The Spanish Steps is one of the most visited landmarks in Rome, but what do you actually know about this monumental staircase?
What’s in a name?
The name suggests that there was some Spanish involvement in the construction, but in actual fact the steps were designed by Italian architects and funded by a French diplomat in 1723! They simply took their name from Piazza di Spagna (The Spanish Square) which was in turn named for the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See. Interestingly, the territory around the embassy was considered Spanish territory at the time.
So why did the French pay for a staircase that was named after the Spanish? Well, the church that sits at the top of the stairs, Trinità dei Monti, was under the patronage of the French King in the 18th century. Linking the French and Spanish territories with the steps was a way of celebrating the peace between the two countries.
The steps, showing the elevated drainage system
If you’ve ever counted the number of steps on this Roman-Baroque masterpiece, perhaps you’ve arrived at 136. However, the exact count is 135! The first large ‘step’ is actually an elevated drainage system. While the number of steps doesn’t make the Spanish Steps particularly impressive, it is the widest staircase in Europe! Maybe its luxurious width, along with its incredible elegance explains its popularity as a meeting place for locals and travelers alike over the last few centuries.
What to see
The Spanish Steps Trinità dei Monti and Obelisk Sallustiano
Aside from the stunning views over the Roman rooftops from the top, or the interesting people watching opportunities, there are also a few other sites of interest at the Spanish Steps.
Trinità dei Monti
Looming large at the top of the Spanish Steps is this 16th century Renaissance church which was commissioned by King Louis XII and it contains some impressive works of art such as the Descent from the cross (1545) by Italian artist Daniele da Volterra. This is Volterra’s best known painting. Unfortunately, despite being a talented artist, Volterra has always been associated with Michelangelo. He was a friend and pupil of the master, but is most well known because he was hired to paint over the genitals in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. Another noteworthy piece of art is the stunning sculpture Deposition by German artist, Wilhelm Achtermann.
This Roman obelisk stands in front of the church and was moved to the top of the Spanish Steps in 1789 from the Gardens of Sallust. The hieroglyphs on the obelisk were copied from the Flaminio Obelisk in Piazza del Popolo. The majority of the obelisks in Rome are ancient Egyptian, but at least five, including Sallustiano, are ancient Roman copies!
The Fountain of the Old Boat
This early Baroque fountain and sculpture at the base of the steps was created by Pietro Bernini, the father of the famous Gian Lorenzo Bernini, in 1627. Bernini was said to be inspired by a legend that claimed when the Tiber River flooded in 1598, the water carried a small boat all the way into Piazza di Spagna. When the water receded, the boat was left in the middle of the square.
View from the top of the Spanish Steps. https://www.flickr.com/photos/harshlight/946784286
Eating is prohibited
If you think that the Spanish Steps look like the perfect place to sit and enjoy a quick lunch or snack, think again! While you may sit and enjoy the view or people watch with no problems, there is strictly no food allowed. This rule is to ensure the steps are kept in prime condition and is well enforced by Roman authorities.
If you think the steps couldn’t get any more beautiful, then you’ve never seen them in Spring! From about mid-April to mid-May the steps are adorned in white and lilac azaleas which is an annual 80 year old tradition to mark the start of Spring.
Nearest Metro: Spagna, Metro A
For more information or to arrange a private tour, please contact us at What a Life Tours!
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