The Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain [12]

The Trevi Fountain is one of the most famous fountains in the world and the largest baroque fountain in Rome. The fountain is called Trevi (tre vie in Italian), because it is located at the junction of three roads. The early history of the fountain starts in 19 B.C., during the reign of emperor Augustus, marking the terminal point of the ancient Acqua Virgo aqueduct. Building a handsome fountain at the endpoint of an aqueduct that brought water to the city was a Roman tradition. The water of Acqua Virgo supplied baths, a lake, a canal and numerous smaller fountains in Rome. The Trevi Fountain as it looks like now has a long history of restorations, demolishments and rebuildings and it was finished in the eighteenth century.

In this wikipage we will try to answer the following questions: why has this fountain been built at this place and time, by whom and which influences played a role during and after the building of the fountain? By answering these questions, we hope to explain the underlying cultural problem to which the Trevi Fountain forms the answer.

1. Clients and designers: the architectural history of the Trevi Fountain
1.1 The fountain in the fifteenth and sixteenth century
1.2 Bernini's involvement in the Trevi Fountain
1.3 Private and public interests in the Trevi Fountain
2. Body of thought provided by the sixteenth, seventeenth and 18th century
2.1 New ideas undermining the position of the church
2.2 The position of art during these developments
2.3 Rome
3. Description and meaning of the fountain
4. Conclusion

Clients and designers: the architectural history of the Trevi Fountain

The fountain in the fifteenth and sixteenth century

In the fifth and sixth century the Roman Empire disintegrated gradually and the imperial capital fell. In that time the waters of the Acqua Virgo, which until then had flowed uninterruptedly to Rome, were repeatedly denied to the population of the city. In the strategy of the Goths, the aqueducts and the Acqua Virgo played a major role. In the pontificate of Hadrian I (772-795) major renovation work was carried out in the city of Rome and this went on, even though sporadically, in the Middle Ages. The retreat of the Acqua Virgo concludes the first phase in the history of the Trevi Fountain. The waters of the Acqua Virgo were diverted to serve new functions and to express different symbolic values. In response to the new needs of Rome in the Middle Ages, the form, the placement and even the orientation of this fountain were determined. The Acqua Virgo of the caesars gave way to the Aqua Virgine or Acqua di Trevi of the popes. The Medieval Trevi was painted by Taddeo di Bartolo and a generation after that the fountain was restored and embellished by Pope Nicholas V. This restoration in the early Renaissance constitutes the first step of a three centuries long series of projects for the Trevi.

Contrary to most Italian and North European cities, Rome had not grown but shrunken in de middle ages. From a city with over a million inhabitants in the time when the Roman emperors ruled, it had shrunken to a city with about 17.000 inhabitants in the fifteenth century. The inhabitants that still lived in Rome lived near the river Tiber, the only water supply after the ancient Aqueducts had been destroyed or collapsed. All in all, Rome had become a very unattractive city.

Halfway through the fifteenth century, pope Nicholas V (pope from 1447-1455) sought to restore the city of Rome to its ancient grandeur and together with his urban and architectural adviser Alberti made urban renewal plans and designs to reach this goal. The old Roman tradition to build a fountain at the end of an aqueduct was restored by pope Nicholas V when he assigned Leon Battista Alberti to design a fountain at the end of the Acqua Vergine. This fountain was built on the east side of the Piazza di Trevi.

It is hard to tell what Alberti’s alterations were on the fountain, because in 1643 Bernini demolished the Renaissance fountain to clear the piazza for a new fountain of his own design. As embellished by Nicholas V, the Trevi Fountain was in line with a long tradition of fountains set against a mural background. This distincts the fountain from more sculptural freestanding fountains, that are more common in Rome. This mural design can be traced back to classical antiquity. Alberti added an inscription to the fountain, which made it a celebration of Nicolas V’s pastoral care of the city and a memorial of his pontificate.

Bernini's involvement in the Trevi Fountain

Pope Paul V (pope from 1605-1621) constructed seventeen new fountains in his pontificate. He also drafted some plans to redesign the Trevi fountain. The Quirinal palace (the current official residence of the President of the Italian republic) was finished at that time and Paul V opened new streets to connect the Quirinal Palace with the Piazza di Spagna and his family palace and a passage for horse-drawn carriages to the Vatican. The project for the Trevi was not realized. The new streets that were opened up by Paul V had a long lasting effect, for they established a direct relation between the Trevi and the Quirinal. This relationship was strengthened under the pontificate of Urban VIII Barberini (1623-1644).

In 1629 Bernini was appointed architect of the Aqua Vergine and since then he was involved with the Trevi fountain. Bernini appears to have drafted plans to move the fountain from its old site on the eastern site of the Piazza di Trevi to a position on the northern site. Only years after, in 1640, Bernini began to intervene in the history of the fountain. The pope ordered to embellish the Trevi with a new façade and authorized a lot of money for this end. To save money on the materials for the new fountain, the pope also authorized the demolition of one of Rome’s most celebrated antiquities, the Tomb of Cecilia Metella. The epigram “Quod non fecerunt Barbari, fecerunt Berberini” stands for Urban VIII’s willingness to despoil ancient monuments in order to use the material for new constructions.

However, nothing stopped Bernini from demolishing the almost for two centuries standing fountain of Nicholas V. Many houses behind the site of the old fountain were also demolished to make the fountain visible from the Quirinal Palace. Bernini’s reorientation of the Trevi was motivated by two reasons. First of all, by demolishing the old fountain and moving the new one to the north side, he enlargened the piazza and obtained a much less restricted site to build on a more monumental façade. Also, the new location created a new relationship between the Trevi and its urban context. The Trevi no longer faced the Renaissance city, but became linked to the most visible expression of papal authority in the area, the Quirinal Palace. Bernini’s design of the Trevi was never finished. Following the death of Urban VIII, it was reported that in the last years of his pontificate, he imposed taxes on citizens owning property and on wine to provide funds for the Trevi. The epigram “Urban, poi che di tasse aggravò il vino, ricrea con l’acqua il popol di Quirino” (Urban taxes the wine and then seeks to amuse the Romans with water) expresses the complaints of the citizens at that time. However, the funds were all diverted to military operations in the war of Castro in the last years of Urban’s reign. We can say very little about Bernini’s project for the Trevi, for none of his drawings of the fountain has been identified.

The death of Urban VIII and the failure of Bernini’s project for the Trevi meant that the fountain was unfinished for almost a century. Its appearance stimulated the imagination of successive popes and artists who wanted to build a monumental display that would be worth the site and that would express the water’s importance to Rome.

While Bernini’s intervention on the Trevi had important long-term consequences for the history of the Trevi, it also had negative short-term effects. After he had designed the Trevi, Bernini designed his next great fountain, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona. The water supplying the Four Rivers Fountain-the Acqua Vergine-was taken from the Trevi and this detracted further from the appearance and importance of the Trevi. When the Four Rivers Fountain was finished in 1651, it effectively replaced the Trevi as the principal display of the Acqua Vergine for almost a century.

Private and public interests in the Trevi Fountain

Pope Innocent X (pope from 1644-1655), who greedily wanted to disassociate himself from the Barberini, did not only neglect their plans for the Trevi, he also diminished the amount of water to the Trevi, employing it instead to increase the reputation of his own family at Piazza Navona. Throughout history, and especially in Rome, water has been used to express the generosity and power of the secular as well as the spiritual rulers. The long history of the Acqua Vergine illustrates this vividly.

Throughout the pontificate of Alexander VII (1655-1667) statues and fountains were moved from one place to the other in the city of Rome. After Alexander VII’s death, the papal treasury was empty and the economic conditions were depressed. As a result of that, no work was carried out on the Trevi in the remaining years of the seventeenth century and even in the first three decades of the eighteenth century. But in the meanwhile, architects continued making designs for the embellishment of the Trevi. Under the pontificate of Innocent XIII (1721-1724) important developments concerning the property behind the Trevi, the Palazzo Ceri, took place. The powerful dukes of Poli, who were the secular lords of the pope’s family, acquired the Palazzo Ceri and so it became the Palazzo Poli. The pope initiated a project to add a wing to the palace that would front on the Piazza di Trevi. The family also acquired the land that separated their palace from the Trevi Fountain and they were interested in a design that expanded the palace façade on both sides of the Trevi. However, these plans were not realized during Inocent XIII’s reign. Pope Benedict XIII (pope from 1724-1730) granted authorization to construct the new wing on the Palazzo Poli and the façade was completed in two years. At the same time, steps were taken to build a suitable display for the Fontana di Trevi that would form the centrepiece of the Palazzo Poli. Constructions did not come far, because Benedict XIII died soon. The new pope Clement XII Corsini (pope from 1730-1740), halted on the Trevi project, motivated by aesthetic and political concerns. This must have been embarrassing for the Conti, since instead of showing the family’s arms, the façade of the new fountain showed a gap in the centre. The Romans harshly criticized Benedict XIII’s architectural projects and the artists he favoured. Clemens XII wanted to distance himself politically from his unpopular predecessor and his corrupt reign. Although the façade of the palace belonged to the Conti, the water of the fountain remained within the jurisdiction of the pope and his appointed city officials. The monumental display of the Trevi, it was thought, should express the munificence of the ruling pontiff and his care for the public good, rather than the private interests of a single noble family.

In 1730 Clemens XII organized a competition to obtain a new design for the Trevi. The conflict of private and public interests complicated the competition. The participating architectures had to make a design for the fountain that was between the two wings of the palace, since the Conti objected to any design that would affect the façade of their palace. However, in 1732 the pope chose Nicola Salvi’s design and authorized the fountain to occupy the façade of the Palazzo Poli. The result was Salvi’s executed design for the Trevi that fused the palace and fountain. Bernini’s foundations for the Trevi were destroyed in 1732 by Salvi to make way for the present-day fountain. But Bernini’s naturalistic treatment of the base of the Four Rivers Fountain is also reflected in the Trevi as it appears today. Salvi used quarried blocks of travertine for the base of the Trevi, just like Bernini used for the Four Rivers Fountain. The blocks were finished in place to imitate natural rock formation by the action of water. Both artists also introduced effects of transparency together with details of flora and fauna.

The new wing of the Conti’s palace was now obliterated by Salvi’s fountain and crowned by the escutcheon of the Corsini pope, whose power had prevailed over their own. This new phase in the long history of the Trevi fountain illustrates how the pressure of urban development and the desire to give concrete expression to political authority may combine to influence architectural design.

Body of thought provided by the sixteenth, seventeenth and 18th century

New ideas undermining the position of the church

In 1520 the protestant revolution initiated by Martin Luther questioned the authority of the catholic church. In the same century the heliocentric theory of Copernicus questioned the perception of the earth being the centre of the universe, but this theory was not flawless. In the seventeenth century Galileo Galilei came in conflict with the Catholic church when he presented prove of Copernicus heliocentric theory.

Besides Galileo and Copernicus there were a number of philosophers who proposed ideas that changed peoples perception of reality at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century. Among others René Descartes, John Locke and Isaac Newton proposed ideas about science, reason and the laws of nature. These ideas were the foundation for the 18th century Enlightenment in which science and reason had a prominent place and which opposed superstition and abuse by state and church.

The fast circulation of these different new ideas and the scientific progress in the sixteenth and seventeenth century also demonstrated the power of the press. With new means of transportation peoples living space also becomes larger and people become more aware of the fact that they live in a larger world. The colonisation of different continents takes place and the products, knowledge and experiences gathered here are transported back to Europe.

The different ideas and developments caused the 18th century to be a complex century; a century of transition in which the old political and social order, the ‘ancien régime’, co-existed with the more modern and western ideas that started during the Enlightenment about social and political order. Honour and Flemming (2007) illustrate this by saying that it was the last century in which it was commonly accepted that ‘kings were appointed by god’ and at the same time in the American Declaration of Independence (1776) it was ‘self-evident’ to state that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Hapiness." Although the ideas among other things often affected the catholic church, in the 18th century few people openly questioned the existence of god or the authority of the church. However, there was a lot of political instability, which showed most clearly in the French revolution in 1789 with their slogan for ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ (freedom, equality and fraternity).

The position of art during these developments

In a reaction to Luther and the protestant reformation at the end of the sixteenth century and during the seventeenth century, catholic art shows signs of the counter reformation. In order to restore the position of the Roman Catholic Church, in 1563 the Council of Trent decreed that: "By means of the stories of the mysteries of our redemption, portrayed by paintings or other representations, the people be instructed and confirmed in the habit of remembering and continually resolving in mind the articles of faith". By showing the spiritual and worldly rewards for those who did not join Luther through emotional art and architecture, they hoped to prevail people from conforming to protestantism and strengthen their believes. The artform used by the Roman Catholic church to display their doctrines was the baroque style.

The name ‘baroque’ means something like irregular or misshapen, and it was originally used by critics at the end of the 18th century because of the extravagance of the artefacts. Baroque art is very theatrical and psychological and tries to overwhelm the viewer. By doing so an emotional atmosphere is created, with the depicted figures often being in ecstasy.

With the new means of transportation and knowledge travelling faster peoples living space grew larger than the former urban scale, which undermined peoples sense of place. With baroque art being overwhelming and emotional it somehow lets space become a consumer product as Muschamp (2000) explains, to help compensate for this loss. Baroque is a style that was adopted in many countries which also shows how fast information and knowledge is spread through different countries.

In the eighteenth century the production of art for the catholic church continued in a similar manner as before. The style still was mainly baroque with a little exception sometimes when a bit more simplicity in the design was asked. In France in the meantime the rococo period, with more frivolous and sensual art came about. This style tried to oppose the academic rules and approach to art that was taught in art schools. The fusion of humans and nature was an important theme during the rococo period.


Rome, as the city of the popes was the stage for showcasing the rewards, richness and wealth of the catholic church. During the seventeenth and 18th century the urban renewal and decoration of the city under the different popes continued and every pope wanted his contribution to the city clearly stated on the artefact he assigned. This was not always with the approval of the people living in the Rome since the costs were high and people rather had food than another fountain.

Description and meaning of the fountain

Salubrity [8]

Something that stands out, when looking at the fountain is that it seems to 'come out of' a building. This building is the Palazzo Poli, and the fountain is built at its rear side, forming the facade. In contrast to the building, the fountain is expanded widely and occupies almost half of the square that it is built on.

The statues processed in the monument seem to illustrate a play, depicting a story mutely. To understand this story, we should take a close look at what the statues represent and consequently trying to interpret the intentions behind the humanized constructs. The first statue is the one of Oceanus, which is a Greek mythical figure representing the ocean. Furthermore, Oceanus represents power, as the ocean was seen as the elementary power by the Greeks, existing prior to the other powers and thus can be seen superior to them. In the fountain, Oceanus is standing on a chariot made of a sea shelf and being pulled by horses. The horses are accompanied by tritons. One of the horses seems to be calm and peaceful, doing his job pulling the mentioned chariot properly, with the triton just holding it and blowing his cornet. The other horse is restless and forcible, while the triton tries to tame it by pulling the reins. This may represent the two faces of the ocean, or water in general: on the one hand, it can be forceful and destructive. On the other hand, it can be calm and useful, if tamed.

Abundance [9]

On both sides of Oceanus there are female statues. On the right side there is Salubrity, a woman letting a snake drink out of a bowl of water, which represents health. On the left side there is Abundance, a woman spilling water out of a vase filled with fruits. This represents plenty.
There is a lot of water displayed in the fountain. Water itself usually represents fertility. In the fountain, water flows abundantly from Oceanus, who represents power, to the people of Rome, watching the fountain. In addition to that, the women on both sides of Oceanus represent a wish for Rome: health and abundance or wealth. Together, this may reflect the purpose of the aqueduct: water, delivered by the aqueduct and powered by the pope, would flow abundantly to Rome and bring health and wealth to the city.

Mythical origin of the Fountain [10]

Above both female statues, there are pictograms representing the mythical story about the origin of the fountain. On the right side, we see a virgin that shows a soldier where to build the aqueduct. The place she points on should be a source of water. According to this story, the aqueduct has been built exactly at that location. On the left side, we see Agrippa, a general, agreeing on building the fountain. He is carrying water to that place. Also, the aqueduct leads to the baths of Agrippa. All in all, those pictograms tell us a story of the origin of the fountain.

In the fountain itself, we find a lot of contrasts. Firstly, we see the contrast between the classical background represented by the building itself, the fantastical middle (containing the mythical statues) and the realistic/realistic foreground (with the rocks, plants and water). Secondly, we see artificiality and tranquility, in the style of the building, smoothly melting in the naturalness and wilderness of the rocky decor. Finally, there is the contrast of the two horses, one being calm and useful and the other wild and destructive. All those contrasts may reflect the theme of the taming of the water. In this theme, water has two faces and should be tamed in order to control it and to use it.

Furthermore, the fountain contains some inscriptions. One says, in Latin:

Agrippa [11]

This means: Clemens XII Pontifex Maximus decorated the Virgin Acqueduct and committed it with abundance and salubrity to the magnific cult, in the Year of the Lord 1735, the sixth year of his pontificat. It repeats what the statues of the virgins and the pictograms above them already reflect, as discussed earlier.

Somewhere below this, another inscription says:


which means: Benedict XIV Pontifex Maximus made perfect. This is about the popes who gave commission for building the fountain: pope Clemens XII initiated building, and after his death, pope Benedict XIV continued it.


The body of thought provided by the fifteenth century and onwards undermined the position of the Roman Catholic church. It responded to this adversity by using the overwhelming baroque style, with which it wanted to show the people its spiritual and wordly rewards. In the surrounding countries different art movements appeared but the Catholic church, especially in its centre Rome, held on to the baroque style. This explains why even in the eighteenth century the fountain was built in the baroque style, while in non-Catholic art it had been replaced by other art movements, of which the Rococco was the most popular. The greatness of the fountain on the relatively small square, makes it an overwhelming view, even nowadays. This aspect is very typical for the psychological and emotional intentions of the Baroque.

The appearance of the fountain suggests that the main theme that it expresses is the taming of the water. This is also the purpose of the aqueduct and the fountain: to tame the water in order to use it properly (by providing the city with water through the aqueduct). The decoration of the fountain is the expression of that purpose. Furthermore, the inscriptions and the female statues on the fountain reflec the pope's wish for Rome: salubrity and abundance, which would of course be achieved through the water and lead to a wealthy and healthy Rome.

The different popes between the fifteenth and eighteenth century wanted to show their power by putting their stamp upon the Trevi Fountain. Each pope erased the marks of his predecessor and tried to put his own marks on the fountain. This also illustrates the rivalry between the popes, which is surprising, considering the shared goal of the Roman Catholic church to maintain their status. From this you could conclude that besides the external undermining influence on the church, there was also an internal conflict between the different popes, which is reflected in the history of the fountain.

Althought different designers worked on the fountain and designed the appearence, their influence was subordinate to the influences the popes has on the design of the city of Rome and especially the Trevi Fountain. The Popes eventually chose the design and the cultural meaning of the fountain comes from the decisions the different popes made about the looks, place and style of the fountain. Many of these decisions were made from egocentric points of view, the appearence of the city of Rome as centre of the Roman Catholic Church also played a large part, whereas the opinion and the well-being of the people of Rome seemed to matter less than the former two.


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  2. Hall, J. (1999) Si monumentum requires. New Statesmen. October 11.
  3. Honour, H. & Fleming, J. (2007) Algemene kunstgeschiedenis. 13e druk, Meulenhof: Nederland.
  4. Mulcahy, K. V. (2011) The cultural policy of the Counter-Reformation: the case of St. Peter's. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 17 (2) pp. 131-152.
  5. Minor, V. H. (1990) Review. Italica, 76 (1) pp. 72-74.
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  7. Muschamp, H. (2000) When Ideas took shape and soared. Architecture review. May 26.