A tumbling cascade of balustrades and balconies, the Spanish Steps are among the most beautiful attractions in Rome. Aspiring models would hang around here during the 19th century, hoping a passing painter would take note of their looks and hire them for portrait sessions. Fast-forward a couple of hundred years and you could argue not much has changed. Only instead of artists we have tourists, and instead of easels we have Instagram.
The Spanish Steps are among our favourite attractions, exhibiting one of Rome’s most beautiful examples of Roman Baroque architecture. We visit them on many of our Rome guided tours, and they always raise a few questions: Why are they called the Spanish Steps? What’s the deal with the boat-shaped fountain at the bottom? And What’s the story of the Egyptian obelisk and Renaissance church at the top?
Read on and all will be revealed.
The Spanish Steps date to the first quarter of the 18th century - 1725 to be exact.
Designed by the little-known architect Francesco de Sanctis and paid for out of the pocket of the French diplomat, Stefano Gueffier, they were built to connect the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to the French church of Santa Trinità dei Monti that presides over the top.
Why was the church of Santa Trinità dei Monti French? Because despite being in Rome, it was under the patronage of the king of France.
The Spanish Steps are a beautiful example of Roman Baroque-style architecture. They consist of an irregular, winding cascade of 138 steps. Some flights are straight, others are curved. Overall, the steps span three levels, with small terrace gardens and sculptures overlooking Piazza di Spagna below.
Bernini’s Fontana della Barcaccia
Springing from the base of the steps at the center of the square, the famous Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Ugly Boat) is not in fact the work of the renowned Gian Lorenzo Bernini, but of his father, Pietro Bernini.
Sculpted in 1627 under the commission of the industrious Pope Urban VIII, this curious fountain was inspired by a terrible flood that inundated Rome on Christmas Day 1598.
Among the debris carried by the Tiber’s current, the flood washed up a barge all the way over on the Pincian Hill (the hill overlooking Piazza del Popolo and bordering Borghese Gallery). Immortalising this incredible event, Bernini’s father sculpted the bleached ship in stone. What’s most interesting is that the water that flows through the fountain issues straight from the Acqua Vergine: one of the ancient Roman aqueducts dating from 19 BC.
The Acqua Vergine still delivers drinkable water throughout the city of Rome - a true testament to the ingenuity of Roman engineering. And who do we have to thank for it. None other than Marcus Agrippa, the man who first built the Pantheon.
The Church of Santa Trinità dei Monti
Began by Louis XII of France to celebrate his invasion of Naples, the church of Santa Trinità dei Monti dates from the beginning of the 16th century.
The first bricks were laid in 1502, but Louis’ French Gothic church was never finished. Instead it was left to Pope Sixtus V, 84 years later, to complete the Italian Renaissance church you see before you today.
While the church’s interior is impressive, it doesn’t contain any artworks of the most famous Great Masters. It is, however, home to a number of works produced by their students, most notably Michelangelo’s protegee, Daniele da Volterra, whose Assumption of the Virgin is believed to contain a portrait of the Great Master (the last figure on the right).
The man who built the double staircase leading up to the church was Domenico Fontana, a particularly industrious architect. For not only was Domenico Fontana responsible for raising up the Egyptian obelisk that stands in the centre of Saint Peter's Square (a story we'll save for another day), he was also the first man to discover Pompeii.
As well as the church, all the surrounding area falls under the control of the French State (including Villa Medici).
The Spanish Steps Obelisk
The Egyptian Obelisk that looks over the Spanish Steps on the Piazza della Trinità dei Monti isn’t in fact an ancient Egyptian obelisk at all but a (slightly more recent) Roman forgery.
The ancient Romans had such an appetite for all things Egyptian (like the Pyramid of Cestius in the neighbourhood of Testaccio) that when they couldn’t source original monuments from Egypt they just built their own themselves!
It’s still very old though, dating to sometime in the first few centuries AD. Until 800 AD, this obelisk stood in the lush and unfortunately lost Gardens of Sallust, former imperial gardens situated right in the centre of the city.
The next we hear of it is in the 15th century, when it was found lying broken into two pieces. In 1733, Pope Clement XII had it reassembled and moved to Lateran. But it wasn’t moved and set up on its present site until 1789 under the reign of his successor, Pope Pius VI.
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What to do near the Spanish StepsJohn Keats Museum Babington's Tea Room and Restaurant Shopping along the Via dei Condotti
Why are they called the Spanish Steps?
Good question! The Spanish Steps could very well have been called the French steps, considering they were funded largely by a French diplomat and led up to a French church. The reason they are known as the Spanish Steps is because of the Spanish embassy that has stood in their square since the 17th century.
This was not the Spanish embassy to the city of Rome though. This was the Spanish embassy to the Holy See - in other words, the Vatican. Which at the time - and arguably still now - held far more sway and global influence than the city of Rome itself.
What to see near the Spanish Steps
Whiling away time among the beauty of the Spanish Steps is a draw few visitors to the Eternal City can resist. The Steps are still a meeting place for the Roman young and beautiful, especially in the evening.
During the day, they're usually awash with tourists, but pick a time early in the evening or late at night and you can appreciate their beauty in relative peace.
Did you know?
One of the most famous scenes from the film Roman Holiday took place here at the Spanish Steps. It was here that Princess Anna and Joe Bradley met.
The first McDonald’s in Italy opened near the Spanish Steps, causing protests and leading Carlo Petrini to start the Slow Food movement.