English: Rialto Bridge, Venice, Italy Italiano...

Today’s choice is rarer than rare – and yet, doesn’t this name sound like it could be more common?

Thanks to Jasmin for suggesting Rialta as our Baby Name of the Day.

Just how rare is Rialta?

Rialta has never been given to more than five children born in a single year.  There have been a handful of women named Rialta over the past century or so.  She appears in North Carolina, Michigan, Wyoming, New Jersey, Missouri and beyond in US Census records.

But the first reference to Rialta wasn’t as a given name.  It was an alias for a spy.

Or make that a co-conspirator in a plot to put Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne, in place of Queen Elizabeth.  It’s a fascinating chapter in history, packed with intrigue.  I can’t tell just how engaged Lady Penelope Rich was in the plotting, but her brother was executed for treason when the plan fell apart, while her role was overlooked.  The small group of organizers all used aliases in their correspondence.  Courtier Thomas Fowler was Fidelis, the Earl of Essex was Ernestus, and Lady Rich?  She was Rialta.

Let’s take a closer look at Penelope.  It is generally believed that she inspired Sir Philip Sidney to write the Astrophel and Stella poems.  And despite being married with seven children, Penelope conducted a scandalous affair with the future Earl of Devonshire – and eventually married him, despite lacking church approval.

There’s no clue as to how she acquired her alias, but there’s a virtuous ring to all of the names.  In some ways, that deepens the mystery, because neither of the possible origins for the name quite fit:

  • The Italian word rivo seems to mean channel, or maybe brook.  While fiume is the usual word for river, I’ve seen riva, too.  Combine alto, deep, and Rialta is a deep brook.  This puts her in the company of up-and-comers River and Rio.
  • But alta can also mean high, as in Venice’s Rivoaltus, the part of the city where the market has been located since 1097.  The Rialto Bridge spans the Grand Canal – that’s the bridge in the picture above.  The Merchant of Venice references the market by name.

So Rialta is undeniably a place name, one rich with the mystery and charm of Venice, and possibly a nature name, plus the association with rise makes her just the tiniest bit of a virtuous choice, too.

Places in the US have borrowed the name – a city in California, for one.  And once upon a time, New York City’s original theater district was known as the Rialto, concentrated around Union Square.

Thanks to the theatrical association, plenty of theaters have been called The Rialto.

None of this makes Rialta a super-likely candidate for use as a personal name – but names have been borrowed from less likely sources.  Plenty of girls’ names share similar sounds: Rhea, Rihanna, Regina, Reina, Rita.

All together, there’s something imprecise about Rialta’s story, but the connection the Venetian place alone could be enough to make a compelling case for considering this lovely rarity.

What do you think of Rialta?  Is this one wearable in 2014?

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. Oh wow, you did a post on Rialta 🙂 I didn’t know that little tidbit about the conspirators but it’s fascinating. I can’t remember where I came across this name but I’ve had it for a few years, and I’ve always been curious as to its’ background. It could be Italian, from Rialto, but I’ve also come across it as as Irish name as well (although I don’t know how reliable those sources are). It either means little star or it’s a word meaning regular, habitual. Here are the links to the sites I found.



    In either case, I’ve always thought it fascinating how one name can be found in different cultures & languages with different meanings 🙂

  2. This is so, so interesting that Penelope Rich/Devereux’s code name was “Rialta”– it makes sense b/c the Rialto is “the exchange” and she was a kind of correspondence facilitator, I think, in that plot. Elizabeth’s code name was “Pallas” in the letters! I’m not clear, though, if this plot was actually after Mary was already executed; I think these guys– Essex, Fowler, Penelope Rich– were wanting to install James VI, maybe?? Hard to tell.. In any case, Penelope “Rialta” and her involvement in court intrigue is fascinating; thanks for this great post!

  3. This name SEEMS Italian to me. I can practically smell marinara when reading it!
    And with Rhea or Alta as nicknames, it feels very Portland/hipster, too.

    I’m not sure where to request this, but would you consider the Dalarna as a NOTD?