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Fontana di Trevi at night. (1730)
Fontana del Tritone (1642).
Fountain in St. Peter's Square by Carlo Maderno (1613)
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi by Bernini, (1648-51) the River Ganges

History of the Fountains 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 A.D., 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.[1]

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the acqueducts 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 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 built a wall fountain where the Trevi Fountain is now located. The aqueduct he restored, with modifications and extensions, eventually supplied water to the Trevi Fountain and the famous baroque fountains in the Piazza del Popolo and Piazza Navona. [2]

One of the first new fountains to be built in Rome during the Renaissance was the fountain in the piazza in front of the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, (1472), 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. [3]

During the the 17th and 18th century the Roman popes reconstructed other ruined Roman acqueducts 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." [4]

The most famous Roman fountains of this period include:

  • Piazza Navona is a grand theater of water - it has three fountains, built in a line on the site of the Stadium of Domitian. The fountains at either end are by Giacomo della Porta; the Neptune fountain to th north, (1572) shows the God of the Sea sparing an octopus, is surrounded by tritons, sea horses and mermaids. At the southern end is La Fontana del Moro, a figure either of an African (a Moor) or of Neptune wrestling with a dolphin. In the center is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, (The Fountain of the Four Rivers) (1648-51), a highly theatrical fountain by Bernini, with statues representing rivers from the four continents; the Nile, Danube, Plate River and Ganges. Over the whole structure is a 54-foot Egyptian obelisque, crowned by a cross with the emblem of the Pamphili famiy, representing Pope Innocent X, whose family palace was on the piazza.
  • The Trevi Fountain is the largest and most spectacular of Rome's fountains, designed to glorify the three different Popes who created it. It was built beginning in 1730 at the terminus of the reconstructed Acqua Vergine aqueduct, on the site of Renaissance fountain by Leon Battista Alberti. It was the work of architect Nicola Salvi and the successive project of Pope Clement XII, Pope Benedict XIV and Pope Clement XIII, whose emblems and inscriptions are carried on the attic story, entablature and central niche. The central figure is Oceanus, the personification of all the seas and oceans, in an oyster-shell chariot, surrounded by Tritons and Sea Nymphs.

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 were fed by the Paola aqueduct, restored in 1612, whose source was 266 feet 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 above sea level (fasi), a difference of 130 feet 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. [5]

The fountains of Piazza Navona, on the other hand, took their water from the Acqua Vergine, which had only a 23-foot 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. [6]

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.[7]

This (incomplete) list contains important fountains in the city:


Monumental Fountains

These fountains were built at the termini of the restored acqueducts of Rome, to supply water to the population and to glorify the Popes who built them.

Decorative Fountains

These fountains were linked to the restored acqueducts, decorated the piazzi, or squares, of Rome, and provided drinking water to the populaton around the squares.

"Talking Statue" Fountains of Rome

Wall Fountains

  • Fontana del Mascherone (Big Mask Fountain), Via Guilia, (1626)
  • The Quattro Fontane (the Four Fountains) (1588-1593)

Sources and Citations

  1. ^ Frontin, Les Aqueducs de la ville de Rome, translation and commentary by Pierre Grimal, Société d'édition Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1944.
  2. ^ Pinto, John A. The Trevi Fountain. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1986.
  3. ^ The fountain in Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere originally had two upper basins, but the water pressure in the early Renaissance was so low that the water was unable to reach the upper basin, so the top basin was removed.
  4. ^ Italian Gardens, a Cultural History, Helen Attlee. Francis Lincoln Limited, London 2006.
  5. ^ Katherine Wentworth Rinne, The Fall and Rise of the Waters of Rome, collected in Marilyn Symmes, 'Fountains- Splash and Spectacle - Water and Design from the Renaissance to the Present,. Thames and Hudson, London, 1998 (pg. 54).
  6. ^ Maria Ann Conneli and Marilyn Symmes, Fountains as propaganda, in Fountains, Splash and Spectacle - Water and Design from the Renaissance to the Present. Edited by Marilyn Symmes. Thames and Hudson, London, and Katherine Wentworth Rinne, The Fall and Rise of the Waters of Rome, in the same collection.
  7. ^ Katherine Wentworth Rinne, collected in Marilyn Symmes, Fountains- Splash and Spectacle. (pg. 54).


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