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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Trevi Fountain in Rome

What is the Trevi Fountain?

The Trevi Fountain is Rome’s most magnificent fountain, built in the 18th century by little-known architect Niccolò Salvi.

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Trevi Fountain History

Water rushes through the Eternal City, nourishing and sustaining it with every drop. Cicero, the esteemed ancient orator, declared that Rome was a place rich in springs, and even today these same springs feed the city’s fountains, as they have done for over two millennia. The ancient city was supplied by eleven aqueduct systems, however the only one that survives is the Acqua Vergine, serving a number of piazzas across the city including this magnificent fountain.

Completed by the ancient military general Marcus Agrippa in 19 BC, and named after the girl who miraculously discovered its source, the Acqua Vergine stretches an impressive 20 kilometres east of the city, and finishes its course here at the Trevi Fountain. Located at the junction of three streets, or tre vie, this is the largest fountain in the Baroque style anywhere in the world. In the 16th century, Pope Urban VIII decided the existing design was not sufficiently dramatic, and approached Italian sculptor and architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, to develop a suitable renovation. Following the Pope’s death, however, Bernini’s revamp was scrapped, and it took another hundred years until the fountain was renovated under Niccolò Salvi, architect of the modern Trevi. Salvi had actually come second in the contest organised to fill the role, but thanks to the overwhelming public outrage caused by seeing a local defeated by a Florentine, the result was swiftly overturned.

Salvi’s imposing figures appear to tumble forward from the Palazzo Poli, the building behind the fountain. At the centre stands Oceanus, divine personification of the sea. His clam-shell chariot is drawn by mythological hippocamps – from the Greek hippos, meaning ‘horse’, and kampos, ‘sea monster’ – who are in turn guided by Tritons, or gods of the sea. One hippocamp appears wild, the other docile, representing the changeable nature of the sea. To the left of the arch, the goddess Abundance holds a cornucopia, the symbol of nourishment, with the relief above her depicting Agrippa commanding his men to build the Acqua Vergine.

Trevi Fountain sculpture

To the right stands Hygea, goddess of health, crowned with a laurel wreath and accompanied by a snake drinking from her cup. The animal was a Roman symbol of well-being that still features on emblems of pharmacy to this day. Health is central to the iconography of the fountain since the aqueduct was once thought to provide the purest drinking water in the city. Above the goddess is a relief depicting the girl, surrounded by a group of astounded soldiers, indicating the source of the spring.

To the right of the fountain, up by the path, there’s a large vase-like structure. This is called the asso di coppe, or ‘ace of cups’, and it was built by Salvi as a source of revenge. During the construction of the fountain it’s said that a local barber was infuriated by the constant noise and debris. Day after day he criticised Salvi, so much so that the architect built the vase solely in order to obstruct the barber’s view, so that neither he, nor his customers, could ever lay eyes on Salvi’s masterpiece.

Legend has it that throwing a coin over your shoulder into the fountain will bring you good fortune and ensure that one day soon you will return to the Eternal City. This alluring promise has led to an annual sum of $1.5 million in loose change being tossed to the pool’s floor.

The Trevi Fountain is also somewhat of a movie star, claiming roles in a number of films, most famously in Federico Fellini’s 1960s classic, La Dolce Vita, where Anita Ekberg takes a late night swim in the fountain’s pool.

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