A City of Ups and Downs

by Danilo Brunetti

By Federico Schiaffino

The very makeup of Rome and its legendary seven hills has given architects over the centuries an excuse to design splendid staircases connecting structures placed on different levels. Apart from those built in response to practical demands—dictated by the ups and downs of the hilly terrain—Rome boasts other staircases created simply in the name of beauty, for a purely scenographic effect. Read on to discover the staircases, ramps, and terraced streets that characterize Rome’s urban landscape in a non-chronological order, since the comparison between different periods is so fascinating. 

The steep staircases of Santa Maria in Aracoeli church and the gentle cordonata of the adjacent Capitoline Hill make a perfect example of this contrast. The 122 extremely tiring steps at the foot of the church (built in 1348) symbolize the medieval concept of life as a painstaking ascension towards heaven, whereas, beside them, the graceful ramp designed by Michelangelo represents humanistic thought—of which Buonarroti is the ultimate interpreter —based on the harmony of form and the rediscovery of luminous human values.

The 28 marble steps of the Scala Santa leading to the Lateran’s Sancta Sanctorum are also imbued with profound meaning. According to tradition, they were climbed by Jesus before he was sentenced to death in Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem. The staircase was supposedly brought to Rome in 326 A.D. and is climbed by the faithful on their knees as a way of expiating their sins committed and attaining salvation. This explains the state of the steps (today protected by wooden planks): they are nearly worn away after many centuries of religious exercises. 

Rome’s most famous staircase is, of course, the Spanish one. In 1723, Pope Innocent XIII tasked architect Francesco de Sanctis to solve the problem of connecting Via Condotti with the Trinità dei Monti church high on the Pincian Hill. The result is the Spanish Steps, a high-baroque masterpiece made up of three three flights, symbolizing the Holy Trinity. Halfway up is a large balustraded terrace from which two curved ramps of stairs lead further upwards. During summer, this becomes high fashion’s favorite runway, as top models carefully strut down the steps trying not to fall.

The exquisitely baroque obsession with the coup de theatre is perfectly reflected in the staircases forming much of the architecture of that period. The church of Santi Domenico e Sisto (also known as the Angelicum) features a bizarre curved staircase, and other examples include Francesco Borromini’s helicoidal staircase in Palazzo Barberini and the Scala Regia in the Vatican, a masterpiece by Bernini, that incorporates a thoroughly baroque play of perspective. 

The ill-famed staircase of the Borgia family palace intersects Vicus Sceleratus (literally the evil street), where legend has it the infamous Tullia rode over the dead body of her father, King Servio Tullio, in a carriage. In the eponymous palazzo, countless vile offenses were committed by Duke Valentino (aka Cesare Borgia) and his beautiful sister Lucrezia, if popular imagination is to be believed. Even Lord Byron was deeply fascinated by this mysterious corner of Rome, and mentioned it in his writings. 

Not far away is a monumental staircase with a majestic sense of proportion that leads to the apse of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, an ingenious solution to the problem of the uneven street level. Across town, the white staircase of the Vittoriano is a perfect response to that of Santa Maria Maggiore, and seems to want to outdo it in flashiness and scale. Although the Vittoriano is often criticized for its opulence, its superb marble staircase is particularly enchanting when illuminated at night, rising out of the darkness in all its regal grandeur.

Of all the modern staircases in the city, first place goes to that of the Palazzo della Civiltà in EUR, an extraordinary architectural transposition of the surrealist paintings of Giorgio De Chirico. The four marble staircases rise in an atmosphere steeped in mystery, a fascinating scene that even seduced Hollywood, as many directors chose the white stairs of the “Square Colosseum” as the setting for evocative films.

There are many other small staircases linked to episodes of Rome’s history that are nevertheless important props of the city’s stage set. A few examples: the staircases of the Villa Borghese, those of Monte Cavallo on the Quirinal, as well as the spiral staircase by Bramante at the Vatican, or the Tamburino staircase on the Janiculum Hill, named for the heroic little drummer boy who fell down them and was killed by French soldiers during the Risorgimento. In this area you’ll also find the steep Sant’Onofrio staircase that leads to the eponymous church and its cloister, a secluded and almost surreal place that invites meditation. And finally, the ultimate challenge: the climb to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica for a total of 320 steps! In the last stretch, the internal staircase gets so cramped that climbers are not even able to stand upright, but the magical view of Rome from the top makes the arduous climb well worth it.

COUNT YOUR STEPS Do some sightseeing in Rome and get in some cardio at the same time—who doesn’t love killing two birds with one stone? Rome’s many staircases provide just that opportunity, and we couldn’t think of a more exhilarating way to work off all that pasta! But how many steps are we talking? We list the exact number of steps to each of Rome’s major staircases, so you can plan your work-out accordingly. 

Quirinal Staircase ( 80 ) – Aracoeli Staircase (122 ) – Tamburino Staircase (126 ) – Spanish Steps (135 ) -Vittoriano (Altare della Patria) ( 243 ) – St. Peter’s Dome ( 537 – 320 if you cheat and take the elevator part-way up)