However, in Rome, the fountains you will encounter whilst wandering the city’s complex maze of charming backstreets will not fail to astound as long as you know exactly what it is you’re looking at, as is so often the case with churches, statues and ruins in Italy.
On a recent trip to France, it wasn’t until months after the trip that I realised that a fountain we had stopped to take a photograph at was in fact a site of major historical interest. Consequently, I vowed that when I visited Rome, a city that is perhaps home to some of the world’s most splendid watery statues, the historical significance would not pass me by. I decided to map out the fountains in Italy’s stunning capital and visit them on a walking tour. As I had hoped, instead of the usual, “Oh, look! A pretty fountain!”, a mantra which quickly gets old, my research and forward planning led to a much deeper appreciation of the ornate sculptures.
The Trevi Fountain is undoubtedly the most famous fountain in all of Italy, if not the world. An extravagant baroque masterpiece, this fountain is not nearly as old as some of its neighbours — it was only completed in 1762 — but it nonetheless revered for its striking iconography. Tourists flock to the Fontana di Trevi day and night to toss small change into its waters in the hope that one day, they will return to Rome. Of course, I also took part in this wistful and wishful activity, although I have yet to discover whether there is any truth behind the superstition. Apart from the meagre cost of your “wish”, a visit to the Trevi Fountain is completely free, and should therefore go straight to the top of your must-see list when in Rome.
Next on my agenda were the Bernini Fountains, which for me easily rival the Trevi in terms of their creative splendour. Gianlorenzo Bernini was one of the most prolific artists in Roman history and even known as the successor to Michelangelo. A passionate workaholic, he remained active from 1622-1680 and his fountains were perhaps some of his most splendid offerings to art, and served as both public works and papal monuments.
The Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, or “Fountain of the Four Rivers” is situated in the Piazza Navona, which is also a great location to stop off and indulge in a traditional Italian hot chocolate. The thick chocolate superbly serves as a sumptuous desert if you are in the mood for something sweet. Refusing to be distracted from my cultural mission, following the fast sensation beverage, I took the opportunity to feast my eyes on Bernini’s baroque masterpiece. When it was unveiled, the vibrant fusion of architecture and sculpture made this fountain revolutionary for its time, particularly in comparison to the works of city art that came before. The sculpture depicts four river gods representing the Nile in Africa, the Danube in Europe, the Ganges in Asia and the Platte in the Americas. The rivers represent the four continents through which papal authority had spread, and Bernini designed the fountain as a tribute to Pope Innocent X.
The Piazza Navona is also home to La Fontana del Moro, the “Moor Fountain” which was originally designed by Giacomo della Porta in 1575. Located at the southern end of the piazza, the fountain represents a figure thought by some to be Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. However, the fountain you see there now is only a copy, as the original statues were moved to the Villa Borghese in 1874.
Returning to the genius of Bernini, my next cascading sculpture was Fontana del Tritone, or “Fountain of the Triton”, which is situated in the Piazza Barberini, near the entrance of Italy’s National Gallery of Ancient Art so great if you want to kill two cultural birds with one artistic stone. The fountain depicts Triton, a sea god of Greco-Roman legend, envisioned by Bernini as a merman kneeling on four dolphins. Completed in 1643, the masterpiece was actually erected to provide water from the Acqua Felice aqueduct which Pope Urban VIII, who had commissioned the fountain, had restored.
Another of Bernini’s classics, Fontana delle Api or “Fountain of the Bees” is conveniently located very near to the Fountain of the Triton, just where Via Veneto enters the Piazza Barberini. A much smaller fountain, Fountain of the Bees consists of a marble shell with three bees resting upon it. It’s almost impossible to believe now, but the fountain was originally intended as a watering trough for horses!
Finally, Bernini’s Fontana della Barcaccia, “Fountain of the Old Boat” was named as such because the artist crafted it in the shape of a half sunken ship overflowing with water. Located just below the Spanish steps, which are most certainly also worth a visit, the area also provided another quaint café in which I could enjoy yet another decadent Roman hot chocolate and reflect on the inspired brilliance of Rome. Thanks to my well researched walking tour, the city’s fountains afforded much more than just visual delight, they provided me with a great deal more insight into baroque architecture in other locations and my efforts were also rewarded with a highly satisfied sweet tooth.
Tips to help you make the most of s stroll through the City of Fountains
- If you find yourself overcome by the intense heat of a Summer afternoon in Rome, try taking your walking tour of the fountains in the evening once temperatures have dropped a bit. In fact, they are every bit as spectacular by night.
- The areas surrounding these fountains attract a lot of tourists, and with tourists come pickpockets. Whilst I never felt threatened by thieves on my own trip to Rome, you can never be too careful.
- Do your reading before you go. Whilst you are already reading this article as a brief introduction to Rome’s fountains, the more you understand what you are looking at whilst exploring this incredible city, the more you will get out of the experience. Otherwise you may find yourself wondering what is so special about old statues of semi-naked, bearded men.
- Take a map with you. It might sound obvious, but many people who have “memorised” the Google maps page somehow manage to wander off course through the backstreets and alleyways of central Rome and end up wasting a lot of time trying to get back on track. Unfortunately, I do speak from experience.