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I have a panettone and it’s made of "lievito madre". Why sourdough is called so? Why is there "mother" and no "dough"?

  • The translation of "lievito" is "yeast" - in Italian "lievito madre" defines the natural one (if I remember correctly). – Riccardo De Contardi Dec 23 '19 at 12:44
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According to Grande dizionario della lingua italiana, a figurative usage of the word "mother" is

Sostanza o prodotto originario dal quale se ne traggono altri con successive lavorazioni

that is, "substance or original product from which others may be obtained through subsequent processing". This dictionary entry shows how "mother" with this sense has been used not only in the expression "lievito madre", as you can see in this quotation from the end of XVIII century by Marco Lastri

Per ottener un buon effetto è necessario che il lievito « madre », volgarmente detto anco « fermento », sia estratto dalla pasta la quale in porzione è stata panificata tre o quattro volte

but also in other contexts:

      M. Savonarola, 46: L’aqua de vita, de le medexine calide maestra e madre è chiamata, e ditta de la umana sanitade optima conservatrice e de le substanzie restaura­trice. D. Bartoli, 9-28-3-73: Tutti i mari d’Oriente non gli avrebbono vuoti a’ piè i lor gran seni pieni di conche madri di porpore e di perle? [...] Malerba, 1-61: Per ottenere le famose diluizioni si incomincia con la tintura-madre, cioè con la prima diluizione di un grammo della sostanza eletta in cento gocce di alcool.

I'm not an expert, but, as far as I know, "lievito madre", which is also called "pasta madre" (literally "mother dough"), "pasta acida naturale" or "lievito naturale" is a fermented mixture of water and flour. As you can see at Wikipedia, in English this mixture is called "starter", but it's also known as "mother" or with other names. Once it has been obtained, the volume of this mixture may be increased by periodic additions of flour and water. So, as explained in the dictionary, it's called "mother" in the sense that it's a product or substance from which you can obtain some more other by processing it in some way.

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The same definition is present also in English:

Mother yeast , also called natural yeast, acid yeast, sourdough, natural leavening, natural leavening dough, mother dough:

is a mixture of flour and water acidified by a combination of yeast and lactic acid bacteria that start fermentation of bakery or pastry dough.

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