We are overlooking the Spanish Square, so named because this was where the Spanish embassy in Rome was located. The square connects directly to what was then the main entrance to Rome by the road on the left, the Via del Babuino (street of the Baboon). In the distance, as we look up Via del Babuino, we can just make out the needle shape of the ancient Egyptian obelisk in the Piazza del Popolo, a sight that every visitor from the north saw on entering the city. And down the street, heading into the square, comes a procession of visitors and their coaches.
The square’s distinguishing feature is a boat-shaped fountain, designed by the baroque master Bernini, a major figure in the completion of St Peter’s, and his father. As well as beautifying public spaces, such fountains served basic practical functions: we can see a figure bent over a large pitcher at the fountain end closest to us. Piranesi shows the square as an important area for socialising. On the left, well-to-do men and women, aristocrats and gentry converse and gesture appropriately. On the far right, gorgeously uniformed footmen can be seen on the back of a coach. And what is happening with the carriage in the centre foreground? It has stopped, as the servant seated on the box at the front talks to a man with some carcasses attached to a rod across his shoulder (poultry or rabbits?). Animals circle, attracted by his wares. Perhaps the coach driver is negotiating the purchase of his master’s dinner – or are these two men friends or relatives, simply having a chat, while in the coach, the master becomes impatient at what he considers to be the liberties taken by servants?
The area round this square was a favourite for English Grand Tourists. Piranesi’s showroom, studio and home were also conveniently close by. Visitors would have gone up the Spanish Steps, just as we see with a well-dressed pair in Piranesi’s view. At the very top, they would have turned right and gone a couple of hundred yards down the street, today the Via Sistina. There they could purchase individual prints, bound books or a range of items to decorate their homes, some designed by Piranesi himself, while others were classical statues, pillars and urns.