The Dreadful Stairs

Rome’s history is built layer upon layer upon layer. Some of that history is good, and some is bad. These stairs are picturesque, leading up under a curved archway, beneath a palazzo covered with graceful ivy. Yet, this place falls into the bad history category.

The stairs under the ivy at Via Cavour

Visitors usually only discover these stairs when they are searching for the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains, which I will discuss in a future blog. The stairs lead up from Via Cavour to Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli. Most people walking up these stairs have no knowledge of their truly dreadful past.

Legend has it that this was the site where a horrible event occurred in 509 B.C.E., back when Rome had kings. Servius Tullius was the legendary sixth king of Rome. He had two daughters, both named Tullia, one the elder (Tullia Major) and one the younger (Tullia Minor). He should have stopped after the first child.

Both Tullias were married to sons of the prior king. Tullia Minor, however, found her sister’s husband Lucius Tarquinius Superbus more to her taste. She and Lucius, also known as Tarquin the Proud, found ways to kill their respective spouses and then married each other. There was more evildoing to come.

Tarquin went on to seize the throne. When confronted by Servius Tullius, Tarquin had his minions beat his father-in-law to death. They did that and left the body lying in the street. Tullia Major then made sure the job was done and drove her chariot over her father’s body.

Tullia Drives over the Corpse of her Father, by Jean Bardin, circa 1765

The place where this event occurred was then called the Vicus Sceleratus (“evil street”). Many years later, a staircase was built in that very spot, leading to the Basilica San Pietro in Vincoli. Later, a palazzo was built over the stairs — a palazzo that became the home of Vannozza dei Cattanei. She was the mistress of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) and the mother of several of his children, including the famous Cesare and Lucrezia.  The steps consequently came to be known as the Borgia Steps (Salita dei Borgia).

The clever and lovely Vannozza dei Cattanei

Cesare and Lucrezia had an older brother — also by Vannozza — Juan (also known as Giovanni). Apparently the Borgia brothers were as loving to each other as the Tullia sisters were about 2,000 years earlier. In 1497, possibly on the orders of his brother Cesare, Juan Borgia was assassinated while leaving his mother’s house, on the Borgia Steps.

As frightful as their history is, at least when you finally get to the top of these serene yet dreadful steps, there will be something magnificent waiting for you. More on that later…