We walk from the Vatican Museums to the Cipro Metro station, where we will board the underground to Spagna.
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 (Antoine Lafréry, 1575). Sixtus V had already carried out a number of plans to make the city more accessible to the many pilgrims.
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.
Before the construction of 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 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.
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.
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 (festive etching 1661- 1662). 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).
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.
The flight of stairs was completed in 1726 and blends straight lines, curves and terraces into a spectacular whole.
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.