Venice’s Canals and Calli: Unraveling the City’s Toponymy

“Latin, what does Latin have to do with anything, let’s not joke…” I can already hear the surprise and disappointment for what I’m about to make you read, but the truth, even when it’s “uncomfortable,” still needs to be revealed.

Venice is a labyrinth of infinite connections, between bridges, alleys, small squares, and much more, but do we know the meaning behind each of the typical names of Venetian toponymy?

Here’s a brief guide to help you “orient” yourself among these concepts:

CALLE: Here we are with Latin, this word, also declined as “calle larga,” “colletta,” or “callesella,” derives from Latin “Callis,” which means: path, alley.

SALISADA: Paved street; a term present in the toponymy of Venice to designate the first streets with pavement.

CAMPO: The main characteristic is the wide size, and they were often not paved and, therefore, used to be full of crops.

LISTA: These are the streets that, with special white stones, marked the end of the diplomatic immunity zone of the diplomats who lived in the city. The famous Lista di Spagna, which takes us from the Venice railway station to Campo San Geremia, is an example.

RIO TERÀ: Indicates a pedestrian street built over a buried canal;

PISCINA: Places where high waters formed real pools of water in which, once the tide had receded, fish remained trapped, ready to be caught.

RAMO: These are small branches of alleys, often ending in a dead-end.

In addition, the names of the alleys indicate the professions carried out there, such as “calle del forno” (baker’s alley), “calle del tagiapiera” (stone cutter’s alley), “calle dei fabbri” (blacksmith’s alley), “calle dei botteri” (barrel makers’ alley), “calle del spezier” (spice maker’s alley), “calle delle rasse” (rope maker’s alley). In other cases, the names refer to altars or sacred corners, such as “calle del Cristo” (Christ’s alley), “calle della Madonna” (Madonna’s alley), “Calle del Paradiso” (Paradise’s alley). Alternatively, alleys were named after noble families who frequented or lived there, such as “calle Dolfin,” “calle Benzoni,” “calle Da Ponte,” “calle Vallaresso,” “calle Bressana.” Finally, there are alleys whose names are derived from significant events or specific functions, such as murders, as in the case of “Calle degli assassini” (Assassins’ alley).

The width of the alleys ranges from 53cm to 8m. If you want to experience a thrill, try passing through Calle Varisco, which with its 53cm imposes an alternating one-way traffic.

Near the Arsenale, in the vicinity of Calle Venier, there is one of the narrowest passageways in Venice, and as you can see from the image, I can barely fit through it.

But why is Venice so rich in narrow passageways? It’s simple! Venetians were required to leave a passage in order to obtain building permits, which forced them to be clever in leaving as little space as possible for people to pass through in the spaces granted.

Did you know that?

Thank you for reading the article, and I’ll see you soon on these pages.


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