The romance of water: Rome’s most magnificent fountains

Debra Thimmesch | 12/07/2019
Fountain of the Moor
Fountain of the Moor in Piazza Navona

Rome boasts more than 2,000 fountains, some elaborate, some mostly utilitarian. It would be impossible to see them all on one visit to the city and doubtless few Romans could boast having viewed them all. As you traverse the city, you’ll likely encounter numerous and sometimes unremarkable ones. But don’t leave Rome without seeing some of Rome’s most iconic fountains. Our tour will get you started.

Romans have a long and storied relationship with water. From the early habitation of the city when its first residents settled on the Tiber river, to ancient engineers’ invention of aqueducts to carry clean water to various parts of the city, Rome has paid tribute to this essential life-giving force in romantic and monumental ways. 

In the first century CE, the city had nine aqueducts that fed 39 major fountains and nearly 600 public basins. The emperor’s household and the homes and bathing complexes of the wealthy drew from the water that the aqueducts provided. Believe it or not, the famous Trevi Fountain is fed by an aqueduct (although it is now a pressurized one). 

The earliest decorative fountains were made from bronze or stone and featured masks of animals and images of local and mythological figures. 

With the fall of the Roman Empire, the aqueducts were deliberately damaged or fell into disrepair and many of Rome’s fountains no longer worked. An enterprising pope, Nicholas V, began the process of building the city back up to its former splendor and power, including renewing the tradition of marking the end of each aqueduct with a major fountain or mostra

The fountains of the Renaissance period were often created as tributes to rulers, including the powerful popes and upper echelon Church leaders. The 17th and 18th centuries were definitely the glory years of the Roman fountains. This was the era of the Baroque style, with superstars such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Carlo Fontana. The usually elaborate fountains of the period are bursting with lively figures and forms, and often designed in coordination with the construction of extensive gardens or stately piazzas. 


The fountain in Piazza Santa Maria

One of the first fountains to be constructed during the Renaissance is in the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, which is where our tour of the most beautiful and interesting fountains of Rome begins. 

Built on the site of an older fountain, probably the oldest in the city, the fountain in Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere was designed to resemble its predecessor, with later additions by famous architects Donato Bramante, Bernini and Fontana. It isn’t one of the more beautiful or interesting fountains in Rome, but it is a close neighbor to one of the most glorious churches you’ll ever see: the Basilica Santa Maria in Trastevere. Be sure to tour the church and enjoy a coffee across the piazza at the warm and welcoming Caffè di Marzio. If the weather is fine, opt for outdoor seating and enjoy the views of this quintessentially Roman square.


The Fontana dell’Acqua Paola

Walking ten minutes west along the southern end of the Gianicolo Hill gets you to the next stop, the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola. This stunning fountain designed by Giovanni Fontana, Flaminio Ponzio and later Carlo Fontana, is pictured in the 2013 Paolo Sorrentino film, La Grande Bellezza as a distinctive landmark familiar to anyone who loves Rome. Locals refer to it as Il Fontane or “the Big Fountain.” The fountain is a tribute not only to Pope Paul V, who had it constructed, but to water itself. Five streams of water careen into the five beautiful marble basins of the structure and a half-circle pool is filled with the overflow.


The Fountain of the Mask

Take time to explore Trastevere proper, walking through one of Rome’s most delightful labyrinthine neighborhoods to the famous Ponte Sisto pedestrian bridge. Then cross back to the other side of the Tiber and walk just a few minutes north along Via Giulia and you’ll come face to face with the Fontana del Mascherone, or Fountain of the Mask. The square where this fountain is located once hosted an open-air theater and a thermal bath. 

The Fontana del Mascherone is not a free-standing fountain; it is connected to a wall of the Farnese Palace. Created in the first half of the 17th century by Girolamo Rainaldi, this strange fountain is made from marble, travertine and granite and features a metal lily representing the wealthy and powerful Farnese family. Water flows from the mouth of the mask and is collected in a container shaped like a shell. According to local lore, the fountain is supposed to have spouted wine on certain feast days.


Fountain of the Moor

Walk northeast and cross through the lively Campo de’ Fiori. Your next stop on the tour of Rome’s fountains is the Fontana del Moro or Fountain of the Moor, located at the south end of the famous Piazza Navona. 

In the center of the Fontana del Moro stands a robust, naked man — the eponymous “Moor,” which was a later addition by Bernini to the original design. He is perched on a conch shell and is wrestling with a dolphin. The main figure is surrounded by four kneeling Tritons, messenger sea gods doing various things like blowing into elaborate seashells. All are suspended in a large basin of rose-colored marble. In September 2011 this majestic fountain and the Trevi Fountain, certainly Rome’s best-known fountain, sustained damage when they were attacked by a vandal with a hammer.


Fountain of the Four Rivers

Two other fountains on the tour are located in this massive and elegant piazza — Bernini’s famous Fountain of the Four Rivers and Giacomo della Porta’s Neptune Fountain. Both architect and sculptors contributed to the overall design of the Fontana del Moro.

Also in the Piazza Navona, the Fountain of the Four Rivers was designed by Bernini in 1651 and commissioned by the Pamphili family. The large, muscular, nude male figures are allegories representing four major rivers and four continents — the Nile (Africa), the Ganges (Asia), the Danube (Europe), and the Río de la Plata (the Americas). Various animals adorn this complicated sculptural compilation: a sea serpent, a horse, a snake, a dolphin, a dragon, a lion and a crocodile. 

According to records, there was a big to-do when this fantastical work of art was unveiled (Bernini had kept it undercover as much as possible while working on it). The Pamphilis paid for an elaborate celebration, which included a parade featuring a beautiful woman dressed as an allegory of Fame with a long trumpet in her hand and wings on her back. She was carried on a float or possibly a carriage through the streets, blowing the trumpet, while a second woman dressed as Curiosity urged onlookers to follow them. Some of that excitement lingered and seems to be eternal in the grand Baroque piazza.


Fountain of Neptune

The last stop in the Piazza Navona is the Fountain of Neptune. There were no statues in the fountain for 300 years when, in 1878, Antonio della Bitta added the sculpture of the sea god Neptune struggling with a terrifying octopus. The other sculptures in the fountain — various sea creatures, sea goddesses, Cupids and even walruses, were designed by a different sculptor, Gregorio Zappalà.


Make a stop at the Pantheon

Midway at the east side of the Piazza Navona, take a charming narrow street eastward, where you’ll pass through the piazza containing the imposing Pantheon. Visits to this incredible feat of ancient architecture are free. Once a temple dedicated to all of the gods of the Roman pantheon, it is now a Roman Catholic church. Stand beneath the oculus, the large round opening in the structure’s dome and imagine how sublime it once looked with the many coffers or recessed panels of the ceiling decorated with gleaming bronze rosettes. After seeing this marvel, continue east to the Trevi Fountain, which really has earned its reputation as a must-see work of art in a city of sublime artworks.


The Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain was one of pope Urban VII’s most prized projects. Launched in 1640, he commissioned the incomparable Bernini to oversee the reconstruction of the square where this fountain complex is situated and to rework the previous fountain. Even the heavy taxes Romans paid to fund such projects were not sufficient to pay for this one. It took another hundred years to finish the Trevi Fountain under a different pope, Clement XII, and a different sculptor, Nicola Salvi (who looked closely at Bernini’s design when he took over the project). 

In the middle of the fountain stands Oceano, a powerful figure pulled by two winged horses, a tranquil one and a wild one. Behind him two beautiful female figures representing Abundance and Health stand in niches overlooking this grandiose scene. As famous as the fountain itself is the scene from the 1960 classic movie, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in which Anita Ekberg jumps into the water and invites Marcello Mastroianni to join her. Don’t forget to turn your back and throw a coin into the fountain over your shoulder to ensure that you’ll return to Rome! 

Conclude your tour (at least for today) just steps away from the Trevi Fountain at one of our favorite restaurants in the neighborhood, That’s Amore, a traditional Roman trattoria with a top-rated chef. Make reservations to be sure you’ll have a table when you arrive. 


Four Fountains 

As we mentioned, you can scarcely throw a stone in Rome without bouncing it into a fountain, so don’t stop at the fountains on our tour. We suggest seeing some other marvelous ones, such as the Quattro Fontane or Four Fountains, beautifully carved sculptures that adorn each of the four corners of the intersection of Via delle Quattro Fontane and Via del Quirinale. 


The Turtle Fountain

One of the quirkier fountains, the Turtle Fountain at the Piazza Mattei is not far away. Possibly based on a drawing by the Renaissance painter, Raphael, the fountain features four charming looking turtles. Rumor has it they were originally supposed to be dolphins. 


Fountain of the Ugly Boat

Finally, at the Piazza di Spagna you’ll find the wonderful Fontana della Barcaccia or “The Ugly Boat.” This Bernini-designed fountain probably commemorates the archaeological find of an ancient boat in the square below the church of Trinità dei Monti and at the bottom of the infamous Spanish Steps. Grab a gelato and marvel at the fountain and the visitors to this chic shopping area and call it a day.