Madrid is one of the most visited cities in Spain. It welcomes hundreds of thousands of travellers every year, and even its inhabitants explore it once in a while to discover all the secrets the lively capital of Spain hides in every corner. This is why it is so satisfying to know the fact that, despite all our efforts for unveiling its secrets, Madrid can still surprise us with new, exciting treats, only available for those who look closely enough. These are some of the stories behind the street name plates of Madrid.
Madrid has not always been the busy capital we know today. In fact, it had to go through a long process of growth and transformation to become the city we enjoy when we visit Madrid now. For instance, its streets remained nameless until 1833, when the city council decided to sort this problem out. They had to name Madrid’s streets, or at least number them. To that end, they placed white plaques with black inscriptions on the city’s walls. Some of the oldest ones have been preserved to this day.
However, the street name plates in Madrid most people think about are not that old. In fact, they have not been around for more than thirty years, but their beauty and the craftsman’s artistry make us forget about the city of Madrid and travel to the old villa it used to be. These beautiful ceramic name plates decorate some of the streets in Madrid’s city centre, and one can know for sure the past of Madrid still inhabits its walls and buildings by looking up and admiring these works of art.
The artist behind the name plates is Alfredo Ruíz de Luna, a Spanish ceramist who came from a long line of ceramics masters. He was born in Talavera de la Reina, in the province of Toledo, and he brought with him the tradition to tell stories through ceramics. One of the main aspects that made him special was the fact that he knew how to communicate in a way that those who could not read were also able to understand his messages.
And that is exactly the core of Ruíz de Luna’s nameplates: telling stories about Madrid that could be accessed by anyone, mostly through illustrations. These little squares are 60 centimetres long, and they are made of nine ceramic tiles. They portray different characters, tales and professions that gave name to their streets, planting the seeds of the diverse city we know today.
Some of the streets in Madrid perfectly illustrate this. For instance, there is the street of La Ribera de Curtidores (“The Tanners’ Riverside”), where we can read the story of the leather tanners that worked in today’s Rastro, a popular open air flea market. The name of this area comes from the Spanish word rastro, meaning “trace”: the blood trace left by the tanners on the streets. Lavapiés began to be called that because travellers had to clean their shoes before stepping into the inns in the neighbourhood, as we can read on the nameplate.
Other street names, and thus other ceramic plates, tell us about people from the past. This is the case of the street of Manuela Malasaña, which honours a tailor that lost her life defending Madrid from the French. This happened on the 2nd May 1808, with the uprising that took place in Spain’s capital and led to the Peninsular War. This plaque pictures the young woman, already dead, in the midst of battle.
There are different chapters of Madrid’s history, and even legends, wandering through the names of the streets. Legend has it that the peculiar street of Mira el Río Alta (“Watch the River High”) was called this way because its inhabitants used to climb up a rock to watch the houses and animals being dragged by the river during the tragic 15th century floods. The name of the street of Buenavista comes from the story of a knight of the family of the Castellano, who saved a maiden called Buenavista from a Muslim man who was trying to kidnap her. The house of this family used to be right there.
The street of the Abada, which is an old Spanish word for rhinoceros, reminds us of how one of those animals disrupted the peace of the whole neighbourhood for a few days. The street of La Pasa has its own saying, which is a wordplay: “quien no pasa por la calle de la Pasa, no se casa” (“if you don’t walk by the street of La Pasa, you won’t get married”). It also has a tradition we can learn about on the plaque. We could go on and on discussing all these artworks that can be found all over Madrid, and tell us countless fascinating stories regarding the past of the city.