12 Roman Fountains That Will Encourage You to Hop on a Flight to Italy
Tranquil as the scene was, I was surprised to learn that it’s been rough waters lately for Rome. The Eternal City has more than 2,000 fountains—more than any other metropolis worldwide, a distinction that comes with its fair share of headaches. Hundreds are in need of repair. And an increasing number of tourists have flouted propriety—and laws—by swimming in them, much to the horror of locals.
And then there’s Rome’s most famous water feature, the Trevi Fountain, which sat dry behind scuffed Plexiglas barriers for months as an overdue renovation stretched on and on—much to the delight of a suddenly liberated colony of rats.
But all those coins tourists toss—and a gift of 2 million euros from fashion label Fendi—have finally bought some luck: the Trevi Fountain reopened in grand style last fall, and the mayor committed 50,000 euros to restoring 50 more of the city’s most beloved fountains this past summer.
Given what Rome’s fountains represent, though, 50,000 euros is, well, a drop in the bucket. Indeed, scholars argue that Rome could never have achieved the wealth and prominence it did without its extraordinary water system. Initially, this water came from wells throughout the city and even the Tiber River, but as the population grew, the need for water increased, and in 312 BC, the first of Rome’s many famous aqueducts was constructed. Subsequent ones bore water to Rome from sources far and wide, including the Alban Hills, a volcanic formation miles out of town.
Incredibly, some of these ancient aqueducts are still in use. The Trevi Fountain, for example, is fed by the Aqua Virgo, which dates from 19 BC. The grand Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, high on Janiculum Hill, draws its water from a route first established in 109 AD.
The Fontana dell’Acqua Paola is more commonly known as Il Fontanone, or “the Big Fountain.” One day, after climbing the Janiculum Hill in the hot sun, I briefly dangled my tired feet in the cool waters of its tempting semicircle basin before two extremely angry (and stylish) Italian motorcycle policemen roared up and ordered me and a dozen other tourists to get out of the water. (Understand: this was no Anita Ekberg moment; we weren’t swimming.)
But they were insistent and the fines are serious, so we dried off and left. A few hundred steep meters down the hill I consoled myself with a drink from my little lion fountain: sweet as ever.
Less sweet: the subsequent discovery (thanks to the 900-page, too-big-to-take-anywhere-except-as-checked-luggage book Roman Fountains: 2000 Fountains in Rome, a Complete Collection) that the lion fountain I’d drunk from is fed by…the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, which we’d all just washed our feet in.
(What to say? Well, when in Rome: Cin cin!)
Like the lion fountain, the 12 fountains featured here aren’t necessarily Rome’s biggest or best. Instead, they make up a decidedly eclectic list that will hopefully inspire your own exploration—after all, part of the pleasure of visiting Rome is determining your own top 3, 10, or 20 fountains. (And part of the frustration is finding a fountain closed or dry; always inquire locally for the latest conditions. Some, such as the Trevi Fountain, you can check via webcam.)
The only way to catch the Trevi Fountain in a quiet, uncrowded moment is to watch La Dolce Vita. But don’t let crowds keep you away; the 18th-century masterpiece is one of Rome’s top destinations for a reason. With close to 3 million cubic feet of water circulating through it every day, it’s an extraordinary sight, and its recent deep-scrub renovation makes it all the more so. Remember: one coin successfully tossed over your shoulder into the fountain means you’ll return to Rome; a second means you’ll find love; a third means you’ll marry. And all of this means Italian charities make roughly 3,000 euros a day from the fountain.
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi
In the broad Piazza Navona roughly a kilometer west of the Trevi Fountain, the 17th-century Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) attracts almost as many tourists. Four river gods (representing the Nile, the Danube, the Ganges, and the Rio de la Plata) reign beneath a towering Egyptian obelisk.
Fontana dell’Acqua Paola
The Quirinal Palace is the residence of Rome’s president, and its gardens are home to the Fontana dell’Organo, a water organ built in 1596 for Pope Clement VIII. Though no match for the far more famous (and larger) water organ at the UNESCO-listed Villa d’Este outside Rome, the one here still has a lovely sound, if you’re fortunate enough to pass by while someone’s playing (wooden doors just beneath the organ pipes hide the keyboard). Once open to the public just one day a year, the palace’s gardens are slightly more accessible now, though booking a guided tour is required.
Fontana Della Galera
As fanciful as anything you’d find at Disneyland—and more impressive, given that it was created 342 years before Walt broke ground in California—the Vatican Gardens’ Fontana Della Galera features a detailed, three-masted galleon complete with reefed sails, a reinforced lead hull, and 64 cannons (plus one bugler) spewing water. The fountain was built circa 1620 by Dutch-born architect and designer Giovanni Vasanzio, who also worked on the Palazzo Borghese as well as several other Roman landmarks.
Elsewhere in the Vatican Gardens, you’ll find (with the help of the required tour guide), the Fontana dell’Aquilone (Fountain of the Eagle). Despite the fountain’s name, the eagle perched high above the pool is the least interesting part of this strange, grotto-like corner of the papal property: look for the dragons, the grinning swimmers, and the network of spooky caves. It’s hard to imagine the nuns in the monastery nearby sleep peacefully at night.
Fontana delle Rane
There’s hardly enough water in the 91-year-old Fontana delle Rane (Fountain of the Frogs) for the eight frogs perched along its lip, but that didn’t stop a legend from arising that the Beatles once took a dip here. Like the whimsical buildings nearby, the fountain has a storybook quality, thanks to inventive architect Gino Coppedè.
Fontana delle Tartarughe
If you prefer turtles to frogs, head to Piazza Mattei for its Fontana delle Tartarughe. Built in the 1580s, this celebrated fountain originally featured four statues of young boys holding up dolphins, which were later replaced with turtles. (If Rome’s too far a trek for you, you can visit a copy in Huntington Park in San Francisco.)
Fontana del Tritone
It’s hard to make it too far through your Rome bucket list, fountains or otherwise, without encountering the baroque handiwork of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. In addition to crafting the Fountain of Four Rivers—and many of the more showstopping aspects of the Vatican, including the broad plaza in front of St. Peter’s—Bernini created the Fontana del Tritone, featuring a muscular merman atop four dolphin tails, in the middle of Piazza Barberini in 1643.
Fontana di Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere
The Fontana di Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere may not look as grand as some of the others on this list, but no fountain has a better, or more curious, pedigree: it’s thought to be Rome’s oldest fountain, whose origins date back to the eighth or possibly fourth century. What’s more, in 38 BC, it’s reported that not water but oil sprang from the ground nearby, which was later interpreted to herald the birth of Jesus.
Fontana Del Facchino
For a different sort of miracle, seek out the late 16th-century Fontana Del Facchino (Fountain of the Porter), one of Rome’s famed “talking statues,” so named because they served (and to a degree, still serve) as a kind of bulletin board, a place where citizens would post various notices, often political and satirical in nature. This fountain honors either a water carrier, diligently delivering water to a needy public while the aqueducts were under repair, or a wine carrier. Check for yourself, but word is it’s water flowing now.
Fontana di Via Garibaldi
And by all means, visit my favorite drinking spot, the little Fontana di Via Garibaldi for a great water stop whether you’re climbing the Gianicolo (Janiculum Hill) or just coming down. (The fountain is set in the wall at the corner of Via Garibaldi and Via di Porta San Pancrazio.) Though the Roman numerals on the basin read “1936,” it’s thought to date from the early 1600s. Tempting as the basin’s bathtub-like shape may be, don’t step in—you never know who might be drinking from some other fountain downstream.