~ Roman Monographs ~

part IV


- NOTE -
the spelling AQUA refers to Latin names of the aqueducts, while ACQUA refers to Italian ones

Despite some restoration work was required from time to time, the ancient aqueducts worked rather well until the Gothic War (535-553), fought by the Ostrogoths and the Byzantines. Over those years, Rome was taken several times by both factions (see timeline below); during the sieges, the aqueducts were deliberately damaged in order to cut off the city's water supply, as can be read in an account by historian Procopius, which refers to the long yet unsuccessful attack led by the Ostrogothic king Vitiges from 537 to 538:

And the camp in the Plain of Nero was commanded by Marcias (for he had by now arrived from Gaul with his followers, with whom he was encamped there), and the rest of the camps were commanded by Vitiges with five others; for there was one commander for each camp. So the Goths, having taken their positions in this way, tore open all the aqueducts, so that no water at all could enter the city from them. Now the aqueducts of Rome are fourteen in number, and were made of baked brick by the men of old, being of such breadth and height that it is possible for a man on horseback to ride in them.
excerpt from Procopius of Caesarea, Gothic War - Book I, chapter XIX
timeline of Rome's sieges

536 — Rome taken by Belisarius
537 - 538 — siege by Vitiges repelled
546 — Rome taken by Totila
547 — Rome taken by Belisarius
547 — siege by Totila repelled
549 — Rome taken by Totila
552 — Rome taken by Narses

Ostrogothic kings
Byzantine generals

According to the last remark of the passage, also the defenders might have clotted the water tunnels, to prevent the enemies from using them as passages for reaching the city; during the siege of Naples, the Byzantine soldiers led by Belisarius had actually crept into the city through an aqueduct. The number of fourteen aqueducts, instead, might be due to the inclusion of some main branches in the count.
During the Middle Ages, the lack of availability of running water, due to the poor skills in hydraulic engineering, to the political unsteadiness and to further damages caused by wars, was one of the main causes for the city's regression: its population, which during the early imperial age had grown well over 1 million inhabitants, dropped to only 30,000 already after the siege by the Goths.

the fountain at the end of the Aqua Virgo,
after the refurbishment by Nicholas V (1453)
Among the original eleven aqueducts, only the Aqua Virgo remained permanently working, yet with a considerably reduced flow. It was first restored by pope Hadrian I (772-795), who improved its functionality; it is likely that on this occasion, the earliest fountain that drew water from this aqueduct (i.e. the earliest ancestor of the Trevi Fountain) was built, on the spot where the arches of the Aqua Virgo that crossed the city centre had collapsed.
As for the other ancient aqueducts, only the Aqua Alexandrina might have worked up to the 12th century, while the Aqua Traiana was reactivated at times (although it never worked again as it did originally).
Only by the end of the Middle Ages, in 1453 pope Nicholas V restored again the Aqua Virgo and enlarged the fountain, giving it a huge inscribed plaque and a central outlet shaped as a triple lion's head (left).


As the city expanded again after its darkest age, the water supply that the old Aqua Virgo could offer was insufficient, and its availability mainly concentrated in a small part of the urban area.
Restoration works had been carried out many times, but never enough to provide sufficient water to build a water network; furthermore, in time the duct's course had been shortened, and the water was no longer drawn from the original springs, but from smaller ones closer to the city: besides its reduced quantity, also its quality and purity (whence its taste) were not as good as they used to be in ancient times.
Pope Paul III (1534-49) had been wisely advised to carry out a major restoration on the original course of the aqueduct, but due to political problems he never did so.
His successor Pius IV encountered another problem: a strong rivalry between the architects who wanted to be entrusted with this important commission; each of them did their best to criticize the other projects, and this resulted in a further delay.
The works finally started, but they were finished no sooner than 1570, under the pontificate of Gregory XIII, who therefore was officially acknowledged for the work; by that time the aqueduct went by the name of Salone Water, after that of the area next to the reactivated original springs.

course of the Salone Water after its reopening, and that of the Acqua Felice
A original springs B during the Middle Ages
This was immediately followed by the making of a net of underground ducts, that enabled several districts to be reached by running water (see Fountains, part III
page 2 for more details).

Rome kept growing at a very fast rate, and the water was still not enough, especially for some important districts, such as the Capitolium hill and its surrounding areas, not reached by the Salone water.
A project for reactivating the springs of the ancient Aqua Alexandrina was agreed under the same pope Gregory XIII, but he died soon after the works had started (1585).
Who had most of the second aqueduct built was Sixtus V (Felice Peretti, 1585-90). As a cardinal, he owned Villa Montalto on the Esquiline hill, a very large estate that included the site of today's Termini railway station. The course of the new aqueduct was to pass by the pope's estate, considerably increasing its value, also because it would have enabled the making of new fountains in the villa's gardens.

remains of the Aqua Claudia: the mortar shows the prints
left by the rectangular blocks of tufa stolen from the pillars
This explains why Sixtus V was so eager for the water to reach Rome as soon as possible: only a few days after his election, the works were resumed. The pope gave the new aqueduct his own name, Acqua Felice, which sounded as "happy water", although it was not really born under a lucky star (see Fountains, part III page 6).
At first, maybe due to a hasty project, the architect in charge (Matteo Bartolani, a.k.a. Matteo di Castello) helped by a commission of experts, failed in calculating the hight of the new aqueducts that should have integrated the broken ancient remains: so the water, that initially flowed from the original springs in Pantano towards Rome, at a certain point sloped back. The pope, furious for having wasted money and time, appointed a different architect, Giovanni Fontana, who found new springs next to the old ones, but at a higher level, enough to let the water reach the city.
The direction that the Acqua Felice followed was basically the same one of the ancient Aqua Marcia and Aqua Claudia, from whose remains a great amount of building material was taken. Several pillars of the Aqua Claudia now bear the prints of the large blocks of tufa, taken away and reused for the making of the new aqueduct.
While almost nothing of the Aqua Marcia was left after Sixtus V's works, the steady parts of the Aqua Claudia were also used as a prop for the new aqueduct: in some parts, the Acqua Felice was built leaning against the early Roman structure, which remained clearly distinguishable, being considerably taller than the one built in the late Renaissance.
The Aqua Felice aqueduct still runs all the way from Pantano to Rome, crossing the city's modern south-eastern suburbs, once open countryside (see picture on the left and part III).

stretch of the Acqua Felice (1587) in Rome's suburbs

As a final outlet for his Acqua Felice, Sixtus V had a large fountain built by the remains of the Baths of Diocletian.
Below a huge inscription that remembers the making of the aqueduct by the pope, three tall niches are divided by columns; the central one houses the imposing figure of Moses.
Once set into place, though, the statue turned out quite stout and disproportionate; the people of Rome, accustomed to much more refined works of art, strongly criticized it and laughed upon what they called the 'ridiculous Moses'. Once again, the chosen name 'Happy Water' sounded as a jest of fate (see Fountains, part III page 6).
Despite the incident, by the end of the 16th century most parts of Rome were once again reached by running water.

← the Fountain of the Acqua Felice, a.k.a. Fountain of Moses

the 'ridiculous Moses'


By the early 1600s, the western districts, such as Regola, Trastevere and Borgo, were still rather dry. The little water that the Acqua Felice could carry to the opposite side of town (see also Fountains, part III, page 11) was certainly insufficient to cover the needs of the local inhabitants.
Even the richest families who dwelt in this part of Rome, such as the Farnese, had to draw water from the Tiber, or from the fountains that already worked in other districts, or had to buy it from water-selling pedlars.

At the beginning of the following century, pope Paul V had the ancient Aqua Traiana completely restored, and renamed Acqua Paola after himself. The works ended in 1610, but the aqueduct's 'display', i.e. the huge fountain on the Janiculum Hill (see Fountains, part III, page 12), was opened a few years later (1614), and was completed no sooner than 1690.
Due to its size, to the roman people still today this is "the big fountain". According to a blameful custom, though, for its making several blocks of marble were taken from the remains of temples and buildings in Trajan's Forum.

the 'big fountain'

As the ancient Aqua Traiana had done in the past, also the Acqua Paola supplied the whole west end of the city, no longer limited to Trastevere, as also the Vatican's area (Borgo district) had recently become a part of Rome.

Another nearby important fountain, though not as huge as the previous one, shared the same water. Originally located at the southern end of via Giulia, on the opposite side of the Tiber, it had been commissioned by the same pope Paul V for the benefit of Regola district. But in the late 19th century high walls were built along the Tiber banks, to prevent further floods, and the project entailed the demolition of several houses; in order to preserve the fountain, it was disassembled and rebuilt on the side of Sixtus Bridge, belonging to Trastevere district, where it now stands (more details in Fountains, part III, page 12).
In this same century, the famous architect and sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini radically refurbished the 15th century Trevi Fountain, but the work was never completed, due to the lack of funds.

← view of the fountain built by Paul V near Sixtus Bridge and, in the
background, the Fountain of the Acqua Paola on the Janiculum Hill

Bernini's fountain at the end of the Salone Water aqueduct remained unfinished until 1731, when pope Clement XII chose the project of the by then obscure architect Francesco Salvi for the making of a lavish work in late Baroque style, bound to become famous all over the world as one of Rome's symbols (see Fountains, part III, page 17). The fountain took 30 years to be completed, and its making spanned over the pontificate of three popes.

← the Trevi Fountain, from the 18th century original project
Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58) not only gave contribution to its making, but also sponsored a further restoration of the aqueduct, a short stretch of which needed repairs again in 1788.
With the making of the enormous display fountain, the aqueduct began to be referred with by the people of Rome as Trevi Water (or Trevi Aqueduct), although its official name once again turned to be Acquedotto Vergine (Maiden Water), after the original Latin name. Up to the second half of the 20th century, its water was still praised for its excellent taste. The most important fountains in central Rome keep drawing water from this aqueduct.

the 'tranquil horse' from the Trevi Fountain →


the central figure of the
Fountain of the Naiads
An extension to the network of the Acquedotto Vergine was carried out in 1840.
In 1870, only a few days before the Italian army conquered Rome, pope Pius IX opened a new aqueduct whose making he had sponsored, called Acqua Pia-Marcia, which partly followed the ancient course of the Aqua Marcia. The spot for its main outlet was chosen not far from the site where the castle of the ancient Roman aqueduct once stood. Its location, though, was slightly shifted only a few years later, and the first fountain was replaced with the larger Fountain of the Naiads (more details can be read in Curious and Unusual, page 9, and in Fountains, part III, page 19). A large cistern connected to the Acqua Pia-Marcia aqueduct was built in the shape of an elegant tower in the northern part of Villa Borghese (right).

the Acqua Pia-Marcia cistern
in Villa Borghese


After the fall of the Papal State (1870) Rome became the capital of Italy, and the city rapidly expanded. From 1932 to 1937, a new main branch of the Acquedotto Vergine was built, collecting water from the same springs as the old one and partly following the same direction, but with a less winding course in its central half (a comparison map is shown in part III, page 1). Its main outlet was opened on the Pincio Hill and on this occasion Fountain of the Great Niche was built, as a 'display' fountain (see Fountains monograph, part III, page 21. It was named Nuovo Aquedotto Vergine Elevato (New Elevated Maiden Aqueduct), or N.A.V.E. in short, as the original level of the springs was artificially increased thanks to a 50 m/165 ft tall water tower.

the water tower by the springs of the N.A.V.E.

the fountain in piazzale degli Eroi, the final outlet of the Peschiera aqueduct
However, besides this branch, a completely new aqueduct was not built in Rome before the end of WW II. An important water supply for the many modern districts, rapidly developing in the city outskirts, came from the Peschiera aqueduct, whose left branch, opened in 1949, enters the city from the north-west. In 1964 its right branch was completed, entering Rome from the north-east and also partly increasing the flow of the new Acquedotto Vergine. The springs of the Peschiera Aqueduct are located near Rieti (about 60 km or 37 mi north-east of Rome), and its main outlet fountain stands in piazzale degli Eroi, just north of the Vatican City, see Fountains, part III, page 21.

In 1961 the old Acquedotto Vergine was found to be polluted by the modern city outskirts that had meanwhile expanded; therefore its water was only used for historical fountains, while the new branch provided private houses with drinkable water.
Lastly, a further aqueduct, the Appio-Alessandrino, was built in 1965 for the south-eastern side of town, whose increasing water needs could no longer be covered by the Acqua Pia-Marcia alone.