The Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain in Rome makes 1.7 million dollars a year.

But Nicole, you don’t pay to see the Trevi Fountain.

But you do throw coins into the fountain. With your back to the fountain, take a coin in your right hand and throw it over your left shoulder. You repeat this action three times. The lore goes like this: the first coin represents the wish to return to Rome, the second coin represents the wish to fall in love, and the third coin is a wish for marriage.

In a normal year, the Trevi Fountain sees 7-10 million tourists. Tourists who throw coins in the fountain.  The coins are then collected each day by the municipality of Rome. It is illegal to take coins out of the fountain, by the way. I believe you can be arrested if caught. Thievery is the reason the coins are collected each day, because thieves used to steal the coins at night from the fountain.

Where does all the money go? To a charity that uses the funds to feed, clothe and house the poor. So as you wish to return to Rome or fall in love with a Roman or marry a Roman and hope it is the stuff Nora Ephron movies are made of…all those wishes actually become help for the less fortunate. I’m sure we could have some strange existential conversation here about how IF your wishes don’t come true is it because someone took the coin out of the fountain before it had time to work its magic or is the end goal of helping the less fortunate the thing that will kick karma into gear for you?


Why are we talking about the Trevi Fountain today? Once again, I’m doing research for my current work in progress. Our heroes are awaiting a clandestine meeting amid the throng of tourists in the piazza of the Trevi Fountain. Is it the perfect place for this meet up? I’m not sure, maybe. But it’s a fun place to be after dark, the yellow hue of lights, the din of conversation raising up over the rush of water from the fountain. The fountain itself aglow with lights placed just so to allow the blue water to sparkle into the evening.

I thought I had written about the Trevi before in my books and short stories, and I have, but it turns out the writing was very inconsequential. In one book the characters stop at the Trevi, take a few breaths, snap a photo, and then they leave! I mean, it was in keeping with the ‘tourist’ aspect of said book. The go go go sightseeing effect that takes hold in a foreign land; it had my characters in its mighty grasp. So there were no lengthy contemplative moments, they were more interested in getting to the next stop; the nearby Pantheon.

I think the reason I feel like I’ve written about the Trevi more than I have is two-fold. One, a few years ago I helped my dad refurbish a bathroom and the tile my parents chose was called “Trevi”, so there was a lot of talk about the Trevi fountain and Rome and color while we demolished and rebuilt.

The second reason would be a day trip taken to Rome in 2012. I played tour guide for eleven of us and mapped out the whole day, doing in depth research so that I could explain the importance of the ‘things’ we were seeing.

So why not share information so we can all take a moment in these crazy days and dream of when we get to travel again, dream of Italy and dream of Rome. (That seems like a pretty good dream.)

The Trevi

The Trevi Fountain is the largest baroque fountain in the entire city of Rome. The humble beginnings of this fountain, however, begin with a virgin.

I mean, why did most of the stories from olden antiquity days begin with a virgin? I suppose it was a kind of stereotype, a lesson for young women? Be good and virginal and you too can be the things legends are made of? I know if you were one of the Vestal Virgins you had some privileges no other woman had at the time. You could own property, vote and had the power to free condemned prisoners. But your job was basically to keep a flame lit in the Temple of Vesta, because if you were the one who let the flame go out, well, public beating and death was the basic punishment.

I digress, this isn’t about The Temple of Vesta and the keepers of her flame, it’s about water, and the need to bring water into the growing city of Rome.

Legend says it was a virgin who led Marcus Agrippa’s engineers to the source of the fresh water about 8 miles outside of the city. So this aqueduct was named after its founder (kind of), the Aqua Virgo. Yes, that does mean virgin water.

In the ancient days of Rome, it was common for a fountain to mark the end point of an aqueduct. The original “fountain” end was a lead pipe that brought fresh water into Rome from the Acqua Virgo aqueduct.

This “end spot” just happened to be a junction where three roads met. Three=Tre, Roads= Vie. This is one of the most common theories of how the Trevi got its name: The three roads junction fountain. That’s trivium in Latin if you were wondering.

By the way, this was where you got your fresh water to use for drinking and cooking. So this lead pipe would have been a fun gathering place back in the Roman days to trade gossip and hear the news of the day. An ancient oral newspaper stand, if you will. (Common Nicole, that’s just lazy metaphoric writing.)

So we have the great Roman Empire and then we have the fall of the Roman Empire. For those who like dates, scholars say the beginning of the end was about 200AD and the final blow came in 476AD when Germanic forces disposed of the final emperor of Rome. (This is a whole history class in and of itself, so forgive my very crass summation so we can get on with the aqueduct stuff.)

One way to cut your enemies to the bone is to destroy their water supply, so some aqueducts fell to this sort of sabotage, but many more were just left in disrepair. There wasn’t enough money or workers left to see to the miles of aqueducts. Most of money was being spent fighting the growing enemies of the Empire.

“Every single Jedi, including your friend, Obi-Wan, is now an enemy of the Republic. Do what you must, Lord Vader. Show no mercy!”

Oops, got a little off track there. Wrong Empire. Although, now that we’re here, isn’t it interesting how similar ancient Rome was to Star Wars? Both were Republics before turning into Empires; both were slowly taken down by smaller forces; both had rulers that stayed in power longer than they should have; both had corruption; and both rulers were betrayed by someone they trusted. “Et tu, Brute?”

We’ve got water in Rome. Let’s rush through the next thousand years of events:

476 Fall of Rome.

525AD Anno Dominicalendar invented

618AD Tang Dyansty begins.

793AD Norse begin to attack and expand into Europe.

800AD Charlemagne crowned emperor of Romans.

919AD First use of gunpowder.

1040 – Invention of moveable type (Bi Sheng is credited with pioneering the use of wooden movable type around 1040. This technology would develop and expand outside of China. Yes, this is a most important invention to the author who is writing this piece.)

1066AD Norman conquest of England

1095AD First crusade is launched

1206AD Genghis Khan becomes ruler of Mongols (and becomes the ultimate baby daddy! Creating a weird statistic, that today there are 16 million descendants of his in the world.)

1215AD Magna Carta

1320AD Dante Alighieri completes theDivine Comedy

1337AD Beginning of the Hundred Years’ War The Kings of England and France begin a war – fought off and on – that would last until 1453.

1347-51AD Black Death


And stop.

We’re still in Rome. The year is 1443. The Pope is Nicholas V. He initiates the reconstruction of the fountain. He also decrees “We’re gonna call this aqueduct the Acqua Vergine now, not Aqua Virgo.” To which most people shrugged in a very, “whatever” sort of way and tell each other “I’ll meet you at high noon at the corner of the Aqua Virgo with the new name I keep forgetting.”

Ten years later, in 1453, the first “extravagant” fountain is finished on the three roads junction. The fountain had three outlets that poured into a rectangular basin. It was marked with a “slight” plaque honoring the good work of the Pope who decided to build the fountain in this place.

So for the next 100 years, this three roads junction fountain is where most people get their fresh water.

Renaissance happens and the years come and go.

Now, it’s 16th century. The Popes have begun living in a palace on a hill overlooking the fountain, the Quirinal Palace. Pope Urban VIII has a bedroom looking down in the intersection where the Trevi is and he doesn’t like it because it is not an interesting view. He thinks it could be better, so he hires his favorite sculptor and architect of the day, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, to do something about it.

Bernini was…look, you can’t throw a stone in Rome without finding a monument, fountain or sculpture of his. Wanna see his work and where it’s located in Rome? Go to HERE.

1629, Bernini draws out some sketches for a new fountain. He helps clear out some of the old houses to create a small square and turned the existing fountain 90 degrees south so it could be seen from the overlooking Quirinal Palace.

This is a sketch of the Trevi Fountain in the 17th century. Giovanni Battista Falda (1667-1669). Wikimedia Commons 

The church in the background, Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio, is still there today.

And then the money that was supposed to be spent of the fountain was used for the war waged against the duchy of Parma. And the fountain project died. Along with the Pope and Bernini. Not at the same time, and not because of the war. But because there wasn’t any money. If you barely have money for a war, you definitely don’t have money for building fountains. And Bernini had plenty of other patrons and projects he needed to work on.

The only contribution ol’ Bernini had on the current fountain was the positioning of it. That’s all folks. While he didn’t have any input into the current fountain design we view today, it’s pretty obvious that inspiration was drawn from his other works though.

Where are we?

Man, this little history lesson has taken us on quite a roller coaster ride together, hasn’t it?

Okay, it’s 1732. The Pope is now Clement XII. He holds a competition for the commission of a new fountain. Five artists enter the thunder dome of artistic renderings, and after a TWO YEAR deliberation, a winner was finally chosen. A guy by the name of Alessandro Galilei. A damned Florentine! Oh you can bet the Romans were pissed about this decision. So to soothe the feathers, Galilei was bumped and second place winner was given the commission. Nicola Salvi. Work began, but both pope and artist don’t live to see the project completed.

I’m not sure if it’s a decent consolation prize or not, but at least they both got to see water return to the part of the fountain that had been finished at that point. Water returned to the fountain in 1743.

Construction did not end this time, it continued under the next two popes with the input of several different architects and sculptors.

Finally, in 1762 Pope Clemens XIII officially completed and inaugurated the new Trevi Fountain, eleven years after Salvi’s death.

Benedict XIV Visiting the Trevi Fountain by Giovanni Paolo Pannini

Nicola Salvi’s design was built around the life-giving force of water, the theme “Taming of the Waters”.

Neptune, or “Oceanus,” stands strong and regal as the centerpiece of the sculpture, backed by a triumphant arch. He represents water in all its forms. He is riding on a giant clam shell chariot that is being pulled by two sea horses, hippocamps (half horse-half fish) one calm to his left and one wild to his right, which represent the ever changing moods of the ocean; its wild side and its tame side.

The horses are both being led by Tritons, the sons of Poseidon, gods of the sea.

There are two statues higher up on either side of Oceanus: On the right is Health

and on the left is Abundance.

There are two bas-reliefs depicting the history of the Trevi Fountain. On the right, a nod to the virgin who showed the Romans where to find the water source. The one on the left, is Agrippa ordering the aqueducts to be built.

Giovanni Battista Grossi and Andrea Bergondi, Maiden bas relief, 1730s. Source: Wikimedia.
Giovanni Battista Grossi and Andrea Bergondi, Marcus Agrippa bas relief, 1730s. Source: flickr, boglam Nov 2010.

The four statues at the top, of four women, are a representation of the four seasons and the bounty that water can bring to crops.

The inscription reads:Clemens XII Pontifex Maximus decorated the Virgin Aqueduct and committed it with abundance and salubrity to the cult in the Year of the Lord 1735, 6th year of his pontificate

The whole scene is set in front of a perfect baroque style backdrop.

The building behind the fountain, is called the Palazzo Poli, it did exist when the fountain was built, but the central part of the palace was demolished to make room for the fountain in 1730. Today, it houses The National Museum of graphics and design, (Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica). They exhibit graphic works by famous contemporary artists. It is open to visit if you ever find yourself in the area and interested.

When I first saw the fountain in 1992, it was a dirty thing. Years of build up of exhaust and life had covered the gleaming marble. But Italians are often working on sprucing up their monuments. (And really, they have a lot of monuments to take care of.) In 2013 the fashion company Fendi funded the restoration of the fountain. It took 17 months and 2.2 million Euros. But they cleaned the statues, replaced the gilded Latin inscriptions, installed new pumps and waterproofed the basin. Making it tourist ready for all the coin tossing once again.

Where did this coin tossing come from? Well, it’s said that a German archeologist and scholar, Wolfgang Helbig, worked in Rome and during his many social gatherings introduced his habit of tossing coins into the Trevi. This was around the 1860s, and then the legend spread.

Another leap through history, and Hollywood helps to cement the tradition into place, if not help perpetuation the iconic nature of the fountain itself through the movies Roman Holiday, La Dolce Vita, and especially Three Coins in a Fountain.

I hope you enjoyed this strange trip we took together today, at least you learned a little something, right?

I don’t know about you, but I think I’m going to go cuddle up and watch a little Roman Holiday, to dream for a while longer.


  • Kathleen Sharp

    I think you should be a tour guide in Italy. And Cappuccino expert. And live in writer for some blog or newspaper. Anything … just do something so at least we could see each other more often. 😉 Loved this post Nic! I’m always learning something from you about Italy.

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