Fountains and Folklore

by Danilo Brunetti

Rome’s smaller and less famous fountains have streams of stories to tell.

Rome is famously the city of spectacular fountains and magnificent nymphaea: next to her age-old pine trees and magnificent churches, her numerous displays of water, spread across the entire city, remind us with every step that we are in Rome. This fact has even been immortalized through music, captured in a melodious ode to the city composed with extraordinary instrumental strength by Ottorino Respighi in his symphonic poem, Fountains of Rome. Although somewhat overlooked compared with the city’s more famous monumental fountains, symbols of prestige of noble families and papal power, the many fontanelle (small fountains) are often of high artistic value while they discreetly bubble away in the shade of an alley or hidden piazza, in many cases going unobserved. These minor fountains are only noticed during the hottest months of the year, when Romans and tourists alike line up to take a sip from these “troughs,” spouting fresh, cold potable water supplied by natural springs.

Fountain of the Dragon

Ubiquitous are the so-called nasoni (big noses), simple iron fountains which aren’t particularly artistic although very handy when thirst calls, but much more intriguing are the decorative fontanelle that offer a unique example of when urban functionality meets historic and esthetic value. Read on to find our favorites, so you can get a much-needed drink of water and discover a hidden gem of Rome at the same time.

Dating to the Renaissance,the Fountain of the Porter (Via Lata) represents the bust of a water-carrier with a spouting barrel (some even attribute it to Michelangelo!). It’s one of the city’s so-called “talking statues” upon which Romans used to post anonymous criticisms of the pope and the powers-that-be. One of Rome’s high-end shopping streets was named after the Fountain of the Baboon (Via del Babuino), which depicts a reclining figure with such unpleasant features that he resembles a baboon. Yet another talking statue, the Babuino proudly displayed the denunciation of the citizenry against authority or any unpopular decree. Unfortunately, due to frequently having been moved, the original appearance of the fountain is notably changed. In better condition despite the weight of the years, is a characteristic fontanelle of the Borgo neighborhood, the Fountain of the Acqua Angelica (Piazza delle Vaschette), more of a birdbath than a fountain, hidden slightly beneath street level. The Fontanella of the Bear (Largo di Monte Brianzo) is truly unusual: a bear’s head mounted on the wall drips water from the Aqua Virgo aqueduct into a basin below; meanwhile an eagle and a dragon are the main elements of a fontanella on Via della Conciliazione, set against the wall beside of a famous restaurant.

Fountain of the Arts

Some of Rome’s most typical fontanelle recount the history of the city’s neighborhoods and represent their characteristics with easily decipherable symbols. These water-spurting works of art by architect Pietro Lombardi date to around 1924 and over the years they have become a wonderful instrument for fully understanding the character of each unique neighborhood of the city: the Fountain of the Casks (Via della Cisterna) in Trastevere, for example, recalls the plethora of rowdy osterie (taverns) the neighborhood is known for, although, to the dismay of the locals, only the miracle of Cana could turn its spurting water into wine. Across town, the character of Via Margutta—the street of the artists—is perfectly reflected in its Fountain of the Arts, carved with contrasting theatrical masks, easels, and a pail of paint brushes. The reference to the origins of the Testaccio neighborhood is just as clear: the Fountain of the Amphorae (Piazza Testaccio) celebrates the history of the artificial hill, the nucleus of the area, which was formed by the accumulation of fragments of terracotta vases (testae in Latin), deposited by Roman boats coming up the Tiber. 

Fountain of the Casks

The Fountain of the Monti (Via di San Vito), in the eponymous neighborhood, is made up of three cylinders covered with stylized stars that symbolize the three hills surrounding the neighborhood (the Esquiline, the Celian, and the Viminal), while the Fountain of the Pinecone (Piazza San Marco) represents the Pigna area, and was designed to resemble the massive bronze pinecone sculpture in the Vatican Museums, discovered in this neighborhood. In the Borgo, there are two Lombardi fountains, both easy to interpret: the Fountain of the Tiaras (Largo del Colonnato), at the entrance to St. Peter’s Square, is an obvious nod to papal power with its three-tiered papal tiaras and keys of St. Peter, and the Fountain of the Cannonballs (Via di Porta Castello) refers to the nearby fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo that protected the pope from enemy assaults.

The Fountain of the Books (Via dei Straderari) represents the Sant’Eustachio area, with massive books that symbolize the proximity to Rome’s first university, and the stag’s head the emblem of St. Eustace. Lastly, the Fountain of the Helm (Porto di Ripa Grande) celebrates the site of Rome’s original port.

Fountain of the Books

All of these fountains, whether conceived as free forms or set against walls, reveal common traits: the use of travertine, the respect for history, and modern inspiration, all of which come together to create a fascinating union between the new and the old. One final curiosity: the only fountain in the world made for our four-legged friends is here in Rome, made by a local bar owner for his pets. It’s located on Via Veneto, and consists of a tiny basin decorated with the relief of a dog that invites animals passing by to stop and have a drink.