The most popular figures in the street names of European capitals
We have compiled a ranking of the 100 men and women that appear most frequently in the toponyms of 15 European capitals. There’s a lot of saints and white men from the 19th and 20th century, but there’s also quite a few actresses and female Nobel laureates.
Who’s the person to whom the most streets in European capitals are dedicated? To find out, we analysed some 95,000 streets in 15 cities as part of Mapping Diversity, a project led by OBC Transeuropa in cooperation with eight other partners of the European Data Journalism Network.
The winners are Saint Paul and Ludwig van Beethoven, coming with at least one street in 13 and 12 different cities respectively. But the Virgin Mary is the figure to whom the most streets are dedicated: although streets or squares named after her are found in fewer cities than Saint Paul and Beethoven – 11 – as many as 69 different streets are dedicated to her or one of her many epithets.
It is a very special case: there are just six women in the ranking of the 100 most popular people in the street names of European capitals. In addition to Mary of Nazareth, three other Christian saints (Anne, Barbara and Mary Magdalene) make the list, along with Greco-Roman goddess Artemis/Diana and French-Polish scientist Marie Curie, the only recent-days and secular female figure. Some of these women are also partly celebrated for their personal ties with famous men such as Jesus of Nazareth and Pierre Curie. In fact, the latter’s name almost always appears alongside his wife’s in the streets of Europe.
This analysis presented in this article covers the following 15 capital cities: Athens, Berlin, Brussels, Bucharest, Budapest, Chisinau, Copenhagen, Kiev, Paris, Prague, Rome, Stockholm, Warsaw, Vienna and Zagreb. The ranking of the most popular figures is based on the number of cities in which each figure appears in the name of one or more streets, and secondarily on the number of streets dedicated to her or him.
Several other Christian saints can be found at the top of the list, where a number of secular figures, all men, also make their way in. Classical composers stand out, such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but also the more unexpected Jean Sibelius, a Finn who lived at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Many scientists also feature: French chemist Louis Pasteur, British naturalist Charles Darwin, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus and US inventor Thomas Edison. Completing the top 15 are the Russian writer Lev Tolstoy – second only to Beethoven among non-religious figures – and Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen.
Saints and Nobel Prizes
Among the fifteen most popular female figures, only seven are non-religious personalities. The first three are Marie Curie, Bertha von Suttner and Selma Lagerlöf, all winners of the first Nobel Prize awarded to a woman in their respective categories: physics, peace, and literature. Marie Curie was awarded the prize in physics together with her husband and Antoine Henri Becquerel in 1903, then went on to win the chemistry prize – this time by herself – in 1911. In 1889, Austro-Bohemian writer Bertha von Suttner published the bestseller “Down with Arms!”, which along with her commitment to pacifism inspired her friend Alfred Nobel to dedicate a prize to the promotion of peace. The Nobel Prize committee, on the other hand, failed to acknowledge the work of Austrian-Swedish physicist Lise Meitner: despite her pivotal role in the discovery of nuclear fission, the prize was only awarded to her male colleague Otto Hahn.
Men creators, women executors
Looking at the fields of activity of the 100 most popular women and 100 most popular men in the street names of European capitals, some gender-based differences stand out. For instance, 12 women are commemorated almost exclusively by virtue of their belonging to a noble lineage or because they were consorts of a ruler. Of course, aristocratic figures also exist in the male top 100, but they were able to play a more prominent role in political or cultural life.
There are also clear disparities in the fields of science and art. Aside from the absence of female painters, there is a striking difference in terms of roles: men from the world of music were all composers, while women were almost exclusively singers. Similarly, almost all women involved in cinema or theatre were actresses, while only one was a director. The latter was Belgian Chantal Akerman, whose film “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Brussels” was named ‘best film of all time’ by the British film magazine Sight and Sound last year.
After all, the names of streets and squares reflect the history and power relations of our societies. Power has often been and remains in the hands of men – not only in politics but also in science and the arts – while women have long been relegated to subordinate roles. The few who have managed to make their way have struggled to enjoy the public recognition that has been more easily awarded to men, even in the toponymy or monuments of our cities.
In general, many figures in the top 100 list for women were born in recent years, a sign that the emancipation of recent decades has led to more of them seeing their accomplishments recognised. While Pope John Paul II was the only man in the top-100 who died after 2000, five women did: Maria José of Belgium (consort of the last king of Italy), Anna Politkovskaya, Miriam Makeba, Chantal Akerman, and Simone Veil. None of them, however, currently have streets named after them in more than three capital cities.
Who's the youngest?
The ‘youngest’ person to appear in the overall ranking is Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin, born in 1934 and celebrated in six capital cities. The most recently deceased person, however, is Pope John Paul II: he died in 2005, but his name already appears in one third of the capital cities taken into account.
Under- and over-represented countries
Speaking of power and privilege, the ranking of the most popular people in the street names of European capitals is populated almost exclusively by white people. Excluding Christian religious figures from the Middle Eastern or North African regions of Anatolia, Palestine and Egypt, there are only five people of non-European descent on the list. Four of them, however, have more or less distant European roots, i.e. George Washington, Thomas Edison, John F. Kennedy, and Simón Bolívar, while the only figure actually having a different background is Mohandas Gandhi.
As for those born in Europe, 41 of the 100 most popular figures were born in places that today belong to the three most populous states of the European Union: Italy (15), France (14), and Germany (12). Five people for each country were born within today’s borders of Sweden, Russia, and Poland.
Compared to their weight in European history and their nowadays population, countries such as the United Kingdom and Spain seem under-represented in the list – but they are perhaps penalised by the selection of cities covered by the analysis. On the other hand, the number of people of Nordic origin catches the eye: including the five Swedes, there are eight of them and many are high in the list.
More than 23,000 figures have at least one street or square named after them in at least one of the 15 capital cities examined. Almost 95 percent of them are present in only one city however: just few people have acquired celebrity in two or more different countries, that is 1205 figures in total.
Where are Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, and Rosa Parks? In our ranking, a number of internationally celebrated figures are missing or feature in very low positions. This is the case for instance for some of the figures featuring in the top-10 list of Pantheon.world’s ‘list of memorable people’, such as Isaac Newton, Leonardo Da Vinci, Aristotle, or Alexander the Great.
In our ranking, Jesus of Nazareth ranks very low (at 96th position, with 6 roads in only 5 capital cities), in contrast to the conspicuous number of Christian saints celebrated in multiple cities, including his mother and grand-mother. According to Fernando Bermejo-Rubio, scholar and author of The Invention of Jesus of Nazareth, this disproportion is due to the fact that “human devotion usually turns not to the highest divinity but to closer figures such as saints and the Virgin Mary, considered as more accessible and mediators between God and human beings”.
Moreover, adds Bermejo-Rubio, “the multiplicity of these mediating figures implies that they might have a more local ‘presence’ and significance, as proven by the many saints or virgins linked to different countries, regions, cities or villages. There are also many accounts of the Virgin Mary’s apparitions, whereas the same is not true of Jesus.”
You can access the dataset with the methodology and full details on the overall top-100 list, the females’ top-100 and the males’ top-100 here .