Spanish Steps in Rome
With its characteristic butterfly plan, the Piazza di Spagna is one of the most famous images in the world, as well as being one of the most majestic urban monuments of Roman Baroque style.
In the Renaissance period, the square was the most popular tourist attraction in the city: it attracted artists and writers alike and was full of elegant hotels, inns and residences.
The Piazza di Spagna or Spanish Square is connected to a French church (Trinità dei Monti) on top of the hill via a long staircase, known as the Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti or Spanish Steps. The idea of connecting the church with the square below originates from the 17th century, when the French also planned a statue of King Louis XIV of France at the top of the staircase. Papal opposition caused the plans to be shelved until 1723, when the monumental staircase was built without the statue. Pope Innocent XIII appointed the Italian architect Francisco de Sanctis. He presented a design that satisfied both the French and the papacy.
The elegant staircase consists of 137 steps over twelve different flights. It has an irregular albeit symmetric structure. It is especially beautiful in May, when it is decorated with azaleas. The steps are usually very crowded; it attracts tourists as well as locals who use it as a gathering place.
Piazza di Spagna
At the bottom of the Spanish Steps is the Piazza di Spagna or Spanish square. The long, triangular square is named after the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See. In the 17th century, the area around the embassy was even considered Spanish territory.
This beautiful piazza has been the destination of foreigners to Rome for centuries: most came as pilgrims and arrived in the north part of the city before finding lodgings. It was Pope Leo X who, from Piazza del Popolo (the first piazza inside the walls of Rome coming from the north), constructed the three roads leading south in the form of a trident across the Campo Marzio. The easternmost is Via del Babuino, Baboon Street(!), that leads directly to Piazza di Spagna.
Formed from two sharp triangles that meet at the points, the piazza is such a strange shape that it's hard to call it a "square". In fact 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).
Fontana della Barcaccia
a sober fountain commissioned by Pope Urban VIII and designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The design, a small boat, was inspired by the flooding of the Tevere in 1598, when a small boat stranded here after the water subsided.
An intriguing fountain sits not far from the bottom of the steps that always has people around it puzzling over its peculiarities which is set very low, almost at street level, in order to function with the low water pressure that arrives there. But why a fountain in the shape of a small boat? In 1588 Rome suffered one of its not infrequent inundations when the Tevere can no longer hold all the water that washes down the river. It was devestating 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. It was this that inspired Pietro Bernini, and his son Gian Lorenzo, to construct this wonderful fountain.
In the southern part of the piazza there is a column 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 statues of the prophets Moses, David, Isaiah and Ezekiel. The pope comes here every year on December 8th to celebrate the Immaculate Conception.
The column stands in front of the Palazzo di Propaganda Fide which features a facade that faces the piazza by Gianlorenzo Bernini and, down the street to the right, another marvelous facade designed (1662) by Francesco Borromini that displays those elements consistently employed by Borromini to maintain fluidity of his buildings: where one is used to straight walls he uses gentle curves to break the line, windows of varying shapes, pilasters to break up the length. This is a narrow street and walking along it will bring out the beauty of Borromini's work.
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