Origin of the Name "Monticello"

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

The exact source of the word "Monticello" [1](pronounced "Monti-cello," like the musical instrument) as the name for Jefferson's plantation home remains a mystery. Jefferson's earliest documented use of the word appears in his Garden Book entry of August 3, 1767: "inoculated common cherry buds into stocks of large kind at Monticello." Yet just two years later, in his Account Book, Jefferson records that 9,787 pounds of tobacco were made at "Moncello" in 1768. Later, in a January 1770 entry, Jefferson notes "work to be done at Hermitage," but at some point, he crosses Hermitage out and writes in Monticello. After this last entry, Jefferson consistently refers to his property as Monticello. However, because these early entries may have been made retroactively, it is impossible to pinpoint exactly when Jefferson began to use the name.[2]

Since Monticello means "hillock" or "little mountain" in Italian, there is a logical explanation for Jefferson's choice. Jefferson may have just translated the names of the two mountains as they appeared in the Albemarle County Deed Books, Little Mountain and High Mountain, into Italian. High Mountain was referred to by Jefferson as Montalto, which he acquired in 1777. Jefferson's interest in Italian began as early as 1764 when he purchased an Italian-English dictionary, two historical works in Italian and the works of Machiavelli. By 1767, Jefferson had also convinced Francesco Alberti, a musician from Faenza, to move into the area so that he could study the violin with him.

Another source may have been Andrea Palladio's Four Books of Architecture, a work Jefferson deemed to be his "bible." In Book Two of the 1721 Leoni translation, Palladio describes the ideal setting for a country house, his famous Villa Rotunda near Vicenza: "Its situation is as advantageous and delicious as can be desired, being seated on a hillock[3] of a most easy ascent." This was cited in Jefferson’s account books of the 1770s. Whether or not Jefferson read this in Italian at this early date is unclear, but it is a possibility. At least the theater-like description of the site, located on top of a hillock above a navigable river and surrounded by hills and orchards, must have influenced Jefferson.

Because Jefferson knew Italian and himself named Monticello, it seems apparent that he would have used the Italian pronunciation. The name has been used elsewhere in the United States and Americanized into "Montisello," but there is no contemporary evidence to support this pronunciation. We do not have anything in Jefferson's writing that tells us how he pronounced the word, but we have other written records that indicate the Italian pronunciation. For example, in 1781 George Gilmer wrote to Jefferson, "I long to behold the period when you may with propriety retreat to Montichello." In 1789, Baron Geismar wrote to Jefferson, "Que je Vous envie Votre Retour à MontiChello, Sejour paisible et agreable que j’y ai passé!"[4] In 1843, James Adams Kasson, a newcomer to Albemarle County who became acquainted with a member of the Jefferson family, wrote: "I am working my way around...into most of the families of this circle which contains, besides those I have before mentioned, a gentleman closely related to Jefferson and brought up at Monticello (President J.'s seat), the 'c' pronounced like 'ch' in chair -- 'Montichello.'"

Footnotes

  1. This article is based on Rebecca Bowman, Monticello Research Report, May 1996.
  2. See MB and Betts, Garden Book
  3. This phrase is "sopra un monticello" in the original Italian.
  4. Geismar to Jefferson, Hanau, April 13, 1789, in PTJ, 15:48.