Fabulous And Functional Fountains Of Rome

Trevi fountain, Rome, Italy,
More than 70 sculpted fountains grace the squares and parks of Rome, along with hundreds of small spouts and spigots to slake the thirst and cool the brows of Romans and tourists alike.

The Quattro Fiume, representing the four great rivers of the world, is the centerpiece of Piazza Navonna. The Triton fountain sits at the edge of Piazza Barberini. And of course, the most famous of all fountains is the Trevi.

The abundance of water is one of the reasons the city was founded. Modern residents (and visitors smart enough to copy them) know that the only reason to pay for a bottle of mineral water is to get a bottle to refill.

Of course, it's a good idea to choose your fountain carefully, since they serve a variety of needs. The first inhabitants simply dug wells or tapped countless springs in the Seven Hills of Rome. But as the population grew and demand increased, the Romans had an answer: aqueducts.

The first one was constructed in 312 B.C. by the emperor Appius Claudius. It traveled eight miles and carried 18 million gallons of water a day to the center of Rome. By the late first century Rome's water system was so large and so complex that they actually established a water bureau, and it was so important that the chief commissioner enjoyed what today would be considered cabinet status. And even then, according to historical records, people complained about the service.

In the first century A.D., the grandly named Sextus Giulius Frontius described the aqueducts as "the highest demonstration of the greatness of Rome." Given that he was superintendent of the city's water works, Frontius may have been less than objective, but history has backed him up.
Frontius' modern equivalent, water operations director Sandro Cecilli, considers his ancient predecessors geniuses because they had no electricity.

"They brought water in Roma only with the use of gravity," he told Sunday Morning correspondent Allen Pizzey, "without pumps and only with their intelligence."

It's a far cry from the noisy system that operates just out of sight of the tourists who come to see the place made famous by the film "La Dolce Vita." Unfortunately for romantics, by-laws prohibit mimicking Anita Ekberg's famous romp in the Trevi.

This being Italy, however, laws are often given a somewhat loose interpretation. But the legend that tossing a coin over your shoulder into the Trevi fountain means you will return to Rome lives on…to the tune of more than $750,000 a year collected for charity from the water. What the dreamers do not realize is that the water they hope to splash their coin into comes from an aqueduct built in 19 B.C.

The Aqua Virgo, ordered by Augustus and built by Agrippa, brings water from the Alban hills. The fall is exactly 6.8 inches per kilometer over each of the twenty kilometers of the aqueduct. The water that flows along it is said to be the freshest in Rome.

The most ornate and elegant fountains in the city were created in the 17th century, known as the Golden Age, courtesy of the Catholic Church.

Using water to create beauty makes a link to baptism — a way of sending the message that a simple act can have great effect. To that end popes commissioned the greatest sculptors of the age to create wonders.

Bernini and his disciples were given huge projects, and plenty of work went to lesser-known artists, who made sure the papal seal was in evidence so the beneficiaries would know to whom they owed thanks.

Maintaining the fountains in the face of modern scourges like pollution and tourists keeps alive an ancient heritage that architect Valerio Pampani says was better run than modern Italy.

"The intelligence is the same, but I think the difference is about organization," Pampani said.

An extension of religion, a reflection of imperial glory, or simply a welcome relief — the fountains of Rome and the aqueducts which serve them have something for everyone.