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Traveling Rome: The Trevi Fountain

Updated on October 15, 2013

Rome, the ancient city. Home to the ruins of the greatest empire ruled by man, power seat of the Catholic world, and the capitol of pick-pocketing. In my new series, I’ll take you through the history of some of the greatest sights in the ancient city and give you some practical advice if you plan on visiting there yourselves. So without further ed-do, I present to you, Rome.

The Trevi Fountain
The Trevi Fountain | Source
A markertrevi fountain -
Trevi Fountain, Piazza di Trevi, 00187 Rome, Italy
get directions

Open all day, every day
Metro A to Piazza Barberini
Water, by water, for water.
Water, by water, for water. | Source

The History

The site the Trevi Fountain is built on has had a fountain since before 100 AD. Not the Trevi Fountain mind you, but that’s still impressive. Ancient Rome had a lot of fountains, with Roman records claiming as many as over 1500. The reason for this was that Rome was a city of water. Massive aqueducts from all around the Roman empire shepherded untold gallons of water to Rome, allowing Rome to do things with water that no other city of the time could. One of these extravagances were the Roman fountains, which had the practical job of providing water to the citizens, but were also a way for Rome to brag about how awesome it was. The aqueduct that feeds the site of the Trevi Fountain was named the Aqua Virgo. It was named after a legend that the spring that fed the aqueduct was discovered by Roman soldiers who had been led there by a virgin. Since then a number of fountains have been featured on the Trevi site, which even in ancient times was a popular center of Roman activity. The current fountain, however, began as the vision of Pope Urban VIII in 1629. You see, one day Pope Urban looked out his window in the Papal palace and noticed something distinctly wrong with the fountain of the time. It was facing the wrong way, which was to say it wasn't facing him. So he commissioned an artist to begin making sketches. A problem acquired with Pope Urban's plan, though, which was that he died before the project got anywhere. However, the idea lingered and in 1730 Pope Clemont XII held a contest to commission a new fountain. Nicola Salvi won the contest, mainly due to a cheap quote and not being from Florence, two important characteristics for the time. Following Pope Urban’s example, however, neither Clemont nor Salvi would live to see its full completion. Pope Clemont, feeling that he wouldn't live to the fountain’s final construction, inaugurated the fountain in 1736 by adding the papal crest to the top. He died four years later so it was a wise decision. His predecessor Pope Bennidict XIV continued to support the work and in 1943 the fountain finally began to spew water. It still wasn't complete though. Salvi worked till his death in 1751. The project was given over to Giuseppe Pannini, who mainly stayed true to Salvi’s plans, only changing the location of the side statues. In 1762, thirty years after its start, the fountain was finished. A final snippet of knowledge, no one knows why the fountain was named the Trevi Fountain. The best guess is that it comes from the Latin word Trivium that means the crossing of three streets. And yes, the Trevi Fountain sits on such a crossing.

The Fountain

The primary design of the fountain is a triumphal arch rising out of pure unworked stone and water, seeming to show man’s mastery over the base elements. At its core, though, the Trevi Fountain is a very simple idea. It’s a fountain of water that is celebrating water and it does it beautifully. There’s a whole slew of symbolism in the fountain and I’d like to touch on that. For those not interested in art interpretation feel free to skip to the visiting section. You won’t hurt my feelings. Too much.

Oceanus with the wand of command. Yes, he is more built than you.
Oceanus with the wand of command. Yes, he is more built than you. | Source

The Central Statue

Okay, now that the uncultured people are gone, let’s talk about the fountains central statue. He's a little hard to miss. He stands in the exact middle of the fountain atop a shell chariot riding the fountain’s main waterfall. You would be tempted to say the man is Neptune, god of the sea, and you’d be wrong. The statue stands for an older deity, Oceanus. Oceanus was a Titan, and like most of the Titans he was both a man and a part of the world. Oceanus stood for the river that circles the world and was the source of every body of water on the planet. A fitting figure for the theme of water. His long beard is a symbol of wisdom. The wand in his right hand is a copy of the ones early Roman emperors carried as symbols of their authority and power. Its showing that Oceanus doesn't just ride the waves, he commands them. His chariot is being pulled by two winged horses being led by Tritons, which are merman attendees. The horse on his right is reared in anger, fighting his Triton, while the one on the left is calmly in tow. They symbolize the unpredictability of the sea, sometimes calms waves, other times a ragging hurricane.

Oceanus flanked by Abundance and Health with the four statues of the gifts on top.
Oceanus flanked by Abundance and Health with the four statues of the gifts on top. | Source
Agrippa ordering the aqueduct construction.
Agrippa ordering the aqueduct construction. | Source
The virgin showing the spring.
The virgin showing the spring. | Source

The Side Statues

The two statues in the niches beside Oceanus personify the two main advantages water brings to humanity, namely food and cleanliness. The figure to the left is Abundance. She holds the horn of plenty and a spilled vase of water lays at her feet. The symbolism here isn't hard to understand, but it’s powerful. Water is key to all the food man eats, which is why it should be glorified. To the right of Oceanus is Health. In Greek her name was Hygeia, which is where our word hygiene comes from. In her hand she holds a cup which a snake drinks out of. This may seem weird to us with our Christian symbolism, but to the Greeks and Romans the snake symbolized renewal and resurrection because of the way it molted its skin. Here Health is showing how clean, running water is a major combatant to the disease and filth that grows in human settlements. Above the statues are bas reliefs depicting the founding of the Aqua Virgo which feeds the fountain, the left being of General Agrippa ordering the aqueducts construction and the right being of the legendary virgin who led the soldiers to the aqueducts source.

The Top Statues

The four statues seated at the top of the pillars represent the four major gifts of water. The first lady on the left holds a horn of plenty and she stands for the many fruits of the world. Next comes the lady of crops and she holds wheat in her hands. After her is the lady of Autumn, represented by a cup of wine and a bunch of grapes. And yes, grapes are harvested in Autumn. Finally, the lady of Prairies is adorned of flowers and symbolizes the joy such flowers bring to the world. All four of the ladies hold their gifts out and look down at Oceanus as if saying that the gifts they give are from him.

The Ace of Cups

Okay, so you caught me. The famous ace of cups doesn’t symbolize anything. It does, however, have an interesting legend associated to it. Located on the right side of the fountain is a cup carved out of the rock. The legend states that Salvi had the cup purposefully carved for a barber who’s shop was located in the plaza. For what purpose? Well there are a couple different versions, and all focus on one fact, Salvi wasn't found of the barber. In one version, the barber was an avid critic of Salvi’s work and constantly complained about having the fountain outside his shop. So Salvi built the cup so that the barber couldn't see the fountain anymore and he wouldn't have to hear the complaints. Another, slightly meaner version stakes that Salvi placed the cup on the fountain so that a viewer of his fountain couldn't see the eyesore that was the barber's shop.

The Papal Crest, with the two first inscriptions.
The Papal Crest, with the two first inscriptions. | Source

The Attic of the Trevi

Anointing the top of the fountain are the only Christian symbols to be found in the Trevi Fountain, the papal crest held aloft by two angels with trumpets. They sit atop the triumphal arch looking down at the scene. Below them is an inscription that memorialized the first of the three popes involved in the fountain’s construction. The first inscription when translated reads “Clemens XII Pontifex Maximus decorated the Virgin Aqueduct and committed it with abundance and health to the magnificent cult in the Year of the Lord 1735, the 6th year of his office.” Not to be outdone, below that, in giant gold letters at the top of the pillars, reads “Benedict XIV Pontifex Maximus made perfect.” The last Pope put his inscription above the three central statues and it reads “The statues and the reliefs were decreed to be placed here by Clemens XIII Pontifex Maximus and the work was solved from every further work and care in the Year of the Lord 1762.”

These are the signs you are looking for.
These are the signs you are looking for. | Source

Visiting the Fountain

The first thing you’ll notice about the fountain is that it’s huge, and its made even more huge by how small the plaza it’s housed in is. The Trevi Fountain simply dominates the area. Eighty five feet tall, one hundred and sixty feet across, the Trevi Fountain shoots out an impressive two million eight hundred thousand cubic feet of water. Every day. The only thing more impressive then the water might be the people. The Trevi Fountain is one of Rome’s most popular sites. The tiny plaza holding the fountain is constantly filled with people and not a minute of the day passes without at least one person taking a picture of the fountain, or at least it feels that way, but that isn’t a bad thing. Rome is a city full of life, and nowhere characterizes that better than the Trevi Fountain. Couples kiss and hug as if they’re the only ones there, tour groups line up to take pictures, coins fly, and everyone has a smile. There’s just something about the larger than life statues and the roar of water that is universal to the human experience. I dare to say there isn't a person alive who wouldn't love the Trevi Fountain. Except for maybe someone with water based phobias. The way to the fountain can be a bit tricky, as the fountain sits in the center of historic Rome and the streets become more like sidewalks as you close in. Two things will help in your search however. One, many signs around the area point towards the fountain and two, the roar of the water and crowds of people can be heard from a mile away. I suggest visiting the fountain during the day to really see the square at its finest, but you can’t miss the Trevi Fountain at night either. A series of orange glow lights cover the fountain and the play of light and shadow really bring the fountain to life making it the most romantic spot in Rome.

The coin toss
The coin toss | Source

The Coins

I mentioned coins and maybe you've heard about the famous tradition at the Trevi Fountain. The tradition of the coin varies, but all agree that a coin thrown backwards over the shoulder into the fountain will ensure that the thrower will return to Rome. More elaborate traditions exist, however. Some say the thrower has to do the right hand over the left shoulder. Lately, the tradition has evolved further, requiring that three coins have to be tossed into the fountain, the first for returning to Rome and the others for finding your true love and marriage. The later has probably started due to the fountains prominent role in many romantic movies. One in particular, Three Coins in the Fountain, is probably to blame though, ironically, the movie itself is about three separate people all throwing a single coin into the fountain. Whatever the version you wish to do, the ritual itself is fun to do and simply a must for that photo album you bring back home. A look into the fountain will confirm you aren’t the only one partaking. Several thousand euro are thrown into the fountain daily in various coinage. Don’t worry though, the money goes to a good cause, the caring of the poor of Rome.

It's as delicious as it looks.
It's as delicious as it looks. | Source

The Gelato

One final thing, the Trevi Fountain and the famous European gelato have gone hand and hand for a long time. The Trevi Fountain are full of tourists sitting around and tourist sitting around love gelato, I should know. Because of this, gelato stands and stores surround the Trevi Plaza all around. I highly suggest you partake because the fountain only gets prettier when you watch it while eating iced dessert. For the more economic traveler, you can always bring the gelato from another location to the Trevi Fountain as the gelato stands there tend to be a little overpriced.


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    • Darin Slagle profile image

      Darin Slagle 4 years ago

      Yeah! It's definitely something you have to experience. Glad you liked it.

    • freecampingaussie profile image

      freecampingaussie 4 years ago from Southern Spain

      We spent a day in Rome, was amazed at how many people were by the fountain ! Enjoyed your hub .