What’s in a Name? Origins of Italian Neighborhoods

Before sharing my favorite neighborhoods, here are a few Italian words worth learning:

  • Quartieri – Most generic word for “neighborhood;” derived from the division of all Italian cities into quarters.
  • Terzieri – Primarily refers to towns divided into thirds; primarily used in the region of Umbria but also in a handful of neighboring regions’ towns.
  • Sestieri – Chiefly used  to reference Venice’s  6 neighborhoods + close islands like Giudecca and the Lido.
  • Contrade – Only used in Siena (for its 17 districts).
  • Rioni – Generally refers to Rome’s 22 districts.

Note 1: these are all given in the plural as they are frequently used in that context.

Note 2: these words historically referred to administrative divisions. Now they are used to identify the city and town limits.

Now, that you have mastered these terms, let’s talk names. The name of a neighborhood references more than its location, but also contains the vital cultural information of a area. It can also describe who has held significant power and for how long. Many zones took the name of the largest church (or biggest power source) within their borders. Others took their name from a dominant Medieval artisans’ guild or an Ancient Roman public square. In the event that a city was divided into administrative zones, it could simply have been named for its assigned number. In any case, the name can disclose a historically significant person, place, or event.

The two neighborhood names I love most are Trastevere in Rome and Oltrarno in Florence as they correlate perfectly. Having lived in both cities, specifically in the neighborhood of the Oltrarno (subdivision of San Frediano), I know and love the names and culture of both these areas. The names breakdown as follows:

  • Trastevere – From the latin “Trans” meaning across and Tevere (Italian for Tiber River)
  • Otrarno – Oltre (Italian for beyond) and Arno (Florence’s river)

Neither name speaks to the activities in these areas: Oltrarno houses a working-class, artisan population that has maintained its crafts for centuries on non-descript (intentionally so) streets that hide a colorful people; Trastevere contains winding narrow Medieval streets in which to lose oneself or discover a boisterous corner of the world in which to drink a glass of local wine. I associate both districts with lovely evenings spent among a healthy mix of Italians, tourists, and ex-pats from all over the world. These places are all the more memorable to me for the historic references of their names.



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