In June of this year, over 1,000 people were detained and 85 charged in one of the biggest cases of insurance fraud in Italian history. The scam involved simulating car accidents through falsified documents in order to file fraudulent insurance claims. Relying on a hefty system of bribes to cover the culprits tracks, the arrangement was extremely lucrative and might well have continued undeterred but for a fatal flaw. The location chosen for many of the accidents had a name so unusual as to attract the attention of investigators: Via di Affogalasino, which roughly translates to Drown the Donkey Street.
Some 3,000 eventful years have littered Rome with curious street names. And though at a distance of centuries they can often seem puzzling, they a few of the remnants of a city very different from the one we know today before successive generations transformed mediaeval slums into the trendiest quarters of the city and its once pastoral outskirts into the modern day borgate (suburbs). Even a cursory examination of Romes toponomy (the nomenclature of places) offers great insight into the sort of place Rome used to be and the kind of people who used to live here.
That makes Romes senior highbrow, assessore of cultural policy Gianni Borgna, a toponomist by necessity. Borgna explains that the origins of some of Romes more characteristic street names are still disputed and that research often offers one or more explanations. Whereas some of the more fanciful designations take after the taverne and osterie once located there, others are open to interpretation. Via dei Serpenti (Snake Street), for instance, was known as Corso di Monti until sometime during the 17th century when the name changed. Some suggest the new name referred to a snakes nest discovered nearby; others think it a tribute to a wall altar featuring the Holy Virgin staving off a serpent.
Other street names can sound misleading to the modern ear. Vicolo della Frusta (Whip Alley) is one such example, conjuring images of public flayings. Borgna explains that its simply another case of a street taking the name of the local taverna, in this case one frequented by wagon drivers. Via della Paglia (Hay Street) isnt far off. Via Leccosa begs some disambiguation as well. By itself, the word leccosa would seem to have something to do with the verb leccare, to lick, but this isnt the case at all. Leccosa is Roman dialect for muddy and considering the rivers proximity in an era before embankments, it isnt hard to imagine why. Here again, Borgna proposes an alternative explanation. Leccosa may be a corruption of the word Licosia, or rather, Nicosia, a bishopric appertaining to Niccol Orsini who owned property along Via di Ripetta. The proximity to Piazza Nicosia itself seems to support this theory. That is, if you can follow the etymological dot-to-dot.
Outside the centre, toponomastic peculiarities are less common, but no less compelling. Via Cernaia (careful with the accent or it comes out a fish), a street name common throughout Italy, recalls a river in present-day Ukraine where the army of the Savoias, the reigning sovereigns of Piedmont, Savoy and Sardinia, won a victory in 1855 during the Crimean War. The proper pronunciation, however, isnt Cernaia but Ciorna (op?), which bears an unfortunate likeness to a certain crudity in Piedmontese dialect (ask around the next time youre in Turin). Whether or not the transliteration was changed intentionally in the interests of taste is open to discussion, though not, as you might imagine, with the distinguished Borgna.
Toponomy outside the city walls can be downright sinister. Augusto Sindicis XIV leggende della campagna romana (1904), a collection of poems in Roman dialect and a veritable encyclopaedia of the provinces dark side, is full of such examples: Pantano dellIntossicata (drunk lady marsh), Malincontro (nasty encounter), Cavallo Morto (dead horse), Coccia di Morto (dead mans head). Pasolini readers will recognise more than just a few. A total of three Via di Femmina Morta (Dead Womans Street) can be found in the province of Rome, named after what used to be a stretch of swampland near Nettuno. In a poem from Sindicis anthology entitled Femmina Morta, a tavern owner recounts how the area came to be named after an ill-fated peasant woman who fled her husbands jealousy and abuse only to die of malnourishment in the swamps near Terracina.
Returning to Via di Affogalasino, Borgna again offers two possible explanations. Due to a depression in the land which the locals call the marana, the area was given to frequent flooding up until the 1960s when the city installed proper drainage grates. Its rather unimaginatively thought that local farmers might have lost donkeys to the flooding. A much more provocative explanation points to Roman-era graffiti discovered on the Palatine, hypothesised to depict Christians worshipping a donkey-headed god. In the early days of Christianity, misgivings about the faith were often founded on gross distortions of real Christian beliefs. This led to the perception of Christians as cannibals due to a misconstruction of transubstantiation. It is also thought that there may have been a notion of donkey worship deriving from the Palm Sunday celebration of Jesus triumphal arrival in Jerusalem on an ass. A highly controversial explanation for how Via di Affogalasino got its name suggests that, given the ancient connection between Christians and donkeys, this may have been a site where Christians were brought to be drowned. Borgna is emphatic that this is by far the less likely explanation, but its clear which makes for the better story.
The trivia grinds to a halt around 1744 when the Church reigned in the haphazard mediaeval system of naming new streets and rationalised the process, changing many names already in place. This task subsequently fell under the jurisdiction of the city, which imposed a strict, methodical system to the assignment of new street names requiring approval of a board headed by the mayor in addition to consent from the prefect of Rome acting on behalf of the minister of the interior.
Despite church and state intervention, however, its important to note that, unlike the great palaces and basilicas, the local toponomy remains largely the legacy of the common man, upon whose toils, strife and culture Rome still stands today.