Rome > Roman Fountains

Roman Fountains

Fountains of All Kinds

Undoubtedly there is no city in the world that has more waters and fountains than Rome. It has been thus since ancient times, when 11 aqueducts supplied thousands and thousands of litres of water to the city each day, feeding the countless fountains and magnificent baths. The sacking of the Goths, resulting in the cutting of the aqueducts, ended this richness, and only at the end of the 16th century did the popes tackle the water supply problem adequately. Since then Rome was adorned with dozens of monumental fountains celebrating the pontiffs' munificence, often flanked by drinking troughs and public basins for practical uses. And today still, while we admire these masterpieces, we refresh ourselves by drinking the excellent water running from the typical drinking-  water fountains affectionately called “nasoni” – big noses - because of the curious shape of the curved spout. 

The theatrical Fountain of the Naiads, one of the most beautiful fountains of modern Rome, is the work of sculptor Mario Rutelli, who created it in 1901 to adorn Piazza della Repubblica, originally called Piazza Esedra.

The old name derives from the fact that the square was created, in the late 1900s, following the curved line of the large exedra of the majestic Baths of Diocletian, recently restructured and reopened to the public. Between the two semicircular porticoes buildings opens Via Nazionale, an important main street and lively commercial zone. At no. 194 is the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, the site of important exhibitions. The roof garden is one of the most popular places in Rome for short snacks, lunches, or mundane and cultural events.

The four bronze nymphs placed around the basin of the Fountain of the Naiads were the subject of fierce controversy, which led to the raising of a fence to prevent the sight of the female figures, considered too sensual because of the manner in which they were embracing the sea monsters. The fence was removed by popular acclaim, but the criticism did not end, so the sculptor created the central group which, depicting three tritons, a dolphin and an Octopus, was quickly christened "mixed fish fry”. The group was transferred to Piazza Vittorio and replaced with the figure of Glaucus Fighting a Triton.

Often the creation of aqueducts and fountains was dictated, more than by the desire to meet the population's needs, by the desire to satisfy private interests of the popes. This is the case of the Fountain of Moses in Piazza San Bernardo, which forms the “display”, i.e. the terminal part of the Felice aqueduct, thus named after Pope Sixtus V, Felice Peretti, who restored the ancient Alessandrino aqueduct. This was done mainly to serve the huge villa, which no longer exists, that the pope had built starting in 1585 and which occupied the entire Termini Station area as far as the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. The figure of Moses as he makes water gush forth from the rock, an obvious reference to the pope who restored the aqueduct, was so strongly criticized for its lack of elegance and proportìon that it became the subject of a humorous pasquinade: 

Guarda con I 'occhio torvo
 I'acqua che sgorga ai piè,   
pensando inorridito
al danno che a lui fè  
uno scultor stordito.

(He looks with a surly eye
at the water gushing at his feet
thinking, horrified,  
of the damage done to him
by a dazed sculptor.)   

Going down Via Barberini we reach the square of the same name, characterized by the lovely Triton's Fountain, a masterpiece by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who created it in around 1642. The whimsical composition, which decorated the square in front of the palace of the noble Barberini family, depicts a triton held up by four dolphins as he is blowing into a shell, proclaiming the family's glory to the world. Up until the 18th century a macabre ritual would take place in front of the fountain: the corpses of the unknown would be shown there as a crier would call for them to be recognized.

Bees, the heraldic symbol of the Barberini, in addition to decorating the base of the Triton's Fountain, are the protagonists of a small but lovely composition placed at the corner between Piazza Barberini and Via Veneto, the Fountain of the Bees. The three insects, situated on the hinge of an open bivalve shell, were sculpted by Bernini in 1644, to celebrate the twenty-second anniversary of the papacy of Pope Urban VIII. The fact that he finished it before the actual date of the anniversary seems to have been a bad omen for the pontiff, who unfortunately died eight days before it.

From here starts Via Veneto. “twinned” with Fifth Avenue in New York, the symbol of the Dolce Vita of the '50s and '6Os. The elegant street, celebrated by Federico Fellini, is the hangout of politicians, intellectuals, entertainers and journalists, often immortalized by the ever-present “paparazzi”. The entire quarter was created between the late 1800s and the early 1900s, when the Boncompagni Ludovisi princes decided, with an unscrupulous action of real estate speculation, to divide the land belonging to their 17th-century splendid villa into lots. Of the villa, only the Casino dell'Aurora (on Via Boncompagni), decorated by Guercino and Caravaggio, remains, and unfortunately it is not easily accessible.

From Via del Tritone we enter Via della Stamperia, which leads to the Trevi Fountain, certainly the most famous and spectacular fountain in Rome, made even more famous by the night-time wading of Anita Ekberg in Federico Fellini's film “La dolce vita”. The fountain is the terminal part of the Vergine aqueduct built by Agrippa, a general of Augustus, in 19 B.C. to bring the water coming from the Salone springs, 19 km away, to Rome.

Legend, illustrated in the fountain's upper panel has it that it was a young girl who showed Agrippa s thirsty soldiers where a copious spring gushed forth.  Hence the name of the aqueduct which, running underground for a long stretch, is the only one in Rome that has remained in use almost uninterruptedly from the time of its construction to the present day. This is the aqueduct that supplies the water to the monumental fountains of the historic centre, from Piazza Navona to Piazza di Spagna.

The name “Trevi”, on the other hand, allegedly derives from the word Trivium, a meeting point of three streets that form this little widened area.

lt is truly surprising to see such a large fountain in such a small square, but the artist Nicola Salvi, who created it between 1732 and 1762, carefully studied the way to increase the sensation of marvel. lndeed, he set it almost entirely against the face of Palazzo Poli, preceding it with a little balconied scene, almost as if it were a theatre! The artist was, however, disturbed during his work by the continuous criticism expressed by a barber who had his shop in the square. To shut him up, during one night Salvi created the large basin, familiarly called the "Ace of Cups”, situated on the right-hand balustrade, which completely blocked the view of the fountain from the shop. Everyone knows that, if they want to return to Rome, they have to throw a coin into the basin, but be careful:  for the dream to come true, you have to toss it over your shoulder with your back to the fountain!

Across from the fountain it is possible to admire the lively façade of the Chiesa dei Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio. The building, which was a Papal Parish for centuries, preserves the hearts and lungs of 22 popes who dived in the Quirinal Palace standing nearby: from Sixtus V, who died in 1590, to Leo XIII, who died in 1903.  Pope Pius X abolished this custom which had prompted Belli, the famous Roman dialect poet, to call the church “museo de' corate e de' ciorcelli” (pluck museum), from the popular term used to refer to the viscera of butchered animals.

Returning onto Via della Stamperia and continuing along Via del Nazareno, we soon reach Piazza di Spagna where, at the foot of the staircase of Trinità dei Monti, the "Spanish Steps”, we find the Fontana della Barcaccia. This is the work of Pietro Bernini, who created it in around 1629, probably with the aid of his famous son Gian Lorenzo. According to tradition, the unusual fountain shaped like a semi-submerged boat was ordered by Pope Urban VIII Barberini to commemorate a boat that had ended up stranded in the square during the great flood of 598. In reality, the idea of depicting the boat as it is sinking was dictated by Bernini's genius, since he had to solve a technical problem: in fact, here the pressure of the Vergine aqueduct was rather low, and it was necessary to create a fountain beneath the ground level.

From Piazza di Spagna starts Via del Babuino, famous for its antique shops, which owes its name to a small fountain against the Church of Sant'Antanasio dei Greci. The ancient statue overlooking the granite basin depicts a supine, sneering wanderoo but the Romans, because of its ugliness, compared it to a monkey or, more exactly, a baboon. lt is said that a cardinal, a bit on in years, would kneel down before it in respect every time he passed by, believing it to be the portrait of St. James. The Baboon is one of Rome's “talking statues”, where satirical pieces and diatribes of a political nature, strictly anonymous, used to be posted

Parallel to Via del Babuino runs Via Margutta which, since the 1600s, Italian and foreign artists have chosen as the picturesque location for their studios. The pretty Fountain of the Artists, near no. 54, was created in 1927 by Pietro Lombardi precisely to recall this peculiarity, since it depicts easels, stands, paintbrushes, and palettes.

This original composition is one of the "Fontanelle Rionali” series, created starting in 1927 by architect Pietro Lombardi. Each quarter of Rome is represented by one or more objects symbolising that neighbourhood - the pinecone for Rione Pigna (Piazza San Marco), the papal tiara for the Vatican (Largo del Colonnato), amphorae for the Testaccio (Piazza Testaccio), the helm for Rione Ripa  (Lungotevere Ripa), and so on - all  harmoniously inserted into their   surrounding contexts.