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Mauro Lucentini’s Rome: Piazza di Spagna, a Grand Old Lady, a Bit Fallen

Elegant since its creation, the square and its "Scalinata" resist in their refinement despite noise and filth

Piazza di Spagna, Rome

What follows is an excerpt from ‘The Rome Guide’ by Mauro Lucentini, art columnist for La Voce di NewYork. More precisely, is an excerpt from those parts of the book entitled ‘Before Going’, that is which are meant to be read before the actual visit ,while the parts referring to the on-the-spot visit are labeled ‘On the Spot.’ This division is found throughout the book and is unique among guidebooks, being particularly suited to Rome, where it is extremely useful for absorbing the immense amount of information necessary to get an idea of the Eternal City and its 2700 years of history. All the excerpts to be published successively here will also come from the ‘Before Going’ sections. The complete book, including the essential ‘On the Spot’ portions, can be purchased on Amazon.  You can read the previous excerpts by clicking here.

If we had to describe Piazza di Spagna in one word, it would be ‘elegance’. The square was born elegant when the popes set out to make it the showpiece of their new quarters east of the over-crowded Tiber bend. Entrepreneurs offered the modern, airy houses in the uncongested neighborhood at stiff rates that limited prospective takers to the affluent, such as senior clergymen, nobles, diplomats and wealthy foreign travellers.

The cosmopolitan sophistication of the area grew in later centuries. Today it survives, despite the efforts of populist city authorities and fast food restaurants to destroy it. Cars are banned, though the crowds that invade the square by day and even more so by night, along with the street vendors, more than compensate in noise and dirt.

The notorious ‘shrubby slope’ before the Spanish Steps were built. At the center is the newly built Barcaccia, its jets splashier than today and accompanied by a smaller fountain for public use. 17th C. print by G. B. Falda

Yet there are still moments when, by detaching yourself from the chaos, you can recapture the old magic. The timeless grace of the square lies in its serene physical layout and in the reminders of a cultural and social life that was the most intense in Europe. Old-world establishments, such as Babington’s Tea Rooms and Caffè Greco are still there. Renowned luxury stores such as Gucci, Bulgari and Valentino have their world headquarters here or nearby.

When the square was built, Spain and France, the most powerful countries in Europe at the time, bought major properties: Spain in the square itself, where it opened its embassy to the pope (it gave the square its name and is still there); and France on the Pincio overlooking the square. The French built a church and convent for their clergy and acquired a splendid villa for an academy of the arts, both of which survive. The two countries so monopolized the square that for a century, half was called Piazza di Spagna (‘of Spain’) and the other half Piazza di Francia (‘of France’).

In the 18th century it was the turn of wealthy Britons to dominate the square. They lodged for long periods either in rented apartments or in the many luxury hotels that sprang up in the area (one of the few surviving hotels of that calibre, the Hassler, at the top of the Spanish Steps, is arguably Rome’s best). England was then the world superpower, and its upper classes had the custom of taking a Grand Tour of Europe, of which Rome was the uncontested high point. Until the late 19th century, the swarms of milordi (as the Romans called rich Englishmen, whether lords or not) on the square earned it the slang nickname ‘er ghetto dell’Ingresi’, or ‘the English ghetto’. Starting with the mid-19th century the English tourists were joined by Americans.

British travelers on the ‘Grand Tour’ in Rome in a painting by their Scotch contemporary, Katherine Read (presently in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Conn.). In the background, the Colosseum (left) and the Arch of Constantine.

From the square, the well-heeled visitors went hunting for paintings and antiques to take home. This habit helped sustain the artists and dealers who had settled in the area.

A related phenomenon was that the square became a job market for models who were hired by painters, both professional and amateur (the English tourists were avid watercolourists). Many models wore the folk costumes of the surrounding countryside – ‘all varnished eyes and daggered hair and swathed legs and peaked hats,’ as American novelist Henry James wrote. Charles Dickens found the models, who gathered in the square until the late 19th century, ‘mightily amusing’.

At the height of the romantic era, Piazza di Spagna was the cultural rendezvous point of the world, thronging with foreigners, both resident and in transit, all ostensibly engaged in artistic or intellectual pursuits – the point of their visit being, of course, to explore Rome’s great classical heritage. ‘Nothing similar exists elsewhere,’ asserted Stendhal in the early 19th century.

The physical beauty of the square was another draw. While it was divided between Spain and France, each country sought to enhance its own image (in a time of hot political competition) by embellishing its half. The great 17th-century Italian-born French statesman, Cardinal Mazarin, outdid the Spanish by conceiving a monumental staircase ascending the hill from the square up to the French church and other French institutions. Actual construction had to wait a century, until both French and Italian money backed a design by the Roman architect Francesco De Sanctis.

The Spanish Steps, as they are called in English (Mazarin, who began the project in the name of France, must be spinning in his grave), are the most famous and distinctive feature of the square. Architects particularly appreciate the way in which the steps are viewable from all angles. The designer’s18th-century report, however, reveals that Signor De Sanctis had other than æsthetic considerations in mind: ‘I will make the steps visible from everywhere because the reverend fathers [of the French church atop the hill] have alerted me to the gross indecencies committed on that shrubby slope [Fig. 13] by couples who often hide there,’ he wrote.

John Keats at age 23, in a miniature by his friend Joseph Severn

Overlooking the steps is the apartment where John Keats died four months after his 25th birthday (it is now the Keats-Shelley Museum). Keats had arrived in Rome in September 1821, ill with tuberculosis, accompanied by his young painter friend Joseph Severn (Rome’s climate was reputedly good for ‘consumptives’). Like most of their countrymen, they lodged in Piazza di Spagna. Keats’ little bedroom overlooked the steps. There, England’s greatest romantic poet spent his final month gaping at the ceiling which Severn had painted with flowers for him, tortured by thoughts of the woman he loved, Fanny, and writing letters that can make even a strong reader cry:

“The thought of leaving [her] is beyond everything horrible – the sense of darkness coming over me – I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing … Shall I awake and find all this a dream? We cannot be created for this sort of suffering …

There is only one thought killing me – I have been well, healthy, alert etc., walking with her, and now …

I should have had her when I was in health, and I should have remained well. I can bear to die – I cannot bear to leave her. Oh, God! God! God! God! Everything … that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.”

Nor could he find consolation in religion. Writing home, Severn reported what his friend told him:

“A malignant being must have power over us – over whom the Almighty has little or no influence – yet you know Severn I cannot believe in your book – the Bible – but I feel the horrible want of some faith – some hope – something to rest on now – there must be such a book…”

Keats died one dark February evening in Severn’s arms. A few hours later, Severn wrote down his final words:

“Did you ever see any one die – no – well then I pity you poor Severn – what trouble and danger you have got into for me – now you must be firm for it will not last long – I shall soon be laid in the quiet grave – thank God for the quiet grave – O! I can feel the cold earth upon me – the daisies growing over me – O for this quiet – it will be my first.”

He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, a fragrant green shaded by pine trees and dotted with the daisies he had dreamt of (we’ll discuss it in the Cemetery context, 92§1). In accordance with his wishes, his unmarked tombstone carries the inscription ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’. Nearby are the remains of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, another Piazza di Spagna regular. He also died tragically young, at the age of 30, perhaps by suicide, when his boat capsized in a storm off the coast of Liguria; a volume of Keats’ poems was in his pocket (we’ll also discuss Shelley’s death in the Protestant Cemetery context). Severn settled in Rome and lived to 85 in an apartment near the square.

Keats and Shelley were amongst the scores of romantic-era English and American poets, writers and painters who lived in the area. Others were Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Leigh Hunt, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Cole and John Singleton Copley. In nearby Piazza Mignanelli was the studio of J. M. W. Turner, the great English painter – ‘a good tempered, funny little gentleman, continuously sketching at his window,’ as one countryman wrote in his diary.

On the Pincio, between the 16th and 19th century, countless French painters, musicians and writers – from Poussin, Fragonard and Ingres to Chateaubriand, Berlioz, Gounod, Debussy and Balthus – lived in or near the French Academy.

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