~ Roman Monographs ~

part III
Main Fountains


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The title obviously refers to the Trevi Fountain, not only the largest and most lavish one in Rome, but probably the most famous fountain in the whole world.
Its great importance partly relies in its artistic value, partly in the feeling of awe that it triggers in any visitor who enters for the first time the relatively small square where it stands; but most of all, this is the only source of running water, among the thousands now extant in Rome, that was already working in the 1st century AD, and that in over two thousand years never stopped providing the city with a water supply.
piazza di Trevi
the Trevi Fountain

piazza di Trevi
one of the fountain's panels: the maiden
shows the soldiers where to find water

The aqueduct to which the fountain is connected, the Aqua Virgo (old Latin name meaning "maiden water"), had been specifically built in 19 BC for the needs of the Baths of Agrippa, once located behind the Pantheon. According to a popular legend, believed to be true in old times, the soldiers sent out by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa to seek for a suitable source of water were shown the springs by a young maiden, whence the name given to the aqueduct.
In the 6th century, when most other ducts were damaged by the Goths who sieged Rome, the Aqua Virgo never ran completely dry, and thanks to some occasional maintainance work, during the dark centuries of the Middle Ages, Rome's population, yet greatly decreased in number, could survive and satisfy its minimal daily needs with this water.
But having most of the ancient fountains been destroyed, now the aqueduct no longer reached the site of the old baths; its main outlet consisted of a leaden pipe connected to very simple nozzles, that poured water into three small basins, by a three-way junction below the Quirinal hill.

The first pope who showed a real interest in refurbishing the fountain was Nicholas V, in 1453; he also decorated it with a commemorative plaque, as described more in detail in page 1.
In 1570 the aqueduct was throughoutly restored, partly altered, and renamed Salone water (see page 2). A further improvement of the fountain was taken into consideration by most late Renaissance popes, to whom leading architects submitted some projects, but none of them was ever carried out.
In the play Stravaganze d'amore ("Love extravagances", 1585) by Cristoforo Castelletti, one of the characters, a servant named Perna, mentions "Treio's outlets" (li iettelli de Treio, act I scene IV), confirming that in those days no grand fountain was extant.
No sooner than 1640, Gianlorenzo Bernini enlarged the tiny square, turned the main axis of the fountain at straigh angles, and removed the three simple outlets, replacing them with a huge double basin, as described in the previous page. Nevertheless, this work too remained largely unfinished.
When in 1644 Innocent X was elected, his own idea was to create a "display", i.e. a large celebrative fountain for this aqueduct, in piazza Navona, where his family mansion (Palazzo Pamphilj) stood; in fact, the wonderful Fountain of the Rivers that the pope had built by Bernini in the middle of the square (see page 3) might have been conceived for this purpose.
For the same reason, Innocent X had no interest in retrieving the aforementioned unfinished project in piazza di Trevi.
piazza di Trevi
the square, crowded with tourists, who by tradition throw a coin
into the fountain, as this - it is said - will bring them back to Rome

project of the large fountain for piazza Colonna,
by Pietro da Cortona, that was never built
Also the following pope, Alexander VII, had in mind of building a great display for the Aqua Virgo in front of his own mansion, Palazzo Chigi, located in the central piazza Colonna, where the ancient column of Marcus Aurelius stands. The square already had a tub-shaped fountain, built by Giacomo Della Porta about one century earlier, see page 4; the pope thought of having it moved to a different square (piazza Santi Apostoli), and wanted the new larger fountain to be decorated with the reclining statue known as Marforio, one of the so-called 'Talking Statues'. This time not Bernini, who in those years was busy with the making of St.Peter's colonnade, but Pietro da Cortona was given charge to design the work.
In 1666, though, the pope died, so the ambitious project was dropped, and piazza Colonna remained unchanged.


Five following popes showed very little interest for the fountain, until Clement XI, elected in 1700, began once again to seek for a suitable solution. Carlo Fontana suggested to stand an obelisk over a group of rocks (clearly inspired by Bernini's Fountain of the Rivers, see page 3), and drew several projects based on this idea.
Instead Borromini's nephew, Bernardo Castelli, submitted one in which a column should have been used in a similar way, with a spiral ramp climbing to the top. But none of these satisfied the pope. Other attempts by less famous architects, during the first two decades of the 18th century, came to nothing.

projects by Carlo Fontana, with an obelisk, and by Bernardo Castelli, with a column →

Most of these projects entailed a partial demolition of the two buildings at the back of the fountain; the unfinished work by Bernini had only left a modest niche between them, where the central group was to be placed, but such a small space was really insufficient.

When Clement died, in 1721, under the reign of his successor, Innocent XIII, everything fell again into oblivion. The reason was that the new pope's family, the Conti, dukes of Poli, had recently bought the two aforesaid buildings, in order to turn them into a princely mansion; any risk of damage to the new Palazzo Poli, which the making of a large fountain would have surely caused, was obviously avoided.
Innocent XIII reigned less than three years; in 1724, Benedict XIII had already taken his place.
Also this pope tried to find a solution for the long-lasting problem of the Trevi Fountain. Having been born in the south of Italy, rather than hiring the famous clans of northern artists active in Rome, such as the Fontana family, the Borromini family, etc., Benedict relied on more obscure architects and sculptors from his own homeland.

The very few projects they drew were much more simple than the ones submitted so far. And the only work produced for the fountain during these years was a marble group, featuring the Virgin Mary and Child: the naive sculptor Paolo Benaglia from Naples, had ingenuously mistaken the young maiden of the old legend about the aqueduct with a religious personage! The group was never used.

The happy end of this long story came when Clement XII was elected, in 1730. After having rejected a first series of projects that aimed to preserve the integrity of Palazzo Poli, the pope's interest was caught by the drawings submitted by Ferdinando Fuga, Luigi Vanvitelli and the young Nicola Salvi, an architect in his early thirties, whose experience was still rather limited. According to all three of them, the central part of the building should have been sacrificed, in order to create a deeper perspective for the fountain's central group. The Conti family, owners of Palazzo Poli, complained about the damage that this would have caused to their mansion, but the pope decreed that the alteration was to be carried out all the same.
A commission of expert scholars was asked to choose the best project, and the composition by Nicola Salvi, reputed very scenographic and harmonic at the same time, was preferred to the others.

two projects by Luigi Vanvitelli

(← left) the winning project by Nicola Salvi
(↓ below) project by Ferdinando Fuga

piazza di Trevi In the middle of a long rocky reef, that covers the whole lower part of Palazzo Poli's side, god Ocean emerges from a triumphal arch (actually, a large niche, supported by columns). He rides a shell-shaped chariot, driven by two winged steeds, traditionally referred to as the restless horse (on the left) and the tranquil horse (on the right); two tritons lead them, almost as groomers.
On both sides of the arch, a rectangular niche contains a large statue (Abundance on the left; Salubrity on the right), above which hangs a panel in relief: on the left is Agrippa, approving the new aqueduct's project; the young maiden indicating the water springs to the soldiers is the scene featured in the right one (previously shown).
Four tall columns divide the central arch from the side niches, and support the top part of the prospect, where four smaller statues of allegories stand (from the left: the abundance of fruit, the fertility of the fields, the richness of autumn, the amenity of gardens, improperly known as 'the Seasons').

← the triumphal arch, with the statue of Ocean

piazza di Trevi piazza di Trevi
the restless horse and the tranquil one

In central position, high above the composition, hangs a large commemorative inscription topped by the richly ornate coat of arms of Clement XII.
Several outlets are variously positioned among the rocks. The central one is below Ocean's shell-shaped chariot; from here, three basins are filled before the water pours into the enormous ground basin or pool, that covers a large part of the square's surface. By the pool runs a walkable passage, from one end of the fountain to the other, enclosed by a short flight of steps that almost acts as the tiers of a theatre. This expedient was used by Salvi to tackle the sloping surface of the square, whose left (east) side is quite higher than the right (west) one: actually, this spot is at the bottom of the Quirinal hill.

On the left side runs also a short parapet, partly covered with rocks. A curious detail carved on one of them, by the end of the reef, in front of the parapet, lies a coat of arms featuring a rampant lion; the shape of the hat above and the tassels on both sides indicate this as belonging to a cardinal, whose name and relation to the fountain, though, remains obscure.
piazza di Trevi
the coat of arms of Clement XII and
the commemorative inscription dated 1735

piazza di Trevi
the cardinal's coat of arms on a rock
For the making of the many statues, a whole team of sculptors was hired, coming from every part of Italy. The main group of Ocean should have been carved by Giovanni Battista Maini from Varese, but he died soon after making a model, and was replaced by Pietro Bracci from Rome. The side statues were carved by Filippo della Valle from Florence, the left and right reliefs respectively by Andrea Bergondi and Giovanni Battista Grossi, both from Rome, the four upper statues by Agostino Corsini from Bologna, Bernardino Ludovisi from Rome, Francesco Queirolo from Genoa and Bartolomeo Pincellotti from Carrara. Finally, the beautiful pope's coat of arms was made by Paolo Benaglia from Naples, the same artist who a few years earlier had mistaken the legend's maiden with the Virgin Mary.
The making of the Trevi Fountain started in 1732, and from the very beginning everybody knew that it would have taken a long time. But Clement XII was so eager that he officially declared it open in 1735, despite the workshop had just been opened (whence the misleading date in the commemorative inscription). Also the increased expenses, which turned out much higher than the sum that had been assigned, and frequent quarrels between Salvi and sculptor Maini, slowed down the project.
It took thirty years before the fountain was completed!

Architect Salvi did not live enough to see his masterpiece finished, as he died in 1751. Giuseppe Pannini, who was appointed as a substitute, took the liberty of altering Salvi's original project: three basins were added below Ocean's shell, and the subjects of the two side statues were changed, as well.
Meanwhile, also Clement XII had died (1740), and not the following pope (Benedict XIV, d.1758) but the second one, Clement XIII, had the privilege of opening - this time for real - the majestic fountain. Once unveiled, on May 22, 1762, it was immediately crowned as one of Rome's marvels.

This was no exaggeration: after almost three centuries the fame of this incredible monument, all over the world, is still intact, if not even greater than before.
piazza di Trevi
the rocky setting before Palazzo Poli


Although the official name of the aqueduct which the fountain was connected to was Salone Water or, according to the old Latin name, Aqua Virgo and its Italian equivalent Acquedotto Vergine, since the Middle Ages, when this fountain still consisted of three small outlets, its name had always been Trevi, or variants of this word, with a similar sound.

↑ above: the map of Rome by Leonardo Bufalini
(1571) features the Fons Trevis

↓ below: the Civitates Orbis Terrarum, an
atlas dated 1572, mentions the Fons Trivij
Despite the fountain's changes in shape over the centuries, this name had always remained in use. Even when the huge composition by Nicola Salvi was finished, Clement XIII did not rename the new work after himself, nor after the aqueduct, nor after the main statue that decorated it (such as the Fountain of Moses, i.e. the display fountain of the Acqua Felice aqueduct): for everybody it simply remained the Trevi Fountain, as before.

But what is the origin of such name?
According to one version, this word is a corruption of the Latin trivium, i.e. the three-way junction where the three simple water outlets were once found. One of the name's early variants was, in fact, Fons Trivii ("the three-way junction fountain").
According to another version, instead, the name comes from Trebium, a place just outside Rome's eastern boundary, where during the Middle Ages the aqueduct drew most of the water from. In fact, due to poor maintainance and lack of hydraulic skills, the city administrators had connected the aqueduct to springs located slightly closer to Rome than the original ones, though the water it drew was scarcer, and dirtier too (see details and map in Aqueducts, part IV). Only after the full restoration was carried out under pope Gregory XIII (1570), the aqueduct was once again connected to the early springs, in order to draw the clean water whose good taste and healthy properties had always been praised.
Soon the Trevi water became once again renowned, at the point that not only locals, but many people from out of Rome too came here to make their own supply; large quantities were also taken to the Vatican for the pope's private use.

Improvements carried out to the network of water ducts, particularly during the 19th and 20th century, enabled several fountains in the central and norhtern districts of the city, including small outlets, to be reached by secondary branches of this aqueduct. Up to a few years ago, it was not uncommon to see people fill bottles or tanks with the excellent Trevi water, for drinking and cooking purposes, although today this custom has almost completely subsided.

Let us conclude with a funny anecdote about Nicola Salvi.
By the time the fountain was being built, on the left (eastern) side of the square was a barber shop, whose owner, quite critical about the work in progress, did not spare his bitter remarks. So just outside the rocks that on this side of the fountain follow the parapet, the architect added the sculpture of a huge vase, whose purpose, according to a popular tradition, was simply to cover the view over the works from the shop of the annoying bloke.

piazza di Trevi
A legend? Maybe. But the vase really stands in a strange position, and there is no similar one on the opposite side of the square, so the story may contain a speck of truth.
With their usual humour, the people of Rome nicknamed this solitary sculpture the ace of Cups!

← the curious ace of Cups
piazza di Trevi
the fountain at dawn - the only time of the day
when it is not surrounded by a crowd of tourists

other pages in part III
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