I have walked along “Riva del Vin” (Wine Street) without getting drunk and on “Rio Terà degli Assassini” (the assassin’s street) without being afraid. I’ve also gone on “Ponte dei Pugni” (the Bridge of Fists) without having to be on guard or along the “Calle del Vento” (Windy Street) without being cold.
What do these incomprehensible statements mean? Is there a message in secret code within them? Nothing of the sort. They’re only the names of some of the streets and places you will find walking around Venice. They’re the odd names of real places in the city. Unusual place names are nothing exceptional in Venice.
Starting with Piazza San Marco. Piazza San Marco is the only real “piazza” in the city. All the other squares are called “campi” or “campielli” if they are small. You reach the Rialto from Piazza San Marco by going in the direction of the “Mercerie dell’Orologio” (the little watch shop). Then you turn towards the “Campo della Guerra” (the Square of War) and cross the bridge of the same name to get to the “Calle delle Bande” (the Street of the Gangs) and the “Salizada di San Lio” ( Saint Lio street). You then follow the “Ponte di San Antonio” (Saint Anthony’s Bridge) which meets up with the “Calle della Bissa.” This street ends up in “Campo San Bortolomi” (Saint Bartholomew Square) and at the foot of the Rialto Bridge.
In Venice, there are many ways to say ‘street.’ A stone paved street is called either a “calle,” “ruga” or “salizada.” “Rio terà” refers to a street over an old canal and a “sottoportego” is a street that goes under a house. The streets get their names not only from their characteristics but also from where they are. The names of many streets are tied to the history of a famous family that lived in the area or the saint a nearby church is named after. It often also happens that a street takes its name from the type of crafts that were practiced there in the past.
The names of Venetian streets are inscribed on limestone plaques above street level that look like small bed sheets. For this reason, these plaques are called ‘nizioleti’ which means ‘small sheets.’
The street names are curious, often funny and sometimes incomprehensible. It’s fun to read them as they follow one after another trying to understand them. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes you give up because the name is the result of the old Venetian habit of changing the spelling, blending words together and adapting them to daily language.
In that way, Saint Ermagora’s Church is known rather as Saint “Marquola” Church and Saint Eustachio as Saint “Stae.” Similarly, Saint Maria “Formosa” derives from the Venetian version of the Spanish word for beautiful or “hermosa.”.
Many streets in Venice have the same name. For example, there is more than one “calle del Forno” or “del Forner” (the baker’s street), “del Maragon” or ” del Magazen” (the warehouse street), or “del Tragheto” (the ferry street). The only way to tell them apart is to refer to area of the city they are in or the nearest church.
Recently, a heated debate arose when the city administration corrected the “nizioleti” plaques by adding missing double letters –which don’t exist in the Venetian dialect. The changes divided the city between those who were in favour and against. Among the latter, some took it upon themselves to cross out the new double letters on the street plaques using a pen or black paint.
You can follow the strange street and place names of Venice to get to any of the famous or lesser known sights. Or you can just let yourself get lost in the city by following this trail of extravagant names. On a gorgeous day when Venetians hang out their laundry, let these odd names lead you to a scenic street where you will find yourself amidst a rainbow of coloured clothes waving as they dry in the breeze.