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The flow of the past: Italy’s many water fountains are gorgeous and often functional


Italy’s fountains are as varied as stunning works of art or as simple as a central focus of a small piazza. There are thousands of them across the country in addition to simple drinking fountains which are unique as well for their design and function. The larger and more ornate ones all have historical and cultural meaning in their design.

A view of some of the beautiful sculptures and fountains to be found at the Royal Palace of Caserta. | ADOBESTOCK.COM


Of course, one of the most recognizable around the world is the Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain) in Rome, which is situated in the heart of the city, at the meeting point of three ancient streets: Via de Crocicchis, Via Poli and Via delle Muratte. If you approach from a side street, you will not see the fountain until you come out into Piazza Trevi but you will hear it as you get close. The fountain is built against the facade of the front of Palazzo Poli, a 17th-century building named after the Duke of Poli. It was built by Baroque architect Nicolo Salvi and construction began in 1732. Salvi died midway through the construction, and it was eventually fi nished in 1752 by Giuseppe Pannini.

“Nasoni” and mythological “head” fountains in Rome. | ADOBESTOCK.COM


The design was planned around the theme “taming of the waters,” and the fountain features three main fi gures in the Trevi Fountain: Oceanus, Abundance, and Health. Oceanus is situated in the center of the design, standing underneath the arch superimposed on the facade. He is on a chariot that is being pulled by Greek mythological sea horses. Abundance is located to Oceanus’s left. She is a life-size female figure holding a horn with a toppled amphora at her feet. On the other side of the arch is the female figure of Health with a wreath crown on her head. Over these figures is a relief illustrating the history of the Roman aqueducts. Water is supplied to the fountain from the still-working virgin water aqueduct which carries the water to the Trevi fountain, after having collected it from water springs approximately six miles outside the city center.

A drinking fountain with a she-wolf head. | ADOBESTOCK.COM

Its beauty draws an average of over 1,000 visitors per hour, so it is a rare treat to see and experience it during quieter times. Legend has it that if you throw a coin in the fountain, with your right hand over your left shoulder, it will ensure your return to the eternal city. It is estimated that over 3,000 Euro an hour is thrown in the fountain and all money collected daily is used for city charities. It is also illegal to remove that money from the fountain.

Another well-known fountain in Rome is Fontana della Barcaccia, situated at the bottom of the Spanish Steps. The fountain is shaped as a half-sunken ship with water overflowing its sides into a small basin. The water source also comes from the Acqua Vergine. On a really hot day it is a great place to cool off and there is also a drinking fountain here to taste some fresh water or to fill up your reusable bottles. Also, not to be missed are the three fountains in Piazza Navona, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Moor) and Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune).

During my years visiting and then working in Rome I became fascinated with the drinking fountains I discovered while walking around the city. Some are drinking fountains which Romans fondly call “nasoni” (big noses) for their cylindrical form. They can be found in many squares and streets of the city. Others, which date to the 1920s and ’30s, are set against travertine foundations with decorative heads spouting water. These are often constructed with the shape of a mythical figure and others are referred to as “della Lupa Imperiale” (of the Imperial She-wolf) since the water comes out from a brass, she-wolf’s head. The nozzles of the “nasoni” have small holes in the upper section which you can drink from when plugging the main water outlet. In the historic center are over 200 nasoni and about 90 fountains and artistic fountains from which drinking water always flows.

Fountain of the Elephant in Catania, Sicily. | ADOBESTOCK.COM


If you find you want to cool off with a drink from one of these fountains, make sure to check first that it is safe to drink. If you see a fountain with the words Acqua Non Potabile that means it is not drinkable. Otherwise, enjoy!

There are many others in cities across the country and in private gardens and villas. In Caserta, in the region of Campania, the Regia Caserta, or The Royal Palace of Caserta, is home to many beautiful statues and fountains. This former royal residence in Caserta was built by the House of Bourbons as a main residence for the Kings of Naples.

It is the largest palace built in Europe during the 18th century. In 1997, the palace was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. In the park, which starts from the back façade of the palace, there is a long alley with artificial fountains and cascades.

The fountains and cascades, each filling a vasca (basin), were built by Luigi Vanvitelli and were created along a wide straight canal, supplied with water from an aqueduct, that runs almost two miles from the palace. Here there are several notable fountains including The Fountain of Diana and Actaeon which was sculpted by Paolo Persico, Angelo Maria Brunelli and Tomasso Solari. The Fountain of Venus and Adonis was added between 1770-1780 and there is also The Fountain of the Dolphins, The Fountain of Aeolus, and The Fountain of Ceres. All of these are stunning works of art which can now be enjoyed by the public.

In Ostia Antica, an ancient Roman port city at the mouth of the Tiber River about fifteen miles outside of Rome, many of the fountains had a more utilitarian purpose for the citizens who lived in the city. After the construction of the city’s aqueduct in the 1st century A.D., Ostia was provided with a series of water fountains, distributed among both public areas and the communal spaces of buildings. Of course, more ornate fountains were built for the wealthy at their villas.

In nearby Tivoli, the gardens of Villa D’Este are famous for the 51 fountains and nymphaea. These were ancient Greek and Roman sanctuaries honoring water nymphs which were normally found in grottos. The water in the gardens emerges from 398 spouts and 364 water jets. There are 64 waterfalls of various dimensions, and all of the water features are supplied through 2,780 feet of canals, channels, and cascades. Amazingly, all of these function solely by the force of gravity without pumps.

Other cities across Italy boast of their own famous fountains. The Fountain of Neptune in Bologna is a favorite meeting point for residents and was erected between 1564 and 1566, when Pope Pius IV decided to provide the populace with a public fountain. Inscriptions describe its purpose as decorating the square, for the use of the population, created with public money and its date of construction.

Other well-known fountains are the Fountain of Neptune in Florence, The Fountain of the Elephant in Catania, Sicily (a symbol of the city), and the Fountain of Arecusa in Siracusa, Sicily. All were designed and created with symbolism relevant to the time and history of the cities where they were built.

The vast network needed to supply water to cities and towns for both public use and architectural beauty could not have fully existed without the creation of the Roman Aqueducts. The aqueducts built by the Romans were, and in some cases still are, an essential part of the infrastructure, providing water for drinking, for public baths and for both private and public fountains. They improved public sanitation and provided fresh water for citizens of the Roman Empire. Some are still in use today, not only in Italy but also France, Spain, Portugal, Israel, and Turkey.

Aqueduct builders created a vast network of pipes, channels, and bridges to bring water to Rome, creating in the process an enduring symbol of Roman civilization and innovation. Many of them are still visible today but not all of them were built above ground. Some were built underground as the engineers recognized there was less chance of contamination or evaporation of the water.

The fountains throughout the country today continue to provide a community meeting point, a place to cool off in the summer heat and also a way to look back into the marvels of Roman engineering and Italian artistic expression. These works of art still provoke a sense of wonder for those who see them for the first time and a sense of pride for Italians for the achievements of great Italian artists and engineers.

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