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  • Writer's pictureLorenzo Trujillo

A Story of Steps

By Lorenzo Trujillo - Staff Writer


When you visit Rome, there are two things you take for granted: Firstly, that the magic of the city leaves no one indifferent, and secondly, that you need strong legs to go over it! The reason for the first statement never ceases to impress me. Whether it was by being the epicenter of an ancient empire, the head of the most followed religion in the world or the capital of a modern state, Rome has always found a way to stay relevant. The cause of the second claim is simpler: Rome's particular emplacement makes it a city full of ups and downs.


When we think of Rome, images of magnificent domes, mysterious ruins, and towering fountains instantly come to mind. However, not many recognize the importance of another characteristic, a useful element of the urban landscape of the city: stairs! Rome is full of stairs, of different sizes, colors, and materials. Usually invisible to our eyes, they courteously fulfill their function with the efficacy and expertise of an old servant.


The first stairs I will mention are probably the most famous. A white boat, which never saw the sea, welcomes travelers to a bustling square: The Piazza di Spagna. A set of winding stairs frame the boat, which is nothing less than the “Barcaccia”; a baroque fountain built by the Berninis (father and son), with the elegant “Chiesa della Trinità dei Monti” as a backdrop on the edge of a hill.


It had become an almost religious ritual for tourists to sit on its peaceful steps after an exhausting journey of walking. Today, this could be a rather expensive break: The local government recently implemented the controversial prohibition of sitting down on the stairs. An army of security guards stalk the tired tourists, in hope that any of them commit the irreparable sin of resting for a while. If you have the chance, you should get to the piazza at dusk, and climb the 135 steps that take you to the obelisk on the top. It would be worth climbing mountains for that view. The Roman domes melt into the mysterious evening mist, while, oblivious to the spectacle of the skies, thousands of tourists rush through the square without order or direction.


Crossing the Via del Corso and it's beautiful palaces, we reach the legendary Capitoline Hill. Here, within a few meters of each other, three complexes with imposing staircases intersect and compose a curious and revealing analogy of the history of Italy. The first thing that strikes us is the oversized Altar of the Fatherland. Although it has become a classic in the postcards of Rome, it is still considered by many a rough and grotesque monument; the result of a convulsive twentieth century for the Italians. Behind it, we find the very long staircase leading to the church of Ara Coeli. This is one of the sanctuaries to which the Romans are most devoted, in the most vivid representation of the predominantly Catholic Italy. Finally, we find perhaps the greatest hallmark of the Italian people: The Genius. Only this word can describe the square designed by Michelangelo in the Campidoglio. Everything is geometry, everything is beauty. The place exudes a wholeness and balance that comforts the soul and inhibits the senses. Marcus Aurelius nods with pleasure at the square given to him by the Renaissance master. Three complexes; three stairways; only one, unique, story.


In Italy, as in the rest of the world, genius and eccentricity have always gone hand in hand, and there are many cases of enmity between artists whose rivalry went beyond canvases, sculptures and buildings. Moreover, if these gifted men are two of the greatest architects in history, and they coincide in time and place, the dispute is assured. This is the case of Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini.


Bernini was gallant, extroverted and dashing, a friend of popes and ladies; a true dandy of the 17th century. Borromini, on the other hand, was shy, religious, with a difficult character and a tendency to depression, and was treated with contempt at the court of the Pope. Like characters in a Greek tragedy, their differences extended to all areas, but above all, to art. Examples abound in the streets of Rome. It is surprising how two artists belonging to the same movement could conceive such antagonistic works. In Palazzo Barberini, on Mount Quirinale, we find a case that the reader may find anecdotal. Sometimes, however, anecdotes can effectively summarize long and complex stories.


The story begins at an iron gate. As we enter, the first thing that strikes us is the beautiful main facade. Crossing the central arch, we find two old wooden doors; one on each side of the nave, as if they did not want to see each other. Each one hides a small jewel. Opening the door on the left, the staircase designed by Bernini appears before our eyes. It is a square structure, full of harmony, which ascends in straight lines towards an open sky. Behind the door on the right is the staircase designed by Borromini. It is a set of spirals that ascend towards the heights tracing sensual curves in the marble. Bernini's staircase is a materialization of strength, power, and glory. Borromini's, on the other hand, evokes contradictory facets of the human condition, namely its moldable and unpredictable nature. Or at least that is my opinion. Once you leave from there, you must, like every Roman, choose a side; Bernini or Borromini. Selecting both is not an option. And take care, as the decision is irrevocable.


Despite all that has been said so far, for many, the most important staircase in Rome has not been yet mentioned. It has no defined use. It does not communicate with anything and, even so, those who climb it, on their knees, feel very close to the heights. Its steps are not common, as they cannot be stepped on. I speak of the Scala Santa; the stairs of the palace of Pontius Pilate, which Jesus climbed shortly before his crucifixion, and brought to Rome by St. Helena in the fourth century. Especially for believers, climbing it is an unforgettable spiritual experience.


With the creation of the first skyscrapers in America, staircases were gradually forgotten in favor of elevators. These metallic machines, more comfortable and efficient, are an ode to speed, to the immediate. A radiography of modern society. The New Continent hardly builds any grand staircases anymore. The further appearance of escalators banished them completely. However, old Europe, always so reluctant to change, for better or worse, is still trying to resist this unstoppable trend. And in this defense, among the most illustrious European cities, Rome stands out. A city forged step by step.



Bernini's staircase

Borromini's staircase



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Isabel Trujillo Berraquero
Isabel Trujillo Berraquero
Nov 23, 2021

Bravo! Un buon articolo! Moto saggio!

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