Piazza di Spagna. A French islet with a Spanish name in Rome
Rome. The city of squares
If there is a city that can be called the city of squares, this is Rome. Squares are so integral to its image that without them the former capital of the ancient world would not be what we know.
And not by accident. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Rome, from the largest city in the world with huge monumental complexes all over its surface, was transformed into a medieval city that looked more like a large cluster of villages, since within the ancient walls where once 1,5 million people lived, there were no more than ten thousand in the worst times. Among its poor and poorly built districts, there were vast uninhabited areas where the brilliant works of the emperors rose once.
Rome resumes its imperial aspect
In the Renaissance, however, Rome became once again a major cultural centre, thanks to Pope Julius II, who called here the artists who remained unsupported after Florence ’s capture by the French in 1494 and the fall of the Medici.
From then on, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, Rome has begun to take rapidly the form we know today. The main ingredient being the squares.
In order to connect the scattered districts between them and fill again the empty space among them, these urban ensembles were built, with monumental palaces and magnificent churches around them.
And in the middle, they put the columns of ancient Rome that were still standing, between heaps of soil. Columns made by emperors or brought from Egypt. Only now, instead of emperors, statues of saints were placed on their top.
Below or around the columns, the greatest sculptors of the time made the famous fontane, the countless fountains that remind of ancient Rome of the many aqueducts, which was also full of them.
And as the terrain is uneven (let’s not forget that Rome is built on seven hills), these ensembles are often placed on different levels, connected to each other by monumental stairs.
Thus, the so picturesque and so characteristic image of today’s Rome emerged: an endless series of outdoor theatre scenes where the daily life of the Italian capital unfolds like a theatrical performance in a set of unique richness of forms and colours.
So let’s wander in this wonderful outdoor scenery. From Piazza del Popolo (http://culturehikes.com/en/rome-squares-piazza-del-popolo/), following Via del Babuino, we get to the famous Piazza di Spagna.
Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps)
Via del Babuino was named after a grotesque sculpture of Silenus, which the people called “the baboon”.
Piazza di Spagna was created (thanks to French loans granted in 1721-1725) to link the Spanish embassy of the French Bourbon dynasty who reigned (and reign) in that country (from which it was named) to the French church of Trinità dei Monti (Holy Trinity of the Mountains).
After a contest in 1717, the stairs were designed by the little-known Francesco de Sanctis. There were generations of heated debates about how the steep slope toward the church on the hillside of Pincio hill had to be urbanised.
The Roman-educated Cardinal Mazarin, the prime minister of France, took a personal interest in the project that had been stipulated in Étienne Gueffier’s will and entrusted it to his agent in Rome, whose plan included an equestrian monument of Louis XIV, an ambitious intrusion that created a furore in papal Rome.
Mazarin died in 1661, Pope Alexander Z in 1667, and Gueffier’s will was successfully contested by a nephew who claimed half. Thus, the project remained dormant until Pope Clement XI renewed interest in it.
The completion of the ‘Spanish Steps’
The imposing 135-step staircase was inaugurated by Pope Benedict XIII during the 1725 Jubilee. The Bourbon fleur-de-lys and the former Pope’s Innocent XIII eagle and crown are carefully balanced in the sculptural details.
Francesco De Sanctis designed a great staircase decorated with many garden-terraces, splendidly adorned with flowers in spring and summer. The sumptuous, aristocratic staircase, at the summit of a straight sequence of streets leading down to the Tiber, was designed so that the scenic effects increase more and more while approaching to it. The creation of long, deep perspectives culminating in monumental wings or backdrops was typical of the great baroque architecture.
In the middle of the square is the famous Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Ugly Boat), dating from the beginning of the Baroque era, carved by Pietro Bernini and his son, the more famous Gian Lorenzo Bernini. According to a 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
On the right-hand corner of the staircase is the house of English poet John Keats, who lived there until his death in 1821. Today it has been converted into a museum dedicated to him and his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, displaying memorabilia of the English Romantic generation.
Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps). The French Church of Trinità dei Monti (Holy Trinity of the Mountains)
Piazza di Spagna. Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Ugly Boat)
The street on the axis of Piazza di Spagna is Via dei Condotti. Following it, we meet Via del Corso, one of Rome’s most central streets. Following it to the left, we arrive at Piazza Colonna.
Piazza Colonna was named after the marble column of emperor Marcus Aurelius, which has been standing here since 193 AD. The bronze statue of Saint Paul crowning the column was placed in 1589, by order of Pope Sixtus V.
Piazza Colonna. On the right, the Palazzo Chigi (16th century), the official residence of the Prime Minister of Italy
Piazza di Montecitorio
Next to Piazza Colonna is Piazza di Montecitorio. It was named after Monte Citorio, one of the minor hills of Rome. The square includes the Montecitorio Obelisk and the Palazzo Montecitorio.
The Obelisk of Montecitorio, also known as Solare, is an ancient Egyptian, red granite obelisk of Psammetichus II (595-589 BC) from Heliopolis. It was transferred to Rome along with the Flaminio Obelisk in 10 BC. by the Roman Emperor Augustus to be used as the gnomon of the Solarium Augusti (sundial of Augustus) at Campus Martius. It was installed in its present position by Pope Pius VI in 1789.
The Palazzo Montecitorio is the seat of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. The building was originally designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for the young Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi and was completed under the papacy of Pope Innocent XII by architect Carlo Fontana, who added a bell gable above the main entrance. The building was intended only for public and social functions due to Innocent XII’s firm antinepotism policies, unlike his predecessors.
With the unification of Italy in 1861 and the transfer of the capital to Rome in 1870, the Palazzo Montecitorio was confiscated by the Italian government and was chosen as the seat of the Chamber of Deputies.
From Piazza Colonna, following Via dei Sabini, we arrive at the famous Piazza di Trevi. Stay tuned…
About the author
Hello! I am Denis, an architect based in Athens, Greece. I teach history of art and architecture in higher education. That’s one passion of mine. The other one is hiking, in and out of town. If you follow me, I’ll share my discoveries with you.
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