In Ancient Rome, water was an enduring motif, symbolic of its life-giving properties, but also admired for its aesthetic value. Water features appeared in the grandest gardens of the Roman Empire, and many of the fountains that decorated the streets of Rome were considered masterpieces in their own right.
The sculptors and architects responsible for the city's iconic fountains are among some of the most important artists and craftsmen of their time, and the detail and beauty of their works is extraordinary. Today, you can marvel at the most famous of these fountains on the best Rome tours, while others may simply appear as you turn a quiet corner and come face to face with serendipity.
Fontana della Barcaccia
Situated in Piazza di Spagna, the Baroque-style Fontana della Barcaccia was created by Pietro and Gian Lorenzo Bernini in homage to the great flood of the River Tiber, which occurred in 1598. As the story goes, the only way to navigate the city during the flood was by boat, and when the waters eventually receded, a lonely vessel remained stranded in the piazza. Commissioned by Pope Urban VII in 1627, this lovely travertine work of art, whose name translates to “fountain of the old boat", took two years to complete. Displaying a beautiful symmetry of form, part of the fountain is set below street level, contributing to viewers’ authentic experience of its ancient inspiration.
Fountain of the Four Rivers
Another piece that was created by the masterful hands of Bernini the Younger (Gian Lorenzo) is the Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) in Piazza Navona, which is one of the city's most iconic landmarks. Commissioned by Pope Innocent X, Bernini was not originally chosen to design the fountain, but when he created a model for the papal head, the latter was unable to resist its beauty and reassigned the job. The fountain’s exquisitely designed figures include the river Gods of the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube, and Rio della Plata. These figures surround an Egyptian obelisk, upon which sits a dove – the symbol of the church and the papal family.
All roads on Rome tours lead to the Trevi Fountain, as indeed they should, given its magnificence. In fact, the fountain gets its name from its location at the junction of three roads (tre vie). Nicola Salvi beat off fierce competition from some of the city's most important architects to win the commission to create the fountain, which was supposed to become the largest Baroque fountain in the city. When he died in 1751, Giuseppe Pannini took over the project, which was eventually completed in 1762.
The fountain’s centre features the powerful figure Oceanus, who is sitting atop a mammoth horse-drawn shell chariot that is led by two tritons. The astounding sense of movement in this mammoth masterpiece is enhanced by the water that cascades from its centre. There is a famous legend attached to the Trevi Fountain, which tells us that throwing a coin over your shoulder and into the fountain’s waters will ensure your return to Rome. Why wouldn't one at least try?
Off the Beaten Path
While the first three fountains are almost always on the itinerary of Rome tours, the city has a surprise around every corner for those who want to step off the beaten path. One of these surprises is the delightful Piazza Sant'Eustachio, which is not far from the Pantheon. This piazza’s lovely granite fountain dates back to Imperial Rome and was part of Nero's bath complex. (As an aside, the coffee shop on the piazza is also said to serve the best coffee in the city. )
The delightfully named Fontana delle Tartarughe (Fountain of the Turtles) can be found in a small square in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto. This marble and bronze piece, created by Giacomo della Porta in the 16th century, features a rather quirky scene: several young men are assisting turtles to climb into a basin above their heads. Peculiar? Yes. Beautiful? Sì.
Discover the City's Gems
For those exploring Rome, tours that include visits to any of its lovely fountains provide a great way of experiencing the city's overwhelming collections of art and history.
Rose Magers is an Australian-born Italophile and the founder of ArtViva. With an international reputation for excellence and creativity, ArtViva are at the forefront of escorted day tours in Italy. Rose has indulged her own passion for history and the arts by designing an innovative range of exceptional small-group Rome tours and experiences, such as guided visits to view the masterpieces of the great art galleries and unforgettable Italian cookery classes.