Jun 11, 2024 7 min read

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

Let's continue our walk through Rome to discover and admire other fountains.

Fountain of Newts Rome, Italy
Fontana del Nettuno

In the previous article, I forgot to mention a Renaissance fountain located in Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, with Trastevere being the old and picturesque district "beyond the Tiber" and Santa Maria a medieval church (12th century) with splendid mosaics on its facade.

Fontana di Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere

The fountain in the center of the square is modest by Roman standards and impresses not with its size or spectacle, but with its history. It is considered the oldest monumental fountain in Rome.

It appears drawn on a map dated 1471, in the form of two bowls stacked one above the other, from which water flowed into a basin, alongside a text that explains the much older origins of the Santa Maria church, as they are related by Eusebius of Caesarea: on the night of Jesus' birth, myrrh sprang from the ground on this site, convincing Christians to ask Emperor Alexander Severus (who reigned from 222 to 235) for permission to build a church, named "Sancta Maria in fontibus".

At the end of the 8th century, Pope Adrian I apparently ordered the construction of a new church on the site of the old basilica and a fountain near it.

Beyond the legends, what is certain is that the fountain has undergone many changes over time. In 1499-1500, by order of Cardinal Giovanni Lopez, it was rebuilt by Bramante, the architect of St. Peter's Basilica, who removed the upper bowl and added two sculptures of lion heads, the emblem of the Lopez family. In 1604, the fountain was reconstructed by Girolamo Rainaldi, but the major problem of low water pressure remained.

It was solved by Pope Alexander VII Chigi, who ordered the fountain to be connected to the Acqua Paola aqueduct. He also entrusted Bernini with the reconstruction of the monument, who moved the fountain to the center of the square, raised the octagonal basin above the steps, and added four double shells, positioned outward, and the Chigi family emblem, sculpted in bas-relief.

Not only the square, with its superb church and fountain, is worth visiting, but the entire Trastevere district, once a poor suburb of Rome, has since become a lively area with narrow streets full of good restaurants, bars, and chic shops.

The Fountains of Piazza del Popolo

Meeting some of the architects who worked on the fountain in Trastevere (or their descendants) again, we enter through the Porta del Popolo, built in the 16th century after the model of a triumphal arch and adorned a century later with sculptures by Bernini, into Piazza del Popolo.

This vast pedestrian oval, paved with stone, marks the entrance into the heart of the Eternal City, opening the way to the famous Corso, the most commercial and expensive artery of Rome. At the southern end of the square, Carlo Rainaldi, the son of Girolamo, designed in the 17th century the twin churches—Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto.

In 1589, Pope Sixtus V hired Domenico Fontana (no relation to Carlo Fontana) to erect in the center of the square the obelisk brought by Emperor Augustus from Egypt, which had until then stood in the Circus Maximus. Near the obelisk was a fountain designed by Giacomo della Porta which Pope Gregory XIII considered too large for the dimensions of the square, hence it was moved in 1818 to Piazza Nicosia. The Pope commissioned Giuseppe Valadier, an adherent of classicism, to create a new fountain,

Fontana dell’Obelisco. Valadier surrounded the obelisk with four white marble lions from which water flows in a fan into round basins placed on the fourth step of a five-step staircase.

Valadier also redesigned the entire Piazza del Popolo, as well as the wonderful Pincio Gardens that flank it, but death prevented him from seeing his work completed. The work was continued by Giovanni Ceccarini.

On the western side of the square, he built, according to Valadier's plans, the Fontana del Nettuno, depicting the sea god flanked by dolphins. And on the eastern side, at the base of the Pincio hill, the Fontana della Dea Roma was erected in 1823, dedicated to the goddess Roma, a statuary group that illustrates the origins of the city.

The goddess is represented armed with a spear and a helmet, flanked by the allegorical figures of the rivers Tiber and Aniene (a tributary of the Tiber), and at her feet is the she-wolf feeding Romulus and Remus.

Fontana della Barcaccia

The fountain shaped like an old boat, half-submerged in a shallow basin, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and/or his father Pietro in 1627, is probably the least attractive among the Baroque monuments of this kind in Rome.

Legend has it that the inspiration came from the story of a vessel stranded on the Tiber in 1598, yet its relatively odd shape is actually due to practical reasons: it was built at ground level to compensate for the low water pressure from the Acqua Vergine aqueduct that feeds it.

On the other hand, it is believed that the architect/architects also intended a playful and ironic purpose, as the fountain reminds one of the typical shape of vessels that transported wine on the river... The bees and suns that decorate it are elements taken from the coat of arms of the Barberini family, which included Pope Urban VIII, the patron of the work.

The fountain is located in Piazza di Spagna, the most famous and crowded Roman square, named after the residence of the Spanish ambassador to the Holy See, located here in the 17th century. Over time, the square has become a favorite meeting place for foreign travelers passing through or expatriates, especially the British. For them, two Englishwomen opened in 1896 a famous tea room – Babington's Tea Rooms – which still exists today.

A few steps from the fountain begin the Spanish Steps, built in 1726 at the initiative of the French owners of the church Trinità dei Monti, which dominates the square from the top of the stairs.

For a spectacular view, you can climb the steps along with the crowd of tourists, or you can take the elevator, as we did, to catch a marvelous sunset. The church itself, founded by the French in 1495, although ignored by some visitors who are more attracted by the view, is still an interesting construction, with late Gothic works and Mannerist pieces by Daniele da Volterra, a student of Michelangelo.

As for the Spanish Steps, one of the emblematic images of Rome, they today serve as a backdrop for selfies and numerous fashion shows, and towards the end of spring, they are "flooded" with azaleas.

Fontana dei Dioscuri

Here's another monumental fountain erected in the middle of a vast square, Piazza del Quirinale, on one of Rome's seven hills. The square is open on one side, offering superb views, and bordered on three sides by several historic buildings, the most important being the Palazzo del Quirinale, originally intended to house the summer residence of the pope.

The initiative to build the palace belonged to Pope Gregory XIII, and construction began in 1573. Domenico Fontana designed the façade, Carlo Maderno the chapel, and Bernini the wing towards Via del Quirinale. In 1870, the palace became the royal residence and after 1947, the official residence of the President of the Italian Republic.

On another side of the square stands the Palazzo Colonna, commissioned by Pope Martin V from the Colonna family at the beginning of the 15th century but modified in the Baroque style and expanded in the 18th century.

Such a vast space was suited only for a monumental fountain. The statues of the two Dioscuri - Castor and Pollux, protectors of horsemanship, over 5.5 m high, meet this requirement.

They are copies of Greek originals from the 5th century BC and were moved here from the Baths of Constantine in 1588 by order of Pope Sixtus V as part of the construction of a fountain for which Domenico Fontana was commissioned. The statues, nicknamed by Romans as "horse tamers," gave the square its other name "Monte Cavallo" ("Hill of Horses").

In 1786, an obelisk from near the Mausoleum of Augustus was brought and installed between the statues, enhancing the grandeur of the statuary ensemble. A final modification occurred in 1818, when Raffaele Stern, at the request of Pope Pius VII, replaced the original octagonal basin designed by Fontana with one made of granite, supported by a balustrade above a large circular basin.

Le Quattro Fontane

While all the sites presented so far have been monumental constructions located in more or less vast squares, Rome also has many smaller but equally interesting fountains.

Among them, my favorite, or more accurately my favorites, are the four Renaissance fountains located at the corners of the intersection between Via delle Quattro Fontane and Via del Quirinale, at the highest point on the Quirinal Hill, a short distance from Piazza del Quirinale.

This time it is not about freestanding constructions, but about sculptures placed in the niches of historical buildings yet forming a uniquely charming whole.

Pope Sixtus V commissioned the ensemble from Muzio Mattei as part of his broader project for the urban renaissance of Rome, which included, among other things, the erection of buildings (churches, obelisks, gates, and monumental statues) at the ends of important streets.

One of the first measures taken by the pope was to improve the water distribution system, for which purpose he built a new aqueduct that carried water to the Esquiline, Viminal, and Quirinal Hills. The second step was the construction of new public fountains or encouraging the citizens of Rome to build their own fountains from private funds to benefit from the water supply.

And this was the approach followed in the creation of these four fountains. Domenico Fontana sculpted three statues (Tiber, Juno, and Aniene) between 1588-1593, and Pietro da Cortona sculpted Diana between 1667-1669.

The four statues represent water deities, two men and two women, all depicted reclining, in a way, an equivalent to the famous Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi by Bernini in Piazza Navona. The only statue with a direct link to the papal institution is Fidelity (Diana), under whose elbow appear three pears (a heraldic symbol of the papacy) and a dog, with water flowing from three mountains (another papal symbol). Power is embodied by Juno, depicted under trees, beside a swan.

The male figures are Tiber, the symbol of Rome, behind which the she-wolf appears, and Aniene, its tributary or, according to other interpretations, the Arno River, the symbol of Florence.

The impact of the four fountains was so strong that the nearby church built by Francesco Borromini was named San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (or San Carlino).

These were just a few of Rome's fountains. I passed others in haste, without noticing and photographing them. And now I regret it, because beyond their elaborate beauty, each hides a story, and these stories, taken together, illustrate a part of the history of the Eternal City.

Roman squares, with their obelisks and fountains, alongside the ancient ruins, churches, and museums, are tourist attractions not to be missed by anyone visiting the capital of Italy.

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