The Spanish Steps
In the 17th century, the men in charge of building Rome had a problem in the shape of a large, wooded hill. It separated the newly-built Trinità dei Monti church, owned by the French, from the Piazza di Spagna, or “Spanish Plaza” named for the Bourbon Spanish Embassy that stood alongside it. With a newly-established peace between France and Spain, the French wanted to create a symbolic connection between the two countries in Rome; this hill was really cramping their style. A competition was held for the best design and the winner, a little-known sculptor named Francesco de Sanctis, gave the world the Spanish Steps. There is still some debate about how much the more-famous Alessandro Specchi contributed to the design, but one thing we can say for sure is that the end result is one of the grandest public works in Europe. The 135-step staircase is also bookended by two of Rome’s most whimsical monuments, the Fontana della Barcaccia, and the Sallustian Obelisk. The first foreigners to make the steps famous were the Romantic writers of the 19th century, like John Keats, who died in a house overlooking them. Since then everyone from Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday to Ray Romano in Everybody Loves Raymond has made sure that taking in the view at the Spanish Steps is part of their Roman Sojourns.
If you want to enjoy the view from the Spanish steps with a guide to tell you some of the most classic stories of Rome, check out our Welcome To Rome Tour.
Visiting the Spanish Steps: What to See
The Spanish Steps, also known as Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti, in Italian, were designed and executed in an era when people still took a holistic view of city planning (and the Vatican still owned large swathes of Rome). They sit on a high point that, if you follow the Via Condotti, leads directly down the banks of the Tiber. If you approach with the Tiber at your back, the stairs seem to grow before you. When standing at their base, they dominate your field of vision with the Trinità dei Monti church peering down on you, as if from heaven. Although the steps are officially named for the church that sits atop them, generations of visitors have simply identified them by the piazza at their feet which still goes by the name Piazza di Spagna.
The Fontana della Barcaccia and the Sallustian Obelisk
In 1598 record floods along the Tiber river filled the Piazza di Spagna with over three feet of water. When the waters receded they left the wreckage of an old boat in the plaza. This hapless boat is said to be the inspiration for the Spanish Steps fountain commissioned by Pope Urban VIII and sculpted by Pietro Bernini and his son, the great Gian Lorenzo Bernini (whose work you can admire on our tour of the Borghese Gallery). We’ll probably never know exactly what sort of boat it was but the sculpture depicts something akin to a half-sunk galleon spilling water a little forlornly over its sides. Lording over this sad little tub, at the top of the Spanish Steps is the Sallustian Obelisk, a great stone plinth that looks like one of the many obelisks that Roman emperors, ahem, borrowed from Egypt. In fact, it’s a clever Roman copy. The sculptors even went so far as to copy the hieroglyphics from the authentic Flaminio Obelisk, one of Rome’s most famous.
The Keats-Shelley Memorial House
Italy was one of the greatest visual and cultural inspirations for the Romantic writers and artists of the 18th and 19th centuries. You can follow in Shelley and Byron’s footsteps at Lake Como, trod the path of Goethe in Sicily, and search for the ghost of D.H. Lawrence among the lemon groves of the Amalfi Coast but if you want to see the Romantics in Rome, you have to go to John Keats’ house overlooking the Spanish Steps. We should perhaps point out that this is really more the house that he died in (of tuberculosis) than the house he lived in. But then, turning a symbol of life’s fleetingness into a museum to the Romantics is rather fitting.
Here you’ll find one of the world’s most extensive collection of memorabilia from that incredible generation of mostly English artists, including works from Keats and Shelley, Wordsworth, Oscar Wilde, and more. While inside, take a moment to try to hear the sound of the waters from the Fontana della Barcaccia. The story goes that the sound soothed Keats as he lay dying and was the inspiration for the line he requested on his epitaph: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
The Church of the Santissima Trinitá dei Monti
The Trinità dei Monti is, by one of the many quirks of Roman history, maintained by France. This makes it perhaps the most famous French church not on French soil. Although it’s more famous for its crowning location at the top of the Spanish steps than for its interior, it does feature a beautiful painting of the Deposition by Daniele Da Volterra. Volterra is, somewhat unfairly, a running joke among art historians because he was given the thankless task of painting trousers and loin cloths onto the nude figures in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. His nickname ever since? Il Braghettone or, “The Trouser Maker.”
Tips for Visiting the Spanish Steps
The Spanish steps are a public work and as such they don’t open or close, except for renovation. Because of the heavy foot traffic on them, they need the occasional refurbishment. As of today, spring of 2016, only portions of the steps are closed for restoration up towards the top, but they’re otherwise fully accessible.
The main rule to remember about the Spanish Steps is that you are not allowed to picnic on them. It seems harsh, but if the picnic ban were lifted it would become nearly impossible to walk up the steps, as there would be too many people sitting on them.
The Fontana della Barcaccia runs with potable water, which you should drink from the spouts in the side of the boat, not from the basin. On that note, don’t wade in the basin – people are trying to get drinks.
The Best Time to Visit the Spanish Steps
On most days the Spanish Steps are busiest around sunset when friends, lovers, and hordes of selfie-takers congregate around them to enjoy the closing of the day. If you ever want to have them to yourself you have to wake up pretty early or stay up pretty late, but it’s not impossible. Just don’t expect much privacy if you go between 10:00am and 1:00am.
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