The names of our streets are not neutral elements of our urban spaces. They are more than mere orientation for our travels. They have a strong symbolic power, which is the result of decision-making processes linked to the legitimisation of the past, and the construction of collective historical memory. It is no coincidence that – from the French Revolution to the Black Lives Matter protests – political demands have been accompanied by a push to rename streets, squares and other urban spaces. In the onomastics of contemporary Italy’s cities, who is visible and who remains invisible? We answer this question from the perspective of gender.
In Italy’s 21 regional and provincial capitals, there are 24,572 streets named after individual people. 1626 of these streets, 6.6 percent, are named after women. If we exclude saints, the number of streets named after women drops to 959.
Thus, 93 percent of all people to whom a street is dedicated in the 21 capitals are men. What does such a gap tell us about the society that produced it? In the words of Maria Pia Ercolini , president of Toponomastica femminile (“Female Toponymy”), toponymy reflects the value that a community assigns to its members.
According to a study by Daniel Oto-Peralías and Dolores Gutiérrez Mora on gender and toponymy in Spanish cities, municipalities with a higher percentage of streets named after female figures also tend to have better records when it comes to female emancipation. The preponderance of male figures in our street names is not only evidence of a historical and cultural fact, but is also a subliminal and constant force that helps perpetuate the marginalisation of women’s contributions in history, art, culture and science.
While we clearly won’t find ourselves living in a more equal society by simply changing our street names, a more equal society must call into question the stereotypes and collective imaginaries perpetuated by 93 percent of streets being named after men.
Comparing cities, from Bolzano to Aosta
The graph below shows the percentage of streets named after female figures out of the total number of streets dedicated to a person in each city. More red means more female representation. Among the cities analysed, Bolzano is the one with the highest percentage of female representation, albeit with just 13 percent of streets named after women. At the other end is Aosta, where there are only two streets dedicated to female figures out of a total of 73 dedicated to individual people, the Red Cross nurse Ermelinda Ducler and the anti-fascist partisan Aurora Vuillerminaz.
The proportion between men and women in toponymy
The proportion between men and non-religious women in toponymy
Ranking the most popular people
Mary, mother of Jesus, is the most common name, appearing more than one hundred times in the streets of the 21 cities in question. We find streets dedicated to Mary – with 65 variations, from Madonna del Mare to Virgo Potens – in all major towns except Aosta. Together with Mary, all the other female names that appear among the most common are saints, with the exception of Queen Margherita of Savoy. Grazia Deledda is the first secular, historically existent, non-aristocratic female figure to appear in the ranking, at around 150th position, with 10 streets named after her.
By clicking on the image below, you can navigate the interface and see the names appearing in the regional and provincial capitals, sorted according to the number of cities in which they appear – the most popular names are therefore at the top – and distinguished according to gender (women are indicated in red). Names can be filtered according to profession, as well as by city. It was not possible to find the profession of a small number of the listed figures.