The Spanish Steps, Zuccari and the Trevi Fountain

We walk from the Vatican Museums to the Cipro Metro station, where we will board the underground to Spagna.

Filippo Bellini “Sixtus V” (c. 1550-1603) big format
Oil on canvas, 84 x 110 cm, Pau, Musée national du château

From the Piazza di Spagna we can see the famous Spanish Steps with the French church and monastery at the top: the Santa Trinità dei Monti. The link between the church and the Piazza di Spagno below dates back to Pope Sixtus V’s urban renewal scheme. Rome’s chaotic system of narrow, winding streets was renovated during his papacy. Architects such as Carlo Fontana laid out a large number of straight roads which connected the city’s seven most important churches. Sixtus V had already carried out a number of plans to make the city more accessible to the many pilgrims.

Spanish Steps aerial picture
livecams Piazza Spagna   Spanish stairs  Trinità dei Monti 

picture: Reuland Jean-Claude

Casper van Wittel
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Pincio hill  (Mons Pincius)  Santa Trinità dei Monti  before the construction of the Spanish steps
Galleria Nazionale, Rome
Casper van Wittel Pincio hill  (Mons Pincius)  Santa Trinità dei Monti  before the construction of the Spanish steps Galleria Nazionale, Rome

The pope also had obelisks erected in the main squares, for instance the tall obelisk in front of St Peter’s. He only shied away from tackling the warren of streets on Rome’s seven hills. It wasn’t until the 17th century that serious plans were made to renovate these districts as well, including the hill on which we now see the famous Spanish Steps.

Giovanni Battista Falda
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Giovanni Battista Falda before the Spanish Steps

Serious tensions between the French monks and the Romans arose during the 17th century. Mazarin, the Chief Minister of the French king, began to concern himself with the plans for urban renewal. He proposed building a flight of stairs connecting the piazza and the church above it. The Piazza di Spagna and the Santa Trinità dei Monti before the construction of the Spanish Steps (17th century, painter unknown).

The influential French minister simply assumed that the land in front of the church was the property of France. Mazarin also believed that Pope Alexander VII did not have the funds to build such a stairway. Mazarin ordered the Roman prior Elpidio Benedetti to have a number of architects submit plans for a flight of stairs. In the correspondence between Mazarin in Paris and Prior Benedetti, the French chief minister repeatedly asked Benedetti to have Gian Lorenzo Bernini create a design. His agent, however, answered every time that he had been unable to persuade Bernini to agree. When Benedetti sent his plans to Paris, he wrote:

If Bernini had come up with a similar project, it would have fallen from heaven, and he would have asked 1000 doble [Teg: Spanish gold coin] and taken credit for this project.

Quoted from: Marder, ‘Bernini and the art of architecture’, New York, London, Paris, Abbeville Press, 1998 page 159-160.

Benedetti’s design is probably a sketch that the copied from Bernini, to which he blithely added his own name. Mazarin’s direct interference (the most influential and most important figure under Louis XIV) with the project was no less than a French diplomatic assault on the pope.

Sketch for Benedetti’s stairs
Based on a Bernini drawing dated 1660
At bottom right the signature of Elpidio Benedetti

Sketch for Benedetti’s stairs Based on a Bernini drawing dated 1660 At bottom right the signature of Elpidio Benedetti

The French wish to commission Bernini, the pope’s favourite architect, to create a design for the greater glory of the French king was interpreted in Rome as a grave insult. Benedetti suggested that Alexander VII was against this project because it would outshine his colonnade at St peter’s, ‘that bundle of reeds’ that had costed two million scudi. ‘His design’ was, after all, the most beautiful. Of course, Alexander did everything within his power to stop the project. Mazarin even proposed a compromise: to replace the equestrian statue of Louis XIV with a statue of one of the two founders of the Santissima Trinità dei Monti. However, the plans are shelved when Mazarin dies in March 1666.

Not long after the French chief minister’s death, Bernini is commissioned to design a festive and sensational fireworks display for the hill in front of the Santa Trinità dei Monti to celebrate the birth of Louis XIV’s son, the dauphin. A larger than life-size figure was to be erected halfway up the hill: Fame, holding a trumpet with a banner proclaiming the joyous event. On top of the hill two spikes with a space in between. From the depths smoke and flames rose up. A figure representing discord fell down. Towering above everything else was the French crown. The dolphin represented the dauphin (crown prince).

Spanish steps
Engraving with the hill of the Santa Trinità dei Monti and the fireworks on the occasion of the birth of the French dauphin 1661-1662
big format engraving

Just before twilight on a wintry evening in 1661, the signal was given to set off the fireworks:

[…] and suddenly from all corners and from a deep cleft: thunderclaps, lightning, flashes of light and flame mixed with billowing clouds of smoke, the sky was obscured and a rain of fire appeared to come down. The cleft in the hillside did not stop spewing out flames, it hurled flaming masses at Discord, which, much to the crowd’s delight, remained visible on the projecting cliff without ever falling into the steep abyss. The fireworks were set off in three phases, which also included flying statues. The entire display lasted more than a half hour and the ‘common people were delirious with joy.’

This spectacular display of fireworks was also a reference to political developments. The figure representing Peace referred to the Peace of the Pyrenees, the hymns were about Louis XIV’s marriage to the sister of the Spanish king, and Discord falling into the abyss was a reference to the Spanish crown falling into French hands. The spectators were probably also reminded of the relationship between the French king and the papacy during Mazarin’s term of office. It was not until 1720 that a plan (Girolamo Rossi after a drawing of De Sanctis 1726) for the Scala was submitted that pleased everyone, a design by Francesco de Sanctis.

Giovanni Paolo Panini
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Spanish Steps 1756-1758
Stanford University
Giovanni Paolo Panini Spanish Steps 1756-1758 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The flight of stairs was completed in 1726 and blends straight lines, curves and terraces into a spectacular whole.

Spanish Steps
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Spanish Steps Rome

Spain, not France, took the credit as the Spanish embassy was located besides the stairs. The (Holy) Trinity, as the French church at the top of the stairs is called, is integrated into the stairs’ design. Three landings were included at different levels. Even though the flight of stairs was designed to be seen both from afar and nearby, it does not truly reveal itself unless you are climbing it. Only then does it become clear how rich it is in scenic effects. You will find that the effect here is quite different from Michelangelo’s Cordonata or the axis of St Peter’s. These stairs follow the natural undulation of the hillside, in which the curves are repeated as well. The steps move inward and outward. The design is based on a complex pattern of elliptical curves alternated at regular intervals with rectangles and trapezoids.

Palazzo Zuccari
To the right of Via Gregoriana

Palazzo Zuccari To the right of Via Gregoriana Rome

picture: Wikipedia

Palazzo Zuccari Rome

Palazzo Zuccarideur Rome

Palazzo Zuccari raam Rome

We mount the Scala Spagna and now stand before the French church. We turn right and walk over to a beautiful palazzo (street on the right). Zucarri’s palazzo on the Via Gregoriana. The doorway consists of huge open mouth. A modern variant on Zuccari’s Palazzo in Kyoto.

Bomarzo
park of the monsters
oger

Bomarzo park of the monsters oger

This kind of 16th century architecture is characteristic of mannerism. Mannerism in architecture, and I’m repeating myself here, means that the Vitruvian Canon, as you have had to learn it, was intentionally violated. Just look at the strange aediculae around the windows. Zuccari was maybe inspired by the work of the mannerist architect Pirro Ligorio. In 1552, this architect designed a park with strange monsters. One of these strange monsters was an ogre: a hideous monster that ate people. (Wikipedia)

This kind of 16th century architecture is characteristic of mannerism. Mannerism in architecture, and I’m repeating myself here, means that the Vitruvian Canon, as you have had to learn it, was intentionally violated. Just look at the strange aediculae around the windows. Zuccari was maybe inspired by the work of the mannerist architect Pirro Ligorio. In 1552, this architect designed a park with strange monsters. One of these strange monsters was an ogre: a hideous monster that ate people. (Wikipedia)

Click here to see the house that Federuci Zuccari’s built on the Via Guisti in Florence.

Fontana della Barcaccia

We walk back and go down the Spanish Steps to discover a beautiful fountain that Gian Lorenzo’s father Pietro Bernini designed together with his son:

Fontana della Barcaccia

picture: lorenzoclick

This Fontana della Barcaccia [old boat] was given this shape for a reason. The fountain could not exceed a certain height because of the low water pressure in the Aqua Vergine aqueduct at this location. In this connection, Baldinucci spoke of how ‘any effect of opulence or splendour would be difficult to realize. The solution was found in a low boat floating on an oval basin. A second reason for this design was that a boat had floated up to this exact location in a major flood in 1598. If you look carefully, you will see that the Barberini family left its mark on this fountain too, in the shape of the sun symbol and the three bees.

In the early stages of the design process for St Peter’s grave in St Peter’s, there was some discussion about a big ship with a huge papal tiara on it. As you have already read, a baldacchino was chosen instead.

We walk to the Trevi Fountain

The name of this famous fountain derives from the three streets – tre vie – that lead here. The water comes from the Aqua Virgo. In 9 BC a spring was discovered near the small town of Salone, which is only 22 kilometres from Rome. The story goes that a young girl (virgo) discovered this spring, hence the name of the aqueduct. The Aqua Virgo partly travels underground, which allowed Pope Nicolas V in 1477 to quickly restore the aqueduct and put it into service again. A simple fountain was built after the water had started to flow again. The present-day fountain was designed by Nicola Salvi.

Giovanni Battista Falda
Chiesa de Santi Vincenzo, et Anastasio alla Fontana di Trevi late 17th century
Giovanni Battista Falda Chiesa de Santi Vincenzo, et Anastasio alla Fontana di Trevi late 17th century

 

Nicola Salvi Trevi fountain
bottom middle
livecam Trevi fountain
aerial picture

pictures: Wikipedia

Pope Urban VIII financed the construction of the new fountain with a wine tax. Pasquino wrote mockingly: ‘Urban taxes our wine, then seeks to amuse us with water.’ The story goes that Salvi died prematurely because of the work in damp cellars and passages. It wasn’t until eleven years after his death that Giuseppe Pannini finished the work of its designer. Of course you have to throw some coins into the fountain, if you ever want to return to Rome, that is.

We walk back to the hotel

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