June 21, 2006

Vincius vincit

[A guest post by Stefano Taschini.]

As a side note to Geoff Nunberg's "Da Bomb", I'd like to point out that Italian surnames have been formalized with the Council of Trento, which ended in 1563. For somebody born after that, as is the case for the other people mentioned in the post, there is no doubt that the "Da X" is the family name, and referring to them as Da Pos, Dall'Oca and so on is perfectly natural, whatever the etymology.

Until the end of WWII, people with noble titles were usually referred to by their estate. Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour (last Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Sardinia and first PM of the Kingdom of Italy) is usually referred to as Cavour, without the "di" preposition. Even with the Republic, the same scheme is followed for compound family names in which the second part is reminiscent of an estate: Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, chairman of Fiat and Ferrari, is usually referred to as Montezemolo, again without preposition.

People born before the Council of Trento did not necessarily have a family name. Earlier on, only prominent families had one, but by the low Middle Ages they were already rather common. Still, people born before the Council are primarily referred to by their first name even when they have a family name: Raffaello (Santi), Tiziano (Vecelli), Michelangelo (Buonarroti), consistently with the usage at the time. As already stated many times on the Language Log, Leonardo didn't have a family name and his birthplace, Vinci, was used to identify him.

Surnames were often used in latinized form (Santium, Vecellium). Lionardo (with "i") da Vinci was latinized as Leonardus Vincius, and Vincius alone appears in a few latin epigrams. One epigram is found in Vasari's "Lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors and architects":

Pinxit Virgilius Neptunum, pinxit Homerus
dum maris undisoni per vada flectit equos.
Mente quidem vates illum conspexit uterque
Vincius ast oculis, iureque vincit eos.

"Rightly, Da Vinci beats Virgil and Homer," according to the epigram's author.

[Guest post by Stefano Taschini]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 21, 2006 01:14 PM