Honors in Rome - Winter 2007
Rome visitors never cease to be delighted and surprised by Piazza di Spagna. It owes its name to the Spanish Embassy, the first to be permanently established in Rome, in Palazzo Spagna by Antonio del Grande (1647). The square was completed with the building of the Spanish Steps from 1721-1725. The striking architecture of the area was designed by Pope Sixtus V, a renowned town planner of the time. Piazza di Spagna was at the center of the Strangers’ Quarter, the triangle made by Via del Corso, Via Frattina and Via del Babuino, where most of the foreigners lived, in particular painters and sculptors.
The Spanish Steps consist of 138 steps, 12 flights of travertine steps of varying widths, leading up to the Church of Trinità dei Monti. The Church of Trinita dei Monti, a French church is now at the top of the slope. The french badly wanted a way to connect the church to the city. There was a muddy rocky hillside between the church and the city at the time.
King Louis XIV wanted Bernini to design the connection. But Bernini was Pope Alessandro VII’s (1655-1667), the Chigi pope, architect. Alessandro didn’t want Bernini to design the fountain for Louis XIV who was very powerful.
The design paused for about a hundred years until Francesco De Sanctis and Alessandro Specchi used a design based on Bernini’s. This was after generations of discussion over how the steep slope to the church should be constructed. Some scholars equate the look of the steps to certain conventions of terraced garden stairs.
The steps aren’t on a perfect axis, but this wasn’t a priority to the architects because the steps are more about the connection and the views out from the steps than about perfect symmetry. This is a great example of the difference between Baroque and Renaissance architecture, whereas in the Renaissance everything would need to be perfectly symmetrical.
The monumental stairway was built with French diplomat Stefano Gueffier’s funds (20,000 scudi) in 1723–1725, linking the Spanish embassy, today still located in the piazza below, with the Trinità dei Monti church. Every year, in May, the steps are decorated with pink azaleas. The Spanish Steps have been restored several times, most recently in 1995. Although the most popular route to enjoy the steps are walk up, there is a lift/elevator outside of the metro station.
At the base of the piazza is the Early Baroque fountain called La Fontana della Barcaccia (”Fountain of the Old Boat”), often credited to Pietro Bernini, father of a more famous son, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who is sometimes said to have collaborated on the decoration.
According to an unlikely legend, Pope Urban VIII had the fountain installed after he had been impressed by a boat brought here by a flood of the Tiber river.
Because the pressure from aqueduct that feeds the fountain is extremely low there are no spurts of water or large water displays. Instead, Bernini constructed a leaking boat – which lies half submerged in a shallow pool.
The bees and suns that decorate the Fontana della Barcaccia are taken from the family coat of arms of Pope Urban VIII Barberini, who commissioned the fountain.
The Column of the Immacolota
The column was erected in 1854 in honour of the “Immaculate Conception of the Virgin” promulgated by Pius IX. On the top of the column stands the bronze statue of Mary; beneath are Moses, David, Isaiah and Ezechiel.
Via Condotti faces the Spanish Steps and is a shopper’s paradise. It is also a wonderful vantage point for viewing the Steps and Church of Trinita’ dei Monti. From Via Condotti you can see all the way to St. Peters, the street is set up on a perfect axis with the Spanish Steps.
Church of Trinita dei Monti
At the end of the steps you find the Church of Trinità dei Monti, built by architects Carlo Maderno and Domenico Fontana. In front is the Sallustian Obelisk, taken from the ancient Sallustian Gardens. Interestingly enough, Hadrian moved this obelisk to Rome from the Sallustian Gardens.