At Large  July 20, 2023  Effie Jackson

A Brief History of the Trevi Fountain

Via Wikimedia Commons

Nicola Salvi, Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain), 1732-1762. Travertine stone, 86 x 161 ft. (26.3 x 49 m.), Piazza di Trevi, Rome.

Standing at eighty-six feet high and 161 feet wide, Rome’s Trevi Fountain serves as the city’s largest Baroque fountain and as a symbol of the revival of Ancient Roman technology and aesthetics. Differing from fountains and public areas of Rome’s past, the storied Trevi Fountain was designed and built not by sculptors but by architects: Nicola Salvi (1697-1751) provided the original design in 1732 and Giuseppe Pannini (1720-1810) completed it in 1762. 

Carrying out the theme of Taming of the Waters, the fountain features as its central figure the Titan god Oceanus in a shell chariot guided by Tritons and horses with, to each side in their own niche, Abundance spilling water from an urn, and Salubrity holding a cup out of which a snake drinks. The scene arguably acts as a harbinger of Neoclassicism, the Western movement prevalent in Italy around 1760 that sought inspiration from Ancient Greek and Roman art, architecture, philosophy, literature, and culture.

The grandeur, drama, movement, and liveliness of the Trevi Fountain objectively reflects its Baroque design, therefore not placing it in conflict with the Neoclassical movement, which was an objection to the romance and mysticism of Rococo. Ultimately, the fountain’s service as a resurrection of Ancient Roman technology and design affirms its role in the Neoclassical movement. 

Giovanni Battista Cipriani, The Trevi Fountain, Rome, late 18th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Giovanni Battista Cipriani, The Trevi Fountain, Rome, late 18th century. Ink and gray wash on paper, 3 1/16 x 4 3/16in. (7.8 x 10.6cm).

Luigi Vanvitelli, Proposal for the Trevi Fountain, 1730-1732. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Luigi Vanvitelli, Proposal for the Trevi Fountain, 1730-1732. Pen and brown ink with gray wash on paper, 5 11/16 x 9 7/16 in. (14.5 x 24 cm.).

Unknown (French), Design for Female Figures for the Trevi Fountain, 18th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Unknown (French), Design for Female Figures for the Trevi Fountain, 18th century. Graphite, pen, and brown ink on paper, 4 15/16 x 9 3/8 in. (12.5 x 23.8 cm).

In 1730, Pope Clement XII (1730-1740) held a contest for the design of the Trevi Fountain, seeking to strengthen his Papal legacy. Salvi, who was born and died in Rome, initially lost to Florentine architect and mathematician Alessandro Galilei (1691-1737). But there was such public outcry over Galilei’s Florence origins, that subsequent calls for Salvi to do the Roman fountain instead led to Salvi’s ultimate selection as the contest winner. He would spend the rest of his life working on the fountain (he died in 1751), leaving four sculptors to finish its ornamentation with Pannini overseeing the project as architect until its completion in 1762. 

The fountain’s location is integral to its functionality as a public space, according to Roman art and archaeology scholar John Pinto. Pinto asserts that the Piazza di Trevi, an intersection of three major Roman streets forming a trivium, is likely where the fountain got its name. Pinto claims further that these streets follow the path of ancient Roman roads, signifying the fountain’s ties to Roman antiquity.  

The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland.

Lievin Cruyl, Eighteen Views of Rome: The Trevi Fountain (Showing the fountain, on the right, after it was moved to the north side of the Piazza di Trevi by Bernini in 1629), 1665. Ink, graphite, and gray wash on paper, 15 3/16 x 19 3/16 in. (38.6 x 48.8 cm.), The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland.

A simpler Trevi Fountain without the ornamentation designed by Silva may have existed before the one we know today, and dating back to the fifteenth century. That one was atop the ancient aqueduct Aqua Virgo (formerly Acqua Virgine), which dates back to 19 BC during the reign of Augustus. The medieval fountain was in a different placement within the piazza, originally on its eastern wall instead of its current northern location.

The fountain’s ornamentation honors humankind’s relationship with water through a theatrical performance in white travertine stone, specifically through the lens of ancient Greek and Roman mythology. In the sculptural landscape of the fountain, a centrally located Oceanus stands victorious on a shell chariot, which Pinto argues transforms the audience from spectator to active participant. 

While the fountain was an early vehicle for the Neoclassical movement, the theatrical nature of the fountain is unmistakably Baroque. Scholars such as Pinto declare the fountain to be exemplary of exceptional Baroque urban planning. 

Wikimedia Commons

Close-up view of Trevi Fountain, Rome. 

The water flowing down from under Oceanus’ shell chariot plays an important role in the fountain’s function as well since it honors the ancient engineering of Roman aqueducts. The fountain marks the end point of Acqua Vergine, a modern Roman aqueduct whose name comes from its predecessor, Aqua Virgo, one of twelve waterways that supplied water to Ancient Rome in 19 BC.

Acqua Vergine was consecrated by Pope Nicholas V in 1453 along with a complete renovation and reconstruction of the ancient aqueducts. The project served as an embrace of Ancient Roman engineering in that it showcased the archeological wonder of the aqueducts beneath the stone and street of the Piazza di Trevi. Today, Acqua Vergine is the only ancient aqueduct still in use. 

Underneath its Baroque grandeur and spectacle, the Trevi Fountain serves as an embodiment of Roman pride, Papal politics, Baroque urban planning, and ancient engineering. The fountain’s history is even more theatrical than the scene depicted in the sculpture. However, a Baroque piece would never give up the spotlight. The fountain draws a crowd of roughly ten million tourists looking to soak in a bit of ancient pomp and history. Little do they know, they are witnessing so much more.

About the Author

Effie Jackson

Effie Jackson is a contributing writer for Art & Object and graduated from UNC Asheville with a BA in Art History, where she received the University Research Scholar award in recognition for her undergraduate thesis. She is currently pursuing her MBA at Meredith College in preparation for a career in gallery/museum administration. When she is not working or studying, she loves doing yoga and playing with the family pup.

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