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How to Interpret Italian Street Names

Had or having trouble trying to work out just how street signs in Italy work?  In that case, this post may set you off in the right direction.

Italy has a lovely habit of naming its streets and roads after well known events and figures from Italy’s extensive history.  Saints and well known areas (to Italians) of Italy are also common names for streets too.  Generally, the people after which some streets are named are Italians, but by no means always.  Indeed, we have a street near us which is named after Lord Byron and there is a Via Washington.

As I’m sure you will agree, this method of naming streets is charming and informative too.  Street signs in Milan often have the name of a famous person, when they were alive and what they were famous for.  This being the case, you wouldn’t think that such a system might cause problems, but it certainly does, and it is not only hapless tourists who are caught out, but even Italians themselves.  Why?  You might well ask.

White on White Signs

One of the slight problems with this system is that the street signs, usually small white rectangular marble plaques, are often placed on white walls, generally on corners, but sometimes just after the corner, at about 2.5 to 3 meters above street level.  These attractive, if small, signs can be difficult to spot at times, if they are there, that is.  They may be on one side of a junction, but not on the other.  These signs may also be shrouded by greenery, just to add some spice to life.  And the signs tend to become cream colored in time, which makes them yet more difficult to spot, especially at night and while you are driving.  Reflective street signs are not common, if indeed they exist here.  Reflective signs are used for major destinations, like towns, cities and villages, though.

OK, so seeing and finding the signs can be a problem, but at least they are generally there, and if you know the name of the street, you’ll be fine.  Well, not necessarily… Read on, if you are curious enough.

It’s all in a Surname

You may be told that your destination in Italy is Via Giovanni Battista Bertini, for example.  However, when you look it up on your street map, or attempt to arm your GPS, you may have some problems finding this street.

First you may try ‘g’ for Giovanni, then ‘b’ for Battista, and finally back to ‘b’ for Bertini.  And with a little luck, you should find the Bertini you are after, hopefully.

As a matter of interest, the street signs in my own area of Milan say:

  • Via Giovanni Battista Bertini, Via G B Bertini, and Via Giov. Batt. Bertini!

Just remember to input the city or town you are looking for into your GPS, or you might end up in Bari, when you actually wanted to be in Bergamo.  But, hey what’s a thousand miles between friends?

Sometimes you may be destined to attempt to find something simple like Via Antonio Nero.  In which case, you may try looking up Antonio first.  This will not get you very far, alas, because the important word is ‘Nero’, which is the surname.

Surnames take precedence in Italian street names.  However, if you see Via Gran Sasso or similar, neither ‘Gran for ‘Sasso’ is a surname.  The ‘Gran‘, ‘Val‘ or ‘Valle‘ forms part of the whole street name.

Just to recap. On a map:

  • Via Antonio Nero – Nero is the key word.
  • Via Gran Sasso – ‘Gran Sasso‘ are the key words.

If you see a name that is Via Nullo F, you should not worry too much what the ‘F’ stands for, but do remember to mention it, or you may end up in Via Nullo G.

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Stop reading, start speaking

Stop translating in your head and start speaking Italian for real with the only audio course that prompt you to speak.

The situation may become more interesting if you come across a Via Antonio Nero, and a Via Giovanni Nero. Watch out for this.

When coming here, always get the full length version of the street name.  Locals will often refer to a street by its surname, so to speak.

Which Via Maria?

Now, imagine you are traveling to Milan, and you have a meeting in Via Maria alla Porta.  You look up the street on your map or smart phone, and find Via Maria A. Porta and Maria alla Porta.  Oops.  Now which one do you head for?  Good question.  Get the name wrong, and you’ll end up out of your way, and late for your meeting.  To avoid this potential mishap, ask the area in which your meeting is when you fix a date for a meeting.  The reply should be something like ‘near the Duomo’ or ‘near Corso Garibaldi’, or whatever.

As a matter of interest, Via Maria alla Porta is in the Caroli area of Milan, which is near the Duomo in the center of town.  But, Via Maria A. Porta is in the Garibaldi area of town, which is not too far from the city’s main railway station.  Actually, neither Via Maria is particularly far from the other, but they are far enough away from each other to cause confusion and problems.

Moral: Get the street name, and the name of the immediate area when you are coming to Italy.

Oh My Sainted Aunt!

Italy loves saints.  They are everywhere.  Kids, streets and a few dogs are named after them.

Just to add a dash of Machiavellian confusion to life, saints may be Don, Santa, Santo or San (and some other variations on this theme).

Say you have to be in Piazza San Marco for lunch, and you don’t know where it is.  You pop ‘San Marco’ into your GPS or Google Map equipped smart phone, and it stares back at you, blankly.  Oh dear.  Try putting ‘Marco San’ into the magic little device instead, and you should find what you are looking for. ‘Piazza Marco San’; which sounds vaguely Japanese; should have the desired effect too.

Yes, that’s right, the holy saint’s first name takes precedence, usually.  Watch out when there is a Via San Marco and a Piazza San Marco, though.

Practice Makes Perfect!

Don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first time.  Italians, as I mentioned at the start of this little trip, also become confused by their very own street names and get lost.  This is possibly why meeting times are a little flexible here.

It can take time to become streetwise enough to understand how to interpret Italian street signs.  GPS systems also get themselves seriously mixed up in Italy as well!

Being able to recognize Italian surnames can help a lot.

Hope the above helps a little, but if you want to know more, just ask!

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