The Catholic History Behind Rome’s Famed Spanish Steps

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By Melissa Butz

Piazza di Spagna is named in honor of the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See. This tourist hotspot is known for its characteristic Spanish Steps, but it also holds a deeply religious meaning.

Every year on December 8 the Holy Father goes to Piazza di Spagna, to pay homage to Our Lady on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. He places a bouquet of flowers at the base of the statue, while the head of the fire department places a wreath of flowers on her arm, since they have the tallest ladder in the city.

Roman expert Kiron Rathnam says this tradition began in 1857 when Pope Pius IX had the column installed in the square. It was to remind tourists of their Catholic faith, after many stopped visiting the basilicas and turned their attention to more secular aspects of the Eternal City.

“Here you had a reminder of what was really important in life and here was a woman who had not sinned at all,” Kiron explained. “Behind there, there’s the building of the Propoganda Fede. That was deliberately also built there because that building was to train priests to become missionaries in different parts of the world.”

But the square’s main attraction is still the famed 135 Spanish Steps. They were built by an Italian architect, and paid for largely by the French and the Vatican. The stairs link Piazza di Spagna to the French church at the top, consecrated by Pope Sixtus V in 1585.

“The idea of building the Spanish Steps to connect the Trinita di Monti, the church, to the piazza at the bottom, came up from Cardinal Mazarin, who worked under two great French kings,” Kiron said. “One of them was Leo XIV, the Sun King, but it only came to fruition 100 years later.”

It was Pope Clement XI who eventually carried out the project at the beginning of the 1700s, around 100 years after “Fountain of the Ugly Boat” was placed the in the square by yet another pope.

“On the fountain, you can definitely see bees, which represent the Barberini family, where Urban VIII comes from,” she added. “He’s the one who commissioned the fountain.” 

Rumor has it Pope Urban VIII designed the boat “submerged in water” in memory of the flood in the Tiber River in 1598. The truth is the water pressure connecting the aqueduct to the fountain is simply not strong enough for it to be built any higher.

All of Rome’s squares were commissioned in part by various popes. This square includes requests or actions by at least six popes, which make up the piazza we know and love today.