Jun 11, 2024 6 min read

Ultimate Travel Guide to Rome, Italy - The City's Iconic Fountains

No less than 2,000 fountains, 50 of which are monumental, adorn the squares of Rome today, an absolute world record.

Trevi Fountain Rome, Italy
Trevi Fountain

No visitor to Rome can remain indifferent to the immense density and exceptional beauty of the city's fountains. True works of art, they are found at every turn: picturesque places, perfect for photographing and admiring when you grow tired of museums and churches or when, during your summer walks through the Eternal City, you want to rest and cool off.

They also represent a page of architectural history that costs nothing to appreciate. But where does this Italian passion for water and fountains come from?

From the ancestors, of course. Admirable administrators of a vast ancient empire and formidable designers and engineers, the Romans understood that the foundation of any civilized and lasting settlement lay in the construction of roads and water supply. Their viaducts and aqueducts were works of great complexity and some of them still endure today, to the joy and delight of our eyes.

In the following, I invite you to discover together a small part of these treasures.

Trevi Fountain

How could we begin our tour of Rome's fountains other than with the most famous and spectacular of them all, which promises tourists a return to the capital of Italy in exchange for a few coins tossed over the shoulder, with their backs to the water, a custom "inaugurated" with the release of the film "Three Coins in the Fountain" in 1954?

However, the most famous cinematic scenes featuring the fountain are undoubtedly those with Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni in "La Dolce Vita," followed probably by Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn's scooter chase in front of it in "Roman Holiday."

At 26.3 meters high and 49.15 meters long, it is also the largest Baroque fountain in Rome, so expansive that it is quite difficult to capture in its entirety in a single photograph, especially since the Piazza di Trevi where it is located is quite cramped and always overflowing with tourists.

This did not prevent us from elbowing our way in to find a good angle for taking photos and videos and to toss a few coins into the water.

The name of the fountain comes either from "tre vie" – the three roads/streets that meet at the square – or from the name of the virgin Trivia, who, according to legend, discovered the spring from which water was later transported via the Acqua Vergine for the use of the citizens of ancient Rome.

The central theme of the fountain is the taming of the waters. Oceanus (Neptune), the god of the sea, is depicted in a shell-shaped chariot drawn by two horses, one calm, the other wild, symbolizing the changing moods of the sea, and by two tritons.

The god is flanked in two lateral niches, separated by Corinthian pilasters, by the allegorical statues of Abundance and Health, and above these three statues are bas-reliefs illustrating the ancient Roman origins of the aqueduct.

The fountain was mostly made of travertine excavated at Tivoli, and its spectacular nature is also due to the fact that it is backed by Palazzo Poli, with which it forms a unified architectural complex.

Since November 2015, after a restoration that lasted a year and a half, the Trevi Fountain can once again be admired in all its splendor.

The Fountains in Piazza Navona

In the center of the square stands the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (1648-1651), which we barely managed to see due to the construction site. It is an extremely elaborate and theatrical composition by Bernini, commissioned by Innocent X, a member of the Pamphilj family.

The four river-gods are symmetrically placed around an Egyptian obelisk from the year 81 AD, a pagan symbol adopted by Christianity as a sign of papal domination (it is topped with the image of a dove with an olive branch, the blazon of the Pamphilj family).

They represent the continents: the Danube (Europe; it is unclear why it was preferred over the Tiber); Rio de la Plata (the Americas); the Nile (Africa); and the Ganges (Asia). For their creation, Bernini employed other sculptors.

The statues depict gigantic men, and their poses are suggestive. The Danube touches the papal insignia, alluding to its geographical proximity to the papal institution. The man representing Rio de la Plata stands with his arm raised and has a pile of coins at his feet, symbolizing the riches of the two Americas.

The Nile's head is covered, to emphasize that the source of the river was unknown at that time, while the Ganges, the cradle of ancient civilizations, is personified by a bearded and sober figure holding an oar (a symbol of navigability).

A joke circulated about two of the statues: the Nile covered its face not to see the concave facade of the Church of Sant’Agnese, the work of Bernini’s rival, Borromini, and La Plata raised its arms to protect itself from its possible collapse... However, the truth is that Bernini completed the fountain before Borromini began constructing the church.

The other two fountains in Piazza Navona are a century older but have undergone several changes over time. At the northern end is the Fontana di Nettuno, whose basin was designed in 1576 by Giacomo della Porta at the behest of Pope Gregory XIII.

After the unification of Italy, beautifying the capital became a necessity, and in this context in 1878, the basin was adorned with the statue of Neptune wrestling with an octopus, as well as nymphs, cherubs, walruses, and horses depicted in a playful tussle.

At the opposite end of the square, the Fontana del Moro was designed by the same della Porta, featuring a dolphin and four tritons. In 1653, the composition was substantially modified by Bernini, who added the statue of a Moor (possibly Bernini initially intended to represent Neptune) wrestling with a dolphin. After the restoration in 1874, the statues were moved to the Borghese Gallery and replaced with copies.

It is said that Bernini deliberately designed the figure of the Moor to resemble that of Pasquino, as an insult to Borromini. Pasquino is one of the "talking statues" of Rome and is located near Piazza Navona.

The small sculpture is all that remains of a Hellenistic monument that probably depicted the scene from the Iliad in which Menelaus protects the body of Patroclus, killed in battle. After being used as a step, in 1501 it was moved next to the workshop of a tailor named Pasquino, who began to write short satirical comments about politicians, which he hung from the statue.

Other Romans followed his example, and soon several statues began to "speak." For instance, Pasquino would have conversed with the statue of Marforio, which is now in the courtyard of the Palazzo Nuovo.

Fontana del Tritone

Located in Piazza Barberini, flanked by the Barberini Palace, which houses part of the collections of the National Gallery of Ancient Art, this masterpiece by Bernini, inaugurated in 1643, depicts Triton, the mythical half-man, half-fish creature, son of Neptune and Amphitrite, blowing a conch shell to calm the waters, supported by the fins of four dolphins.

The source of inspiration for this depiction was a legend adopted by the poet Ovid in "Metamorphoses," according to which, after a flood triggered by Zeus, angry that mortals did not love and respect him, Poseidon dropped his trident and called his son Triton, a monster of the sea, whom he asked to sound the retreat of the waters back into the seas, rivers, and lakes.

Triton took a large shell and blew into it extensively. The water obeyed and returned to its bed. Perhaps the taming of the waters is "responsible" for the aura that surrounds the fountain, for like the Trevi Fountain, here too, if you throw a coin, it is promised that you will undoubtedly return to Rome.

Designed and sculpted entirely by Bernini, the Fontana del Tritone was his first major commission for a public fountain and also the last for his great benefactor, Pope Urban VIII, who would die shortly after, in 1644. It was designed to collect water from the restored Acqua Felice aqueduct and to celebrate the Barberini family, from which Urban originated. For this reason, Bernini added to the pagan theme the papal tiara and the Barberini family emblems (the bees).

Furthermore, also in Piazza Barberini, in the year of the Pope's death, Bernini created a second, smaller fountain – the Fontana delle Api, an open shell with three bees, inscribed with the following text: "Urban VIII Pont. Max. built a fountain for the public ornamentation of the city and this small fountain for the private use of the citizens in the year 1644, the twenty-first of his pontificate."

What more beautiful recognition of the merits of a successor of Saint Peter who dedicated his work to the mission of beautifying Rome?

However, the Eternal City has many other fountains, imposing and spectacular or conversely, seemingly insignificant, hidden, or in any case less well-known, which I will try to present in the second part of this review.

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