Rome's famous landmark the Piazza di Spagna has a secret British history that still reverberates today. Novelist Matthew Kneale discovers the hidden Ghetto Inglese.
Piazza di Spagna was once the heart of the English Quarter. Today it's famous for its luxury boutiques, and for the Spanish Steps. Thronged with tourists photographing each other, it's alive with noise and colour and Italian style. You'd never notice the British influence of the past. But away from the gleaming shop fronts of Prada and the like, the English speaking community still quietly clings on.
The imposing building which towers above Versace belongs to the oldest English speaking order of nuns ever to be established in Rome. The Mater Dei were once a thriving community of nuns, teaching British girls in the school they founded on the premises. Today, there are only five sisters left. Their life of prayer and meditation continues, in stark contrast to the consumerist bustle outside their walls.
Matthew Kneale goes beneath the surface trappings of this famous landmark to meet the Piazza's discreet 21st century Anglophones. Those who came before them speak to us from across the centuries through the vivid impressions they recorded in letters and notes and Matthew retraces their footsteps across the ancient stones.
As we accompany him we learn that, while the square may have been named after the C17th Spanish embassy to the Holy See and briefly have been considered Spanish territory, it can be argued that it is to the English language's great writers and artists that it owes much of its eternal appeal.
Matthew Kneale, author of English Passengers, has lived in Rome since 2000.
A Waters Company production for BBC Radio 4.