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Italian-Australians are the largest ethnic group in Australia after those of British and Irish heritage, and about a million people identify as having Italian ancestry – around 5% of the population. The first Italian migrants arrived in the 19th century (Australia’s first police officer was an Italian), but immigration soared after World War II. They have made an incalculable contribution to Australia’s economy and culture, with noteworthy Italians in business, politics, sport, the arts and entertainment. It’s not that I can’t imagine Australia without an Italian history; it’s just that imagining such an Australia appals me.
This is a selection of Italian names for girls which I think are usable in Australia, whether you have Italian ancestry or not.
Alessandra is the feminine form of Alessandro, the Italian form of Alexander. Alessandra has been popular in Italy for many years, remaining in the Top 10 throughout the 1970s. It is still in the Top 100 today, and has only recently slipped off the Top 30. I see many instances of this name in birth notices, particularly in families with Italian surnames (although not exclusively). Not only is it the Italian form of the popular Alexandra, but is well known due to Brazilian supermodel Alessandra Ambrosio, who is of part-Italian descent. It is also an Australian celebrity baby name, since Casey Stoner and his wife Adriana welcomed their daughter Alessandra Maria last year. This pretty name is an Italian modern classic, and the Italian pronunciation is ahl-e-SAHN-dra, although I suspect many Australians would say it more like al-uh-SAN-dra. Nicknames abound, including Allie, Alessa, Alessia and Lissa, and it is one of the names tipped to rise in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Arianna is the Italian form of the Greek name Ariadne, meaning “most holy, utterly pure”. In Greek mythology, Ariadne was a princess of Crete, the daughter of King Minos, and helped the hero Theseus escape from the Minotaur (Ariadne’s monstrous half-brother). The two of them escaped together, but Theseus abandoned her on the island of Naxos, where she married the god Dionysus. It seems likely that Ariadne was originally an ancient Cretan mother goddess, and some suggest that she was a goddess of weaving, thus perhaps a goddess who ruled fate. Arianna is currently #24 in Italy, and although there are a few famous Italians with this name, it’s probably best known as the name of Arianna Huffington, who co-founded The Huffington Post. The Italian pronunciation is ah-RYAHN-na, and the English is ah-ree-AH-nuh or ar-ee-AN-uh, which allows Ari as the obvious nickname.
Bianca is the Italian equivalent of the French name Blanche, meaning “white, fair”. The name was used amongst the Italian nobility during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; one example being Bianca Visconti, a 15th century Duchess of Milan who is a distant ancestor of both Diana, Princess of Wales and Princess Michael of Kent. There are two characters named Bianca in the plays of Shakespeare, in Othello and The Taming of the Shrew, but the name doesn’t seem to have been used in Britain until the 19th century, during the Victorian veneration of the Bard and his works. It does seem to have been attractive to families with Italian ancestry from early on. The name Bianca did not chart here until the 1960s, and was in the Top 100 by the 1980s. It peaked in the 1990s at #45, and fell until it left the Top 100 in 2009. In 2011 it rose again to make #103, only just outside the Top 100. Bianca is a modern classic in Australia which hasn’t been lower than the 100s since the 1960s, although it is rather dated in Italy. The Italian pronunciation is something like BYAHN-ka, but here we say it bee-AN-ka.
Chiara is the original Italian form of the names Clara, Clare and Claire, meaning “clear, bright, famous”. Chiara Offreduccio was one of the followers of Saint Francisof Assisi, and founded the Order of Poor Ladies; she is the first woman known to have written a monastic Rule. She was a great encouragement and support to Saint Francis, and nursed him during his final illness. Today we know her as Saint Clare, and her order is affectionately known as The Poor Clares. This medieval saint has a very modern connection, because she is the patron of television. Chiara has been a Top 10 name in Italy for several years now, and is currently #6. It is also Top 100 in Austria and Belgium. Chiara is one of the most popular Italian names that I see in Australian birth notices, and it is known to us as the name of cyclist Cadel Evans’ Italian wife. We say this name kee-AH-ra, which isn’t exactly the Italian pronuciation, but not too far off it either.
Eliana is the Italian form of the Roman name Aeliana, the feminine form of Aelianus. The name is from the Roman family name Aelius, derived from the Greek word helios, meaning “sun”. One of the Titans was named Helios, a handsome sun god who drove his chariot across the skies each day. There is a Saint Eliana, an early Roman martyr. Eliana can also be understood as a modern Hebrew name meaning “my God has answered”. This name is not on the Italian Top 30, but I have seen many examples of it in Australian birth notices, with a variety of spellings. The Italian pronunciation is eh-LYAH-na, but I think most Australians would prefer el-ee-AH-na, as it opens the name up to nicknames such as Ella, Elle or Ellie.
Francesca is the feminine form of Francesco, the Italian original of the name Francis. One of the most famous people with this name is Francesca da Rimini, whose story features in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Francesca was married off to a brave but crippled man named Giovanni, and fell in love with his younger brother, Paolo. Although Paolo was married too, they managed to carry on an affair for about ten years. Her story reached a tragic conclusion when her husband killed both she and her lover after finding them together in her bedroom. In Dante’s poem, he meets she and Paolo in the second circle of Hell, where those who have committed sins of lust are punished; Dante faints in pity at her sad plight. Her story has been turned into numerous operas, plays and artworks. Francesca has been on the Australian charts since the 1940s, but has never reached the Top 100. It peaked in the 1960s at #241; currently it is #245 and climbing, so looks likely to overtake this high point fairly soon. The name has been popular in Italy for many years, and is currently #12. The Italian pronunciation of frahn-CHES-ka, and the English fran-CHES-ka are both used here; Frankie is fast becoming the fashionable nickname.
Ginevra is the Italian form of Guinevere, so you can consider it to be the Italian Jennifer as well. By coincidence, it is also the Italian name for the Swiss city of Geneva. The Arthurian legends were known in Italy, and on the cathedral of Modena in Italy, it shows King Arthur rescuing Guinevere from her abduction by the villain Maleagant. A 15th century Florentine noblewoman named Ginevra de’ Benci was painted by Leonardo da Vinci and there was an also a 17th century Italian painter named Ginevra Cantofoli. There are several Ginevras in fiction, including Princess Ginevra of Scotland in Orlando Furioso, the Ginevra who has a tragic wedding day in the poem by Shelley, and Ginevra “Ginny” Weasley from the Harry Potter books. Ginevra is #25 and rising in Italy, but this romantic name is not often used in Australia. The Italian pronunciation is something like jeh-NEEV-rah, while the English pronunciation is ji-NEHV-ruh; I think both sound usable, and allow nicknames such as Jenny, Ginny, Ginger, June, Neve and Evie.
Lia is the Italian form of the Hebrew name Leah, who in the Bible was one of Jacob’s two wives, or it can be used as a short form of names such as Rosalia or Aurelia. I’m not sure how popular this name is in Italy (it’s not in the Top 30), but there are quite a few Australians named Lia, including politician Lia Finocchiaro. Italian girls names don’t have to be elaborate or ornate; here is one as sweet and simple as you could desire, fitting in perfectly with short popular names like Mia and Ava. Although Lia does not chart in Australia, Leah is in the Top 100 and has been climbing since the 1990s.
Mietta is the Italian form of the French name Miette, which literally means “bread crumb”, but is a term of endearment, like “sweet little morsel, sweet little thing” (compare with how you might call a little girl muffin in English). One of the fairies in The Sleeping Beauty ballet is named Miettes qui tombent, meaning “falling breadcrumbs”. It presumably began life as a nickname, but at some point was accepted as a full name, probably because it seemed like a pet form of names such as Marie. In Australia we best know the name from the chef Mietta O’Donnell, whose parents were Italian migrants and restaurateurs. Mietta and her partner opened the famous Mietta’s restaurant during the 1970s, a Melbourne institution for twenty years. Mietta O’Donnell was not just a contributor to Australian cuisine, she changed and defined Australian cuisine and raised the standard immeasurably, as well as teaching people about good food through her restaurant guides and cookbooks. Mietta was a charismatic and ardent supporter of the arts in her city; little wonder I see so many birth notices for little Miettas in Melbourne. In O’Donnell’s case, Mietta was a nickname; her real name was Maria. The Italian pronunciation of this name is MYEHT-ah, but most Australians would prefer mee-EH-tah. The popularity of Mia must surely have made Mietta more appealing.
Rosabella combines the names (or words) Rosa and Bella, and even if you don’t know much Italian, you can probably figure out what Rosabella means – “beautiful rose”. The two original words were used together in a medieval Italian poem by Leonardo Giustiniani, O Rosa Bella, which later became a popular English chant. A 1940s Italian love song featuring the name is Rosabella Del Molise; the song tells of a beautiful woman from southern Italy loved by a shepherd; he begs Rosabella to marry him, and plans a wedding to be speedily followed by a bambino. A piece of film trivia is that in the Italian version of Citizen Kane, the sled is called Rosabella instead of Rosebud. I get the feeling that in Italy this is a very old-fashioned name, and as it is also a variety of luncheon meat, may even appear comical. However, I have seen this name several times in recent Australian birth notices, along with Rosa-Bella, Rosabel and Rosebelle. Here it seems like a compound of popular Rose with popular Isabella; it’s slightly operatic, but does fit the trend for frilly girls names, and has simple nicknames like Rosie and Bella.
POLL RESULT: People’s favourite names were Eliana, Arianna, and Francesca, and their least favourite were Bianca, Rosabella, and Mietta.
(Picture shows Francesca da Rimini (1837), painted by William Dyce)