The Public Fountains of Italy
The Marvels of Ancient Rome
To really understand the significance of public fountains to Italians, you have to look back to ancient Roman times. The Romans were great engineers and artisans, and the network of eleven aqueducts they created to supply the people of Rome and other major cities with water was probably unparalleled anywhere in the world at that time.
The remains of the aqueducts that ran through the Campagna region of Italy can still be seen today, and are a fascinating reminder of the levels of scientific and engineering achievement reached by the Romans. Not only did they supply all the fountains and baths houses of Rome with fresh water, but it was drinkable and its flow was regulated through the use of man-made underground reservoirs to ensure a consistent and reliable supply, even in hot weather.
The public fountains of the ancient Romans tended to be relatively simple in ornamentation, with smaller fountains often taking the form of stylized animal or human heads built into a wall, from the mouth of which came a stream of water. Larger fountains provided several streams that flowed into a large basin, allowing access to water for both humans and animals. Regardless of their size, the fountains were built in the squares and at the major crossroads of the communities they served, and the ruins of Pompeii illustrate how these public fountains would have served as a central meeting place for the community – women talking and gathering water for cooking and washing, men and animals quenching their dusty thirsts on hot summer days, and children playing in the water.
The Dawn of the Renaissance
The Renaissance movement heralded the arrival of a new, more ornate and decorative style of architecture in Rome, and the major public fountains of Rome and Italy began to change.Some of the most noteworthy fountains in the world were designed and built between 1200 and 1650, and many of them are still functioning in Rome today. We’ve taken a closer look at a cross-section of Roman public fountains that illustrate the true virtuosity and diversity of styles that can be seen on a walk around Rome.
Fountains of Rome
The Triton Fountain was the first fountain designed by the Italian sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a man who played a leading role in defining the Baroque style, and who was for many years the architect of St. Peter’s Basilica, under the patronage of several Popes. Pope Urban VIII wished for a major new fountain to be constructed in the Piazza Barberini to commemorate the reopening of the Aqua Felice aqueduct. Bernini’s design created an imposing focal point for the square that used the imagery of Triton, god of the sea, to represent the power and vitality accorded to Roman civilization by a reliable supply of running water. The Triton Fountain features a sculpted marble model of Triton, half-man half-fish, sitting atop an open shell, holding a large conch shell to his mouth, from which water flows into the large basin that forms the base of the statue.
Four Rivers Fountain
The other fountain for which Bernini is particularly noted is the Four Rivers Fountain, in the Piazza Navona. The death of Pope Urban VIII had left Bernini temporarily without a sponsor, his replacement, Pope Innocent X not favoring Bernini in the same way.A number of prominent sculptors and artists of the day were invited to submit a design for the new fountain in the Piazza Navona, but Bernini was excluded. However, he was persuaded to create a design by a friend, who contrived that it should come to Innocent’s attention.Upon seeing it he is reputed to have declared that it was a trick to view Bernini’s work, because once seen it was impossible for him not to commission the fountain. The Four Rivers fountain is based around a representation of the four continents of the world (as were known at the time) – the River Nile (Africa), the Danube (Europe), the Ganges (Asia) and the River Platt (Americas). Each River was represented by a river god and is seated around a cleverly designed mound of marble rocks, from which many streams of water issue, and on top of which is supported a magnificent Egyptian Obelisk.
The Trevi Fountain is one of the most imposing public fountains in Rome. The concept was originally designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, but on his patron Pope Urban VIII’s death, the plans were shelved for some years. They were later resurrected, and nearly a century later Nicola Salvi completed the designs for this fountain and oversaw its inception. Large and imposing, the Trevi Fountain marks the end of the Aqua Virgo aqueduct and is over 25m wide and 19m high. The tableau of the fountain depicts Tritons guiding sea horses through the tumultuous oean. On either side of the fountain, in alcoves, are the figures of the goddesses of Health and Abundance. It is said that upon throwing a coin over their shoulder into the fountain, visitors can be assured of a return to Rome, the “Eternal City” at some point in their lives.