The Fountains of Rome
Rome is a city of water. Visitors to the city are often amazed by the plethora of fountains with fresh, cool running water on almost every street corner. If you come to the city of Rome in the height of summer when the heat can exceed 40 degrees C, you will appreciate the fountains even more. Before long, you will be stopping at the fountains with a bottle, or using them like a local. From the famous fountains of Rome in dazzling marble to the utilitarian nasone or big nose, you can be sure that there is always refreshment nearby, but whatever you do – don’t even think about dipping your toe in there, no matter how hot it is!!
The City of Water
According to legend, the city of Rome was founded in 753 BC by Romulus and Remus. It would take time for the small settlement to develop into the ancient city we imagine today. Around 200 years or so later (6th century BC) came the first major infrastructure in the city – the great drain or Cloaca Maxima to flush waste to the Tiber river. Astonishingly, part of this ancient sewer still functions today!
In 312BC came the first aqueduct the Aqua Apia from the east of the city, the aqueduct ran from the 8th milestone 16 kilometres almost entirely underground. After this the waterways would extend until the city had 12 Aqueducts brining up to 200 million gallons of water into the city daily. The Romans were the first to supply masses of fresh clean water to the population for drinking and bathing. When the barbarians came in the 5th century, they destroyed the aqueducts therefore cutting off Rome’s water supply, people resorted to drinking out of the river Tiber which was incredibly unhealthy.
According to records from the 3rd century AD there were 1,423 drinking fountains in the ancient city of Rome, today there are more than 2,000. There are several types of fountain; Monumental and ornamental fountains, rhione fountains which were the main water source for the rhione or district, wall fountains and the fontanelle (little fountain) or nasone (big nose).
Originally all fountains in the city relied on gravity, the source of the aqueduct had to be higher than the fountain itself. The complex calculations could often be challenging for the architects but were essential as this determined how high the fountain could shoot water. It wasn’t until the renaissance that fountains would become a focus for the city again, this was thanks to Rome’s increasing population.
Famous Fountains of Rome
Many of the monumental fountains in the city were built to celebrate the repair or building of a new aqueduct. A great example of this is the most famous fountain of Rome, if not in the world – the Trevi Fountain which still uses part of the ancient Roman Aqua Virgo. A fountain has existed on this site for over 2,000 years, but the grand ornamental fountain we see today was finished in 1762 as a celebration of water and its importance to mankind.
Today the Trevi is better known for making a wish in the hope of returning to Rome, (or fall in love with a Roman some say). You stand with your back to the fountain and using your right hand, throw a coin over your left shoulder. Whether you come back to Rome or not, be sure your money goes to a good cause as it is donated to the Italian charity Caritas who support families in need of shelter and food. In 2017 over €3,830 was thrown in per day!
Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona is perhaps the next most impressive of Rome’s fountains designed for Innocent X portraying the main rivers in the four continents known at the time. Check out our blog dedicated to this impressive piece. On the Gianicolco or Janiculum Hill is the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola known as ‘The big fountain’ Il Fontanone by the locals. It was built in 1612 to mark the end of the Acqua Paola aqueduct, restored by Pope Paul V, who named it after himself. It is the largest fountain in Rome.
Although not a grand fountain, certainly one of the most beautiful in Rome is the Turtle fountain or Fontana delle Tartarughe on the edge of the Jewish Ghetto. It is one of the few fountains in Rome built by a private patron Muzio Mattei instead of a pope. It was designed by Giacomo Della Porta in 1581 who created many of Rome’s beautiful fountains including those at each end of Piazza Navona. It is made with a beautiful African pink-grey marble with four male figures, dolphins, conch shells and cute little turtles that were added almost a hundred years later by the artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
A word on how to be behave at the monumental fountains. Whilst it may be scorching hot when you come to Rome, the fountains are ornamental and supply drinking water; they are not for bathing or soaking your feet in. Some of the fountains in Rome are over 400 years old – so be warned the Romans have absolutely no sense of humour when tourists strip off and get into them. Whilst they may have been built for drinking and washing in the past, today they are considered artistic heritage and there is a hefty fine starting at €450 if you take a dip!!!
Are the fountains in Rome safe to drink from?
One of the most frequently asked questions of tourists is can we drink the water? The answer is OF COURSE, that is what they are there for! The source of much of Rome’s water supply is still mountain springs and reservoirs outside of the city, tap water is also perfectly drinkable. The area around Rome is full of limestone so the water has a high calcium content and is only lightly chlorinated. Water from the fountains of Rome is gloriously fresh, cool, not to mention FREE so make sure you keep your water bottle!!
The Nasone drinking fountains
Most fountains in Rome supply drinking water unless they are marked ‘AQUA NON POTABILE’. Even the grand fountains usually have a spout you can fill your bottle from. You can also use the fountains made of cast iron which came about in the 1870s. They are called fontanelle (little fountain) or nasone or big noses after the drinking spout. Look carefully and you will notice a little hole on the top of the spout. Block the end of the spout with your hand and the water will spurt out of the hole making it much easier to drink; so if you don’t have a bottle you can still quench your thirst Roman-style.