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Where the streets have four names

A no-longer legible street sign from the French period, now protected under Perspex. Photos: Darrin Zammit Lupi

A no-longer legible street sign from the French period, now protected under Perspex. Photos: Darrin Zammit Lupi

It is often said that Valletta is a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen but it appears that every gentleman who set foot on it wanted to leave his mark… by changing street names.

A recent issue of the international journal Rivista Italiana di Onomastica reported that, over four centuries, the city of Valletta was home to four flags, four languages and four changes in street names.

Melita Street, for example, was Britannia Street under the British, Rue de la Félicité Publique under the French, was known by the Maltese as Strada del Gran Falconiere but had been originally baptised by the Knights as Strada Pia, after Pope Pius V, who was a generous benefactor of the city.

Upon completion, Valletta streets were originally given Italian names but, when Napoleon invaded the island and Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch capitulated, these were substituted by French names. Two years later, the British came to the aid of the Maltese and took over the island. After 1927, as a language question statement, street names were changed to English. They are now in Maltese.

The article in the international journal was entitled ‘The street names of the city of Valletta’ and was penned by Italian language professor Joseph Brincat together with graduate Josianne Block and traces the history behind the street names.

They highlight the fact that streets in Valletta are popularly referred to as ‘strade’ – Strada Rjali, Strada San Paolo, Strada Sant’Ursula.

This was inherited from the knights, thanks to Francesco Laparelli, Michaelangelo’s assistant on St Peter’s dome, who was sent to Malta by Pope Pius V to draw up plans for the Valletta fortifications.

“Laparelli always wrote about the ‘strade’ of Valletta and never ‘vie’,” the authors say. The term stuck and remained four language changes down, to this very day. People from Valletta would never say Old Bakery Street but would refer to it as Strada Forni; they would say Strada Mezzodì rather than South Street.­­

East Street and St Paul Street were both renamed Rue de la Constitution by the French.East Street and St Paul Street were both renamed Rue de la Constitution by the French.

In the 16th century, streets were mostly named after saints for whom the religious order had a special devotion, such as San Marco, San Simone, San Pietro, San Federico, San Pantaleone, or else after key locations in the city such as Strada del Palazzo, Di Monte, della Fontana, Della Fortuna, Di Sant’Elmo.

Republic Street started off as Strada San Giorgio but, over the centuries, its name changed according to political needs.

It was Rue Nationale under the French. When the British first came to the islands, they renamed it Strada Reale – originally they were not too bothered about scrapping Italian. However, a century on, when it became a sensitive political issue, they changed the name to Kingsway. Although, post-1974, it became Republic Street, most Maltese still refer to it as Strada Rjali.

St George’s Square, in front of the Grand Master’s palace, originally was Piazza San Giorgio but the name went full circle really. Under the French it was called Place de la Liberté and under the British it was Palace Square. But the Maltese people know it informally as the Main Guard, with reference to the neo-classical building in front of the palace where parades to inspect the guards took place.

Fresh from the revolution, the streets named after saints were swiftly erased to make way for civil names typical of the revolution ideology

Strada Stretta has kept its name till today. Over the centuries, all those who ruled over the island seemed to agree there was no better name for the straight and narrow street. For a little while, it was known as Strada Vanella but this was short-lived and its more straightforward name survived.

With the arrival of the French, fresh from the revolution, the streets named after saints were swiftly erased to make way for civil names typical of the revolution ideology: Rue Nationale, Rue de la Constitution, Rue des Defenseurs de la Patrie, Rue de la Fraternité, Rue des Patriotes, Rue le L’Egalité, Rue des Libérateurs, Rue des Droits de l’Homme, Rue de Marchands, Rue des Fours and Rue de la Monnaie.

Strada Pia became Rue de la Félicité Publique, literally, street of public happiness.

Strada San Federico became Strada Brutus, after the (back) stabber of the Roman emperor, Julius Caesar.

However, French street names did not have time to gain popularity seeing as the Maltese pushed the French out after two years and reinstated the Italian names.

During the British period, thanks to the improved relations between the Catholic Church and the governor, the saints were welcomed back to the city – in bilingual versions: Strada San Paolo was also St Paul Street.

The British kept most of the street names but added the adjective ‘old’ here and there. For example, Rue de Fours, became Strada Forni in Italian but Old Bakery Street in English. Rue de la Monnaie became Old Mint Street; Strada Tesoreria was named Old Treasury Street.

The names were changed to Maltese after independence in 1964. Most were a mere translation from English. Some, however, did not survive. Britannia Street became Melita Street.

Duke of York Avenue – the road from Floriana leading to Castille – was renamed Girolamo Cassar, the man behind the building of the city.

In the city of gentlemen, patience is a virtue: Cassar had to wait four centuries before his contribution was recognised.

Changing names over the centuries

Original Informal French British British post-1926 Maltese 
Porta di San Giorgio - Porte Nationale Porta Reale Kingsgate Putirjal/Bieb il-Belt 
Piazza San Giorgio Piazza dei Cavallieri Place de la Liberté - Palace Square Pjazza San Ġorġ 
Piazza dei Cavallieri Piazza della Città Place de l’Egalité Piazza Regina Victoria Square Pjazza Reġina / Pjazza Repubblika
Strada San Giorgio  Strada delle Corse Rue Nationale Strada Reale Kingsway  Triq ir-Repubblika
Strada San Giacomo Strada di Castiglia Rue de Marchands Strada Mercanti Merchants Street Triq il-Merkanti 
Strada San Luigi Strada Sant’Aloisio Rue de la Constitution Strada Levante East Street Triq Lvant 
Strada San Paolo - Rue de la Constitution Strada San Paolo St Paul Street Triq San Pawl 
Strada San Pietro Strada della Chiesa di San Rocco Rue de la Barraque  Strada St Ursula St Ursula Street Triq Sant’Ursula
Strada San Giovanni Battista - Rue des Fours Strada Forni Old Bakery Street Triq l-Ifran
Strada San Sebastiano Strada Toro Rue de la Monnaie Strada Zecca Old Mint Street Triq Żekka
Strada Stretta Strada Vanella Rue Etroite Strada Stretta Strait Street Triq id-Dejqa
Strada Pia Strada del Gran Falconiere Rue de la Félicité Publique Strada Britannica Britannia Street Triq Melita
Strada di Monte Strada dei Carcerati Rue de Peuple Strada San Giovanni St John Street Triq San Ġwann / In-Niżla tal-Ganċ
Strada del Popolo Strada di Aragona / Strada dei Greci Rue des Libérateurs Strada Vescovo Archbishop Street Triq l-Arċisqof
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