The Trevi Fountain history starts before the time of the Roman Empire.
How did water coming out of a broken lead pipe into a tiny intersection become one of the world's biggest and most beautiful fountains?
Here’s what you need to know the Trevi Fountain history, art, and architecture:
The Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi in Italian) you see today in Rome took over 100 years to build.
This is because it had stops and starts due to budget constraints and changes in popes and architects over the years.
But even if the fountain you see today was completed in the 18th century, its history goes back more than 2,000 years.
General Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (first Roman Emperor Augustus' right-hand man) constructed an aqueduct in 19 BCE to help bring water to the thermal baths near the Pantheon.
That aqueduct ended in a plain little fountain where the church of Saint Ignatius stands today.
The aqueduct was called Aqua Virgo, meaning "Virgin Water". Its name today is Acqua Vergine.
A legend says it was named for a young maiden (virgin) who showed some Roman soldiers where the spring was.
You can see this scene depicted in bas-relief on the right hand side of the fountain above Oceanus' head.
More likely the word "virgo" referred to the purity of the water.
This aqueduct was one of 11 Roman aqueducts and was one of the main sources of water for the Romans until the Ostrogoths sacked the city in 537 and destroyed (almost) all the aqueducts and fountains.
While the Goths did a lot of damage, there was still a little water coming in from the Acqua Vergine.
So even during those dark times until the aqueducts were fully restored in the late 16th century, there was this one small source of clean water for Romans to use in their daily lives.
Besides this water source, the Romans also got water from the Tiber river. Ick.
In any case, part of the destruction resulted in the water pipe no longer reaching its original destination at the baths behind the Pantheon.
Instead, the water came out of a lead pipe right at this intersection of three streets where the Trevi Fountain is today, below the Quirinal Palace.
Just a stone's throw away from the Trevi Fountain Rome, you can visit the original site of the source of the water that fills the Trevi Fountain, the "Acqua Vergine", or Virgin Water Aqueduct.
At the Vicus Caprarius (named for the Ancient Roman street that passed here), there are remains of ancient Roman houses there, along with other Roman artefacts.
It's easy to visit this site on your own but you can also take a tour.
Besides the above-mentioned Vicus Caprarius, you can spot the original Acqua Virgo aqueduct at two other nearby locations in Rome:
In the basement of Rome's flagship Rinascente store you can see a big stretch of the Acqua Vergine aqueduct. There is also a small film and light show that sometimes loops and displays right on the ruins, telling the story of the aqueduct.
On nearby via del Nazareno, there is a grating behind which you can spot another piece of the Acqua Virgo aqueduct.
In the early Renaissance, popes began restoring some of the broken aqueducts, ordering decorative fountains as their outlet.
This is why almost all the big fountains in Rome have a papal shield on them, to let you know who was responsible.
The aqueducts were still not fully restored and the water pressure was not great, but it was a start. (Most of the fountains you see in Rome today are from the Baroque era, around the 1600s-1700s, including the Trevi Fountain.)
The first fountain on the site of the current Trevi Fountain was designed by Leon Battista Alberti in 1453 under Pope Nicholas V.
The fountain had three outlets and poured into a rectangular basin. It was marked with a wall plaque naming the pope and the aqueduct.
For nearly 100 years, this was the only supply of clean water in Rome.
The first pope to start thinking about what would become the fountain we see today was Pope Urban VIII (Barberini), who was a big fan of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
In the 16th century, popes had begun living in the Quirinal Palace up on the Quirinal Hill.
The pope's bedroom looked down on this little intersection.
When Pope Urban VIII moved into the palace, he did not think his view was interesting enough.
In 1629, he asked Bernini to draw some sketches for a new fountain so he could have something nicer to see out his window.
But the pope also had other priorities like waging war against the duchy of Parma. He spent most of the Papal State's money on this war and so the fountain project languished due to lack of funds.
Bernini did get to do a little bit of work on this project before he was forced to abandon it.
He began by clearing out some old houses which resulted in the creation of a small square. He then turned the existing fountain 90 degrees south so that the new fountain could be more easily seen from the Quirinal Palace.
Bernini got so far as to build two huge semicircular basins, one inside the other. He also placed a base in the center, presumably to support a decorative sculpture.
Bernini had nothing to do with the central sculpture group we see today, but you can see his influence in the final design: a mix of nature and whimsy, a lot like his Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona.
For the next hundred years or so, several popes half-heartedly thought about getting this fountain project going.
It was not until 1732 that the Trevi Fountain entered the final stretch of its creation.
Pope Clement XII held a contest to select a new architect for the fountain and Nicola Salvi won.
Nicola (Niccolò) Salvi is the architect most credited with the current design of the Trevi Fountain.
Unfortunately, he died when it was only half-way finished, so he did not see its completion.
The last architect to put the final touches on the fountain was Giuseppe Pannini.
The Trevi Fountain was finally completed and inuagurated in 1762, even though it was already a working fountain long before then.
Going back to the beginning of the Trevi Fountain history, the original "fountain" was just a lead pipe bringing fresh water into Medieval Rome via the Acqua Vergine.
In the 17th and 18th centuries this giant fountain was designed so the pope could have something beautiful to look at from above.
But not longer after that, when popes were not living in the Quirinal Palace any more, it didn't matter if buildings grew back up around this little square.
And so they did.
The name of Trevi probably comes from the Latin tres viae, or tre vie in Italian, which means "three ways." The fountain stands at the crossroads of 3 streets.
There is another possibility to explain the name of the famous fountain - The aqueduct passed through a small town outside of Ancient Rome called Trebium.
The Roman goddess Diana, was sometimes called Trivia. She was the protector of roadways, in particular, three-way crossroads.
The Trevi Fountain history is chock-a-block with the influence of different artists and architects who proposed ideas for its design over the centuries. They came up with a lot of different looks, some of them involving obelisks or tall columns.
The winning project took its inspiration from the 16th century Fontana dell'Acqua Paola on the Gianicolo Hill (Trastevere).
The central figure of Oceanus was designed by sculptor Pietro Bracci (who also made beautiful angels you can see in the loggia of Santa Maria Maggiore.)
Note the exedra behind him.
This apse-like hollow is right out of ancient Rome.
And the ancient-Rome inspired columns that surround Oceanus are noteworthy because they are not attached to the walls of the exedra.
This allows for a more 3-dimensional look, and better light/shadow composition.
There are a lot of sculptures in the background of the Trevi Fountain. Here's what they mean:
The main figure in the centre of the Trevi Fountain is the god Oceanus, not Neptune as many think. Neptune almost always carries a triton (like a three-pronged spear), and has a dolphin nearby.
Oceanus represents a huge river that flows all around the earth, and from which all other bodies of water are formed.
There are two horses (actually they are called "hippocamps", from Greek mythology, and are really half horse, half fish.)
Each of these sculptures is held by a Triton (Tritons are gods of the sea, and sons of Poseidon).
One horse seems quite riled and strong, and the other docile and calm. These represent the moods of the seas.
There are two statues on either side of Oceanus: On the left is Abundance, represented by the basket of fruit she is holding, and on the right, is Salubrity, or health, symbolised by the laurel wreath around her head (Apollo's plant), and the snake wrapped around her legs (from Greek mythology.)
Moving your eyes upward, you can see two reliefs on either side of the exedra where Oceanus stands.
The relief on the left shows Agrippa commanding his generals to build the aqueduct.
The relief on the right tells the story of the virgin maiden who showed the Roman soldiers where to look for water.
Further still up the fountain sculpture, you can see four goddesses that represent earth's bounty thanks to water. If you go to either side of the fountain, you can really see in great detail the items they are holding.
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