My favorite Roman fountain is tiny, just a lion’s head set in the old city wall along the Via Garibaldi as it rises up and out of the Trastevere district. A recent trip had me staying close by, and I visited frequently: the water, liquid crystal, was cool and sweet. I always drank deeply, pleased my connoisseurship was validated by locals who’d often join me to fill a jug or cup a hand.
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.)