Unlike many European cities, Rome has an abundance of water, thanks in large part to the ancient aqueducts. This system was refurbished during the papal reigns beginning in the 1400s. Water is still piped through these acqueducts from springs in surrounding hills. It thunders into some fountains, like the Trevi, and trickles at a modest pace into others like the Barcaccia the foot of the Spanish Steps.
The Trevi, Rome’s most famous, completed in 1762, marks the end of the Acqua Vergine, the aqueduct built by Marcus Agrippa in 19 BC. It’s an amazing structure with water surging with such force that it sounds like a waterfall. In the eighteenth century, people believed that drinking its water ensured your return to Rome. Now, the toss of a coin gives you that guarantee. I threw my first coin in 1969 and never fail to toss in another whenever I leave the city (at least when I leave the country). The proper way to toss a coin is to stand with your back to the fountain and toss it over your shoulder. Famous from the movies, the Trevi is still featured in Italian advertising for bottled water and many other products.
Beyond the Trevi, many other Roman fountains quench the thirst and tickle the imagination. The Water Nymph Fountain in Piazza della Republica near the main train station, for example, features four erotic water nymphs entwined with sea creatures. It caused such a stir when it was unveiled in 1870, that it was covered for a time. Now it’s in the center of a busy traffic circle, and you must make an effort to get a proper look.
The Tortoise Fountain hides in a little secluded piazza where you can rest and smile. The fountain shows young men nudging turtles climbing up and over the fountain’s rim.
The most common fountain is the nasone (big nose), so called because the spout resembles a large nose. Spaced roughly 200 meters apart throughout the city (a designation dating to ancient Rome) these fountains ensure that you are a short walk from fresh water wherever you go.
The utilitarian nasone are fifteen-inch metal cylinders that stand about 4 feet above the ground. The spouts extend about 10 inches from the base, and water constantly pours from the thousands of them across Rome. If you put your finger against the opening at the end of the spout to stop the water, it emerges from a hole in the bend of the spout, spewing water like a regular drinking fountain in the U.S. You can have a fresh drink, even without a cup.
People here detect differences in the taste of water from various aqueducts, and the amount of advertising for bottled water rivals the Coke/Pepsi wars in the U.S. Many people forgo bottled water altogether. Knowing which fountains are fed by which aqueducts, they take their bottles to the fountains and fill them directly. You can buy plastic carriers to hold six liter bottles (similar to the old Coke bottle six-packs). I often see people going to and fro with these contraptions. In the markets, vendors wash their veggies under the nasone, and I’ve even seen waiters from small restaurants take salad greens outside to wash them under this free, and freeflowing, water.
It’s amazing to think that this water, which is really quite delicious, is flowing through a system that originated more than 2000 years ago!
NOTE: The Trevi Fountain is the scene for my story “Feeding Frenzy” appearing in Fish Tales, Wildside Press, March 2011.