Sunday, March 29, 2009

Evolution of the Trevi Fountain

The Aqua Virgo and its terminal point has been an important aspect of Roman society since the discovery of the Salone spring by Agrippa’s soldiers back in 19 AD. Ever since then there has always been some form of a fountain at its terminal point. Although Agrippa was responsible for bringing this pure water into Rome, a great number of other influential patrons and artist would be employed over the course of the aqueduct’s history to bring the terminal point of the Aqua Virgo to the completed form we know today as the Trevi Fountain. Here we will explore the history of the Trevi fountain including the patrons, their architects and artists, the function and role of the fountain as it evolved as well as the final design of Nicola Salvi and its meaning to Rome.

The origins of the name Aqua Vergine, or as it was named in Antiquity Aqua Virgo dates back to antiquity with the discovery of the water source, the Salone spring. The legend of the spring tells us that while thirsty soldiers of Agrippa were foraging through an area outside of Rome, they happened upon a young maiden who led them to the water source. “A second account was given by Pliny, who derived the name from the fact that the source was close to the stream of Hercules, from whose grasp the Acqua Vergine appeared to be escaping.” (Cooke, 149) The origin of the name has also been attributed to the quality of the water; the spring has been described as consisting of the purest and softest waters (Morton, 65); the water was so pristine (light, clean and free from limestone) it was idyllic for the use in Agrippa’s baths. “when the present fountain was built, the story of the virgin showing the source to the soldiers seems to have been the most generally accepted, and in the eighteenth century it was officially recognized when a plaque showing the episode was authorized to be placed on the fountain” (Cooke, 150).

Some sources speculate that the terminal point of the Aqua Virgo of antiquity was marked by a fountain of some sort. One source even goes as far as to call it Agrippa’s fountain describing it as a fountain with a large wall and three individual pools. Other scholars discredit this claim arguing that there is no concrete physical evidence of a monument from antiquity marking the terminal point of the Aqua Virgo. However, It was custom in ancient times for each of the aqueducts to conclude its journey to the capital at a splendid fountain” which would carry “an inscription giving the name of the emperor who had built the aqueduct.” (Morton, 70) Therefore, it would not be wrong to assume that this would have been true for the Aqua Virgo as well, especially when we take into account that the quality of the water has been “prized since ancient times.” (Morton, 65).

Potential Façade of the Ancient Trevi Fountain (Morton)

It is unclear what might have happened to Agrippa’s fountain, but we do know that there were a number of projects over the course of several centuries to maintain the Aqua Virgo, ensuring this pure water continued to flow into Rome. Rome experienced social challenges with “famine, plague, and the Gothic invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries” which devastated the city. The Gothic invaders used the aqueducts against the Romans; by destroying the conduits and interrupting the water supply, the Goths were able to gain control over the populace. (Zanzig, 2). The Gothic invasion left the aqueduct system of Rome in virtual ruin which drastically minimized the availability and usage of a clean water source.

The example of fifth and sixth century conflicts would be a reoccurring theme throughout Roman history as the city fluctuated back and forth between decline and growth from the early middle ages, into the Renaissance and beyond the Sack of Rome in 1527. The Avignon papacy of 1309 and the Great Schism of 1378 had a resounding effect on Roman society over the course of the 14th century. With the absence of papal authority in Rome, the city regressed to a society of chaos and lawlessness. The city was in rapid decline and even though the papacy returned some 70 years later, the struggle over papal authority and power between Rome and Avignon with the Great Schism of 1378 consumed the efforts of the pope. Roman infrastructures, especially the aqueduct systems were in desperate need of repair. The water available to people at this time was also reduced significantly, with one of the primary source being the polluted Tiber River.

Constant shift in prosperity and decline created ample opportunity for rulers of Rome to use water to propagate and validate their power and legitimize their reign. The first sign of this propaganda can be found in the efforts of Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) to rebuild and restore Rome back to some semblance of its former glory. Nicholas was responsible for taking on a major restoration project focused on repairing the ancient aqueducts that were crucial to the prosperity of Rome. Included in his building efforts were plans to ensure the maintenance of the Aqua Virgo by assigning the task to Rome’s urban judiciary body. Nicholas reconstructed the old Aqua Virgo and brought the terminal of the aqueduct into the Piazza dei Crociferi which is located to the left of the present fountain. With this project,“the Aqua Virgo of the Caesars gave way to the Acqua Vergine of the popes” with Nicholas V’s renaming of the aqueduct. (Pinto, 22)

Nicholas commissioned the humanist, Leon Battasti Alberti to redesign the small fountain that had previously been the terminus point for the Aqua Virgo. Alberti’s design has been described as a “plain and dignified wall fountain” with water that fell from three large spouts into an oblong stone basin about the size of a swimming bath. (Morton, 75) His design commemorated the Pope’s good works of returning the city’s life blood of water back to the people. “With Alberti’s inscription, the Trevi also became a celebration of Nicholas V pastoral care for the city and an enduring memorial of his pontificate.” (Pinto, 31).

Leon Battasti Alberti's Fountain Design. Inscription Reads:“Nicholas V, Pontifex Maximus, had restored the aqueduct.” (Morton)

Nicholas V’s renovations of the Trevi fountain remained untouched for nearly two centuries but his restorations to the conduits supplying the fountain did not last as long. Successive popes would play a role in maintaining the system over the course of the next two centuries using such building projects as propaganda to maintain support from the populace. The urban planning efforts of the papacy in the early 15th century were considerable. Demonstrating the “supremacy of the papacy” continued to be the major goal of the Church in the 16th century as it countered the Reformation to squelch the threat of Protestantism. In particular Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585), Sixtus V (1585-1590, Pope Paul V (1605-1621) are good examples of the papacy continuing the long lived legacy of aqueduct restoration projects which reinforced the “active role” that water played in legitimizing papal authority. (Zanzig, 2).

In the 16th century, with the pontificate of Pope Paul V, “the austere functionalism… of papal art gave way to a love of surface, movement and color.” (Duffy, 232) To engage this ideology, Paul V spent a significant amount of money on “churches, fountains and picture galleries” as part of an aggressive initiative to reshape the city. Paul V’s projects set the papacy on a course of grandiose display which would greatly influence the pontificate of Urban VIII (1623-1644). It is under Urban VIII that we see the first significant change to the previously established fountain of Nicholas V and Alberti.
True to this idea of ostentatious display, Urban VIII was intent on creating grand displays across the city of Rome. One of his significant projects was for a redesign of the Trevi Fountain, calling the terminal fountain of Alberti plain and essentially unimpressive. In 1629, Urban VIII appointed Gianlorenzo Bernini to be the architect of the Aqua Virgo and in 1635, Bernini provided drafted plans to relocate the site of Alberti’s fountain; moving it from the eastern side of the piazza to a new position on the north side of the piazza.

Urban also commissioned Bernini to “embellish” the Trevi with a new façade; the plans of which carried a heavy price tag. Urban VIII was known for his resourcefulness in the recycling of materials, especially from ancient sites. In order to save money, Urban gave Bernini permission to extract material from the ancient tomb of Caecilia Metella for the fountain project. In addition to the extraction of ancient materials, Urban the VIII also issued taxation on wine in order to fund Bernini’s design plans. The combination of these two events greatly upset the Romans who publicly protested Urban’s practices. Urban eventually yielded to the people by suspending the removal of materials from the tomb of Caecilia.

Bernini’s Trevi project never came to fruition perhaps due to bureaucracy, lack of funding or a lack of available materials. One of the legacies of Urban’s pontificate was debt, therefore it is highly likely that funding was the primary problem. With the death of Urban VIII the Trevi project remained incomplete for nearly a century; with the relocation of the fountain being the only real contribution to the Trevi Fountain that remains today. Urban’s successor Innocent X was more concerned about perpetuated his on pontificate while distancing himself from predecessor unfavorable reputation. He abandoned the Trevi project and commissioned the Four Rivers Fountain instead. The Trevi would enter the consciousness of successive popes such as Alexander VII and Innocent XIII (1721-24) but their plans for the fountain would never be realized due in large part to the deficit of the papal treasury.

It is not until the 18th Century under the pontificate of Clement XII (1730-40) that designs for the Trevi Fountain that we know today were initiated and evenutally realized under Clement XIII after work for a new fountain had begun under the pontificate of Benedict XIII (1724-1730),. Benedict’s building projects and the work of his preferred artists and architects were greatly criticized by the Roman public causing his successor, Clement XII, to reevaluate the design and project for the Trevi Fountain. Just as many preceding popes, Clement XII was intent on resuming work on the Trevi Fountain with an ambitious building project,. Clement’s decision to terminate Benedict’s project was due in part to the aesthetic taste of Benedict (who favored southern Italian architecture over classical architecture of antiquity) but also because of the politics of his time; especially as they related to the Trevi fountain.

The political challenge that faced Clement XII related directly to the façade of the fountain. Under the pontificate of Innocent XIII Conti, plans to add a wing to the Palazzo Ceri, the home of secular lords of Innocent’s family; the Dukes of Poli were drafted. Work for the new wing was approved under Benedict XIII pontificate and designs for a fountain were drafted which would have had the new fountain marked with the escutcheon of the Conti family coat of arms. Clement XII Corsini who wished to distance himself from the politically unpopular pontificate of Innocent XIII, believed that “the monumental display of the Trevi […] 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.” (Pinto, 60) This political conflict and Clement’s ideas about the relationship between the monument and the pope is a primary example of how, “throughout history, and especially in Rome, water has repeatedly been used to express the munificence and power of rulers, both secular and spiritual.” (Pinto, 53).

Although work had ceased on the fountain, the wing of the Palazzo Ceri (christened Palazzo Poli under Innocent XIII) was completed in 1730 and served as the backdrop for the new fountain of Clement XII and his architect Nichola Salvi. That same year Clement called for a competition between four architects to submit design plans for the Trevi Fountain. Apparently the winner of the competition was a French sculptor named Lambert Sigisbert Adam. The choice of the Frenchmen upset the Romans and a decision to give Adam the commission was reversed. The award fell to the runner up, Luigi Vanvitelli which for some unknown reason, his design was discarded. The third place design was thus selected and the young architect, Nicola Salvi (1699 – 1751 )was given his first significant architectural project.

Soon after Salvi was awarded the commission, work began on the Trevi. As with any building project, Salvi also experienced setbacks. In 1734, work was halted because of criticism from the Roman populace. To remedy this criticism, it is speculated that the urn of travertine which is situated to the right of the fountain close to the street was placed there to obstruct the view of his critics who use to gather at a barber shop in that area. The critics were not Salvi’s only problem, he also experienced descent from the Poli family who complained that Salvi’s scogli in the basement of the fountain blocked the view from the windows on the ground floor windows. Over the course of Salvi’s work on the fountain, he also experienced challenges with sculptor G.B Maini, who was commissioned to complete the main group of statues for the fountain. The two continually argued over their differences in design concepts.

Salvi’s project for the fountain carried on for approximately 30 years over which would see the deaths of important key figures such as Clement XII, Salvi, sculptor Giambattista Maini and Clement’s successor and Trevi supporter Pope Benedict XIV. Fortunately, Benedict’s successor Clement XIII realized the importance of completing the Trevi therefore passing the project on to Salvi’s right hand man Giuseppe Panini who carried out the design. Over the lifespan of Salvi’s project many artists had their hand in the completion of the various sculptures that adorn the fountain today. By taking a closer look at the appearance and artistic representation, we will see the level of collaboration that went into the completion of the Trevi over the course of 30 years.

Description: Architecture, Sculpture & Water

John Pinto describes Salvi’s Trevi Fountain as perfectly fusing “the three components of […] architecture, sculpture, and water” in a way ”that they can never completely be separated.” (Pinto, 128). When describing the Trevi fountain, it is best to do so through the three levels that make up the structure: the basement, the mostra and the upper attic. The basement of the Trevi consists of the basin, the scogli as well as the much of the flora and fauna. The rugged and naturalistic scogli of the fountain’s basin gradual gives way into the smooth and formulaic structure of the fountain’s façade. The sculptural features of flora and fauna that are represented in Salvi’s carved rock appear to be growing into the façade of the building itself. It is a juxtaposition of texture that is brilliantly tied together with the element of water.

Semblance of A Triumphal Arch

The mostra, which is the viewer’s primary focal point, is made up of a number of Corinthian columns across the façade, a protruding triumphal arch encompasses the main sculpture of Oceanus in the central niche which if flanked by statues of Fertility and Abundance which occupy the smaller niches on that same plain. Directly above these statues are two bas-reliefs depicting the origin of the spring and Agrippa’s work to bring the water into the city as well as the inscriptions commemorating popes Clement XII, Benedict XIV and Clement XIII who ensured the completion of the Trevi Fountain. As part of the mostra between the central statuary figures and the scogli we find two statuary figures that tied the basement and the mostra together directly with their relationship to the moving water.

The attic of the fountain consists of a plaque commemorating Clement XII’s commission for the fountain it is flanked by four allegorical figures; two to the right and two to the left of the commemorative inscription. Clement XII’s papal coat of arms is directly above and supported by two winged fames which towers over the fountain.

The Trevi was intended to be an artistic narrative about the significant role that water has played throughout the history of Rome. (Morton, 80) Salvi depicts this objective with his primary statue of Oceanus which commands the composition by riding a seashell that is pulled by two seahorses led by two tritons. The left hand triton and seahorse represent water in its tumultuous form where as the triton and seahorse to the right represent water in its calm and tranquil form. Together they are an allegory for the two moods of the sea; turbulent and peaceful. In his narrative, Salvi uses other statues to support the importance of water. The statue of Health in the niche to the right of Oceanus, wears a crown of laurel, holds a spear and carries a libation cup from which a sacred serpent is drinking. The other statues is Abundance who is depicted holding a cornucopia from which she yields a cluster of grapes, there is also an overturned pitcher of water at her feet from which plants spring to life. “These allegorical figures express the beneficial effects of the Acqua Vergine.”(Pinto, 139).

This is reinforced with the additional four female allegorical figures that occupy the attic space, each figure representing one of the four seasons. The first holds an overflowing cornucopia representing the Abundance of fruit. The second holds sheaves of grain personifying Fertility of the Fields. The third holds a cluster of grapes which represents the Gifts of Autumn. The last figure clutches flowers in her raised hand with flowers also in the folds of her garment which represents the Amenities of Meadows and Gardens. (Pinto, 149-150) Salvi’s design is an artistic representation of the value that the people of Rome placed on water; but especially, as depicted in the two bas-reliefs, the importance of the Salone spring and the Aqueduct built by Agrippa centuries ago that brought the prized water into the city in the first place.

The stability of Rome’s water systems directly relates to the prosperity and stability of Rome itself. From antiquity it has been a crucial aspect of survival not only for the populace, but for the reign of imperial and papal rulers. As we have seen with the history of the Aqua Virgo, there was extensive effort by rulers to ensure that the aqueduct systems continued to supply the people of Rome with this vital resource. These civil projects functioned as a means to propagate and legitimize the power and authority of secular and spiritual rulers alike. Studying the history of the Trevi Fountain and the evolution of the Aqua Virgo over several centuries allows us to see just how crucial water has been to Roman society. As the water into Rome ebbed and flowed, so did the power and prosperity of the city itself. The collaborative efforts that went into the final completion of the Trevi Fountain can serve as an allegory to the successful functioning of a city. With the fountain a great many people from the popes, architects, the populace, artists, and noble families played a role in shaping the fountain that we see today. Salvi was forced to work through challenges faced with his own sculptor, the criticism of the populace, as well as complaints from the Poli family. The patrons who inherited the unfinished project remained committed to the successful completion of the project even when faced with the death of Clement XII and Nicola Salvi. It was Salvi’s artistic vision that carried the project through to completion even after his death.With vision, callaboration and compromise amazing fountains were built and booming cities flourished and thrived.

Cooke Jr., Hereward Lester. "The Documents Relating to the Trevi Fountain." Art Bulletin. 1956 September, Vol. 38, p. 149-173.
Duffy, Eamon. "Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes." New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
Morton, H. V. The Fountains of Rome. New York: Macmillan, 1966.
Pinto, John A. The Trevi Fountain. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
Zanzig, Laura. The Trevi, The Acqua Vergine, and the Role of Water and Aqueducts in Roman History., 2007.

Picture Sources:
Morton, H.V. The Fountains of Rome. New York: Macmillan, 1966.

Friday, December 12, 2008


I'm so stoked! Rome is just around the corner and I am counting down the days. Is it January yet?