Trevi: History and legends of an architectural marvel
You will not find any other place in the world that celebrates the ever-mutating and incredible power of water like Rome. The Trevi Fountain is a fantastic work of art is more than just a sculpture: it’s a triumphant example of Baroque art, whose depictions of nature and imaginary creatures embody the movement of water as the soul of the world.
The fountain is a true wonder, a jewel of stone and gushing water. You can already hear its presence from the nearby streets. Indeed, as you get closer, the sound of its rushing waters grows more intense, exploding in a crescendo in the square, where the visitor discovers a breathtaking sight.
Suddenly, the space seems to open out and you find yourself before a symbolic representation of this great force of nature, a tumultuous spring that seems to flow directly out of the ground.
The effects of light and shade on the marble make the wind seem to billow through the drapes and locks of the statues’ hair, agitating the waves, creating an extraordinarily intense and spectacular scene. In this Baroque creation, the architectural elements seem to have been sculpted by the force of this vital liquid.
Even the palace in the background blends perfectly with the composition, in an alternating play of space and mass that gives an air of movement to the entire scene.
The history of the Trevi Fountain
It was Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the great admiral - who not only formed the powerful Roman fleet, but was also a skilled hydraulic engineer for Emperor Augustus - who brought the waters to Rome in 19 AD. Trevi derives from the old name for the area, which was originally called Trebium.
The Aqua Virgo aqueduct, constructed with the intent of creating public baths in honour of the god of the sea, still flows underground today. The Trevi Fountain was the “sign post”, or monumental fountain that marked the ending point of the aqueduct.
The water comes from the Salone Springs, eight miles away, while the name “Virgo” comes from a legend in which Agrippa’s thirsty soldiers were guided by a maiden, or perhaps even the goddess Diana, sister of Apollo, who adored bathing in the spring in the company of her nymphs after returning from a tiring hunt.
In reality, there could be a more simple explanation for the name: the water is very light and free of limestone, which Agrippa’s engineers knew would be suitable for use in the public baths.
Agrippa’s fountain consisted of an enormous wall with three pools for collecting water. It remained this way until 1453, when Pope Nicholas V entrusted Leon Battista Alberti with the restoration of the fountain. The spring was reconnected and the three pools were replaced by one enormous one.
It was only with the instatement of Pope Urban VIII that the reconstruction of the fountain began. The Pope wanted a spectacular and grandiose fountain that would be visible from his residence in the Quirinal district.
He commissioned the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who presented numerous projects, all of which were extremely expensive. This forced the Pope to increase the taxes on wine, causing discontent among the people of Rome. They decided to make “Pasquino,” the famous talking statue of Rome, their spokesman.
This is actually what remains of a Hellenistic sculpture near Piazza Navona, which has been a classic protest symbol against important public figures - popes included - since the 16th century. Its name comes from a neighbourhood figure who was famous for his satire. The Romans would write their protests (which were called “Pasquinades”) on a piece of paper and hang them around the statue’s neck at night.
Legend tells that on one occasion, the protest verses came to life and the statue exclaimed: “To rejuvenate the people of Rome with water, Pope Urban burdens the wine with taxes!”.
But tax increases weren’t enough, the costs were astronomical and material was scarce. So the pope had the brilliant idea of giving the sculptor written permission to demolish the “Tomb of Cecilia Metella” that he described as “...an old, round, monument of beautiful marble...”.
Stripping ancient monuments was a common move at the time to obtain high-quality material at reasonable prices, but this time, it was too much: the Roman people rose up in protest so strongly that both the pope and Bernini had to make do with what they had been able to round up in the meantime, which was still quite a lot. Their project never reached completion and they both died without seeing it finished.
Three centuries later, Pope Clement XII took up the idea of a monumental fountain and created a competition among the greatest artists of the time. Nicola Salvi’s drawings, clearly inspired by Bernini, were the winning designs.
The new works began under Salvi’s direction, who died, however, before seeing his fountain completed. Giuseppe Pannini finally saw the construction through to the end in 1762.
The Statues of the Trevi Fountain
This incredible work is a gigantic homage to the god of the sea to recall the aqueduct built in his honor. Mythological characters give dynamic movement to the composition.
The two seahorses symbolize the states of the sea, one calm, the other, agitated. The horses are guided by two tritons, demigods half man, half fish, one of which blows powerfully into a seashell whose sound was capable of calming tempestuous waters while announcing the arrival of the god of the sea.
Rising at the center, from inside a semicircle surrounded by columns, the god Ocean (also called Oceanus) dominates the scene and majestically views the great shell-shaped pool that represents his watery domain.
At either side of the god, two statues placed in niches represent the personification of the abundance and health-giving properties of water.
The aqueduct’s origins are recalled by two friezes up above: Agrippa to the left, approving the project and to the right, the maiden showing the thirsty soldiers the spring.
Still higher, completing the scene, the marble escutcheon of Clement XII and the statues representing the four seasons.
Naturally, curiosities and legends regarding the Fountain abound. In the middle of the fountain, there is a bishop’s hat in travertine that seems as though it were simply tossed there: probably a criticism of the papacy. Another item that attracts the spectators’ gaze is a large vase to the right of the fountain.
The Romans have named it the Ace of Cups. It seems it was placed there by Salvi himself during the construction. He was tired of hearing the constant critiques of a barber who had his shop on that side of the fountain.
The most famous legend regarding the fountain assures that it’s good luck to throw a coin over your shoulder into it and, in this way, you’ll be sure to return to Rome. An estimated 3,000 euros in coins are thrown into the fountain every day.
On the right there is the “little fountain of love”; it reminds lovers that, if the fiancé has to leave, they must necessarily drink from the little fountain then break the glass to remain tied to both the city and his bride-to-be.
The fountain is so famous all over the world that there have been attempts to copy it: in 1919, an American tried in vain to recreate the fountain in his garden, putting up 14 million dollars for the job; he failed, due to the enormous size of the project.
Trevi Fountain and “La dolce vita”
The cinema has also paid homage many times to the fountain, most famous of which is the scene from Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”, in which a sensual Anita Ekberg seductively wades into the pool, inviting an incredulous Marcello Mastroianni to follow her.
Many remember the fountain like that: a concentration of beauty and life in movement, around which the water is at the same time protagonist, scenery, and soundtrack.