Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

main index   © Jeff Matthews   entry June 2015


Don't Go Looking for Saint Helmet!

   - and other traps of Hagiotoponomy

Do I really look like a helmet to you?            
was fascinated by an article by Carla Marcato, a linguistics professor at the university of Udine. Her specialty is the study of dialects, minority languages and especially onomastics (the study of proper names); she is the author of a 2009 book entitled Nomi di persona, nomi di luogo. Introduzione all'onomastica italiana [Names of persons, names of places. Introduction to Italian onomastics.] One subdivision of onomastics is called 'toponomastics' (the study of place names) and a further division of that is called 'hagiotoponomy' (the study of places named for saints or religious personages). If I could count that high, I could tell you how many places in Italy are named for Catholic saints, but suffice it to say that one source Marcato cites claims that about 20% of all place names in Italy are named for some Christian saint, either Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox (those, mostly in southern Italy). The title of her article, however, was "Patrociny Settlement Names in Italy". I did not know what patrociny meant, and I am not sure that I know now except that it's an archaic word for patronage, so I suppose she means “places named for patron saints.” In other words, 'hagiotoponomy'. If that is not the case, please enlighten me.

The study of place names, in general, is interesting, and if you expand the category a bit to all place names in or around Naples (which I do not intend to do except for the few examples in this paragraph), you find not only the easy Greek ones—'Naples' is from the Greek Neapolis (new city), 'Posillipo' from Greek Pausilypon (the place where unhappiness ends)—but even unusual (but not unexpected) examples of Arabic such as the origin of the name of the town of Acciaroli at the southern end of the gulf of Salerno; apparently it's from the Arabic az-zu’rur, then the Italianized azzalora, the fruit of Crataegus azarolus, a species of hawthorn also known as the Mediterranean medlar. And the truly weird: there is a mountain near there named Mt. Gelbison; it is also from Arabic and means 'place of idol worshipers' (great story—see this link). And so forth. The field is vast and confusing.


Back to saints. Marcato reminds us that the tradition of naming places in Italy after saints started only at the end of the 6th century and that  “...It  is  not always easy to interpret and identify the name of a saint who determined the name of a town... [because of]...different overlapping traditions and the frequent alteration of linguistic forms.” That is, it is one thing to say that the word 'saint' in Italian is formed by sant+o or a) or san, but then many things can happen, as happened to Saint Helmet (Elmo) up there at the top of this article. His real name is Sant'Erasmo (Erasmus). The dialect variation introduces confusion.

A strange case of a false hagiotoponym is the model on the right of the old San Carlino theater in Naples. There is no Saint Carlino in Italian. Carlino is a diminutive of Carlo (Charles); that is, "Little Charles". There is, indeed, a saint Charles (a lot of them). The one referred to here is Carlo Borromeo (archbishop of Milan from 1564 to 1584). His feast day on the Roman Catholic calendar is Nov. 4th, the day on which the future Charles III of Naples was born and, thus, the saint for whom he was named. Charles III built the San Carlo theater (obviously named for him) and it opened on Nov. 4, 1737. In the following century, a small band of musicians opened a small music hall/dialect theater in Naples and dubbed it San Carlino, Little San Carlo (or maybe Saint Charley?).

It gets stranger. There is a church in Naples named Santa Maria di Donnaromita. Don and donna were Spanish courtesy or deferential forms of address still held over in southern Italy from the Spanish presence here, so I thought I had figured it out. Now just find out who Romita was and why they named a church after her. Not so fast. Here, donna is from the Latin domnus and was an alternative to sanctus. So it was, indeed, Santa Romita, but no one knew who Romita was (and still doesn't). (The confusion is increased by the addition of 'Santa Maria', so you have Santa Maria of Saint Someone Else.) Also, in the formerly Greek speaking areas of southern Italy there was something similar between hagios and kyrios to mean 'saint', producing a church of Kyrios Zósimos (St. Zozimus) and the town of Cersosimo in the Basilicata region, down near the bottom of the boot.

    Church and square of Gesù Nuovo

Common saint names, as might be expected, in Italy are St. Mary, St. Peter, St. Joseph (San Giuseppe), etc. Also, there are a few examples, at least in Naples, of the name Gesù (Jesus): there are two churches called, respectively, the new and old church of Gesù, and a prominent square named for the new one, Piazza del Gesù nuovo (oddly, the adjective ending -o is masculine, thus meaning "new Jesus" instead of nuova, which would mean "new church". I don't know why.) Also, sacredness may be implied through a rhetorical device called synecdoche, that is by being represented by an object or concept; for example, Santa Croce (cross) (there is a Santa Croce del Sannio in Campania) and even a Santa Spina in Calabria (spina is 'thorn', in reference to the crown of thorns at the Crucifixion), as well as names using Annunziata (Annunciation) such as Torre Annunziata near Naples). There is also a section of Naples called Materdei, Latin for Mother of God, and there are occurrences of Virgin, Blessed Virgin, etc. There is a Santa Trinità in Campania (Holy Trinity in English). In Puglia there is a town named Trinitapoli (city of the Trinity). There are, as noted above, toponyms in Southern Italy referring to saints connected with the influence of the Greek church such as San Procopio, San Calogero and many others. On the other hand, the Greek Orthodox church, itself, in Naples is named the church of Saints Peter and Paul.

As an aside, there are also at least a few names that have to do with Christianity, but are not the names of saints. I have driven through the nice little town of Purgatorio a number of times. (It's not far from Naples, although some say the two are one and the same. No, that would be Hell or Inferno—consider that 'Inferno' is from lake Averno, the mythological entrance to the Underworld, now a mere but uncomfortable bus-ride from my house.) I have never been in Paradiso (in Sicily). Actually, the strangest thing about the names of saints is something I learned yesterday: Santa Barbara, written as one word, santabarbara, is Italian military slang for powder magazine, not a cosmetics journal but rather the place you store your gunpowder. At that point I started to search for San Barbaro, St. Barbarian. Now I was getting somewhere! I mean, if there is a Santa Barbar-A, there has to be a San Barbar-O, right? Maybe not. It's not a given name for Italian males, although there is a river in Sicily called Sanbarbaro Fughetto. I have no idea.

Numbers play an interesting role. There are three Churches of the 40 Martyred Saints in Italy (none in Campania) in reference to 40 Roman soldiers who refused to renounce their Christian faith and were executed. There is a town near Naples in the province of Frosinone named Sette Frati (Seven Friars). According to the tradition, the name was given to the place by Benedictine monks to commemorate the seven sons of Santa Felicità, killed in Rome in the 2nd century during Christian persecutions. There is no Sette Fratelli (Seven Brothers), as far as I know, but there is a San Fratello (Saint Brother)—in the religious sense of brother, yes, but it's still wrong. The name of the town (on Sicily) was originally San Frareau (in the local Gallic [Norman]-Italian dialect), the correct Italian translation of which would have been San Filadelfia, but phonetic assimilation stepped in and messed it up: F(i)ladelphu(m) --> Fladellu(m) --> Fratellu(m). There is a simpler example of assimilation in the town of Sammichele di Bari. There are many toponyms that use San Michele, but this is the only one that, in the official written form, assimilated the n in San to the m in Michele, which is the way most people pronounce that combination anyway
as two m's. He is also a toponymn of places or churches that call him, simply, l'arcangelo (the archangel) without the name, again synechdoche.

There are obviously many examples of saints whose names are used over and over as names of places or churches in Italy. There are a few, however, that are used just once. Near Naples, in the province of Benevento, there is a town named San Lupo. That looks like St. Wolf, but really refers to Sancto Lupulo (St. Lupus in English) the bishop of Troyes, who is famous because, they say, he helped Attila the Hun escape. On the other hand, it all looks a lot like luppolo, the Italian word for hops, the stuff you brew beer from. They say he was famous for that, too. But they say a lot of things. We do know for sure, however, that Saint Lupus had nothing to do with the auto-immune disease called 'lupus', which in fact does come from the Latin word for 'wolf'.

I have learned from San Barbaro not to be taken in by the san- or lack thereof. Not everything with a san- in front is going to be a saint, even if the townspeople swear it is. Thus I was interested in the author's example of "San Genito (in Campania). Originally, it was the name of a plant, a reinterpretation of the words sanguineto or sangineto, derived from the Latin word sanguine which means cornel” [a genus of woody plants known as 'dogwoods']. That sounded wonderful, except, as far as I know, there is no San Genito in Naples, or, indeed, anywhere in Italy, although the surname Genito is quite common near Benevento.


The patron saint of protecting against the headache that you feel coming on is St. Aspren. No kidding (see that link). There are two churches in Naples named for him.


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