She’s an elaborate throwback, an Italiano nature name with a surprising literary backstory.
Thanks to Alta for suggesting Ornella as Baby Name of the Day.
Ornella conjures up words from ornery to ornate, but her origin is completely different.
The Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio invented Ornella for a character in his 1904 tragedy La Figlia di Iorio. By 1907 it had been translated and imported to the US as The Daughter of Jorio. It led to a not-very-successful operatic adaptation in 1906, and at least two European film versions, in 1911 and 1917.
When the play debuted stateside in 1907, the New York Times described it as “a poetic drama dealing with unpleasant things.” That’s fairly accurate. Bridegroom Aligi falls in love with Mila – Jorio’s daughter – before the ink is dry on his marriage certificate. He’s just met Mila as she fled a mob of angry peasants, convinced she’s a dangerous witch. Aligi saves her, only Aligi’s dad is smitten, too. Things go downhill from there, and eventually Aligi kills his father and his spared from a horrible death only when Mila shows up to take the blame – and the death sentence – claiming it was witchcraft. No one lives happily ever after.
Ornella is Aligi’s little sis, not a main character, but present in many pivotal scenes. Ornus is the Latin for mountain ash; d’Annunzio would’ve been thinking of the Italian words orniello or ornello. I’ve found a few men named Ornello, too.
D’Annunizo was wildly successful in the late 1890s into the 19oos, running afoul of censors and scandalizing his attentive audience. The King of Italy made him a prince in 1924, but he’s mostly remembered as an early Fascist – and that’s not done much for his literary legacy.
The play was a big hit, and you can find Ornella in use almost immediately in Italy. (I can’t say just how common she would’ve been, but she’s there.)
While she never ranked in the Top 1000, you can find Ornella in US Census records, too, often paired with an Italian surname.
But at least some parents thought up Ornella before d’Annunzio!
Ornella simply fit with the sounds popular at the time. While -or has never disappeared – there was Lori in the 60s; Jordan and Morgan today – she was quite current in 1907. Dorothy and Florence were both very popular, and Eleanor, Doris, Cora, Georgia, Marjorie, and Dora also appeared in the US Top 100.
The two most famous Italian Ornellas are:
- Pop singer Ornella Vanoni, big in the 1960s. Her career got a boost when her 1970 single “L’Appuntamento” was used in the Oceans Twelve soundtrack;
- Actress Ornella Muti began her acting career in 1970 – but she was born Francesca. If you’ve seen the 1980 film Flash Gordon, Muti played Princess Aura.
She’s quite unusual today, but with her -ella ending and decidedly retro vibe, she might wear just fine. Nickname options range from Orrie to Nell to Ella, making this unusual Italian option surprisingly versatile.