After all those fountains at Villa d’Este I had water on the brain. At least that’s what I think led me to a way to see Rome in a new, more positive light. I would go on a scavenger hunt of its fountains.
On previous visits I had, of course, noticed some fountains, but when I started making the list for my scavenger hunt I was surprised to learn how many fountains there are in Rome. More than any other city in the world. I suppose, with all those monuments and churches and statues and art galleries, and markets and shops, the fountains must have got lost in the wash.
And unlike the water that surrounded the becalmed sailor in Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, all this water is fresh. Drinkable. Potabile (poh-ta-bee-lay).
It all started with the Ancient Romans. They were crazy about water, but as we saw at Villa d’Este, the major source of fresh water was inconveniently located in the mountains north-east of the city. Since a day now and then in a country spa did not cut it with the water-loving populace, they started building aqueducts to bring the water they wanted -almost 60 million gallons per day – to Rome. In the end they built nine aqueducts, through which half of the water used in present day Rome still flows.
The fountain in front of the Pantheon is called Fontana del Pantheon, which made me wonder why the piazza is called Piazza della Rotonda. Why wasn’t it named for the Pantheon? It turns out it is. Like many of Italy’s major monuments – Santa Maria del Fiore aka the Duomo in Florence came to mind – the ancient Roman temple has an official name – Pantheon – and a common name – la Rotonda. The Round Thing.
In almost all the fountains of Rome the water flows from the mouths of mascheroni (mass-kay-roh-nee). Big masks. After the collapse of the Renaissance, and with it the loss of confidence in man’s exalted position in the universe, these fantastical creatures became very popular. In ancient Greece where they originated, they offered welcome to visitors, but over the centuries they took on a role more in keeping with their appearance – warding off evil spirits.
The Pantheon is close to Piazza Navona – a 3-for-1 scavenger hunter’s dream and one of my favourites. It’s also one of Rome’s largest piazzas, the legacy of the enormous stadium commissioned by Emperor Domitian in 86 AD. The arena it enclosed, even larger than the one in the Colosseum, was called the Circus Agonalis for the agone that were held here. Not the English ‘agony’ that the annoying spell-check program on my computer keeps switching what I type to, but the Latin agone – physical competitions. Somehow over time agonalis morphed into ‘in agone‘ and then ‘navone‘ and eventually to the name we know.
There are some who look down on this piazza. Too touristy. Too crowded. Too expensive. As far as I’m concerned, it’s like being dismissive of the Tour Eiffel or the Taj Mahal or any number of world-renowned sites, all of which are too touristy, too crowded, too expensive. The problem might be that, for some people, things have become too democratic. Too accessible to the hoi poloi. (And yes, I know there shouldn’t be a ‘the’ in front of ‘hoi-poloi’. It just doesn’t sound right.)
Things have quietened down a lot since the days when the Romans of old would flood the piazza and entertain the locals with mock naval battles. Or centuries later, when Rome’s elite, in a somewhat futile attempt to escape the stifling heat of Roman summers, would be pulled through the water in elegant, horse-drawn carriages. But not to worry, there’s still plenty going on here.
Even if you’re not on a fountain scavenger hunt, Piazza Navona is close to a lot of the monuments and museums on most visitors’ must-see lists (a dressed-up form of scavenger hunt?)
And when you cannot bear to take one more step, the piazza is a great place for people watching while you work up the energy to visit the next site.
There are lots of benches with a good view of the goings-on in the piazza. Or, if you’ve made it to a ‘respectable’ time of day, a glass of the local white at one of the cafés lining the piazza is also very piacevole (pee-ah-chay-voh-lay). Full of piacere (pleasure), the key word in an expression I think every visitor should learn – per piacere (pair pee-ah-cheh-ray). Please.
Back to the fountains. As I mentioned this is a 3-in-1 piazza. If you enter it at the south end, the first fountain you come to is the politically incorrectly named Fontana del Moro.
At the north end of the piazza is the Fontana del Nettuno. Although it and the Fontana del Moro are supposed to complement each other, I couldn’t see any unifying aesthetics between the two. I put it down to ignorance on my part until I learned that, for some long forgotten reason, work on the fountain had barely begun when it was abandoned. Work wasn’t resumed – and the fountain given its present name – until the end of the 19th century. In the intervening two centuries, the locals, who had to call it something, came up with Fontana dei Calderari. Fountain of the blacksmiths. (There were several blacksmiths’ workshops in an alley nearby.) I know people here in Toronto who still refer to local stores like Metro and Loblaws by their former names (Dominion and Zigggy’s). I wonder how many of those turn of the century Romans continued to call the fountain by the name they had grown up with.
Finally, taking centre-stage is the largest and most grandiose fountain in the piazza – the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (kwah-trow few-me). The Fountain of the Four Rivers. It’s a good example of how Rome’s fountains weren’t just about building efficient hydraulic structures for the benefit of the populace. Where there wasn’t room for a power garden, a fountain – something the grateful locals used on a daily basis – could be an extremely effective propaganda tool.
What Pope Innocent X had in mind with this fountain was to create a powerful symbol of his role as the world’s ambassador of peace. Closer to home things didn’t get off to a very peaceful start. The optics, as we call them today, were pretty bad (and, unfortunately, surprisingly familiar).
In 1646, when construction of the Pope’s fountain began, Rome was in the midst of a terrible famine. To add insult to injury, in order to cover the costs of his blatantly self-glorifying project, the Pope – like Cardinal Ippolito d’Este had done a century earlier at Villa d’Este – imposed a variety of taxes on consumer goods, including a tax on bread. The half-starved citizens were close to rioting. In that pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook era, hand-written messages of protest were ‘posted’ on the blocks that were to be used for the construction of the fountain. One of these pasquinate, as they were called, so incensed the Pope, that he had the authors tracked down and arrested. What egregious words had they written? ‘Noi volemo altro che Guglie e Fontane. Pane volemo: pane, pane, pane!’ (We want something other than Obelisks and Fountains. We want bread: bread, bread, bread!)
The vendors who had traditionally sold their wares in the market fared no better. The Pope felt they ruined the aesthetics of the grand piazza he had in mind and ordered them to leave. When they refused, he had them forcibly removed by the papal police.
At the base of the obelisk are four immense figures. They are the river gods of the four continents to which the Pope aspired to bring peace. (Australia had yet to be ‘discovered’ by Europeans.)
At this rate it was obvious that just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, there was no way I was going to make it to all her fountains in a day. I scratched a few – make that quite a few – off the list and headed south – at least I tried to head south. The ancient Romans may have designed their cities on a geometric grid, but the ones that followed them, especially during the Middle Ages, were more interested in confounding potential attackers, so they added lots of confusing curves. Eventually I found the next fountain on my list.
Amidst all the Baroque extravaganza of Rome, when you round the corner of tiny Piazza Mattei, la Fontana delle Tartarughe (Fountain of the Turtles) comes as a surprise. More like something you’d expect to find in Florence.
As it turns out, it is the work of a Florentine sculptor. At least part of it is. Despite the name, the turtles are an add-on. In the original design the four ‘ephebes’ held up a dolphin from which water was supposed to flow. But the water pressure was too low, so they got rid of the dolphin, which left the young things with their hands in the air. Everyone agreed this looked ridiculous, so Bernini added the turtles.
Some of Rome’s fountains have not aged well. Like the ones on Via delle Quattro Fontane (Street of the Four Fountains).
And some just leave you shaking your head. Like the fountain at the the base of the Spanish Steps in Piazza di Spagna.
This is a decidedly upscale part of town – five star hotels surround the piazza and the flagship stores of companies like Gucci and Bulgari line the streets nearby, so you’d think there’d be a pretty decent fountain.
So what is an ugly, old boat doing here? Those aren’t my words. That’s what it’s called – la Fontana della Barcaccia.
As we’ve seen before, you can take almost any word in Italian and give it a new slant by tacking on a few letters. It’s wonderfully convenient. As anyone who has spent at least two minutes around young children will know, it is astounding how quickly a ragazzo (young boy) can go from being an adorable ragazzino to a naughty ragazzaccio.
Back to the barca. Before the walls that now line the Tiber were built at the end of the 19th century, the river would overflow its banks on a fairly regular basis. One particularly severe flood at the end of the 16th century left Piazza di Spagna under a metre of water. When the waters finally receded, stranded in the middle of the piazza was a boat – an ugly, old, bashed-up boat – in other words una barcaccia.
In memory of that flood the powerful Barberini’s commissioned – who else? – Bernini (am I the only one who has a hard time keeping these names straight?) to create a fountain. At least, so goes the legend. Less imaginative types blame the design on problems with low water pressure at the site.
And then of course there is Rome’s most famous fountain.
The name comes from the tre vie (tray vee-ay), the three, narrow alleys that converge on the tiny piazza.
We may no longer be offering prayers to appease pagan gods, as the Ancient Romans did, but it seems few can resist. I watched from the side as tourists pushed their way to the railing and tossed their coins into the fountain. Huge mounds of these coins are raked out every week. The Italian coins go to the city and the foreign ones to various charities.
By the way, if you want to improve your chances of returning to the city, toss that coin over your left shoulder.
Obviously, there are many more fountains. No wonder the song is called ‘Arrivederci Roma‘. Until we meet again.