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Rome - Around Town : The Spanish Steps and Villa Borghese (part 1)

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Here is Rome at its most orderly and elegant, carefully laid out under 16th-century papal urban planning schemes. Baroque popes such as Leo X and Sixtus V redeveloped the all but abandoned area around the Corso, the extension of the ancient Via Flaminia from northern Italy, for their rapidly growing city. Romans now call it the Tridente after the trident of streets – Corso, Ripetta and Babuino – diverging from Piazza del Popolo. It’s an area stamped by a love of theatricality: the beautifully symmetrical Piazza del Popolo; long vistas that stretch down arrow-straight roads; the carefully landscaped Pincio gardens and the lush expanse of Villa Borghese; the stage-set backdrop of the Spanish Steps; the oversized and overwrought Trevi Fountain. It’s also Rome’s most stylishly self-conscious district, famous for its boutiques hawking frighteningly expensive high fashion. Artists have long made their home along Via Margutta, as numerous galleries and antiques shops attest, and Rome’s most elegant passeggiata (the traditional early evening see-and-be-seen stroll) unfolds down the length of Via del Corso.

Rome’s Ex-pats

Since Goethe wrote his Italian Journey, Northern Europeans have come here to study and enjoy the sunny clime. Although the Spanish Steps are known as the “English Ghetto” for the Keats residence and Babington’s Tea Rooms, Goethe lived here too. It’s also home to American Express and McDonald’s, and top students from the French Academy are awarded the Prix de Rome to study at the Villa Medici.


Sights
  1. Galleria Borghese

    One of Europe’s greatest small museums, worth seeing for its setting alone, is home to Rome’s best collection of early Bernini sculptures .

  2. Santa Maria del Popolo

    A priceless lesson in Renaissance and Baroque art, architecture and sculpture can be found in this spectacular church .

    Pinturicchio fresco, Santa Maria del Popolo
  3. The Spanish Steps and Piazza di Spagna

    This elegant, off-centre sweep of a staircase is Rome’s most beloved Rococo monument. It is at its most memorable in May, when it is covered in azaleas, but all year round it is littered with people drinking in la dolce vita (sweet life) and musicians strumming guitars until late into the night. Francesco De Sanctis designed the steps in 1723–6 for King Louis XV, and their true name in Italian is Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti, after the church at the top. The hourglass-shaped Piazza di Spagna, with its Bernini Barcaccia fountain and milling tourists, was named after the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican located nearby.

    The Spanish Steps and Piazza di Spagna
  4. Trevi Fountain

    Anita Ekberg bathed in it in La Dolce Vita; Three Coins in a Fountain taught us to throw coins backwards over our shoulder to ensure a return visit to Rome (healthier than the original tradition of drinking the water for luck) – thanks to the world of cinema this beautiful fountain is one of the most familiar sights of Rome. The right relief shows a virgin discovering the spring from which Augustus (left relief) built the Acqua Vergine aqueduct, which still feeds the fountain. Nicola Salvi paid homage to these ancient origins by grafting his exuberant Baroque confection onto the Classical architectural framework of a triumphal arch .

    • Piazza di Trevi

  5. Keats-Shelley Memorial

    The pink-stuccoed apartment overlooking the Spanish Steps, where 25-year-old John Keats breathed his last, consumptive breath in 1821, has been turned into a modest little museum dedicated to the Romantic-era British poets who lived part of their lives in Rome . Main displays include documents, letters, copies of publications, and Keats’ death mask. Companion Joseph Severn cradled Keats’ head as he died; his resultant drawing of Keats on his Deathbed is also on exhibit.

    • Piazza di Spagna 26

    • 06 678 4235

    • Open 10am–1pm, 3–6pm Mon–Fri, 11am–2pm, 3–6pm Sat

    • Adm

    Bust, Keats-Shelley Memorial
  6. La Barcaccia

    Bernini’s father Pietro possibly helped train his son in making this tongue-in-cheek 1629 fountain of a sinking boat. The design ingeniously solved the low water pressure problem by having a boat sprouting leaks rather than jets and sprays.

    • Piazza di Spagna

  7. Piazza del Popolo

    Rome’s elegant public living room started as a trapezoidal piazza in 1538. In 1589, Sixtus V had Domenico Fontana build a fountain crowned with a 3,200-year-old obelisk – the 25-m (82-ft) megalith from Heliopolis, honouring Ramses II, was brought to Rome by Augustus. Napoleon’s man in Rome hired Giuseppe Valadier to overhaul the piazza to its current Neo-Classical look in 1811–24, a giant oval that grades up the steep slope of the Pincio via a winding road. Valadier also added the fountain’s Egyptian-style lions .

    Piazza del Popolo
  8. Trinità dei Monti

    This church, crowning the French-commissioned Spanish Steps, was part of a convent founded by Louis XII in 1503. The twin-towered façade (1584) is by Giacomo della Porta; the double staircase (1587) by Domenico Fontana. The Baroque interior has three chapels. Daniele da Volterra frescoed the third chapel on the right and painted the Assumption altarpiece (which includes a portrait of his teacher Michelangelo as the far right figure), as well as the Deposition in the second chapel on the left. The nearby 16th-century Villa Medici (open for special exhibits) has housed the French Academy since 1803.

    • Piazza Trinità dei Monti

    • Open 7am–1pm, 3–7pm Tue–Sun

    • Free

    Trinità dei Monti
  9. Villa Borghese

    Rome’s largest green space is made up of 688 ha (1,700 acres) of public park, landscaped gardens, statuary, fountains, groves, pathways, pavilions and a water clock. There are also three world-class museums: Renaissance and Baroque art at Galleria Borghese, ancient Etruscan artifacts at Villa Giulia, and modern art at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna. In addition, the Museo Carlo Bilotti, which opened in 2006, houses a permanent collection of contemporary works by the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978). It’s all thanks to Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who in 1608 turned these vast family lands just outside the Aurelian walls into a private pleasure park, opened to the public in 1901. In 1809–14, Giuseppe Valadier had turned the adjacent space within the city walls into the terraced Pincio gardens, a favourite passeggiata destination studded with statues of great Italians. There’s an elaborate tea house and an obelisk commissioned by Hadrian to honour his lover.

    • Entrances on Piazza Flaminio, Piazza del Popolo, Via Trinità dei Monti and Corso Italia

  10. Via dei Condotti

    The “Fifth Avenue” of Rome, lined with chic shops and fashion boutiques of top-name designers. After flirting with high street retail chains in the 1990s, the street has been re-conquered by the haute couture that made it famous .

    Via dei Condotti
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