Elegant and scenic, the Piazza di Spagna provides a welcome point of encounter at the center of Rome. Its peculiar fascination is derived from a combination of color, the 18th-century buildings that surround it, the flowers that adorn the Spanish Steps, and the animated and cosmopolitan atmosphere that pervades it. It is the only place where three distinct elements of urban decor, a fountain, a flight of steps, and a church, have become a monument in its own right, as well as a scenic wonder. This piazza has been a destination of foreigners to Rome for centuries, where most came as pilgrims and arrived in the north part of the city before finding lodgings. From this piazza spreads such prestigious streets as the Via Margutta, famous for the many painters who live and display their works there, and the Via del Babuino, with its many antique shops. Also, the Via Condotti, with its sophisticated boutiques and celebrated Caffé Greco, dating back to the 18th century. It is a historical place of rendezvous of great Italian and foreign artists. Furthermore, nearby is the Via Borgognona with fashionable boutiques and couturiers, and the lively Via Frattina.
Formed from two sharp triangles, the piazza has such a strange shape that it is hard to call it a “square.” In fact, until a few centuries ago, only the southern half was called Piazza di Spagna (after the Spanish embassy to the Holy See). The northern half was called Piazza di Francia (after the French embassy).
The Church of Trinita Dei Monti
The Trinità Dei Monti is a beautiful French church located on a hill overlooking the small piazza della Trinità Dei Monti. From this square, you have a nice view of Rome.
At the end of the 15th century, only a small chapel existed on the hill. It was built near the monastery founded by St. Francis di Paola in 1493. St. Francis was a hermit from Calabria and was sent by the Pope to Paris to minister to King Louis XI, who was seriously ill. At the king’s death, his son Charles VIII became his patron and bought him the vast vineyard in Rome, where he founded a monastery dedicated to the Minimi Friars. In 1495, French King Louis XII commissioned the erection of a new church, replacing the chapel. Construction started in 1502 and dragged on for decades. It was only consecrated in 1585 by Pope Sixtus V, who considered it the cornerstone for his ambitious plans of urban development for the city. Its elevated position and the steady upward thrust of its twin bell-towers make it one of the most suggestive landmarks in Rome. The church contains a significant number of paintings as well as many private chapels acquired by patrician families like the Orsini, the Altoviti, and others. At the end of the XVI century, after the Spanish Embassy had established itself in a magnificent palace on the square, a wealthy prelate had built another grand residence there, which he subsequently donated (in 1612) to the influential Jesuit Congregation of the Propaganda Fide.
The gothic church with a renaissance façade has two bell-towers. Inside, several paintings decorate the different chapels. Among them, there are two works by Daniele da Volterra, a pupil of Michelangelo. Its location on top of the Spanish Steps and the rosy color make the Trinità Dei Monti a well-known landmark in Rome.
The Spanish Steps
The Spanish Steps are a majestic series of three flights of steps that lead up to the impressive double-bell towered church. This complex can best be seen from far down Via Dei Condotti. In early summer, the steps are sometimes completely covered with flowers of many colors making a delightful sight. Also, there are a lot of tourists who come there often just to sit on the steps and to soak in the atmosphere. Furthermore, a lot of people come to watch the street sellers and caricature artists who are often showing their skills there.
Fontana Della Barcaccia
An intriguing fountain is placed just at the bottom of the Spanish Steps. There are always people around it who are puzzling over its peculiarities. The Fontana Della Barcaccia is set very low, almost at street level, in order to function with the low water pressure that arrives there. But, why is a fountain in the shape of a small boat? Well, in 1588 Rome suffered one of its not infrequent floods when the Tiber river couldn’t hold all the water that was flowed down the streets. It was a devastating situation, and many people lost their homes. When the waters subsided, there was left a small flat-bottomed boat in the mud (which had been used to rescue people and move possessions), a symbol of the efforts to survive the floods. That inspired Pietro Bernini, and his son Gian Lorenzo, to construct this wonderful fountain.
The fountain was built between 1627 and 1629. In this period, Piazza di Spagna began to attract numerous foreigners to Rome. Many taverns, inns, and cafes were opened, and between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, business and commercial activities began to concentrate there as well. Towards the middle of the sixteenth century, the French lords began to plan building steps to connect the square to their church on the hill above. But it was only in 1723 that Pope Innocent XIII decided to name Francesco de Sanctis as the executor of the important steps. This beautiful stairway gave the square its graceful and elegant seventeenth-century touch that was the reason for its popularity during the Romantic and the Art Nouveau periods. These steps have a great scenic, the almost theatrical effect on the square, which makes them an ideal stage for the annual fashion parade “Donna sotto le Stelle” when the most famous Italian and international stylists present their collections.
In the southern part of the piazza, there is an obelisk that was erected in 1856 to commemorate the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception proclaimed by Pius IX. The column, found under a monastery in 1777, is topped by a statue of the Virgin Mary and rests on a base that features figures of the prophets Moses, David, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. The pope comes here every year on December 8th to celebrate the Immaculate Conception. The obelisk just in front of the church was originally located in the Gardens of Sallust. In 1788 it was moved to its current location on request of Pope Pius VI. The hieroglyphs were copied from the obelisk on the Piazza del Popolo.
Enjoy your day on Piazza di Spagna!