Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Trevi Fountain: 250 years of history

Today's photos:

 

1.  Would you like to see the Trevi like this . . .

2.  . . . or would you like to see it like this?

3.  What are these two ladies doing here?

4.  Why do I call this "the architect's revenge"?

5.  Why is one horse agitated (left) and one calm (right)?

6.  What exactly does the inscription mean and whose coat of arms is above it?

7.  Who is the young girl in the scene and what is she doing?

 

 

The Trevi Fountain: 250 years of history: 1762-2012

 

Much is being said and written about the magical Trevi Fountain this year, the 250th anniversary of its dedication on May 22, 1762 by Clement XIII (1758-1769). For this reason I decided to dedicate this blog post to an update/revision of Chapter 27 of my book The Sights of Rome which deals with the famous fountain.

 

The history of the fountain dates back to much earlier than the eighteenth century when today's version was built. It was in 19 B.C. that Marcus Agrippa, Roman Consul and son-in-law of the Emperor Augustus, decided to build an aqueduct to bring water from the hills south of Rome into the city, primarily to supply water for the set of baths he was constructing in the nearby area of the Pantheon.

 

A curiosity

 

The aqueduct and its waters are called in Latin Aqua Virgo, the virgin water, because of the traditional story that when Agrippa and his architects were searching for the water source in the hills a young girl, a native of the area, showed them where it was. This story also explains the two relief carvings on the face of the fountain. The one on the right shows a young girl pointing out the spring to Agrippa and his architects. The other relief, on the left, depicts Agripp's architects kneeling in front of him and showing him the plans for the aqueduct. In the background you see workers busy building the acqueduct.

 

So Agrippa's aqueduct ended where the Trevi Fountain is today. The history of an actual fountain at this spot is documented beginning from the mid fifteenth century when Nicholas V (1447-1455) had a small fountain built here to provide fresh, clean water to the people of Rome. The fountain, of course, made use of the water being brought in by the aqueduct of Agrippa which had been kept in use all those centuries, first by the emperors and then by the popes. And of course it is still operating today, continuing to feed not only the Trevi but also other fountains in Rome, such as Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona.

 

The unassuming fountain of Nichols was enhanced in 1570 by Pius V (1566-1572), but was still far removed from the magnificent sculpture we see today. Then in 1640 Urban VIII Barberini (1623-1644) instructed his architect, the great Gian Lorenzo Bernini to transform the piazza and fountain into an imposing monument. The pontiff undoubtedly wanted to spruce up the neighborhood which also contained his family's palace, Palazzo Barberini and the papal summer residence, Palazzo del Quirinale.

 

A curiosity

 

Bernini did in fact draw up plans for a monumental fountain, but the construction of it was compromised, at least in part by the people of Rome. They had nothing against the famous architect, but they were growing tired of the arrogance of the Barberini pope who had already plundered the bronze   ceiling of the porch of the Pantheon to build the baldachino, or canopy, over the main altar of St. Peter's Basilica, an act which earned for the pope the famous saying: Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini (What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did)! The pontiff, the citizens believed, was certainly planning to take marble and other material from other ancient Roman monuments to build his spectacular fountain. As if that were not reason enough, it was also learned that the construction would be financed by a new tax on wine! The angry reaction was so strong that Urban backed off and the Bernini plan never got off the drawing board.

 

It would be another 92 years and 11 popes later before any changes would be made to the fountain. In 1732 Clement XII (1730-1740) sponsored a competition for the commission to build the monumental fountain.  It was won by the little known Rome architect Nicola Salvi who in his design followed the general plan of Bernini. In the following year construction began, despite the objections of the wealthy Poli family against whose palace the fountain was being built. The problem for Clement was how to finance the costly endeavor. He feared popular reaction if he used Urban's plan of a tax on wine, so he decided to start a lottery and use the proceeds to finance the work.

 

The handsome Latin inscription at the top of the structure tells us about its origin and its wholesome and plentiful waters. Despite the date given in the inscription (1735), the fountain was nowhere near complete. Clement was perhaps in a hurry to get the inscription up with his name on it!

 

CLEMENS  XII  PONT.  MAX.

AQUAM  VIRGINEM

COPIA  ET  SALUBRITATE  COMMENDATAM

CULTU  MAGNIFICO  ORNAVIT

ANNO  DOMINI  MDCCXXXV  PONTIF.  VI

 

Clement XII, Supreme Pontiff, adorned with magnificent style the Virgin Water, recommended because of its abundance  and its wholesomeness, in the year of the Lord 1735, the sixth year of his pontificate.

 

The fountain, as we know, was incomplete at Clement's death in 1740 and was finished under his successor, Benedict XIV (1740-1758). Not to be outdone by Clement, the new pope had a second, shorter inscription put up in gold letters larger than the first inscription. It reads:

 

PERFECIT  BENEDICTUS  XIV

 

Benedict XIV finished it.

 

The fountain had not yet been dedicated at the time of Benedict's death in 1758, so the next pope who came along, Clement XIII (1758-1769) somehow found space to include a third, somewhat cramped and rather unattractive inscription indicating that it was dedicated in 1762 during his pontificate. So three consecutive popes left their mark (literally!) on the Trevi Fountain.

 

A curiosity

 

While the fountain was being built there was a barber shop just across the street from it on the right side. The barber was very critical about the architect's design and was not at all shy about expressing his dislike for it. Salvi eventually got very irritated by the constant criticisms of the barber, so one day he carved an enormous ornamental vase on the side of the fountain just in front of the barber shop, effectively blocking the view of the fountain from the shop. The vase is still there, and if you stand opposite it where the barber shop once stood you will see that it does indeed block the view of the fountain from that point.

 

The carved decorations on the monument are really spectacular. At the very top is the papal coat of arms of Clement XII. Just below that is the main inscription flanked by four statues representing the four seasons.  In the center is a statue of Neptune, god of the sea, in his chariot which is being pulled by two sea horses lead by two Tritons (half man, half fish). Salvi cleverly designed the chariot of Neptune as a seashell in keeping with the watery theme. Notice that one of the horses is very tranquil, while the other one seems to be agitated.  They represent the two possible conditions of the sea which is at times calm and at times stormy.

 

The Trevi is often used in movies which are filmed in Rome. The 1950's movie Three Coins in the Fountain used the Trevi very effectively, as did the 1960's classic La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini. Who can forget the scene of Anita Ekberg prancing around in the fountain in the wee hours of the morning and Marcello Mastroianni wadding out to meet her!

 

A curiosity

 

Everyone knows the charming tradition that if you throw a coin into the fountain your wish to return to Rome will be fulfilled. But there is a special technique which must be used to make the wish come true. You must stand with your back to the fountain and throw the coin in over your left shoulder, using your right hand.

 

It seems that many tourists just cannot resist the temptation to invade the waters of this majestic, world-famous fountain, even in the dead of winter. This, of course, is strictly forbidden. This is not just a fountain, it is a valuable work of art. However, the practice is not unheard of, and here are a few examples which I have seen in the news in recent years.

 

A young couple (fidanzatini) from Bulgaria was recently fined 500 euros (about 675 dollars), not for bathing, but for climbing up onto the sculpture to have their picture taken.  The mother of the girl explained to the police who were trying to coax the couple down, that the photo was a pledge of love which the pair had made to each other before their trip to Rome.

 

A couple of years ago, at 7:30 on a cold winter's morning, a film crew from England was making some publicity photos of a young, blond, scantily-clothed woman wadding in the fountain.  It was, of course, an attempt to imitate the famous scene of Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita.  The problem was that the film crew had not sought official authorization (or paid the fees) for such a project.  A city policeman (vigile urbano) happened by and immediately sprang into action.  At this point the scene turned comical, at least for the Romans, as the policeman blew his whistle and yelled loudly in a very thick Roman accent: Ahò, ma che state a ffà? Ahò, fermatevi! ("Hey, what do you think you're doing? Hey, stop that!")  Sorry, but you have to hear it to really appreciate it!

 

But summer is the time when the vigili urbani are really kept busy preventing the invasion of the Trevi and other fountains of the Eternal City.  In one week last summer twenty foreign tourists were fined for illegal bathing in the Trevi.  Police report that the most common excuses offered were: I thought that you could do it, and I didn't see any "No bathing" signs.  Some transgressors, however, admitted their guilt, confessing: I know that it's forbidden, but it was just too hot!

 

Perhaps the most bizarre infraction was the young man who climbed as high as he could on the sculpture and performed a swan-dive into the water, an action he managed to repeat several times before he was finally fished out by the vigili.  Another climber recently scrambled up the sculpture where he remained for over an hour before the firemen came and hauled him down.  His explanation?  I wanted to get a close look at the statues.

 

I have often been asked by visitors what happens to the money thrown into the fountain.  Well, twice a week the coins are fished out and turned over to a religious organization called Caritas to be used to aid the poor.  At least, this is where the money is SUPPOSED to go.  Sometimes it doesn't work that way.

 

Recently the police ended a ten month investigation of four men who had been assigned by the Caritas to collect the coins from the fountain and turn them over to the office.  This they did regularly for over a year, but only after keeping a large amount of it for themselves.  The authorities at the Caritas office noticed that the amount being turned over to them was considerably less than what it should have been, so they alerted the police who then began their undercover investigation.  Finally, one day the police stopped the four men in their car after they had turned in that day's collection to the Caritas office.  They found hundreds of coins from all over the world in their car, a one-day haul which had the value of 1,200 euros (about 1,600 dollars).  Police estimate that the annual take for the four thieves was 110,000 euros (about 148,000 dollars)!

 

There have been many cases of individuals who attempt, often successfully, to fish coins out of the fountain.  One man was caught casting a line into the water with a fishing pole.  Attached to the end of his line, instead of a hook, was a magnet.  Others have been caught boldly wading out into the water and fishing the coins out with their hands.

 

The City has recently adopted two measures to try to stop this activity.  It seems that the stealing of the coins destined for the Caritas is a misdemeanor, punishable only by a fine.  So the City has now passed an ordinance which states that the coins belong to the City of Rome.  Somehow, in the mysterious Roman way of reasoning, this turns the misdemeanor into an actual crime of theft, resulting in arrest and trial, and possible imprisonment in addition to the fines.

 

A curiosity

 

A second measure being taken by the City is quite interesting.  The authorities plan to replace all the manhole covers in the vicinity of the fountain with new cast iron covers which will have a notice printed on them in several languages warning that the taking of coins out of the fountain is a crime and that violators will be arrested and prosecuted. Somehow, I don't think too many people will notice these signs!

 

So if you have plans to be in the Eternal City in this year 2012 A.D. remember to stop by the mighty Trevi and wish her a happy 250th anniversary, but remember, No diving!, No bathing! No climbing! And NO FISHING!

 

 

2 comments:

Linda Vassallo said...

Hello Vincent, I have just found your site Sights of Rome and cannot get enough of your insights. I recently traveled to Rome and your blogs are fulfilling my thirst for knowledge of everything I saw. I love the in-depth history you have provided. Thank you very much!
LV

Linda Vassallo said...

Just purchased your publications The Sights of Rome and Rome: Sights and Insights and have enjoyed reading them both. They are both very insightful. Thank you for publishing them and sharing with us the beauty of Rome and your passion for it.

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