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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Spanish Steps in Rome

What is the Spanish Steps?

The Spanish Steps is an elegant Rococo style staircase between the Piazza di Spagna and Piazza Trinità dei Monti in Rome that has been a tourist favourite since it was constructed in the 18th century.

Spanish Steps

Spanish Steps History

A tourist favourite for the past three centuries, this magnificent Rococo style staircase joins the Piazza di Spagna at its base to the Chiesa della Trinità dei Monti, a glorious and celebrated church commissioned by King Louis XII of France in the 16th century. Its 137 steps in irregular butterfly style offer a great place to sit and enjoy the atmosphere of the city.

Both the Spanish Steps and the piazza take their names from the Palazzo di Spagna, the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican that’s been located on the corner of this square since the mid-17th century, although part of the square was also formerly known as Piazza di Francia, since it’s a French church standing proudly at the top of the staircase. It was likewise a French initiative to build these steps, for before their construction the church could only be accessed by a hazardous path up a steep slope. Following decades of disagreement over the design, the steps were laid in 1725 according to the plans of the little-known architect Francesco de Sanctis, and funded by the will of a French diplomat. In keeping with their function, the steps contain a religious message, with their three flights and three landings an allusion to the Holy Trinity.

The steps have proved a popular place for artists and poets who’ve found inspiration in their unique design and elegance. John Keats, the Romantic poet, actually lived in the villa at the right of the foot of the steps, having moved to Rome in the hope that the warmer climate might improve his health, as he was suffering from tuberculosis. Tragically Keats died from his illness at the tender age of 25, and the building is now the Keats–Shelley House, a museum dedicated to the Romantic poets with an extensive collection of letters, memorabilia and manuscripts.

In the centre of the piazza you’ll see the Fontana della Barcaccia, or ‘Fountain of the Old Boat’, designed by Pietro Bernini and constructed with the help of his son, the famous sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. This was built as part of a papal project to install a fountain in every major piazza in Rome, and takes the form of a half-sunken ship inspired by a folk tale from the 16th century. The story goes that a small fishing boat was carried all the way to this square during a large flood of the River Tiber, and when the water finally receded, the boat astonishingly remained fixed at its centre. The sunken ship not only commemorated the legend, but also allowed Bernini to build the fountain slightly below street level so as not to be affected by low water pressure from the aqueduct.

Keats mentioned, as he lay upon his deathbed, that he could hear the soothing flow of Bernini’s fountain, reminding him of lines from a 17th-century play that later appeared on his epitaph: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’. Thanks to the piazza’s popularity in our own time, however, you’re unlikely to be able to appreciate the murmur of the fountain anymore.

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