The Spanish Steps

Sometimes you can’t really sort out the sights (and sites) you’ve seen until you revisit them in memory weeks—or months—later. Such is the case when I ponder our brief encounter with the Spanish Steps.

They were on our “not-to-be-missed” list for the city of Rome because they are on everyone’s list. See for yourself: Flip through any guidebook. Google “what to see in Rome.” There they will be: The Spanish Steps. Or, as listed in my trusty Michelin Green Guide “Scalinata della Trinita dei Monti***.

Getting There

And so, dutifully, late morning on our last day in Rome, Mr. Penfire and I said good-bye to the Trevi Fountain and marched northward. Actually, it was just an easy ten-minute walk. I don’t recall the specifics of our route. What I do remember is noting, along the way, shop window after shop window displaying beautiful Italian clothing, leather goods, shoes. Quality and workmanship were evident even through plate glass windows. I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “No wonder Italians are so stylish, so elegant.” Back in the United States, except for the few who can afford to shop in the most exclusive stores, we have come to settle for cheap, throwaway goods that we use or wear once or twice (or not at all) and then casually discard.

No wonder I was so impressed! The Spanish Steps, my Green Guide tells me, are located on a square (Piazza di Spagna) in an area “famous throughout the world” for “elegant alleys [that] are still home to some of the most prestigious names in the worlds of fashion, jewellery (sp? sic) and design.”

We walked along, following our map, and suddenly, the street opened onto the broad piazza, wide open to the sky. On one side high above, a twin-steepled church, bright white in the morning sun, fronted by a granite obelisk, an ornate curved balustrade. And there, cascading downward, a wide staircase so crowded with people—and flowers—that the elaborate configuration of steps and wide landings was impossible to discern.

A Bit of History

The steps take their name from the Piazza which became Spanish territory when Spain’s ambassador moved into the Palazzo di Spagna (diagonally across the plaza at the bottom of the stairs) in the 17th century. The rival French who owned land around the convent of Trinita dei Monti at the top of the Stairs were, in fact, the brainchild of Cardinal Jules Raymond Mazarin, diplomat and patron of the arts, who, although Italian-born (Giulio Raimondo Mazzarino) became Chief Minister to the kings of France (Louis XIII and XIV) and who, according to Wikipedia, was de facto ruler of France.

The Not-So-Spanish Steps

We live in Los Angeles. I recall the first time we explored legendary Rodeo Drive we were told to be sure to see the “Spanish Steps” at the end of the street, where it meets Wilshire Boulevard. Supposedly this wide curved stairway with a fountain at its base was “just like” the eponymous stairway in Rome. All I can say is: Ha! Ha! Ha! LA will never get past the denigrating label of tinsel town if its promoters continue to make preposterous claims like this.

A Place to Be!

There is a vibrancy and centeredness to the real Spanish Steps that proves the magic and the magnetism of this iconic site.

There’s nothing in particular to do or see here. This is simply a place to be. With plenty of time before our early afternoon entry to Galleria Borghese, Mr. Penfire and I joined the throng of tourists, sightseers, and residents of Rome who were perched up and down this giant staircase. In my minds eye, I had the vivid impression that at least some of them were perusing newspapers. However, when I check this recollection against the reality of our photos, I realize that not a single person was looking at a newspaper. Of course not! But many were looking at their smart phones. Clicking through the day’s headlines? Texting? Reading a book? Checking the weather? Finding the route to their next destination? So many possibilities. Meanwhile, Mr. Penfire and I were not looking at our smartphones. For us, travel is the best possible excuse to free ourselves from the news of the day and communicate with family and friends only through postcards, which they will not receive until after we have returned home. As for reading: Our books were back at the hotel. Weather? Just look at the sky. That’s what native New Englanders do when they want to know whether to expect sunshine or rain, warmth or a chill. How to get ourselves from Point A to Point B? We had our trusty National Geographic Map of Rome to guide us.

What We Missed

It’s only now, weeks later, as I read the section of my Green Guide that deals with Piazza di Spagna*** that I realize all we missed because we did not take the recommended walk outlined on its pages: Galleria Communale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (artwork that includes Amadeo Bocchi’s In the Park with its “vivid, almost violent color,” and a bust by Rodin), Palazzo di Propaganda Fide, the Church’s HQ for “Evangelisation” (although enticingly described, it is closed to the public), San’Andrea delle Fratte, a Medieval church that used to be in the thickets (fratte) at what was once the northeastern limit of the city; Piazza San Silvestro where the Central Post Office resides in the former monastery of the church of San Silvestro in Capitte. Two more pages describe the palazzos (Borghese Fontanella, Ruspoli) churches (San Lorenzo in Lucina, Carlo al Corso) and Fountain (Botticella) we missed. Also, the Mausoleo di Augusto (well, just ruins)—once one of the most sacred monument in antiquity) and the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Peace dating to 9 BC, the “major work of the Augustan ‘golden age’ and apogee of Roman art”). Plus, two famous houses: the home and museum of artist Giorgio de Chirico (whom, I am ashamed to say I have never heard of) and the home to Keats (who died here) and Shelley. Oh, dear, how could we possibly have visited all these places in just one brief morning walk (and appreciated all we were seeing)? I am exhausted just reading—and writing—about them!

Once we reached the top of the stairs, we did, apparently, pass by the bust of Chateaubriand, writer and French ambassador (the historical personage from whom, I presume, the tenderloin filet gets its name). We admired (from outside) the Trinita dei Monti, church of the Holy Trinity,  and the Villa Medici (Academia di Francia), an art gallery which we thought was a private school.

Circling Back Later in the Day

And we returned to the Spanish Steps later on our way back to our HQ at Hotel Minerva Relais. It was fun to see the contrast between the Steps’ morning bustle and  evening stillness. We saw diners on the open balcony of a restaurant that overlooks the beautiful stairway and square below; we could hear the murmur of voices, the clinking of cutlery and glassware. Perhaps we should have stopped. The grand staircase itself was nearly empty, so we were able to appreciate just how beautiful it is. We were lucky, I now find out, that we were there during April, when by tradition the Steps are lined with blooming azaleas. The square below, in contrast, was abuzz with energy—many people no doubt on their way home from work; many others pacing or pausing, those with cell phones seemed to be chatting or busily texting, probably making dinnertime plans or evening meeting places. It was on the return trip, as we came down the stairs, that the fountain at the base of the stairs caught our attention.

Fontana della Barcaccia (Boat Fountain) was designed by Pietro Bernini (father of the sculptor whose work absolutely captivated me at the Borghese). Pope Urban VIII commissioned this Boat and so it is decorated at both ends with the suns and bees of the Barberini coat of arms. (I remember those bees from the baldachin in Saint Peter’s Basilica!) Water pours in from both bow and stern. Uh oh! That’s because the inspiration for the design was a boat once stranded in Piazza di Spagna by flood waters.

It’s Simply Impossible to See It All!

As with every stop on our itinerary throughout Rome—throughout all of our stops in Italy—seeing what we saw was simply a springboard for wanting to see more. It’s lucky, perhaps we did not quite realize all we were missing, for if we had taken the time to explore this section of the city and see them all, we surely would missed out reserved entry time at Galleria Borghese.