In Italian, an initial capital letter (maiuscolo) is required in two instances:
- At the beginning of a phrase or immediately after a period, question mark, or exclamation mark
- With proper nouns
Other than these cases, the use of uppercase letters in Italian depends on factors such as stylistic choices or publishing tradition. There is also the maiuscola reverenziale (reverential capital), which is still used frequently with pronouns and possessive adjectives that refer to Dio (God), people or things considered sacred, or people of high regard (pregare Dio e avere fiducia in Lui; mi rivolgo alla Sua attenzione, signor Presidente). In general, though, in contemporary usage, there is a tendency to avoid capitalization that is considered unnecessary.
Capitalization at the Beginning of a Phrase
To illustrate the occurrences where capital letters are used at the beginning of a phrase here are some examples:
- Titles in various genres: not just text, but also chapter headings, articles, and other subdivisions
- The start of any text or paragraph
- After a period
- After a question mark or exclamation mark, but an initial lowercase may be permitted if there are strong logic and continuity of thought
- At the beginning of a direct speech
If a sentence begins with an ellipsis (… ), then usually the examples described above begin with lowercase, except when the first word is a proper name. Those instances still require the use of the uppercase.
Similarly (but more in terms of a typography choice) is the case in which a capital letter is used at the beginning of each verse in poetry, a device that is sometimes used even when verse is not written on a new line (for reasons of space), instead of using a slash (/), which is generally preferable to avoid ambiguity.
Capitalizing Proper Nouns
In general, capitalize the first letter of proper names (whether real or fictitious), and any terms that take their place (sobriquets, aliases, nicknames):
- Person (common names and surnames), animals, gods
- Names of entities, places, or geographical areas (natural or urban), astronomical entities (as well as astrological)
- Names of streets and urban subdivisions, buildings and other architectural structures
- Names of groups, organizations, movements, and institutional and geopolitical entities
- Titles of artistic works, trade names, products, services, companies, events
- Names of religious or secular holidays
There are also cases in which the initial letter is capitalized even with common nouns, for reasons ranging from the need to distinguish them from common concepts, personification, and antonomasia, to showing respect. Examples include:
- The names of historical eras and events and even of geological periods, centuries and decades; the latter can be written in lower case, but it is preferred to use uppercase if the intent is to call out the historical period.
- The names of a populace; usually it is customary to capitalize the historical peoples of the past (i Romani), and use lowercase for present-day people (gli italiani).
Somewhat more ambiguous, however, is the use of capital letters in Italian compound nouns or in those nouns consisting of a sequence of words; there are a couple of hard-and-fast guidelines, though, that can be recommended:
- Initial capital letters are required with the sequence common name + surname (Carlo Rossi) or more than one common name (Gian Carlo Rossi)
- Proper names used within nominative sequences such as: Camillo Benso conte di Cavour, Leonardo da Vinci
The prepositional particles (particelle preposizionali), di, de, or d' are not capitalized when used with the names of historical figures, when surnames didn't exist, to introduce patronyms (de' Medici) or toponyms (Francesco da Assisi, Tommaso d'Aquino); they are capitalized, though, when they form an integral part of contemporary surnames (De Nicola, D'Annunzio, Di Pietro).
Capitalization finds its most widespread in the names of institutions, associations, political parties and the like. The reason for this profusion of capital letters is usually a sign of respect (Chiesa Cattolica), or the tendency to maintain the use of uppercase letters in an abbreviation or acronym (CSM = Consiglio Superiore della Magistratura). However, the initial capital can also be limited to just the first word, which is the only obligatory one: the Chiesa cattolica, Consiglio superiore della magistratura.