All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in August 2010.
Piazza di Spagna (Book 2) (Map B2) (Day 2) and (Day 3) (View C6) (Rione Campo Marzio) and (Rione Colonna)
In this page:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
SS. TrinitÓ dei Monti and Obelisco Sallustiano
Scalinata di TrinitÓ dei Monti (Spanish Steps)
Fontana della Barcaccia
Palazzo di Propaganda Fide
Palazzo di Spagna
Vasi's Second Plate for Piazza di Spagna
In the next page:
The Strangers' Quarter
CaffŔ Greco and Babington's Tea Rooms
S. Atanasio dei Greci, Via del Babuino and Teatro d'Alibert
Calcogafia di Mariano Vasi
Palazzo Boncompagni Cerasi
The Plate (No. 40)
Piazza di Spagna is located near Porta del Popolo which in the XVIIIth century was the main entrance to Rome; many inns were positioned near the square to cater for foreign travellers, who were glad to find a conveniently placed accommodation after a long and tiring journey; for this reason the area became known as the Strangers' Quarter.
The square has an unusual shape which is similar to two opposite triangles having their vertices at the fountain; the part of the square shown in this etching by Giuseppe Vasi was called Piazza di Spagna because in 1647 the Spanish Embassy was moved to the palace in the right side of the plate; the other section of the square, which included the steps leading to the French church of SS. TrinitÓ dei Monti, was called Piazza di Francia; in this way the historical competition between the two European powers for supremacy in Italy was reflected in the topography of Rome.
This foreword may explain why Vasi did not show the famous steps leading to the church; over time Piazza di Spagna became the name of the whole square and English travellers attributed to Spain also the steps which were built with French money.
The view is taken from the green dot in the map below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Steps leading to SS. TrinitÓ dei Monti; 2) Palazzo di Propaganda Fide; 3) Palazzo di Spagna; 4) Fontana della Barcaccia; 5) Campanile di S. Andrea delle Fratte. 5) is covered in another page. The small 1748 map shows also 6) SS. TrinitÓ dei Monti; 7) S. Atanasio dei Greci (along Via del Babuino); 8) Colonna dell'Immacolata; 9) Teatro d'Alibert; 10) CaffŔ Greco (in Via Condotti); 11) Calcografia di Mariano Vasi; 12) Palazzo Boncompagni Cerasi. The dotted line delineates the border between Rione Campo Marzio (to the left) and Rione Colonna (to the right).
The old inns have been replaced by primary chain stores so Piazza di Spagna continues to attract foreign travellers; the main change relates to the erection of Colonna dell'Immacolata in 1857. Some houses are higher than they were in the XVIII century, but their current height is in line with the adjoining older buildings.
SS.TrinitÓ dei Monti
SS. TrinitÓ dei Monti preceded in time the other monuments of Piazza di Spagna and because of its commanding position it influenced the design of the
square; in 1483 King Louis XI of France fell gravely ill; he asked Pope Sixtus IV to send him Francis of Paola, a Franciscan monk who was renowned for his miracles.
Francis was unable to heal the king, but he gained his admiration and that of his son, the future King Charles VIII; the latter
in 1494 bought a piece of land on the Pincio hill to build a monastery and a church for the Minims,
a branch of the Franciscan Order which was founded by Francis of Paola.
The monastery was reserved to French members of the order.
The church was built in 1519, but the fašade was finished towards the end of the century, most likely by Giacomo Della Porta (the steps are similar to those of Palazzo Senatorio, which Della Porta was completing in that period). The two bell towers were designed as a reminder of many French cathedrals, although their final appearance is only vaguely Gothic; two clocks were placed on them: one indicated the French (international) hour, while the other one followed the Italian usage (to learn more about the Italian hour click here). One of the two clocks was replaced by a sundial after 1847 when the Italian system was abandoned.
You may wish to see the church as it appeared in a 1588 Guide to Rome.
In 1789 Pope Pius VI erected an obelisk (Obelisco Sallustiano) found at Horti Sallustiani near Porta Salara in front of the church; it is a small scale copy of the obelisk to Pharaoh Rameses II, now in Piazza del Popolo and it was made in Rome (to see all the obelisks of Rome click here). The obelisk can be seen from a great distance from the obelisk in front of Tribuna di S. Maria Maggiore and from Palazzo Borghese.
Scalinata di TrinitÓ dei Monti
The kings of France and the popes debated for more than a century on how to appropriately give access to SS. TrinitÓ dei Monti from the centre of Rome; at one point Monsignor Elpidio Benedetti, an envoy of Cardinal Jules Mazarin and the owner of Villa del Vascello, showed Pope Alexander VII a project which the French were prepared to finance; it had only one drawback (for the pope) that of providing for a large equestrian statue of King Louis XIV. Only after the death of this king relations with France improved and in 1717 a contest was called for a suitable project.
Eventually a second contest in 1723 led to the endorsement of a project designed by Francesco de Sanctis; the curved lines of the steps recall those of Porto di Ripetta by Alessandro Specchi. Costs were born by France (a donation had been made in 1655 by Etienne Gueffier, a French nobleman) and the small columns and the globes at the beginning of the steps were decorated with the fleurs-de-lis of the French kings together with the chequered eagle of Pope Innocent XIII, the reigning pope.
The original plan provided for several statues of French saints on the balustrades; in addition two large statues portraying King Louis XI and St. Francis of Paola were to be placed at the top of the steps; the project was never completed and probably this lack of religious symbols made the steps so popular among the foreigners who lived in Piazza di Spagna, many of whom were not Catholics; those who were, very often were rather skeptical.
An aspect which contributes to the beauty of the steps is that their axis is not perpendicular to the fašade of the church; this lack of total symmetry gives them a lightness which a more traditional approach would not have yielded.
Read Charles Dickens's account of the Roman models who used to spend their days on the Spanish Steps.
Read William Dean Howells' 1908 account of this neighbourhood.
Fontana della Barcaccia
According to Vasi the fountain was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, but today the prevailing opinion attributes it to Pietro Bernini, his father, who was in charge of a project for the distribution of the water of Acqua Vergine, an ancient aqueduct restored by Pope Sixtus IV. Low water pressure influenced the design of the fountain, the shape and meaning of which has been extensively debated by art historians; most likely Pietro Bernini, who worked at the decoration of many villas (including Villa Borghese), designed a fountain meant to amuse, rather than to impress.
La Barcaccia was built in 1627-29 and it was decorated with two reliefs showing a shining sun, one of the heraldic symbols of Pope Urban VIII. See Filippo Juvarra's plate of the coat of arms of the pope which he attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Palazzo di Propaganda Fide
The decision to build an elegant fountain was linked to the fact that in 1626 Pope Urban VIII was bequeathed a nearby building where he decided to locate the headquarters of Propaganda Fide, a new congregation aimed at promoting and coordinating missionary activities. The fašade in Piazza di Spagna was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1642-44; he placed at its centre a coat of arms of the pope which Filippo Juvarra included in his selection of papal coats of arms. The palace belongs to the Holy See, although most of the activities of the congregation are now housed in Nuovo Collegio Urbano De Propaganda Fide.
The fašade by Borromini and the other sides of the palace are shown in a separate page,
Palazzo di Spagna
In 1622 a Spanish ambassador rented a small palace belonging to the Monaldeschi in Piazza della TrinitÓ, the old name of Piazza di Spagna. In 1647, in consideration of the development which had occurred in the area, King Philip IV of Spain bought the building to use it as the permanent location of the Spanish Embassy (today it houses the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See, while that to the Italian Republic is at Casino Giraud).
The palace was modified by Antonio Del Grande in the 1650s; art historians believe that Del Grande received advice from Francesco Borromini, who however was not directly involved in the redesign of the building. Spanish ambassadors used to organize great celebrations in front of their palace on the occasion of births, weddings and deaths of royal family members. The fašade was given its current (unassuming) aspect in 1838 by Antonio Celles, a Spanish architect.
Colonna dell' Immacolata
In 1777 a tall cipollino column was unearthed near S. Maria in Campo Marzio; Pope Pius VI, the reigning pope, considered placing it in Piazza di Montecitorio, but he eventually preferred to erect an ancient obelisk there; in 1856 Pope Pius IX decided to use it for a monument to the Virgin Mary, in order to celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary a dogma he promulgated on December 8, 1854. The monument was inaugurated in September 1857 (see the ceremony which takes place every year on December 8 at the foot of the column).
Vasi's Second Plate
The official target of the 10 books of views published by Vasi between 1746 and 1761 was not the admirer of the Roman monuments, but rather the faithful pilgrim. Mariano Vasi sold his father's books and etchings in a shop near Piazza di Spagna; he realized that his customers were mainly foreign travellers and that they would have gladly bought a view of the Spanish Steps. The original plate of Piazza di Spagna was replaced by Scalinata in Piazza di Spagna, an etching falsely attributed to Giuseppe Vasi (he passed away in 1782 when the obelisk was not yet placed at the top of the steps).
Those who do not like to be in a crowd, can reach SS. TrinitÓ dei Monti via Rampa di S. Sebastianello or Rampa Mignanelli, two of the silent streets of Rome.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Move to second page.