the more I come to love them and respect their values.

On this site, I will be sharing information, discoveries, videos, and tips on how to weave together the wonderful history of our Trentini ancestors.

I’m just putting together the site, but I have been an avid blogger on other sites for many years, so I promise you some good stuff in the coming months. Until then, please feel free to contact me via the contact form on this website, if you would like to ask a question or discuss the possibility of working together.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

View family tree on Ancestry: http://trees.ancestry.co.uk/tree/71279369/family


Lynn Serafinn

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author, online marketing consultant and genealogist specialising in the families of the Giudicarie, where her father was born. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

Through extensive research, Lynn has already linked together thousands of Trentini in an extended family tree.  Her current research project is called ‘One Tree, One Family, One Humanity,’ the goal of which is create a genealogical ‘map’ of everyone either born in Bleggio, or whose ancestors came from there, from the 1400s to the current era, to serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

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