Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Trevi, the Acqua Vergine, and the Role of Water and Aqueducts in Roman History

Laura Zanzig
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007

As an icon of Rome, the Trevi Fountain has received a great deal of exposure for its role in films such as La Dolce Vita, as well as from the popular coin-throwing legend that draws thousands of viewers to Piazza Fontana di Trevi every day. Historically however, the Trevi, named for the three streets that converge at the fountain, has served a much more important purpose than a tourist attraction. At the source of the Trevi Fountain is the Acqua Vergine aqueduct. Together, the fountain and aqueduct embody the connection between the element of water and the concept of prosperity and power throughout Roman history. The Trevi as we know it today wasn’t finished until 1762, making it relatively young in the grand scope of Rome’s development, but the events that led to its creation span over two thousand years, dating back to the Augustan period of ancient Rome.

Ancient Rome
The Trevi’s history began with the creation of the Aqua Virgo (as it was then called) in 19 B.C., under the surveillance of Marcus Agrippa, general and close confidante of the emperor Augustus. According to the legend recounted by first century historian Frontinus, the aqueduct was created after a young maiden led a thirsty band of Agrippa’s soldiers to its source, and it was from this that the name “Virgo” was derived. Other theories as to the name’s origin exist, such as the purity of its waters, but the first is most widely accepted, and is even represented in the façade of the present fountain. Though the Aqua Virgo wasn’t the first aqueduct to be built, it was still one of the most prominent and important of the eleven aqueducts that fed ancient Rome. It stemmed from the springs of Salone, only ten miles east of the center of the city, and it ran almost completely underground, protecting it from vandalism which facilitated its overall upkeep. Most importantly, it supplied the area of Campus Martius, a region of great development during the Augustan period.

The element of water is one of the most prominent signs of prosperity, health and power. In his book The Trevi Fountain, John Pinto writes, “Throughout history and especially in Rome, water has repeatedly been used to express the munificence and power of rulers, both secular and spiritual” (51), and this is especially visible in ancient Rome. During the reign of Augustus, the city displayed 700 watering basins, 500 public fountains and 130 reservoirs. This boasted that Rome possessed enough water not only for private use and public amenities like baths, but also for superfluous aesthetic displays. In this time, the city held the title of “Regina Aquarum,” or queen of the waters.

The Fall of Rome
Unfortunately, Rome was forced to surrender this title after famine, plague, and the Gothic invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries devastated the city. In fact, the aqueduct system actually worked against the citizens during the sack of Rome, as Gothic invaders interrupted the water supply as a means of controlling the Roman populace. As a result, during the early Middle Ages, the system lay in disarray and usage was significantly reduced. Only those aqueducts that could be repaired quickly were restored after the Gothic siege, leaving only four or five aqueducts in use. The discharge rate of these aqueducts was still very poor however, and much of the water was undrinkable due to poor maintenance. At this point, both the city and its water were in a very unsightly state.

Beginning in the eleventh century, Rome experienced two centuries of regrowth, during which the population expanded, as did the economy. However, with the transfer of the papacy to Avignon in 1309, the city declined once again, with population levels reaching record lows. In a parallel fashion, the water flowing from the Aqua Virgo could hardly be described as a trickle. Though the papacy returned to Rome that century, the result wasn’t immediately positive due to the Great Schism of 1378, in which Rome and Avignon rallied for the power of the papacy. In addition, the city’s water source was primarily the Tiber River, as all of the aqueducts had collapsed except for the Aquae Virgo and Alexandriana. Yet again, the prosperity and stability of Rome was reflected in its system of water.

Papal Rome
Finally, in 1417, the reign of Martin V (1417-31) began, marking the definitive return of the papacy to Rome. In this century, the existence of an efficient water supply again became top priority and, in the centuries to come, a great amount of papal effort was poured into improving and enlarging the city as the concrete expression of the supremacy of the papacy and the Christian church itself. Therefore, water played an active role in proving papal legitimacy.

Nicholas V (1447-55) was the first such pope to take serious action in resuscitating the ancient aqueducts. Intently focused on restoring Rome to its former glory, Nicholas had an ambitious program of urban planning and improvement. In1452, as part of this program, he issued an ordinance commanding that the Magistri aedificiorum et stratarum (Rome’s urban judiciary body) maintain the Aqua Virgo, which he also renamed Acqua Vergine. In addition, he decreed that a fountain be built to commemorate his efforts, and hired the architect Leon Battista Alberti to make improvements on the very modest and small fountain that had previously served as the Aqua Virgo’s terminus. Alberti’s work was not overtly extravagant, and his new fountain was simple but dignified.

After Nicholas, several successive popes made small additions to his efforts, most of which included further restoration to the Acqua Vergine, which was currently the only aqueduct supplying Rome. Other aqueducts underwent renovations during this period as well. Gregory XIII (1572-85), who was nicknamed the “fountain pope” for all of his aquatic efforts in Rome, initiated restoration on the Aqua Claudia to supply the hills in eastern Rome. His successor, Sixtus V (1585-90), restored the Aqua Alexandriana to serve the Quirinale and Esquiline, and renamed it the Aqua Felice, after himself. Between these two popes, numerous fountains were erected, including those in Piazza del Popolo, Piazza del Pantheon, the two smaller fountains in Piazza Navona and the Campo de’Fiori. Later, Paul V (1605-21) also repaired the Aqua Traiana to supply Trastevere and the Vatican area. The focus of the sixteenth century church was to combat the Protestant threat, and in accordance with the goals of the Counter-Reformation, a great amount of effort was put into the restoration and upkeep of aqueducts and fountains at this time in the interest of Christian legitimacy.

The Trevi
The next major step in the development of the Trevi Fountain came under the pontificate of Urban VIII (1623-44). Determined to make the Trevi the wonder of Rome and the world, the Barberini pope commissioned his favorite architect Gianlorenzo Bernini for the job, and gave him permission to use materials from the tomb of Caecilia Metella to build the fountain. This choice was strongly opposed by the Roman populace and the permission was revoked. Another of Bernini’s proposals included transporting Trajan’s Column to the Piazza di Trevi, although his only real contribution to the fountain was its reorientation, moving it from the eastern side of the piazza to the northern one. This reorientation rotated the fountain so that it now faced the Quirinal palace, connecting the Trevi with the papacy. Bernini also enlarged the piazza somewhat in order to further improve the pope’s view, but he never got any farther in his building plans. The reason for this is uncertain, but it is probably due to lack of funding. Urban’s taxation policies were very unpopular with the Romans, who had some words to say about the wine tax imposed to pay for the fountain: “Urban, poi che di tasse aggravo il vino, ricrea con l’acqua il popol di Quirino,” which basically means “Urban taxes the wine and then seeks to amuse the Romans with water.”

After Urban’s death, the Trevi was deserted for some time. His successor, Innocent X (1644-1655) wished to distance himself from the unpopular Barberini and therefore neglected Urban’s project. In addition, he sponsored the Four Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona, which detracted not only from the prominence of the Trevi but its water source as well. Innocent’s successor Alexander VII (1655-1667) returned some focus to the Trevi with his unexecuted plan to move the fountain to his family’s piazza, but no real progress was made until the eighteenth century. During his pontificate, Innocent XIII Conti (1721-24) added a new wing to the Palazzo Ceri, a palace set back from the fountain, and the home of the powerful dukes of Poli, who were secular lords of his family. This new wing, which Innocent christened the Palazzo Poli, now served as the backdrop of the fountain, inspiring discussion about what to do with the Trevi and the piazza. However, none of the Conti or Poli plans ever really proceeded, especially since Innocent’s reign was so short.

Finally in 1730, Clement XII Corsini (1730-40) assumed the pontificate, and with it, a very energetic building program. It is with this pope that the Trevi as we know it originated. Initially, Clement invited four architects to submit designs for a new fountain. Very little is known about this competition, as none of their names are recorded nor are the drawings. None of the entries were found satisfactory by the pope, so in 1732, he held another contest. The winner of this competition was a young French sculptor by the name of Lambert Sigisbert Adam. Although he received first prize by unanimous consent, the decision to hire Adam was later reversed. Though the exact reason is undetermined, the most likely motivation was Roman resentment of a foreigner designing this very important monument. Next, a man named Luigi Vanvitelli was chosen, but his design was also discarded for unknown reasons.

Finally, a young architect named Nicola Salvi was chosen, and ironically enough, the third place winner in the second competition set to work on what has to proved to be an icon of Rome. Salvi was born in Rome in 1699, meaning he was only in his early 30’s when he was chosen to design the Trevi Fountain. In addition, it was Salvi’s first important architectural commission. In his earlier years, he had pursued poetry, philosophy, and mathematics, before pursuing architecture.
Work soon began on the Trevi, but it did not proceed smoothly. In 1734, Salvi was actually ordered to stop work on the design of his façade due to bitter criticisms coming from the Roman public. It is said that Salvi found his own method of resolving this conflict; allegedly, he positioned a travertine urn so as to block the view of a neighboring barber shop where his critics would often congregate. Whether or not this story is true, the conflict was resolved and work resumed. Then, in 1737, the Duke Conti di Poli complained that his ground floor windows were obstructed by the rocks in the basement of the fountain. The Duke was reportedly awarded 1300 scudi in damage. Another major obstacle Salvi faced was in his own sculptor, G.B. Maini. The two butted heads over design concepts; Maini was originally commissioned for the central group of statuary, but he ended up destroying his first sculpture after sparring with Salvi about its appearance. According to Valesio, a contemporary writer who kept a daily record of events in Rome at this time, Maini did not want to appease Salvi because he “didn’t want to ruin his work by following the ideas of the architect” (Cooke, 163). Another artist, Pietro Bracci finished the group we see today, although he probably followed Maini’s plans closely.

Several different artists were responsible for the various aspects of the fountain, although Salvi was very involved in the realization of his plans. He was said to have crawled around on the scogli (lower level of rocks) with a charcoal stick, tracing out the desired appearance for his rock sculptors. Though Salvi died in 1751, work continued for over 10 years after, finally commencing on May 22, 1762.

The Appearance and Symbolism of the Fountain
The backdrop of the Trevi Fountain is adeptly merged with the southern wall of Palazzo Poli, a very important feature of the fountain. The fountain itself is also a fusion of three main components: architecture, sculpture and nature, represented by the element of water.

In the basement area of the fountain sits the scogli, which appears irregular (although it was very calculated, as previously mentioned), which contrasts with the symmetry of the façade above. This juxtaposition gives the appearance that the Trevi is growing out of living rock.

The next level, the mostra, consists of a colossal order of Corinthian columns and pilasters, a triumphal arch surrounded by four Ionic columns, two narrative bas-reliefs and two allegorical statues, and in the very center, the statuary group that is the main focus of the fountain. In addition, two friezes carry inscriptions of the names of Clement XII’s successors (Benedict XIV and Clement XIII) who participated in the work on the Trevi after Clement’s death in 1740. Finally, in the upper attic level stand four allegorical statues, and, insultingly enough for the Conti family, the Corsini papal crest supported by two winged Fames.

When discussing the symbolism of the fountain, Pinto divides the statuary into three groups in order to more fluently cover each area.

The first group consists of the main section of statuary in the center of the fountain. The prominent feature is the statue of Oceanus, the personification of water in all forms. This massive statue stands over nineteen feet tall, making it taller than Michelangelo’s David. Oceanus rides a seashell pulled by two seahorses who are each led by a triton. The horse to the right is placid, allowing his triton to blow a conch shell and announce the arrival of Oceanus. The horse on the left is very wild and his triton is futilely attempting to control him. This contrast displays the two natures of the sea, both unpredictable and peaceful.
The second group contains the remaining statuary in the mostra. The allegorical statue to the right is a personification of Health, who dons a laurel crown, and holds a spear and a libation cup from which a sacred snake drinks. The statue to the right is Fertility, also called Abundance, who holds a cornucopia and stands next to an overturned urn whose water sprouts blooming flowers. Up above, the two bas-reliefs tells the story of the aqueduct in antiquity. The one to the right displays the maiden leading Agrippa’s soldiers to the water, while the one on the left shows Agrippa presiding over the construction of the Aqua Virgo.

The attic makes up the third and final group, including the Corsini coat of arms and the four allegorical statues that line the roof. From left to right, the female figures represent the Abundance of fruit (holding a cornucopia), the Fertility of the fields (holding sheaves of grain), the Gifts of autumn (holding grapes and a cup), and the Amenities of meadows and gardens (bearing flowers in her hand and the folds of her dress).

Because of the low level of the Acqua Vergine, Salvi was unable to make towering jets to match the tall façade. Instead, he sank the basin (called the vascone) down and formed the scogli into shelves from which the water flows off. Within the scogli, nearly thirty recognizable species of flora are placed in areas that correspond with their natural habitat. In fact, they are so realistic that the only liberty taken with their design was their size for compositional purposes.

Baroque Elements of the Trevi

Consistent with typical Baroque attitude, the Trevi carries a distinct sense of movement, as it centers on the momentous arrival of Oceanus. The fountain is also Baroque in its sheer size – it consumes more than half of the piazza, the effect of which is magnified by the proximity of the surrounding buildings. This helps to contribute to the most prominent Baroque feature of the Trevi, which is its element of surprise. When approaching the fountain, you cannot see the water, only hear rushing water and catch glimpses of its corners. Until you fully enter the piazza, the full effect of the Trevi will not be felt. This effect was almost destroyed twice: in 1811, when a Neoclassical architect named Giuseppe Valadier proposed an enlargement of the square, and again in 1925 when the Fascist government attempted the same.

The Coins
There are many variations on the Trevi coin legend – most versions say that tossing in one coin ensures a return to Rome. Some say that tossing two ensures you’ll marry a Roman, while three means that you’re headed for divorce. The most common of the current variations promises good luck to those who throw three coins with their right hand over their left shoulder. No matter how many coins you throw, the Trevi remains a brilliant representation of Baroque architecture and a powerful reminder of the connection between water and prosperity.

-Cooke Jr., Hereward Lester. “The Documents relating to the Fountain of Trevi.” Art Bulletin. 1956 September, Vol. 38, pp. 149-173.
-Paczowski, Bohdan. “The Trevi Fountain on the ambiguity of the concept of nature.” Architectural Review. 1978 August, Vol. 164, No. 978, pp. 72-78.
-Pinto, John A. The Trevi Fountain. Yale University Press: Binghamton, NY (1986).
-Pinto, John. “The Trevi Fountain and its place in the urban development of Rome.” AA Files. 1985 Spring, No. 8, pp. 8-20
-Sanfilippo, Mario. Fountains of Rome. The Vendome Press: New York, NY (1996).
-Shakerin, Said. “Engineering Art (Fountains).” Mechanical Engineering – CIME. 2001 July, Vol. 123.7, pp. 66.

Picture sources: (triton and conch) (scogli) group)
Brian Spenser (Oceanus and cleaning crew) (full view)