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Where were the Spanish?


Any tourist or prospective tourist thinking about Rome will always mention the Spanish Steps as a focal point or even a place to meet. While there is a connection to Spain, they were actually commissioned by a Pope, designed by an Italian, paid for by a Frenchman, are eternally associated with an English Romantic poet, two English spinsters and an American institution that unintentionally launched the slow food movement.

 Perhaps we had better back up. There was a Spanish connection since the Spanish Embasy to the Holy See was located at the bottom of the hill in an area known as Piazza di Spagna. At that time however the Bourbon Kings of France also ruled Spain. In the sixteenth Century, Louis XII commissioned the building of a church on a site at the top of the hill on the Piazza della Trinita dei Monti as a replacement for the chapel that already existed there. Despite delays the church was finished in 1585.

 At the beginning of the 18th Century a French diplomat named Etienne Gueffier bequeathed funds to build a stairway between the French financed church and the French–run Spanish Embassy. One of the plans called for a statue of Louis XIV at the top of the staircase caused consternation to the Pope, and that, along with the fact that Gueffier’s nephews successfully sued for half his estate delayed the project until 1723. It took the intervention of the Pope before an Italian architect was selected. By 1725 however the staircase was complete comprising 137 steps broken up into twelve separate flights. It should be noted that asking someone to meet you there could be problematic if you are seated on stair number 67 and your prospective visitor is trying to find you from either the church or the piazza.

To balance the style of the church at the top of the hill, Pope Urban VIII, in the early 17th Century, commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini to create a sculpture. Supposedly the Pope had been impressed when the flooding of the Tiber caused a fishing boat to be left high and dry on the Piazza and this inspired the Fontana Della Barcaccia or Fountain of the Old Boat. Now the Spanish Steps connected the two.

 During the 19th Century, a visit to Rome by the English aristocracy was part of the Grand Tour of Europe. It also attracted the Romantic poets of the time, many of whom were also well-connected. On the right hand side of the stairs on the Piazza is a house where John Keats spent his last months and died. Today it is a museum dedicated to Keats and the other romantics and also a shrine for English majors on high school graduation trips.

Close by is Babington’s Tea Room founded in 1895 by two ladies of good family to meet the refreshment needs of English visitors. When the Tea Room opened, tea was only sold in pharmacies so the tea room met a need and still exists to this day. It has always amazed me why anyone would crave tea cakes and scones in Rome,  but there it is. Last on our list is the American contribution when on March 20, 1986 McDonald’s opened in a landmark building near the steps. This raised  the ire of one Carlo Petrini and inspired him to start the slow food movement in 1989. If the British can have their scones, however, why can’t Americans get a Big Mac?