Rome has fifty monumental fountains and hundreds of smaller fountains, over 2000 fountains in all, more than any other city in the world. From the great aqueducts to the famous fountains and “mostre” of the capital, an itinerary to discover the flow of water in Rome.
For more than two thousand years fountains have provided drinking water and decorated the piazzas of Rome. During the Roman Empire, in 98 AD, according to Sextus Julius Frontinus, the Roman consul who was named curator aquarum or guardian of the water of the city, Rome had nine aqueducts which fed 39 monumental fountains and 591 public basins, not counting the water supplied to the Imperial household, baths and owners of private villas. Each of the major fountains was connected to two different aqueducts, in case one was shut down for service.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the aqueducts were wrecked or fell into disrepair, and the fountains stopped working. In the 14th century, Pope Nicholas V (1397–1455), a scholar who commissioned hundreds of translations of ancient Greek classics into Latin, decided to embellish the city and make it a worthy capital of the Christian world. In 1453 he began to rebuild the Acqua Vergine, the ruined Roman aqueduct which had brought clean drinking water to the city from eight miles (13 km) away. He also decided to revive the Roman custom of marking the arrival point of an aqueduct with a mostra, a grand commemorative fountain. He commissioned the architect Leon Battista Alberti to build a wall fountain where the Trevi Fountain is now located. Alberti restored, modified, and expanded the aqueduct that supplied both the Trevi Fountain as well as the famous baroque fountains in the Piazza del Popolo and Piazza Navona.
One of the first new fountains to be built in Rome during the Renaissance was the Fountain in Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere (1499), which was placed on the site of an earlier Roman fountain. Its design, based on an earlier Roman model, with a circular vasque on a pedestal pouring water into a basin below, became the model for many other fountains in Rome, and eventually for fountains in other cities, from Paris to London.
During the 17th and 18th century the Roman popes reconstructed other ruined Roman aqueducts and built new display fountains to mark their termini, launching the golden age of the Roman fountain. The fountains of Rome, like the paintings of Rubens, were expressions of the new style of Baroque art. They were crowded with allegorical figures, and filled with emotion and movement. In these fountains, sculpture became the principal element, and the water was used simply to animate and decorate the sculptures. They, like baroque gardens, were “a visual representation of confidence and power.”
The fountains of Rome all operated purely by gravity- the source of water had to be higher than the fountain itself, and the difference in elevation and distance between the source and the fountain determined how high the fountain could shoot water. The fountain in St. Peter’s Square was fed by the Paola aqueduct, restored in 1612, whose source was 266 feet (81 m) above sea level, which meant it could shoot water twenty feet up from the fountain. The Triton fountain benefited from its location in a valley, and the fact that it was fed by the Aqua Felice aqueduct, restored in 1587, which arrived in Rome at an elevation of 194 feet (59 m) above sea level (fasi), a difference of 130 feet (40 m) in elevation between the source and the fountain, which meant that the water from this fountain jetted sixteen feet straight up into the air from the conch shell of the Triton. The fountains of Piazza Navona, on the other hand, took their water from the Acqua Vergine, which had only a 23-foot (7.0 m) drop from the source to the fountains, which meant the water could only fall or trickle downwards, not jet very high upwards. For the Trevi Fountain, the architect Nicola Salvi compensated for this problem by sinking the fountain down into the ground, and by carefully designing the cascade so that the water churned and tumbled, to add movement and drama. Today all of the fountains have been rebuilt, and the Roman water system uses both gravity and mechanical pumps. Water is recycled and water from different aqueducts is sometimes mixed before it reaches the fountains and performs for the spectators.
The Trevi Fountain is known to many as the symbol of the Italian “Dolce Vita”, but it once served as a reservoir for the city aqueduct. Still today, the Trevi Fountain is the final destination of the Aqua Vergine, one of the main Roman aqueducts, and the only one still in operation more than 2,000 years after its construction. The greatness of Rome was based on water: it was thanks to its aqueducts and water supply that Roman civilization developed. These same aqueducts, including the one beneath the Trevi Fountain, are still studied today by engineers in search of new solutions in a world where water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource.
It was Pope Nicholas V who wanted a majestic fountain at the terminal point of the Acqua Vergine aqueduct. In previous eras, the site was a three-way road junction, at the centre of which was a fountain with three spouts.
The fountain marked the terminal point of the Acqua Vergine, the only ancient Roman aqueduct
still functioning in the city. The aqueduct has never stopped working over the centuries.
Fountains of Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona was once a stadium: more precisely, the first stadium built with masonry in ancient Rome and the perimeter of the playing field can still be seen today. Piazza Navona takes its name from the “agone”, or athletic games that were once held there, and not, as many believe, from the water games staged during the Baroque era and later resumed in the nineteenth century, when the square would be flooded during the month of August. Today, Piazza Navona is a symbol of Baroque Rome and features three fountains: the Fountain of the Four Rivers, the Fontana del Moro and the Fountain of Neptune.
The “mostre” of the great Roman aqueducts
The “mostre” (“terminal displays”) are monumental fountains designed to display the clear water conveyed from distant sources by means of ingenious hydraulic engineering and mark the terminal points of the aqueducts to which they correspond. The aqueducts are among the best-preserved remains of the Roman Empire, partly because they continued to function for centuries, long after its fall. They can be considered the element which, perhaps more than any other, made the creation of Rome and Roman civilization possible. Even today, the standards achieved by the Roman aqueducts are in a certain sense unparalleled and their capacity to supply arid areas is studied by contemporary engineers.
Fontana delle Najadi, “mostra” of the new Marcio aqueduct
Inaugurated in 1914, the fountain is the most significant example of Liberty style language in Rome and expresses the desire of the unitary state to insert itself in the tradition of the mostra fountains with a new language.
Fountain of Moses
The Fountain of Moses in Piazza San Bernardo was built between 1585 and 1589 as the terminal mostra of the Felice aqueduct, which was restored by Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590), born Felice Peretti, after whom it was named.
Fontana del Tritone
Started and completed between the end of 1642 and the first half of 1643, the Fontana del Tritone in Piazza Barberini is one of the greatest works of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).
Fontana delle Api
The Fontana delle Api (Fountain of the Bees) was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) in 1644 as a public fountain located near the monumental Fontana del Tritone. The fountain was dismantled in 1865 for reasons of viability and stored in the municipal warehouses. Rebuilt between 1915 and 1916, it was placed in an isolated corner of the piazza, towards Via Vittorio Veneto.
Its original location was on the corner of Palazzo Soderini. Bernini had designed a system to collect the return water from the Fontana Tritone in one of the rooms of the building.
Quattro Fontane complex
The complex of the Quattro Fontane (Four Fountains) was built under Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) on the Quirinal Hill to highlight the important intersection between Strada Pia (the present-day Via XX Settembre and Via del Quirinale) and Strada Felice (now Via Quattro Fontane and Via Sistina).
The fountains were built at the expense of the owners of the surrounding properties in exchange for rights of free usage of the Acqua Felice water.
Fountain of the Tritons
The construction of the fountain began in 1717 at the behest of Pope Clement XI Albani (1700-1721) in the piazza in front of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which at the time marked the southern limit of the inhabited area within the city walls. Important renovation work had just been completed on the piazza, and the extension of the Acqua Felice water pipes allowed the construction of the monumental fountain and a trough fountain beside it to serve the needs of the citizens and herds of cattle passing by on their way to the nearby Roman Forum.
Fontana dei Dioscuri
In 1589, an original fountain, served by the Felice aqueduct, was installed at the feet of the statues. The fountain was removed in 1783 in preparation for a new layout of the piazza. In 1786, Pope Pius VI Braschi (1775-1799) had the granite Egyptian obelisk from the Mausoleum of Augustus in the Campus Martius placed between the statues of the Dioscuri, according to a design by the architect Giovanni Antinori (1734-1792). As stated in the inscription by Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti (1800-1823), a new fountain was not built until 1818, with the reuse of a large grey granite basin, formerly in the Roman Forum, supported by a huge base that raises it above the pool.
Fontana dell’Acqua Paola
The Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, also known as the “Fontanone” (“Big Fountain”) of the Janiculum, was commissioned by Pope Paul V Borghese (1605-1621) following the restoration of the Acqua Traiana aqueduct, which he had promoted in 1608. The construction of the fountain, built between 1610 and 1614 as the terminal mostra of the Traiano-Paolo aqueduct, was entrusted to Giovanni Fontana (1540-1614), who was assisted by Flaminio Ponzio (1560-1613).
A note of interest: the large epigraph on the attic contains an error. It speaks of the restoration of the Alsietino aqueduct, whereas it was actually the ancient Acqua Traiana aqueduct that was restored.
Fontana dell’Acqua Paola in Piazza Trilussa
Commissioned by Pope Paul V Borghese (1605-1620), it was originally located on the left bank of the Tiber at the end of Via Giulia, to which it formed a backdrop. It was supplied by a branch of the Traiano-Paulo aqueduct, which had been restored by Paul V to serve the Transtiberine area.
The large fountain, now located in Piazza Trilussa, was built in 1613 by the Flemish sculptor Jan van Santen (1550-1621) in collaboration with Giovanni Fontana (1540-1614).
Twin fountains of Piazza Farnese
The basins of the two fountains come from the Baths of Caracalla. In the mid-sixteenth century, Pope Paul III Farnese had one of the basins moved to what was then known as Piazza del Duca and is now Piazza Farnese. When the influx from the Acqua Vergine aqueduct increased, Cardinal Odoardo Farnese requested and obtained the other basin, then located in Piazza Venezia, from Papa Gregorio XIII. He wanted to create twin fountains. However, his desire was not fulfilled until several years later, when Pope Paul V ordered the building of the aqueduct that bears his name.
The two fountains are composed of two huge ancient twin basins made from grey granite.
Fontana delle Tartarughe
The Fontana delle Tartarughe (Turtle Fountain) was built between 1581 and 1588 and designed by Giacomo della Porta (1533-1602), with sculptures by Florentine artist Taddeo Landini (1550-1596). It is characterised by the prevalence of the sculptured works on a complex and articulated architectural structure, enhanced by the use of precious polychrome marble.
Four turtles placed on the rim of the upper basin, attributed by tradition to Bernini, provide a fitting completion to the restoration work carried out in 1658-59.
Fontana della Barcaccia
The Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Ugly Boat), in Piazza di Spagna, was created by Pietro Bernini (1562-1629), architect and father of the more famous Gian Lorenzo (1598-1680), between 1626 and 1629 at the behest of Pope Urban VIII Barberini (1623 -1644). Pietro Bernini’s design was inspired by a boat: water gushes internally from two large suns placed at the stern and bow and from a small central basin. The water overflows from the sides of the boat, which are open so as to give the impression that it is sinking, and is collected in an underlying pool. On the sides, there are large papal coat of arms featuring bees, the symbol of the Barberini family.
Fontana del Babuino
The Fontana del Babuino (Fountain of the Baboon), thus nicknamed by the people of Rome due to the ugliness of the statue, was originally a “semi-public” fountain (built by a private individual for public use). It became so well-known to the people of Rome that even the name of the road was changed from Via Clementina to Via del Babuino. In popular tradition, it became part of the group of “talking statues” (along with Pasquino, Marforio, Madama Lucrezia and Abbot Luigi) that made up the “Congregation of Wits”, on which the Romans habitually posted anonymous complaints, known as pasquinades.
The Dea Roma Fountain in Piazza del Popolo
The Dea Roma fountain, located at the centre of the eastern semicircle, was completed in 1823. It takes its name from the large sculptural group placed above the basin, composed of a huge statue of the goddess Roma, armed and flanked by two seated statues representing the two rivers of Rome, the Tiber and the Aniene. At the feet of the goddess there is a she-wolf suckling twin boys, a depiction celebrating the legendary origins of the city. The majestic group was designed by the architect Giuseppe Valadier (1762-1839) and sculpted by Giovanni Ceccarini (1790-1861). Below it there is a large semi-circular travertine marble pool above which a travertine half-shell receives water pouring from a small bowl above it.
Fontana dei Leoni
The Fontana dei Leoni (Lions Fountain) at the centre of Piazza del Popolo replaced the fountain built in 1572 (dismantled and then reassembled in Piazza Nicosia) and is arranged around the Sistine obelisk. Valadier placed round travertine basins at the four corners of the stepped plinth, each with a stepped truncated pyramid bearing a white marble Egyptian-style lion, from whose mouths gush broad fans of water. The design, initiated by Giuseppe Valadier in 1811, was continued with contribution of the French architect L.M. Berthault during the years of Napoleonic domination. The work was completed in 1828.
Fountains of Rome (Italian: Fontane di Roma) is a symphonic poem written by the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. It is the first orchestral work in his “Roman trilogy”, followed by Pines of Rome (1924) and Roman Festivals (1928). Each of the four movements depict one of Rome’s fountains at different times of the day. Its premiere was held on March 11, 1917 at the Teatro Augusteo in Rome under the direction of Antonio Guarnieri.