A Meeting of Minds

The Piazza di Spagna has been the location of the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican City since the 17th century. It was also the residential location for foreign visitors from the 17th to the 19th century. Tobias Smolett , the well known 18th century writer and surgeon, wrote a book about his experiences of travelling in France and Italy. This 1766 book describes the history and social life of the places he visited, giving his own opinion about diet and morals, and guiding future travellers on how to conduct themselves. He declared that “Here most of the English reside”.

But it was not only the English, other nations were represented too and were drawn to the area; artists, writers and musicians frequented the Piazza and the nearby streets. The meeting place for some of the most talented and influential people of their times. Franz Liszt, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Henrik Ibsen, Honore de Balzac, Hans Christian Andersen, Felix Mendelssohn, Henry James, as well as Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Robert Browning, to name but a few.

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The Piazza di Spagna “Here most of the English reside” Smolett

The Piazza is famous for the Scalinata di Trinita Dei Monti, know as the Spanish Steps, which were built between 1723 to 1726, to connect the Santissima Trinita dei Monti with the Piazza. Charles VIII of France purchased land in order to found a convent for the French order of San Francesco di Paola. He also provided money to build a church the Santissima Trinita dei Monti. Approval was given by Pope Alessandro VI and construction started in 1502 using stone from Narbonne in France. The Gothic church’s towers were not built until 1580-87 when, by then, the style was out of favour. The church’s design can not be attributed to any one architect.

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Santissima Trinità dei Monti and Third Century Obelisk

Plans to build the steps date back to the 1580s when the church was built. The plans did not proceed due to a lack of funds. It was not until 1660 when money was left to the church for the project, by a French diplomat Etienne Gueffier who had left the money in his will for the sole purpose. Mazarin, Louis XIV’s Cardinal, took over the project but unfortunately it stalled again due to Gueffier’s nephew contesting the will; and Pope Alessandro VIII taking exception to the idea of the equestrian statue of Louis XIV as part of the design. Sixty six years later the steps were finally completed. The 135 Baroque style steps  were designed by the Italian architect Francesco De Sanctis, who was favoured by the French. There were diplomatic negotiations between the Vatican and French officials to make sure the completed work represented both nations.

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Keats-Shelly Museum viewed from Spanish Steps

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Keats-Shelley Museum viewed from front with original shop front with flour-de-lis symbol above

At the base of the steps, the buildings on either side were designed by Francesco de Sanctis and constructed by the French. The Casino Rossa on the right of the steps was designed as a purpose built shop with accommodation above. It is now the Keats-Shelley Museum, but was originally a boarding house where John Keats lived for three months before he died on 23rd February 1821. John Keats originally studied medicine at Guy’s Hospital registering in October 1815, and became a licensed apothecary in 1816. He was promoted to a Dresser allowing him to dress wounds, set bones and assist with surgery. In July he passed the examinations to become a surgeon and took a summer break in Margate. Keats’ first love had been literature and though he continued to write poetry, his medical studies were taking up to much of his time.  After spending his summer holiday writing, he returned to London and on the 31st October at the age of 21 he began practicing as a surgeon. In December 1816 his sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer was published in The Examiner, it was the turning point, he was disillusioned with medicine and now he could justify a change of career. Sometime after this period Keats started to take mercury for an unspecified illness, possibly veneral disease, though he was well aware how dangerous this medication was, by the summer of 1818 he was already showing signs of mercury poisoning. Towards the end of 1818 he was caring for his brother Tom who had contracted tuberculosis, because of Keats’ weakened system it was inevitable that he would also contract tuberculosis. Tom sadly died on 1 December 1818. Keats continued to write, and by the summer of 1819 he was ill with the first stage of tuberculosis. In February he started to haemorrhage, from the colour of the blood he knew he was dying.  It was decided that he should travel to Italy for the winter.

On the 13 September he left England for Naples with his friend Joseph Severn, the artist. They spent ten days in quarantine before arriving in Rome on the 14 November. He became a patient of Sir James Clark who had set up a practice in Rome, and took up residence in the Casino Rossa in the Plazza di Spagna. Clark’s diagnosis was consumption and to counteract the effects of the mercury, which damages the stomach, he  prescribed a starvation diet and blood letting. Keats as a physician was well aware that it was futile. He died at the age 25 and during his very short life he produced some beautiful poems. Keats had been invited to Pisa by his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, Keats hoped he would visit him after his stay in Rome. Shelley wrote Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats upon hearing of his death. A year later when Shelley drowned there was a small copy of the Keats’ poetry in his pocket.

After the death of Keats the furniture, curtains, wallpaper and his personal property were burnt to stop the spread of disease and infection, this was decreed by Vatican Law. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Shelley’s ashes were also interned here and they were joined by Joseph Severn in 1879.

The room where Keats died, the ceiling, fireplace and flooring are the only original features left.

Over the years the house fell into disrepair, but it was still attracting attention as the site where Keats died. By 1903 two American ladies were living there and showing visitors around. Eventually in 1906 a group of English, American and Italians raised the money to purchase the rundown Casino Rossa and after restoration it was formally opened in December 1909. Over the years the house suffered from only being available to the academics and its future was uncertain. In 1976 Sir Joseph Cheyne, Bt became curator and worked tirelessly to change the image; he encouraged school parties and made the house a tourist attraction. When Cheyne retired in 1990 its visitors numbered 11,000. The property is owned by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, a British charity, it is run as a commercial business open six days a week, all year round except for one week in December. The house’s running costs are covered by the admission fee, a gift shop and the rental income. It has a library of over eight thousand books devoted to English Romanticism, holds various events, exhibitions and poetry readings. They have a book club, competitions, awards and a website doing a successful job to keep the memory of the dead poet alive.

In the centre of the Piazza is located an unusual fountain shaped like a sinking boat. The Fontana della Barcaccia was designed by Petro Bernini. The water for the fountain was supplied from the Acqua Vergine, one of the Roman aqueducts constructed by Consul and Architect Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Bernini’s design of a leaking boat compensated for the minimal water pressure. The fountain was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII in 1623. It was started in 1627 and completed after his death in 1629 by his son Gian Lorenzo Bernini. John Keats could hear the water flowing from the fountain and requested that the epitaph on his headstone should read: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

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The Piazza and Fontana della Barcaccia viewed from Keats-Shelley Museum

As previously mentioned the Piazza di Spagna was the area where English tourists congregated and as a nation we are very fond of a cup of tea. Two ladies who arrived in Italy in 1893 were able to exploit this need in order to make a successful business which is still flourishing today. Babington’s Tea Rooms can be found on the left side of the steps.

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Babington’s Tea Rooms

When the English Anna Maria Babington and the New Zealand Isabel Cargill arrived in Rome they invested their £100 in opening a tea rooms on the Via dei Due Macelli, close to the piazza. Obviously it was a resounding success, as it provided the comforts of home for the weary tourist, and the next year they relocated to the building on the left side of the steps.

In 1910 Annie Cargill the sister of Isabel, arrived in Rome and opened the Hotel Londra & Cargill on the corner of Via Collina and the Piazza Sallustio. The hotel is a large building dating from the 1800s and is open to this day. Unfortunately the tea room business was effected by the outbreak of the first world war and this continued into the 1920s. Anna Maria moved to Switzerland due to ill health and sadly died of a heart attack. Isabel’s daughter Dorothy, from her marriage to the Italian artist Giuseppe da Pozzo, took over the management of the tea rooms. Annie invested money in the tea rooms, they were refurbished and business started to pick up again. Throughout the second world war the family left Rome, when they returned after the war they found out that the staff had kept the tea rooms open using their own rations. This family run business is still as successful as ever, and has built up a worldwide following through its website and sales of its merchandise.

 

The photos are from the author’s own collection.

“Our roots were never struck so deeply as at Pisa…”

Pisa is a Tuscan city located on the River Arno, close to the Ligurian Sea. The city was one of the many stopping points on the Grand Tour. The tour was seen as the practical part of a young gentleman’s education, to visit various locations to experience the architecture and art at first hand. Pisa became home for Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, “Our roots were never struck so deeply as at Pisa...”. It was here that Shelley gathered his Utopian Circle of friends. When Elizabeth Barrett Browning left Pisa to return to Florence, her regret was that she had not climbed the Leaning Tower.

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Battistero and Duomo 

The beautiful buildings of the Piazza Dei Miracoli are testament to a time when Pisa was an important maritime republic, and a commercial centre with trading links to the entire Mediterranean and Northern Africa. Pisa had been an important naval base from Roman times until the fleet was eventually defeated by the Genoese at the Battle of Meloria and the port was destroyed.

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Duomo and Campanile

The Duomo was begun in 1064 by the architect Buscheto di Giovanni Giudice to commemorate the naval victory near Palermo, which took place in 1063. It is clad in alternate bands of green and cream marble, which was to influence the style of future churches throughout Tuscany. The Duomo was dedicated in 1118 by Pope Gelasius II to Santa Maria Assunta. It was later enlarged between 1120 and 1125.

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Duomo’s 13th Century Facade

In the 13th century the facade was completed by the architect Rainaldo who designed a tomb for Buscheto on the left hand side of the facade. It is constructed of white Carrara marble, which incorporates coloured sandstone, glass and majolica plates. There knots, flowers and animals in the inlaid marble. The four tiers of loggias include statues of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on each corner, and the Madonna and Child at the top.

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Battistero di San Giovanni

“…the Baptistry of San Giovanni, built of pure white marble and cover’d with so artificial a cupola the voice uttered under it seemed to break out of a cloud.”

John Evelyn

The Battistero di San Giovanni was designed by the architect Diotisalvi as a cylindrical building, instead of the usual octagonal design. The construction of the first level started in 1152 of white Carrara marble in the Romanesque style. After his death the design was changed by Niccola Pisano, who together with his son Giovanni, built the Gothic middle loggia level. The cupola roof was added in 1365 to complete the building. This domed roof covered the coned shaped upper section creating an amazing acoustic space.

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Torre Pendente

“a horrible but an astonishing object”  

Robert Adam

All the buildings lean to some extent as a result of the soft, pliable stratum of clay and sand; and their lack of substantial foundations. But the Campanile has become famous for it’s very noticeable lean. This region of Italy is vulnerable to earthquakes, and the fact that they have been built on this unstable surface has absorbed the vibrations and insured their survival.

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Campanile

Construction of the Romanesque style Campanile was started in 1173, it’s architect is not recorded but it is believed that the first phase is the work of Bonanno Pisano. After his death he was buried at the base of the Campanile. This first phase was halted in 1178 when they reached the 4th gallery and the tower had started to lean. The construction of the second phase resumed in 1272, and is attributed to Giovanni di Simone who tried to correct the lean, by building the stories taller on the shorter side to compensate. Unfortunately the extra weight caused the tower to sink further into the ground and increase the lean. This phase was completed in 1278.

Bell Chamber and Bells

The bell chamber and final phase was started in 1360 by Tommaso Andrea Pisano, it is smaller in diameter than the rest of the tower and houses seven large bells. This phase was completed in 1399 and four original columns had to be replaced due to the lean. In 1993 the bells were silenced because experts were concerned the vibration could affect work to stop it from collapsing.

The tower was built of San Giuliano marble which has been gradually replaced with white Carrara marble. Only 33 of the original pillars of the open galleries remain, these are on the north-eastern side. The tower was 60 meters tall but now it is 56.67m on the highest side and 55.86m on the shortest side.

Previous work over the centuries to correct or stabilise the lean had all been unsuccessful. In 1990 the tower was closed to the public and work started in 1993 to safeguard the tower, which had a 5.4 meter lean. By 2008 it had been stabilised and the lean reduced by 0.5 degrees. By 2011 restoration to the interior and exterior stonework was completed.

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There are 251 very worn steps to the top

During World War 2 my father was called up in 1940 and joined the Essex Regiment. He served in Egypt, Iran and Iraq before being assigned to 17 Brigade Indian Army Ordinance Corp. Because my father spoke Hindi he was transferred in April 1943 to the 8th Indian Division with officer status. The Division was based in Damascus training in mountainous warfare ready for the invasion of Italy. In September they landed in Tarranto Italy fighting their way up to Monte Cassino, Assisi, Rome and Florence and in the New Year of 1945 they rested in Pisa. My father often talked about sleeping in tents beneath the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

 

The photos are from the author’s own collection.