Thursday, October 30, 2014

La Barcaccia . . . and more

Today's photos


1. La Barcaccia, the charming little fountain at the foot of the Spanish Steps.

2. A view of the fountain from a different angle.

3. The coat of arms of Urban VIII between the two jets of water.

4. The presence of the Spanish embassy to the Holy See is the reason for the name

of the square: Piazza di Spagna.

5. Looking up the Spanish Steps to the church of Santissima Trinità dei Monti.

6. The view from the top of the Spanish Steps.

7. The column of the Immaculate Conception.

8. Palazzo di Propaganda Fide is Vatican territory.

9. Above the side windows of the palazzo you see the Barberini bee.

10. An old print of the Pantheon made before the ill-conceived bell towers of Bernini were removed.


La Barcaccia (photos 1, 2 & 3) is a delightful little fountain just in front of the famous Spanish Steps. It is a work by Bernini, not the famous Gianlorenzo whom everyone knows, but his father, Pietro, who received the commission in 1627 from Pope Urban VIII Barberini. The father then asked his gifted son to assist him. The work was completed in 1629.


The name of the fountain, Barcaccia, needs some explanation. It is an altered form of the Italian word barca (boat). Its meaning is modified by the suffix –accia which turns a normal boat into an ugly, broken boat. Looking at the fountain you can see that it does indeed look like a boat which is taking on water and sinking.


A curiosity


There is, of course, a reason for this unusual design, said to have been requested of Pietro Bernini by Urban VIII himself. As a young priest the future Pope was amazed to see a riverboat which had been washed up into the piazza by the disastrous flood of the Tiber in 1598. This unusual sight apparently made a lasting impression on the thirty year-old priest who, as Pope some thirty years later in 1627, asked the architect to immortalize the scene in his design of the fountain.


Pietro Bernini was probably more than willing to use the design of a sinking ship for another reason besides the papal request. This area is one of the lowest parts of Rome, and as a result the water pressure is very weak. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to construct here a large fountain with strong jets of water shooting high into the air. Therefore, the sinking ship design not only pleased the Pope, it was also appropriate to the terrain. This is one of only two fountains in Rome to have been built below ground level; the other one is the Fontana della Terrina (Fountain of the Bowl) in Piazza della Chiesa Nuova.


La Barcaccia has on both ends a flow of water which acts as a drinking fountain, complete with a little stone walkway which provides easy access to it. Of course a work of art commissioned by the Barberini Pope will always have the famous family crest which displays the three bees. It is visible on both ends of the "boat" (photo 3).  The fountain was only recently unveiled after being covered by scaffolding for almost a year as it received a much needed cleaning. It looks now like the father-son Bernini team just finished it last week!


A curiosity


In the early 1900's they were preparing to lay tram tracks around the fountain so that the tram could go around it and turn onto Via dei Condotti. One morning a notice was found on the fountain informing the Romans that La Barcaccia would be displaced to make room for the tram. Some people even believed it . . . until they remembered that the date was April 1. It was a pesce d'aprile (April fool's joke)!


This area of the city, considered one of the "living-rooms of Rome", has become much more pleasant since it was turned into a pedestrian only zone a few months ago. Even taxis and buses are now banned from the area. There are other interesting sights nearby, so here is just a short description of some of them.




This is the name of the piazza where the Fontana della Barcaccia is located. It is so-named because of the presence nearby of Palazzo di Spagna, (photo 4) built in 1647 as the seat of the Spanish Embassy to the Papal State. It remains today the Spanish Embassy to the Holy Sea and the residence of the ambassador.




Only in the English-speaking world does this famous stairway of 138 steps have this name. It is more properly called in Italian La Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti, (photos 5 & 6) after the church of the same name at the top of the steps. In fact, the elegant Baroque stairway was built in the 1700's from a design by Francesco De Sanctis to provide an approach to the church from the piazza below. Before the stairway existed this was just a wooded area with two narrow paths leading up to the church.


A curiosity


The idea of building a stairway here was first conceived in 1559, when even Gianlorenzo Bernini was involved in the project. The commission was given to De Sanctis by Clement XI Albani in 1717, but wortk began only in 1723, two years after the death of Clement. It was finally fished in 1726 during the pontificate of Benedict XIII Orsini. Remember that La Barcaccia was built in 1629, so the fountain was in place almost 100 years before the steps.




This beautiful column (photo 7) rests on a high base directly in front of the embassy. It is an ancient Roman column which now has a statue of the Virgin Mary at the top. It was set up by Pius IX (1846-1878) to recall his proclamation on December 8, 1854, of the dogma which declares that Mary was conceived without Original Sin.




As the name indicates, Propaganda Fide, "for spreading the Faith", this palazzo (photo 8) serves as the headquarters of the Church's missionary work around the world. It is located just beyond the Column of the Immaculate Conception and was originally commissioned by Urban VIII from Gianlorenzo Bernini. You will see the ubiquitous Barberini bee (photo 9) above all the side windows of the building. After the death of Urban in 1644, the new Pope, Innocent X Pamphili (1644-1655), fired Bernini and turned the work over to his rival, Francesco Borromini. Bernini was considered too close to the Barberini family of Urban VIII with which the Pamphili family of Innocent X was in conflict. This was perhaps the only time that Borromini got the better of his more famous adversary. The Pamphili Pope would later have a change of heart and hire Bernini to build the famous Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona.


A curiosity


Borromini expressed his contempt for Bernini in an interesting and amusing way. He decorated the windows of the palazzo with structures that resembled large ears of an ass. This to humiliate his rival who had placed twin bell towers on the Pantheon which quickly became an object of ridicule by the Romans who nicknamed the ill-conceived towers "the ass ears of Bernini"! The ass ears of both architects were eventually removed from their respective structures, but you can find old prints of the Pantheon with its infamous "ass ears" (photo 10).


The fact that Bernini lived in a house just across the street from the palazzo must have caused him further irritation as he could not help but witness on a daily basis how Borromini was altering his original design. And of course he would see the infamous ass ears every time he walked out of his house!


You can find more information about some of the topics in this post by consulting The Sights of Rome, Chapter 3, Bernini, Borromini, Innocent X, and Chapter 6, The Column of the Immaculate Conception. See also Rome: Sights and Insights, Chapter 22, Santissima Trinità dei Monti. For more about floods on the Tiber, see Tiber Island and the Basilica of St. Bartholomew, pp. 36-37.


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