The fountains of Rome

Trevi Fountain in Rome, July 2004

Fontana di Trevi

The fountains of Rome are an attraction that simply cannot be missed in Rome because they are virtually everywhere you go. Some are simple with a practical purpose while others, like the Trevi Fountain (La Fontana di Trevi, and pictured to your left), are so magnificent in their splendor that you would have to be asleep not to notice them.

The fountains of Rome speak volumes about the city’s past, and each fountain has a story of its own. Visiting these fountains requires almost no effort on the traveler’s part, since many of them can be seen as you make your way to the various sites and landmarks in Rome without any effort on the traveler’s part to see them. Many of these fountains are located in piazzas or in front of many important churches and basilicas in Rome.

Fountains were often used to showcase the wealth and power of the many patrons who lived in Rome over the centuries and reflected the influence and control exerted on the city’s rich cultural heritage. Very often the fountains served as propaganda “tools” for the noble families and papacy in Rome. Let us not forget that the fountains also had a practical purpose by bringing water into the city. Before the advent of having running water in the home, Rome’s denizens would go to the fountains to collect their water, and those who brought water to Rome could easily curry favor with the populace. Even today, much of the water that pours into Rome’s fountains is potabile (drinkable), and many consider the water to have restorative properties.

Rome’s Most Splendid Fountain

You simply cannot go to Rome and not see the Trevi Fountain, because it is simply breathtaking no matter what time of day you visit. The Trevi Fountain is well marked and easy to find in Rome – just ask anyone, from a tourist to a local – and you will most certainly be pointed in the right direction. If you are in the historic center, just follow the signs, and it will not take you long to reach it! Once you arrive, you’ll be struck not only by its size but also by the intense drama that unfolds as you view the fountain and the crowds of people who come each year to photograph it, spend a quiet moment, or simply to toss a coin into the waters of the Acqua Vergina! Be sure to turn your back to the fountain and toss a coin over your shoulder because, as legend has it, this will ensure a future return to Rome.

The Trevi Fountain is often mistakenly attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini. While Bernini played a part in the development of the fountain’s design, it took almost a century before Bernini’s plans could be realized under the guise of Nicola Salvi, whose ideas are seen today by so many thousands of people each day. The fountain is a “swan song” to the Baroque era of Rome because of the cultural and artistic shifts to Paris that took place after the death of Bernini in 1680. Salvi attempts and, for the most par,t succeeds in salvaging the Baroque ideas of theatrics, drama, and energy in his creation.

Papal Power With Fountains

Fountain of the Four Rivers, Piazza Navona

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi

The Four Rivers Fountain (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, pictured to your right)wasdesigned by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, whose churches, architectural works and fountains can be found all over Rome. Bernini’s works are hallmarks of Baroque period and are always so striking and captivating, and this splendid fountain located in the Piazza Navona is no different. The fountain represents the four major rivers known to the world during Bernini’s time: Nile, Ganges, Danube and Plata.

Bernini was awarded this commission through a competition and designed this fountain that represented the papacy’s power throughout the known world. Each of the statues represents a river on each of the four known continents: Nile in Africa, the Danube in Europe, the Ganges in Asia and the Rio de la Plata in South America. A granite obelisk rises from the center of the fountain which art historians believe is meant to serve as a conduit to the heavens, whereby the divine power (and, by association, that of the Pope in 1651) would spread throughout the known world.

As with many sites and monuments in Rome, legends and lore can often play a part in the history of Rome. One such “story” is constantly retold by many scholars. Bernini’s fountain stands next to Francesco Borromini’s façade on the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. A popular “urban myth” often bandied about is that the statue of the Rio de la Plata is holding its hand up, as if in fear of a possible collapse of Borromini’s façade. Since the Church was completed four years after the fountain, this is probably not the case and simply a serendipitous occurrence on Bernini’s part.

Fountain Of A Sinking Ship?

One of my favorite fountains in Rome is the Fountain of the Old Boat (Fontana della Barcaccia, pictured below), located in the Piazza di Spagna. Easily reached by a metro stop on Linea A, the Piazza di Spagna is one of the most crowded and sought out attractions in Rome. On a hot summer day, it is almost possible to miss the fountain completely because it is such a draw to the thousands of people seeking relief from the heat. This fountain typifies the Baroque by using sculpture and stone to create mood, tension and drama. The commission to design and construct the fountain was given to Pietro Bernini, the father of the great Gian Lorenzo. Bernini – father and son – sought to break away from the “severe and repetitive” style of Giacomo Della Porta, an architect and sculptor who died twenty years before. Pietro Bernini and his son sought to break away from the Della Porta’s style by borrowing from local lore.

Fontana della Barcaccia

The fountain is meant to represent a boat which had run aground near the fountain’s present day location. It is said that in 1598 the Tiber (Tevere) flooded and washed a boat near where the fountain now sits. After the water receded, the boat remained, and this lone boat is said to be the inspiration for Bernini’s creation. The travertine boat appears as if it is sinking, filled nearly the brim with water, leaking “slowly” from several “holes” as well as over the sides of the boat while only just remaining “afloat” in the pool which sits below the marbled structure. Bernini honors his patron (as many of the fountains in Rome do) by sculpting two blazing suns which shoot water prominently toward the center of the “sinking” vessel.

One could write volumes about Rome’s fountains. They serve as a gateway into the city’s history and culture, its past and present, and work not only to bring water into the city but also to beautify, refresh and enhance the Eternal City of Rome. Take note of the fountains as you meander around the streets of Rome as they convey much of the city’s past and will continue to do so for centuries to come.

If you are interested in learning more about Rome’s fountains, several books have been written about them. If you are interested in further reading, consult Wikipedia or the following books:

  • Castria, Francesca. Squares and Fountains of Rome. Milano: Electa, 2007
  • Cope, Frederick, and Maurizia Tazartes. Fontane Di Roma. Ginevra-Milano: Rizzoli libri illustrati, 2004.
  • Pulvers, Marvin. Roman Fountains: 2000 Fountains in Rome : a Complete Collection. Roma: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider, 2002
  • Rendina, Claudio. La Grande Enciclopedia Di Roma: Personaggi, Curiosità, Monumenti, Storia, Arte E Folclore Della Città Eterna Dalle Origini Al Duemila. Quest’Italia, 283. Roma: Newton & Compton, 2000
  • Symmes, Marilyn F, and Kenneth A. Breisch.Fountains: Splash and Spectacle : Water and Design from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Rizzoli International Publication in association with Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 1998.
  • Forthcoming: Rinne, Katherine W. The Waters of Rome: Aqueducts, Fountains, and the Birth of the Baroque City. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
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  1. [...] Trevi Fountain, Pantheon or the Palazzo Barberini. Located in the center of the piazza is one of Bernini’s fountains, Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Old Boat), which sits at the bottom of the staircase. [...]

  2. [...] display as a way for patrons to demonstrate their wealth, power and prestige. As I discussed in my piece on Rome’s fountains, artwork often survived centuries beyond the life of the patron, and not only did these works of [...]

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