Piazza di Spagna

Rome, Italy
May 2011

Rome's Piazza di Spagna is a picturesque square. It owes its name to the nearby Monaldeschi Palace, which hosts the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican (the Spanish Embassy to Italy is located elsewhere). This is the oldest embassy in the world, established in 1480 by King Ferdinand, and has been located at this plaza since 1647.

The main attraction in the plaza are the Spanish Steps, 135 steps connecting the square with the church Trinità dei Monti above, of which the French are responsible for. The Obelisco Sallustiano, an obelisc from the early Roman Empire, has stood at the top of the steps since 1789.


A notable building in the plaza lies to the right of the steps. This yellow house was the home and deathplace of John Keats. The building is now a museum honoring him and other romantic poets.


The fountain at the centre of the plaza is known as the Fontana della Barcaccia, or the Fountain of the Boat. This may be the oldest part of the plaza, as it was built in 1623 by Pietro Bernini. See, Pope Urban VIII commissioned Bernini as part of a prior Papal project to set up a fountian in every major Roman square, which was a very ambitious goal.

The fountain looks like a half-sunken ship perpetually flooded over. Legend has it that a small boat made it into the Piazza in 1598 when the Tiber River flooded, which inspired Bernini's design. The fountain sources its water from the Acqua Vergine a Roman aqueduct built in 19 BC that still carries pure drinking water to many monuments, including the Trevi Fountain.


La Colonna della Immacolata

At the other side of the square, in a section known as Piazza Mignanelli, stands an enormous corinthian column dedicated to the Virgin Mary's immaculate conception. The monument lies in front of the Palace of the Propagation of the Faith – nowadays known as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples – the Catholic church's outreach program.

Atop the Colonna stands the Virgin Mary carrying a wreath of flowers. The Roman firemen place a new wreath every December 8 during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which must be a bit of a challenge to place. One must also question the timing of the feast, since December 8 to December 25 is a considerably short or considerably long pregnancy.


At the base of the column there are four statues depicting Moses, Isaiah, David, and Ezekiel in their roles as patriarch, prophet, king, and seer, respectively. It might be odd to see that Moses is portrayed with horns, but this is a common practice due to a mistranslation in the Vulgate by Jerome. There's a passage in the Bible (Exodus 34:29- 30) that describes Moses, after meeting with God atop Mt. Sinai, as having a shiny face. However, this was translated into Latin as horns of light, so many Catholic depictions of the prophet include horns. After a while it became tradition and now it is Moses' recognizable feature in iconography. Poor guy.


I quite enjoyed Piazza di Spagna. It's a lot of fun to walk up and down the steps, and the Fountain of the Boat is very neatly designed. If you take a look at the stair's bannister you'll see the french Fleur-de-Lis design engraved upon it, a small hint to the Bourbon control of the church above. I found it odd that such a symbol was located in the Spanish Plaza, but after investigating the history of the location I can appreciate the international influences in just one square.