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A Deep Dive into Trevi Fountain’s 2,000-Year History

The city of Rome has over 300 monumental and beautiful fountains. Still, most tourists choose to flock to just one - the iconic Trevi Fountain. The landmark is considered a must-visit for every tourist, but what is it that makes the Trevi Fountain stand out from the rest?
Apart from its elegance and grandeur, the Trevi Fountain has a history that spans millennia, as well as a few interesting traditions linked to it. Even the way the fountain is supplied with water is a fascinating story.

Quick facts about the Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain closeup

Location: Piazza di Trevi in the Quirinale district of Rome, Italy
Construction: 1732-1762
Architect: Nicolo Salvi

What does the name stand for?

As unbelievable as it may sound, historians know there was a fountain at this very location more than two thousand years ago. The name “Trevi” originated from the fountain’s location at the junction of three prominent Roman streets, as in Latin, an intersection of three roads is known as a trivium.

Today, those roads are called Delle Muratte Street, Poli Street, and Crocicchi Street, but they had other names in the past. During the Middle Ages, the fountain was briefly abandoned, and only a tiny stream is said to have flown from it.

However, during the Renaissance and onwards, the popes of Rome conjured up a plan to restore and expand the fountain. This was despite the fact that there was already a building standing at the Trevi intersection. This building was Palazzo Poli, a 17th-century residence of the Duke of Poli. Parts of the building were demolished to make space for a big fountain. That’s why the Trevi Fountain leans against the remaining building, which is now an office.

Who designed the Trevi Fountain?

Trevi Fountain at night
The creation of the Trevi Fountain was a long and bumpy ride. It began when in 1629, Pope Urban VIII decided to commission his favorite architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini to expand the existing fountain in Piazza di Trevi. Bernini sketched out a two-tiered structure, but then the pope passed away, and the project was shelved for a hundred years. Luckily, Bernini’s work wasn’t all in vain; his vision heavily influenced the final structure of the fountain.
In 1730, Pope Clement XII chose to revitalize the Trevi Fountain project. In order to choose an architect, the city held a contest, and after much deliberation, architect Nicola Salvi was commissioned to design the Trevi Fountain. Salvi worked with several sculptors to create the fountain we see today, but unfortunately, he didn’t live to see it finished. The fountain was completed by Giuseppe Pannini in 1762.

Where does the Trevi Fountain get its water?

We promise that the answer to this question is more interesting than it appears. That’s because the water supply of the Trevi fountain hasn’t changed since its construction over two millennia ago. The water source is located some fourteen miles away, where the famous Roman aqueduct called Acqua Vergine begins.
Trevi Fountain aqueduct

This aqueduct was commissioned in 19 BC by the famous Roman statesman and emperor Augustus’ son-in-law Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. At the time, it was one of eleven aqueducts that provided Rome’s citizens with access to drinking water. Today, Acqua Vergine remains the only functioning ancient aqueduct in Rome.

A brief interlude about Roman aqueducts:
Roman engineers are renowned for creating arched aqueducts. These amazing structures were devised in such a way that water flowed in a steady and manageable stream using gravity. The longest Roman aqueduct was the Aqueduct of Valens which supplied Constantinople; it was 426 km (264 miles) long!

The massive water system of Rome was serviced by hundreds of workers who cleaned lime buildup and debris from aqueducts and lead pipes. It’s amazing to think that many of those ancient aqueducts still stand and work today - over 2,000 years after their construction!

What scene do the sculptures of the fountain depict?

Trevi Fountain two side by side pics
The Trevi Fountain grows out of Palazzo Poli’s baroque facade - like a natural waterfall emerging from a rocky cliff. The entire structure is carved out of Travertine limestone, which was transported to Rome from the nearby city of Tivoli. The fountain represents the Roman god Oceanus, who tames wild waters and brings balance to the world.
Trevi Fountain oceanus

However, Oceanus doesn’t appear alone. In a niche to his left, we see a smiling goddess of Abundance with a basket of fruit. To his right is Salus, the goddess of safety, health, and welfare with a snake coiled around an amphora.

Trevi Fountain
The top of the fountain is dedicated to his own history. Written above the statues are the names of the popes who commissioned the fountain surrounded by reliefs of angels and the Papal Coat of Arms. There are also two images illustrating the history of Roman aqueducts.

Why are there so many coins in the Trevi Fountain?

Visitors collectively throw one million euros worth of coins into the Trevi Fountain every year, according to a 2022 article from Euronews Travel. There are so many coins that a team of city workers is tasked with fishing them out of the fountain each year. And all that money gets donated to a local charity that feeds the homeless population.
Trevi Fountain people around the fountain

The fortune at the bottom of the fountain is also likely the reason why swimming in the Trevi Fountain is prohibited.

But why do people throw coins into the fountain in the first place?

The tradition most likely began after the release of the 1954 movie Three Coins in the Fountain. According to the lore of the film, if you throw one coin into the Trevi Fountain, you will return to Rome. Those who throw two coins will fall in love with someone they meet at the fountain. Those willing to part with three coins will marry the person they met. We can’t vouch for the accuracy of that myth, but there’s certainly no harm in trying. After all, the coins are all donated to a worthy cause!

Bonus! A live webcam of the Trevi Fountain

References: My Modern Met, The Culture Trip, Walks of Italy


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