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Piazze, Rome

Ostia, Italy, Europe: Piazza di Spagna, more commonly known as the Spanish Steps
Italy's insider take:

Rome is a series of villages. And as in all Italian villages, life revolves around the piazza. Admittedly, few villages can lay claim to squares as gloriously theatrical as Piazza Navona, with Bernini's melodramatic Four Rivers fountain at its heart. Or to anything as elegantly urbane as Piazza di Spagna, from which the Spanish Steps ascend.

In centuries past, the piazza was where markets were set up, executions took place, business was done, or papal edicts were pronounced. Piazza del Popolo combined many of these functions and was also Rome's main gateway, standing at the end of the Via Flaminia, which carried travelers and pilgrims from the north. A makeover in the early 19th century by Giuseppe Valadier gave it its current neoclassical look, while a car ban in the 1990s restored its elegance. Campo de' Fiori, on the other hand, was and still is resoundingly a market square, packed with food shoppers every morning but Sunday. Once, though, it was also used for executions: A Darth Vader–like monument reminds us that the Inquisition burned unorthodox philosopher Giordano Bruno at the stake here in 1600. Piazza Vittorio Emanuele is Rome's largest square; its rather dull modern gardens contrast with the ramshackle vibrancy of the surrounding neighborhood, which today houses much of the city's Asian and African communities. Piazza Venezia, dominated by a bombastic waste of marble known as the Altare della Patria, is one big traffic intersection. A diminutive fountain, adorned by bronze sculptures of mossy boys hoisting turtles into the bowl at the top, makes tiny Piazza Mattei in the Ghetto arguably the city's most charming square.

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