Piazza di Spagna - Roma


As mentioned in other articles about this city, Roman love for satire is centuries old and well documented. But did you know that this, combined with the funny appearance of a statue, led to a nearby street having its name changed? In this curiosities section, you will find out which statue we are referring to, together with several other interesting facts.

Babington’s: the English-style Tea Room

In 1893, two English ladies, Isabel Cargill and Anna Maria Babington decided to open a tea room where the waiters would serve tea and food wearing traditional English clothing.

The shop was named Babington’s, and it soon became a meeting point for the Anglo-Saxons in the capital, as well as many Roman intellectuals. Initially, the tea shop opened in a nearby street, but following its success, it was relocated to Piazza di Spagna 23, right next to the Steps.

After surviving the bombings of World War II and the arrival of fast food, Babington’s is still a tourist attraction and institution among political and artistic figures.

Among its famous clients, the tearoom has hosted Federico Fellini, Elizabeth Taylor, and many more. Near the entrance, there is a plaque that reads part of Cesare Pavese’s poem Passerò da Piazza di Spagna (I’ll Pass by the Spanish Square).

The Barcaccia Legend

According to popular belief, Bernini was inspired to build the fountain by an event that happened during the Christmas period of 1598. At this time, Rome was hit by an incredibly strong flood. It seems that, when the overflowing water from the Tiber river receded, a fishing boat was deposited in the center of the square, and couldn’t be moved for a time.

Thirty years later, the artist modeled his sculpture after this event. This would have led him to shape the boat with a flat bottom, like those typically used in river barges to transport goods along the Tiber.

It is said that in reality, Pietro Bernini was struggling to solve the problem of the low water pressure from the Acqua Vergine aqueduct. After observing a semi-sunken boat in the river, he decided to sculpt a fountain representing a similar subject, thus solving the problem of the low water pressure in that area of the city.

Via Condotti and Fashion

This is a well-known street that goes from Spanish Square to Largo Goldoni, still in the Campo Marzio district. The name derives from the ducts (condotte in Italian) that led water to the Agrippa Baths, near the Pantheon.

As already mentioned, the area surrounding Piazza di Spagna is one the most glamorous and elegant in Rome, and it hosts high fashion shops. Among some of the most famous Italian luxury brands that have a shop here, we can find Prada, Ferragamo, Gucci, Beltrami, as well as many more non-Italian brands.

In Via Borgognona, parallel to Condotti, one can find ateliers from other brands, such as Fendi, Ferrè, Versace. Valentino stores are located in Via Bocca di Leone and Via Mario de Fiori, while Armani has his emporium in Via del Babuino, a street renowned for its art galleries, antique stores, and exclusive furniture shops.

One can certainly say that fashion contributed to the Piazza and surrounding areas’ reputation. In fact, it is said that it was Bulgari to finance the restoration works in 2015, after the vandalic acts that affected various monuments in the square, as exposed in the former section of this article.

The Spanish Square and Cinema

Another form of art that contributed to making the Spanish Square internationally recognized and famous, was Cinema. Many directors chose the location as a film set for their works, featuring many famous Hollywood stars.

Among these was Roman Holiday (1953), in which the actors Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn meet by the Square.

The film, directed by William Wyler, tells the story of Princess Ann (Hepburn). She is a member of a non-specified royal family, traveling from one capital to the other for diplomatic reasons. With the help of a journalist (Peck), she decides to escape her embassy and discover Rome. The film is considered to be the one that made Hepburn famous.

Another notable film that used the Piazza as its main stage is the 1999 Anthony Minghella’s psychological thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley, with Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow as protagonists.

The Column, the Pasquinata, and the Baboon

As mentioned previously in this article, the Column of the Immaculate Conception lays on a base where four sculptures have been put. One of these represents Moses.

It seems that the sculpture of the prophet was given a mouth too small for its stature. The poor execution inevitably led to a pasquinata (from Pasquino, the most famous among the talking statues of Rome).

With the name pasquinate we indicate the satirical gestures by the Roman public, aimed at criticizing the powers that be and their corruption. In order to do so, papers with anonymous rhymes making fun of well-known public figures were hung on the statues’ necks at night, to be found in the morning.

In this case, the statue is asked to speak, if possible. Because of its small mouth, the statue replies “No, I can’t”. Then the statue is asked to whistle, to which it replies “yes I’ll whistle, but against the sculptor that made me”.

In the street that links Piazza del Popolo with Piazza di Spagna, also part of the street complex known as Trident, we can find the Silenus Statue. This is a mythological character, half man and half goat, here depicted in the center of a minor fountain. With time, this statue too came to be known as one of the talking statues giving voice to the public’s complaints.

Its appearance was so peculiar that the public compared it to a monkey, specifically a baboon. It was in its name that the street where it resides changed its name from Via Paolina to Via del Babuino (Baboon street).

The Azaleas Exhibit

Every year since 1951, in the month of April, an azaleas exhibit takes place on the 137 steps of the Square. No Roman spring is complete without this colorful exhibition on the Spanish Steps. The flower show has been happening for almost a century and every year it is a delight for tourists. At this time, visitors can enjoy the already beautiful Steps, built by Francesco De Sanctis, in an even more fascinating context.

Normally these plants are kept in the San Sisto plant nursery, where the municipality’s gardeners take care of these plants, belonging to the Rhododendron Indicum species, a type of azalea not available on the market, and particularly apt to the Roman climate.

This spectacle features about 250 plants, traditionally white and lilac. The white ones are generally already in full bloom, while the lilac ones—located at the bottom of the Steps—will start blooming soon after. This is one of the most scenic and appreciated urban views in Rome.

The French Mass

In the previous section, the relationship between the Trinità dei Monti Church and the State of France was discussed. There is, however, a detail worth mentioning that ties the aforementioned church to this country.

It has to do with the fact that mass is celebrated in French, but that is not all. The church has in fact two bell towers with two clocks, representing the two capitals, Rome and Paris.

Antico Caffè Greco

It is one of the most elegant cafés of the city, founded in 1760. It is the second oldest cafè still open to date.

It can be found in Via Condotti and it has always been a meeting place for intellectuals and artists. The main hall, called Omnibus, still has many artifacts and works linked to these figures.

Among them, we can name María Zambrano, the Spanish philosopher, who was a recurring customer of the cafè.


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