Rome
The Trevi Fountain in Rome Jeremy Vandel

The Trevi Fountain

The Fontana di Trevi is the largest and most impressive fountain in Rome. It has become a true symbol of the city and is visited by millions of tourists every year. This enchanting and romantic rococo work nearly fills Piazza di Trevi.

The monument is located in the heart of Rome, in the Trevi district, the second-largest district in the Eternal City. The fountain is approximately 22 m wide and 26 m high.

The theme of the structure is the ocean with the proud sea god Oceanus being pulled on a shell-shaped chariot by winged horses and young sea gods (Tritons).

History of the Trevi Fountain

The wonderful waterwork has multiple symbolic connections to mythology as the fountain has a long history. Although it took more than 100 years to create the current artwork, its history began more than 2,000 years ago.

Imperial period (27 BC - 476 AD)

According to legend, in 19 BC, a few miles outside of Rome, a new water source was discovered by a young virgin. Shortly after she showed Roman soldiers the way to the spring, the aqueduct Aqua Virgo (virgin water) was built primarily to supply water to the Baths of Agrippa in the Campus Martius.

The aqueduct was built under the guidance of architect Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (known from the Pantheon) and eventually became one of eleven aqueducts that supplied water to ancient Rome. The Aqua Virgo runs mostly underground, is nearly twenty kilometers long, and is one of three aqueducts from ancient times that are still active today.

The aqueduct has been restored many times and is known today as Acqua Vergine, the source of the Trevi Fountain and the Fontana della Barcaccia near the Spanish Steps, among others. Where the endpoint of the aqueduct used to be, now the majestic Trevi Fountain is situated. However, during this period, it only consisted of three basins in which water was stored for the population.

Middle Ages (476 - 1492)

It retained this form until 1453 when Pope Nicholas V commissioned the redesign to Leon Battista Alberti. The three basins were replaced by one large basin from which the Romans could draw water.

Despite the damage caused by the First Siege of Rome in the Gothic War in 537, the work was used throughout the Middle Ages. However, the first graphic documentation dates back to 1410, when a fountain was built with three mouths pouring water into three separate basins side by side, in the middle of an intersection (trevio) on the east side of Quirinal Hill.

Renaissance (1492 - 1789)

In 1640, Pope Urban VIII commissioned the architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini to make significant changes to the work. The project envisioned a new scenographic panorama to be seen from the Quirinal Palace, the Pope’s summer residence.

Bernini embarked on the project without the required permit, financed by tax money from the Roman population. The original idea was to build two large concentric semicircular basins and place a pedestal in the middle that would probably serve as a base for a statue of the Virgin Trivia.

Instead, the money was used for the war the pope declared on the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza, and the work was interrupted. After the death of Urban VIII and the arrival of Pope Innocent X, the fountain fell into disrepair.

Nearly sixty years passed before Clement XI re-engaged with the work of the Trevi Fountain. Subsequent projects by Carlo Fontana and Bernardo Castelli were also interrupted. The same thing happened to the designs of architects such as Nicola Michetti, Luigi Vanvitelli, Ferdinando Fuga, and other Italian and foreign architects.

In 1731, Clement XII organized a design competition that was eventually won by Nicola Salvi. He decided to tell the story of the Acqua Vergine by creating a union between architecture and sculpture. He had taken this idea from the original plan by Pope Urban VIII and Bernini. It’s said that Salvi’s project was also chosen because it was cheaper than the others.

The work was financed by the reintroduction of the lottery in Rome. Construction of the fountain began in 1732 but was repeatedly interrupted due to both lack of money and artistic disagreements between Salvi and sculptor Giovanni Battista Maini. In the end, neither Salvi, the pope, nor his successor Benedict XIV saw the completion of the work.

During the pontificate of Pope Clement XIII, the work wasn’t completed until 1762 by the sculptor Pietro Bracci. On the evening of May 22, 1762, after thirty years of work, it was finally shown to the public in all its grandeur.

Contemporary period (1789 - present)

In recent years, the fountain has undergone various maintenance and restoration interventions. In 1998, for example, the fountain was thoroughly cleaned. And in 2014, it took seventeen months to restore the work, which cost the Italian fashion brand Fendi 2.2 million euros.

During this period, a temporary panoramic bridge was located over the basin so that visitors could admire the fountain and the restoration work up close.

The reinauguration ceremony of the Trevi Fountain took place on November 3, 2015. Hundreds of people attended the reopening of the Aqueduct pipes that filled the basin. Finally, in 2019, Mayor Virginia Raggi presented a plan to renew the artistic lighting.

Elements of the Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain is rich in majestic works and details from different periods of Roman history. Some parts have already been mentioned in the historical section of this article and will be explained in more detail below.

The structure

Surprisingly, the fountain is located in the facade of a palace, where the entrance to the Conti di Poli should have been. The original facade of the palace was considered vulgar and Salvi wanted to disguise it by placing one with a background that perfectly matched the building.

Looking at the monument in its grandeur, it’s clear that the sea is the main feature of the landscape. The structure is located in a large rectangular basin with rounded corners, surrounded by a walkway that runs from one side to the other.

The central part of the work is decorated with large columns to accentuate it. The whole is shaped like a triumphal arch, celebrating victory and the importance of life, represented by the water constantly in motion.

The statue of Oceanus

The fountain is dominated by a rocky cliff that encompasses the entire lower section. In the center is a prominent niche in which stands a large statue of the Greek sea god and Titan, Oceanus.

He appears on a shell-shaped chariot, with his upper body partially turned and his left foot resting on the edge of the shell to help himself keep his balance. A cloth barely covers his pelvis and pubic bone, and with the scepter he holds he seems to direct the course of the water.

Built by Pietro Bracci, the imposing statue is more than six meters high, hewn from giant blocks of marble. In size, it even surpasses Michelangelo’s David.

The chariot and the winged horses

The shell-shaped chariot is pulled by two winged horses, led by two Tritons (young sea gods). One of them is strong and young, the other is older and blows a buccina (an ancient wind instrument shaped like a shell) to announce their passage.

The horse with wings on the left is restless and the one on the right is calm. They refer to the contrast of the sea which can be both peaceful and stormy, inhospitable and deadly.

The statues of Abundance and Health

On both sides of the large central niche are two smaller niches containing the personifications of Abundance and Health, both created by sculptor Filippo della Valle.

The statue of Abundance on the left holds the symbolic horn full of fruit and coins. At her feet is a fallen vase, which is surrounded by flowers, from which water flows. Above the statue is a relief that shows Agrippa instructing his soldiers where the Aqua Virgo should be built.

The statue of Health on the right is scantily clad and decorated with laurel leaves. The figure holds a spear in her left hand, symbolizing purity. In her right hand, she holds a cup with a serpent, the emblem of medicine.

In ancient Rome, it was a custom to build a monument at places where there was a water source. The relief above the personification of Health shows the young girl (virgin) indicating the soldiers the way to the spring.

Salvi initially intended to place a statue of Agrippa and another one of the Virgin where the statues of Abundance and Health currently stand. The original project was later modified.

Allegories of the benefits of water

Finally, four large Corinthian columns support the upper elevation, on which are four smaller allegorical statues. These were sculpted by Agostino Corsini, Bernardino Ludovisi, Francesco Queirolo and Bartolomeo Pincellotti. They represent the positive effects of rain on the fertility of the earth and the four main productions that depend on the availability of water.

The first sculpture on the left holds a horn full of fruit and represents Abundance of Fruits. The second holds ears of corn in her hand and represents Fertility of the Fields. The third holds a cup and grapes, symbolizing the Products of Autumn. The last one is decorated with flowers and represents the joy of meadows and gardens.

Plant and animal decorations

The fountain also features numerous marble decorations of all kinds of plant species, distributed in all corners of the work. It’s possible to distinguish more than 30 species carved on the stones.

On the facade of Palazzo Poli, on the corner with Piazza dei Crociferi, a wild fig tree on top of the balustrade and a caper plant are sculpted. Below the statue of Abundance are a swamp bush, four branches of ivy, a prickly pear, lake reeds, and an oak trunk.

Under the large ace of cups are an artichoke, a vine with four bunches of grapes, and a fig tree. Also floating on the water is a colocasia. To the right of the fountain, in front of the via della Stamperia, is a ciombolino, and a group of plants where the travertine rock ends.

A few animals can also be found: a crawling snail on the colocasia and a lizard hiding in a small cavity in the facade. On the right side of the cliff are the insignia of Monsignor Gian Galeazzo Caracciolo, who was responsible for the project of the fountain for several years, with a lion and a special headgear worn by the Prelates of the Roman Curia.

Curiosities about the Trevi Fountain

Every day, about 80 million liters of water flow through the Trevi Fountain, thousands of tourists come to admire the masterpiece and over €4000 worth of coins are thrown into the basin. Keep reading to discover more interesting facts about the fountain!

The origin of its name

There are several theories about the origin of the name of the most famous fountain in the Eternal City. The first hypothesis is that the name “Trevi” is derived from “Trebium” the origin near the Tiburtina.

The second hypothesis is that the name is derived from “trivio", the intersection of the three streets Collatina, Prenestina, and Tiburtina, from where the water originated.

The third hypothesis refers to Iuturna, the nymph who was invoked during droughts and who had a temple named “Trevi”.

The dedication of Nicola Salvi

As mentioned in the historical section, in 1731 Clement XII announced a design competition that was eventually won by Nicola Salvi. With his intelligence and sensitivity, he pursued a humanistic education before studying architecture under the guidance of Antonio Canevari.

We can say without a doubt that the Trevi Fountain was the architect’s masterpiece, to which he devoted himself until his death and with which he concluded his career. Although he didn’t live to see the completion of the work, his affection for the monument led him to his death. It appears that he began to show the first signs of physical collapse through the numerous inspections of the tunnels of the Trevi Fountain aqueduct.

At one point half of his body was paralyzed, but he continued to find ways to oversee the construction of the work. For 30 years he prioritized this project and because of his dedication, his level of excellence is still compared to great Italian architects.

Through his attention to detail, perfectionism, and passion for literature, the artist was able to give the work different interpretations and possible meanings, to draw the viewer into a unique and evocative maritime world.

The traditional coin toss

Legend has it that if you stand with your back to the Trevi Fountain (with your eyes closed) and throw a coin into the water with your right hand over your left shoulder, you’ll be sure to return to Rome one day.

It’s also said that if you throw two coins, you’re sure to find love (some say with an Italian), while with three coins you’re guaranteed to marry.

This custom has now become a tradition among tourists. As a result, more than a million euros worth of coins is collected at the Trevi Fountain every year, which have been donated to charities since 2007.

The fountain of lovers

Another romantic legend related to love refers to the use of the Fontanina degli Innamorati (a small fountain of lovers). It can be found on the right side of the Trevi Fountain and was also designed by Nicola Salvi. Its function was to allow passersby to quench their thirst on hot days.

The two jets of water coming from this small fountain cross each other before entering the basin. This metaphor for the indissoluble bond between lovers would thereby give drinkers of the fountain everlasting love.

Especially among young soldiers, it was common to drink from the fountain together with their sweetheart before leaving. The girl would then bring a cup that was broken after drinking from it to seal the young man’s loyalty to his beloved and the capital.

The legend of the ace of cups and the barber

If you look at the right side of the fountain, you’ll see a round ornamental vase, commonly known as the ace of cups (because it resembles Italian playing cards). In terms of position, the vase doesn’t seem to add anything to the other decorations of the fountain.

According to legend, during the construction of the fountain, Nicola Salvi constantly received tiresome complaints and criticism from the barber who had a business overlooking the Trevi Fountain. Salvi decided to take revenge ironically and obstruct the barber’s view.

Eventually, the ace of cups was placed on the east side of the fountain. Today, if you stand behind the vase, you’ll discover that you can’t see anything of the fountain at all.

The secret balcony

Normally you can admire the Trevi Fountain only from the square. Yet, it’s possible to view the fountain from another angle, from the palace where the work is built against.

Thanks to a new museum tour of Palazzo Poli, you can admire the Trevi Fountain from the balcony. Here you can still see even the highest point of the work, the two angels playing tuba, just fine. Moreover, during your visit to the rooms of the palace, it’ll be possible to hear the sound of the water flowing to the fountain.

The fountain as a film set

The Trevi Fountain has an important role in representative scenes of twentieth-century cinema. The fountain has been the scenery for the films Roman Holiday, Three Coins in the Fountain, When in Rome, Angels & Demons, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and La Dolce Vita.

In the last example, a film by the director Federico Fellini, the scene in which Anita Ekberg plunges into the fountain and addresses Marcello Mastroianni (the protagonist) with the words “Marcello vieni qui, sbrigati” (Marcello, come here. Hurry up!) has become world-famous.

Inscriptions

Given the countless decorations of the Trevi Fountain, some important elements of the work such as the inscriptions may go unnoticed.

Pope Clement XII wanted to add in the center of the two central statues the text “CLEMENS XII PONT MAX, AQVAM VIRGINEM, COPIA ET SALVBRITATE COMMENDATAM, CVLTV MAGNIFICO ORNAVIT, ANNO DOMINI MDCCXXXV PONTIF VI.” Translated from Latin, it means “Clement XII, Pontifex Maximus, embellished with splendid refinement the Acqua Virgo, esteemed for its abundance and wholesomeness, in the year of the Lord 1735, the sixth of his pontificate”.

The inscription just below it reads “PERFECIT BENEDICTUS XIV PONT. MAX” (Benedict XIV, Pontifex Maximus, made it perfect).

Finally, the inscription behind the statues of Abundance, Health, and Oceanus reads “POSITIS SIGNIS ET ANAGLIPHIS TABULIS IUSSU CLEMENTIS XIII PONT. MAX. OPUS CUM OMNI CULTU ABSOLUTUM A. D. MDCCLXII”. The translation says that the statues and reliefs were placed here on the orders of Clemens XIII Pontifex Maximus and that the work was completed without further work in the Year of our Lord 1762.

Famous protests and statements

The fountain has been the scene of protest performances by various artists and citizens. These are a few examples that have made (international) headlines.

Graziano Cecchini

The Italian artist and activist Graziano Cecchini, for example, decided to pour paint into the fountain in October 2017. He said the action was an act of protest to draw attention to government corruption in the Italian capital. Shortly after he turned the water a deep red color, the artist was arrested and escorted away from the scene by police.

In October 2007, the artist had pulled the same stunt earlier with the help of other activists. At that time, the police found pamphlets from “FTM Futurist Action 2007” at the fountain in which the following statement was made: “The unfortunate, the elderly, the sick, students and workers, we come with the red color to color your grayness”.

In 2008, the artist made the headlines again by dropping thousands of colored rubber balls down the Spanish Steps, another world-famous Roman landmark.

Adrián Pino Olivera

Spanish artist Adrián Pino Olivera, better known as the “art stripper” regularly goes nude near iconic works of art. Olivera’s actions are part of “Project V,” an art project in which he wants to use his naked body to “claim the divine power of the feminine and pass it on amidst the decline of the contemporary masculine world”.

In 2014, he pulled this stunt for the first time at Sandro Botticelli’s painting “The Birth of Venus” at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. He later repeated this statement at the Nikè of Samothrace at the Louvre in Paris, “The Origin of the Milky Way” by Jacopo Tintoretto at the National Gallery in London, and the Trevi Fountain in Rome, among others.

Roberto Cercelletta (D’Artagnan)

In 2002, one of the most violent protests at the Trevi Fountain took place. The unemployed Roberto Cercelletta, better known to Romans as “D’Artagnan” or “the coin fisher” clearly disagreed with the ban on taking money from the fountain. Despite being arrested several times for this and receiving many warnings, he continued to do so.

In protest, he climbed on one of the winged horses of the work, wounded himself with a knife, and cursed the mayor for interrupting “his way of making a living”. After all, he had been diving into the fountain regularly for 34 years and was certainly not the only one doing so.

Today, the coins are taken out of the fountain every day (rather than once a week), cleaned, and donated to charities.

Angry brides at a flashmob

At a more recent protest in the form of a flashmob in July 2020, about 10 brides-to-be gathered at the fountain, all dressed in their wedding gowns with matching white parasols and masks. They were protesting against the strict COVID-19 restrictions that have been introduced on wedding ceremonies.

They also held signs with texts such as “I had already bought my wedding dress, but had to postpone the ceremony”, “The church is keeping its doors closed for marriage” and “Give us back the freedom to party.”

The flash mob was organized by the Italian association Airb, which organizes wedding ceremonies. The purpose of the protest was to ask the government for support to prevent the collapse of the sector that organizes wedding ceremonies and parties. But also to scrap restrictions such as the prohibition for the father of the bride to accompany her to the altar.

Other fountains in Rome

The fountains of Rome are artistic and cultural heritage of enormous value. Scattered around the city are 8 other important fountains and about 2,500 nasoni. These are public fountains made of cast iron or travertine, from which Romans have been drinking for generations. The water that comes out of them is the same as the tap water: drinkable and of high quality.

Fontana dell’Acqua Paola and Fontana dell’Acqua Felice

Another important fountain in Rome is the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, also known as Il Fontanone (the Great Fountain). Pope Paul V commissioned Giovanni Fontana to design the fountain in the early 1600s. Lake Bracciano, not far from Rome, is the source of the fountain.

The design of the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola was inspired by the popular Fontana dell’Acqua Felice, also known as the Moses Fountain. It was commissioned by Pope Sixtus V, born Felice Peretti. In 1585, the pope commissioned the architect Domenico Fontana to create a work of art on the fountain.

Eventually, three triumphal arches were created with a biblical story in each. In the center is a statue of Moses, based on a story from the Old Testament in which he beats water out of a rock. To the left of Moses is a statue of Aaron leading the Israelites through the water. To the right of Moses is Joshua pointing the army to the Red Sea. The fountain was finished in 1586 and opened in June 1587.

Fontana del Tritone

There is also the Fontana del Tritone in Piazza Barberini. It was created in 1642/1643 from travertine by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, for Pope Urban VIII’s facade.

The fountain consists of a strong Triton (young sea god) sitting on a large shell, held up by four large fish (perhaps dolphins). Furthermore, the Triton blows on a trumpet shell from which a jet of water comes out.

Fontana delle Naiadi

The Fountain of the Naiades is located in the center of Piazza della Repubblica and is considered the most beautiful among Rome’s modern fountains. The circular tub was designed by Alessandro Guerrieri in 1888 and decorated with four plaster lions.

In 1901, bronze Naiden (freshwater nymphs from Greek mythology) by sculptor Mario Rutelli was added.

The Fountains in Piazza Navona

The three fountains in Piazza Navona are also very popular among visitors. The La Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi was built in 1651 by Gian Lorenzo Bernini on the initiative of Pope Innocent X.

The Fontana del Moro was built in 1574 by Giacomo della Porta (a pupil of Michelangelo) and renovated by Bernini in 1653. The fountain with the four young sea gods owes its name to the central statue of one of the Tritons, who was always called “Moro” by the Romans.

The Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune Fountain) was also built in 1574 by Giacomo della Porta. The fountain used to be called the Fontana dei Calderari because many craftsmen in the area made copper objects.

Fontana delle Tartarughe

The turtle fountain from the late Italian Renaissance can be found in Piazza Mattei. The fountain was constructed between 1580 and 1588 by architect Giacomo della Porta and sculptor Taddeo Landini.

The original design featured four ephebes (young Greek men) sitting on young dolphins. The bronze turtles at the top weren’t added until 1658/1659 when the fountain was restored. It’s not clear whether Gian Lorenzo Bernini or Andrea Sacchi created the turtles.

Useful tips for your visit

  • It’s best to visit the crowded fountain in the morning or at mealtimes. Chances are that it’s less crowded then so you can admire the fountain more closely.
  • If you need even more information about the fountain, it’s possible to book an audio guide during your visit.
  • An evening or night visit to the fountain is highly recommended for a spectacular and romantic atmosphere.
  • Beware of pickpockets who often strike when the square is crowded. Always keep an eye on your personal belongings.
  • It’s recommended to bring ransom money if you’re planning to throw coins into the fountain. More info on the tradition can be found here.
  • It’s forbidden to jump into the fountain or drink from the water. Keep this in mind because the fines can be up to €500.

Nearby places of interest

The world-famous Trevi Fountain is surrounded by other landmarks. Here’s a list of attractions you can visit within walking distance from Piazza di Trevi.

Pantheon

This is a temple dedicated to all the gods of the past, present, and future. It was founded in 27 BC by Marco Vipsanio Agrippa. It has retained its religious function to this day, despite Catholic modifications.

The iconic work is one of the few Roman buildings still intact, encompassing centuries of history, art, culture, and sophisticated building technology.

The entrance to the Pantheon is 650 m southwest of the Trevi Fountain (a 7-minute walk).

Imperial Fora

The Fori Imperiali consists of a series of monumental fora (public squares). These were built over a total period of 150 years, between 46 BC and 113 AD. Over the years, Ceasar, Vespasian, Augustus, Nerva, and Trajan contributed to its development.

The Imperial Fora was built to replace the Roman Forum after it became too small due to strong population growth and could no longer fulfill its purpose as the center of Rome.

The entrance to the Fori Imperiali is 900 m south of the Trevi Fountain (an 11-minute walk).

Piazza Navona

This is one of the most famous monumental squares in Rome. Emperor Domitian had a large stadium built on this spot for athletic competitions, which had room for 30,000 people.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Romans built houses on the former tribunes. The athletics track itself remained unbuilt and evolved into a large square over the centuries. In the 17th century, Pope Innocent X gave it its current shape.

Piazza Navona is 950 m west of the Trevi Fountain (a 12-minute walk).

Roman Forum

This was the epicenter of social, political, religious, and cultural life in ancient Rome. It was also the heart of the empire and the ruins found here are surprisingly interesting.

No trip to the Eternal City would be complete without a visit to this majestic complex. It’s a must-see site and access is included in the Colosseum entry ticket.

The entrance to the Roman Forum is 950 m south of the Trevi Fountain (a 12-minute walk).

Colosseum

The Flavian Amphitheater is the most important symbol of Italy and therefore definitely worth a visit during your stay in Rome. Each year, about six million travelers visit the ruins of the Colosseum, which are among the new seven world wonders.

Admission to the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, and the Palatine is included in a single ticket.

The Colosseum is 1.6 km southeast of the Trevi Fountain (a 20-minute walk).

Domus Aurea

The remains of the great palace that Emperor Nero ordered to be built in 64 AD can be visited in a virtual reality experience tour.

The virtual reality glasses allow you to explore Nero’s extravagant residence in all its glory and get an idea of what it would have looked like at the time.

The entrance to the Domus Area is located about 1.6 km southeast of the Trevi Fountain (a 21-minute walk).