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Nov 17, 2014

Spanish Steps. Some trivia.

People watching is a great pastime in a city like Rome and the Spanish Steps are the ideal platform, offering stage and seating at the same time. A must in Rome.  Here’s a list of trivia concerning the most famous stairway in town, celebrated by movies (Roman Holiday or The talented Mr Ripley), loved by fashion victims (high fashion designers are concentrated on Via Condotti), pilgrimage site for literature nerds (Keats’ ghost is still lingering here).

  1. Once in the outskirts. 500 years ago this area was still ‘suburban’:  in a map by Pirro Ligorio we see ruins, vineyards and just a couple of ‘palazzi’.
  2. Why Spanish?  For the proximity of the Spanish Embassy headquarters: even if the money to build the steps came from France, donated by the French diplomat Etienne Gueffier. The area was initially occupied by a muddy slope. The ‘stairway’ was built in 1726 by Francesco de Sanctis whose project won a competition:   137 travertine steps lead up to the heights of Trinità dei Monti with its French church and small obelisk. Even cardinal Mazarin took an interest in the project, a statue of the King Louis XIV had been foreseen initially.  Too much for the popes: a compromise was found and both ‘logos’, the Bourbon fleur-de lys and pope Innocent XIII’s eagle and crown appear in the sculptural details perfectly balanced. 
  3. A busy hub for Grand Tour visitors entering from Porta del Popolo, access point from the North. In one of the rooms of the Casina Rossa (Piazza di Spagna, 26), Keats died in 1821 (aged 26). He was in Rome hoping warm climate would help him to recover from consumption. He’s buried in the protestant cemetery with his friends Severn and Shelley. The Keats and Shelley Memorial preserves also a library. The original furniture was  burnt on the pope’s order after Keats died.
  4. The ‘twin’ palace, on the left, houses Babington’s Tea room founded in 1893 by two young English ladies who started their business with the initial sum of £100: at the time the only place where you could buy tea in Rome was from a pharmacy.  The tea room was so successful  that they opened another one in St. Peter’s square which no longer exists (there are now 3 in Tokyo). Stop there for a nice cup or Earl Grey and a cucumber sandwich.
  5. At the base Bernini’s fountain shaped as an old boat not only recalls a flood in the piazza but it’s also a practical way to solve the problem of low water pressure. It ‘s still supplied by one of the most ancient Roman aqueducts (Condotti is the Italian for water pipes, that's why the name of the main avenue).
  6. In the early 19th century models used to gather here hoping to be employed by sculptors and painters who had their studios in via Margutta.
  7. On the top Villa Medici (next to Trinità dei Monti) was the residence of the Grand Duke of Tuscany:  Ferdinando I de’ Medici. Now a French property housing from 1803 the French Academy in Rome. Built on the remains of the ancient Roman villa of Lucullus and used also as a prison: his most famous guest was Galileo.
  8. The best period to come is May  when the steps are covered by azaleas.
  9. In the upper church of Trinità dei Monti – you should not miss Daniele da Volterra's Descent from the Cross. The great artist became famous for having covered Michelangelo’s nudes (in the Sistine Chapel).
  10. The Caffe' Greco in Via Condotti is almost 250 years old, opened by a Greek and mentioned also by Casanova.  Perfect stop to sip a quick espresso or sit in one of the cozy back rooms where artists like Keats, Byron, Goethe, Wagner, Listz used to meet. By the way: their cakes are delicious!

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