Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Square in English) did not initially go by this name, it was instead known as Piazza di Francia, meaning French Square. This magnificent building had in fact become a symbol of the rivalry between the two European powers. What really makes it famous though, are the wonderful steps, and these were not added until the early 1700s.
In this section, you can find out more about the history of this monument and about the many famous artists, poets, and authors who lived here throughout its history.
Renaissance (1492 - 1789)
Piazza di Spagna is part of the Colonna and the Campo Marzio district, between Via dei Due Macelli and Via del Babuino. The construction of this area dates back to the 16th century. The main objective was having a space that could hold the large number of pilgrims visiting medieval Rome. At the time, other public spaces were struggling to do so.
A new route was then engineered, welcoming and gathering visitors arriving from the north of the city, through Porta del Popolo and towards the Vatican.
To the north, the square met Via San Sebastianello, which split into two at its top. To the right, it went towards the Franciscan church of Trinità dei Monti, and to its left, it went towards Villa Medici. Both of these were located at the top of the Colle Pincio (Pincio Hill).
The other important street was Via del Babuino, through which northern visitors were led from the Porta del Popolo gate, through the square, into the city center.
Through time, the square acquired its famous butterfly shape—that is, two triangles whose vertices meet in the middle. These are tied together by the line that runs through Via Condotti - Barcaccia Fountain - Trinità dei Monti. The square used to be surrounded by houses with tall windows, in the typical ocher, cream, and rusty red tones. Over time, it started filling up with hotels.
The current structure of the area started becoming clearer in the 1500s when the Trinità dei Monti church and its twin bell towers were built on Pope Sixtus V’s orders. Towards the end of the century, the Pope had an Egyptian obelisk placed in front of the facade.
At the beginning of the 16th century, in the location where we can now find the Spanish Steps, there were still just cultivated land and two palaces. One, towards the fields, belonged to the Ferratini family, and later became the Palazzo del Collegio di Propaganda Fide, and the other, belonging to the Monaldeschi barons, was sold to the Spanish ambassadors.
The name of the square, as mentioned above, comes from Palazzo di Spagna—built in 1647 by Antonio del Grande—which houses the Embassy of Spain. King Filippo IV had in fact already paid for the whole building in 1620. The entirety of the surrounding area was considered Spanish territory.
The properties in the area were initially considered the estate of the surrounding monasteries, later going to the French and Spanish states. In a way, they highlighted the seclusion of the area. The states were at the time the two greatest powers in Europe, and they settled in the area firmly and in contrast to one another, as well as in contrast to the State of the Church. This is even more evident if one considers that, before the 1600s, the Spanish Square was known as Piazza di Francia (that is, French Square).
Having become a point of attraction for the biggest European powers, the square started to represent the city’s center of cultural and touristic life. For a long time, it was chosen as a destination by artists, poets, and distinguished public figures.
At the center of the square, we can find one of its notable works of art, the Barcaccia. It is one of the most beautiful fountains of Rome, so-called because of its shape of a half-sunken ship (barca means ship in Italian). It lays on an oval-shaped basin, slightly under street level. It was built between 1626 and 1629 by Pietro Bernini, father to the more famous Gian Lorenzo, and commissioned by Urbano VIII Barberini.
However, the most notable architectural element of the square was inaugurated by Pope Benedict XII in 1725, on the occasion of the jubilee. Its function was that of linking the Spanish Embassy and the Trinità dei Monti church. It was the famous Spanish Steps, built by Francesco de Sanctis.
Contemporary Age (1789 - present)
Another work of art, known as the Column of the Immaculate Conception (Colonna dell’Immacolata Concezione), was commissioned by Pio IX in 1857, in honor of the dogma of the immaculate conception, established three years prior. The piece is from the architect Luigi Poletti, who designed a complex monument, as we will see in the next section, The Piazza’s Buildings and Monuments.
On the right-hand corner of the Steps, we can also visit another important site: the Keats–Shelley Memorial House. It was here that the poet Keats lived and died in 1821, as well as Percy Bysshe Shelley. Inside, the atmosphere is that typical of the ‘800, adorned by books and antique furniture.
Another prominent building in the square, inaugurated fairly recently, is the Giorgio de Chirico House Museum, by Palazzetto del Borgognoni. The house, which originally dates to the 16th century, was bought by the painter de Chirico in 1948. He transformed it into his family house and studio. The museum was opened in 1998, with the approval of the painter’s widow, who wished to preserve his artistic heritage.
Piazza di Spagna currently represents the Roman Baroque, it is the most well-known meeting point in the city, but also one of the most elegant, artistic, and fashionable areas of the capital. The square gained fame as a spot for luxury shopping, but also thanks to Cinema, as we will later discuss in the Curiosities section.