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Splish! Splash! The Glorious Fountains of Rome

Splash! I am going to get into trouble. Splish! Splash! If Audrey can do it, why can’t I? The two abiding images of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday are of her having unrestrained fun in Rome, in one she is on Gregory Peck’s vespa and the other she is cooling and kicking her feet in the Barcaccia Fountain.

There is a deeply serious side to the fountains of Rome. They are not just there for the tickling music. Back in the Sixteenth Century, up in the hills of Tivoli near Rome, it might be possible to get away with a Water Organ Fountain and another nicknamed ‘Birdsong’, but the rulers and people of Rome have long known that water and power are forever linked, for in highly populated areas access to clean water and sanitation is critical. Many of the famous fountains in Rome are attributed to one man, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, but almost all of them owe their existence to the Renaissance Popes, who realised that they could benefit from the lessons of their Republican and Imperial ancestors. Even Tivoli is the product of Papal activity. Pope Julius III gave the villa there to Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, Lucrezia Borgia’s son, and grandson of Pope Alexander VI, who commissioned the fantasy garden and fountains.

The first of eleven Roman aqueducts bringing fresh water into Rome was constructed as long ago as 312 BC. It brought in water for the cattle market. Ancient Rome’s power was built on its plumbing. Romans constructed their civilisation around their springs and baths as is witnessed by their legacy of town names such as Spa in Belgium, Baden-Baden in Germany and Bath in England.

The Renaissance popes first task was to bring back the waters that had made ancient Rome great. In 1453 Pope Nicholas V restored the Aqua Vergine, which was always meant to have brought the sweetest water. The original terminus was a deliciously understated fountain by the founder of modern architecture, Leon Battista Alberti. It is in Piazza dei Crociferi. This may have served its function, but it did not supply the wow factor. Succeeding popes competed with more and more amazing fountains and they did such a good job they are entrancing us to this day. They added the fantastic to the functional, and now it is difficult to untangle the two.  

Nowadays, it is not advisable to drink the water of the fountains, but until fifty years ago the soft water of the Aqua Vergine could be scooped up. One day you walk past the Trevi and it is as aquamarine as a Capri grotto, the next you see the pompiere in an empty bowl scrubbing it out. The Trevi Fountain has become big business.

Barcaccia Fountain, 1629-31

It was Urban VIII who commissioned Audrey Hepburn’s paddling pool back in 1623 as part of a plan to build a centrepiece for every major square. As the main patron of Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his less celebrated father, Pietro, who largely designed this fountain, Urban put his stamp on Rome. Legend has it that during the dreadful flood of Christmas 1598, the high waters carried a boat all the way to the Piazza di Spagna, then a fairly deserted spot on the edge of the City. When the waters retreated, the boat was stranded in the Piazza and hence Bernini built the fountain in the shape of a boat 30 years later. The Fountain’s water derives from the ancient Aqua Vergine, whose low pressure explains the design of the boat half sunk below street level and the absence of a water spectacle. One further legend connected to the Barcaccia relates that its gentle splashing soothed the dying poet John Keats, who lived in a house on the Spanish Steps, and was the source for the epitaph on his tombstone in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

Fountain of the Turtles, 1580-88

Not all the fountains in Rome were paid for by popes. One of the most elegant has a suitably charming legend to boot. Duke Muzio Mattei supposedly had the Fontana della Tartarughe built in one night to impress his future father-in-law who was resisting Mattei’s claims to his daughter. He won the bride. Whatever the construction duration, Giacome della Porta made the fountain with dolphins not turtles, which were an addition made nearly a hundred years later probably by Bernini who was called in to help renovate the malfunctioning fountain. The accurate rendering of the turtles may have stemmed from Bernini using casts of a real turtle as he is known to have done with other animals. 

Trevi Fountain, 1762

The Trevi, though arguably the most famous fountain in the world and one of the oldest water sources in Rome, is a much later extravaganza than Bernini’s masterpieces. It is like a glorious piece of stage design. The architect Nicola Salvi won a design competition in 1732, but died before it was completed, leaving Giuseppe Pannini to take on the job. The Trevi legend of giving good fortune to those who throw in coins makes charity 3000 euro a day, but there was a man who reportedly managed to fish out hundreds of euros a day with a magnetic sword before he was caught in 2002. The Trevi has featured in many films, but none can outshine the captivating scene in La Dolce Vita, when Anita Ekberg enters the Fountain fully dressed ensued by Marcello Mastroianni.

Fountain of Four Rivers, 1651

The most famous of Bernini’s fountains is to modern eyes and hearts also deeply disturbing. It shows how the popes carved up the world to their best advantage. For a lighter interpretation lets retreat to myth. The legend of this fountain is fun, even though it does not stack up. It shows what sitting and drinking around fountains can do to you, even in the most enchanting Piazza Navona. Romans have long pointed to the way the River God of the Nile hides its face so that it avoids having to look at the façade of the Borromini’s Church of St Agnese. Bernini disliked the architect. The only trouble with this delightful tittle tattle is that Borromini did not start work on the Church till two years after Bernini had finished the fountain. Who needs facts when the siren voices of the tinkling fountains are beguiling us under a moonlit Navona? If Audrey was bewitched on her Roman Holiday, why can’t I be?

Barcaccia Fountain

Fountain of the Turtles

Trevi Fountain

Fountain of Four Rivers