It’s easy to be overwhelmed by Rome. Every street and every piazza seems to offer up a jumble of cafés, shops and churches. Often, there’s the sound of flowing water, as well—a serenade of sorts—for this city of fountains. In ancient times, enormous sculptures and aqueducts were built to advertise the marvels of the empire. Hundreds of fountains, from modest stone carvings to marble figures created by renowned sculptors, have come since. The 10 featured here make a great framework for a slow walk, or passeggiata, through this grand city. And remember: When in Rome, a great plate of pasta or carafe of Barolo is never far off.
“The Fontana di Trevi is the most celebrated,” the poet Shelley wrote after visiting Rome. That was long before Audrey Hepburn stopped by on her Roman Holiday or Anita Ekberg took a dip here in La Dolce Vita. Designed by Nicola Salvi and inaugurated in 1743, this showstopper is more waterfall than fountain, an effect that’s heightened by its distance from a main thoroughfare. As you approach on the Via delle Muratte, the Trevi suddenly appears before you. Somehow the enormous Oceanus statue seems to blend into the building behind, giving you the sense that the fountain has taken over the plaza. No matter how many tourists stand between you and those winged horses, the Trevi is magnificent. Visit in the evening after dining around the corner on spaghetti carbonara, the house special at Al Moro (13 Vicolo delle Bollette). Afterward, try Il Gelato di San Crispino for Rome’s best gelato (42 Via della Panetteria).
THE FOUR RIVERS
West of the Trevi, the vibrant Piazza Navona is ringed by fashionable cafés and home to three fountains. The largest, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, is a massive baroque sculpture with a giant obelisk and four reclining figures placed around a huge, rough-hewn stone. Each represents a major river of the four known continents when it was commissioned in 1648. Water bursts from every crack and crevice as Roman life flows around the square. If the river gods make you crave seafood, head toward the Tiber and the tucked-away Piazza de Ricci for octopus carpaccio at Pierluigi (144 Piazza de Ricci).
Between the Trevi and Piazza Navona, you’ll find some of Rome’s best coffee at Caffè Sant’Eustachio. With cup in hand, amble south a half mile to see the whimsical Fontana delle Tartarughe (Turtle Fountain) in Piazza Mattei. Built in the 1580s, this piece has a statue of four lithe bronze youths cavorting beneath an antique marble basin. But really, the fountain owes its charm to Bernini—it’s believed that he added the four turtles climbing atop the figures. A visit to this neighborhood wouldn’t be complete without Roman-style artichokes at nearby Giggetto (21a Via del Portico di Ottavia).
Bernini didn’t just create turtles and loungers. This monumental fountain in the Piazza Barberini, east of the Coliseum, depicts a muscular merman straddling a scallop shell and holding a conch to his lips, out of which shoots a stream of water. It was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII of the Barberini family, whose symbol of three bees can be seen on the fountain.
Throughout Rome, as many as 2,000 small drinking fountains help quench and cool passersby. (Unless they’re marked “acqua non-potable,” almost all of Rome’s fountains have drinkable water.) Many of the drinking fountains are simple, graceful iron tubes with hook noses. But some are unique, like La Pigna (pinecone), in the Piazza San Marco just beside the Palazzo Venezia.
THE WORTHLESS BOAT
At the base of the Spanish Steps sits yet another Bernini charmer, La Barcaccia, built in 1627. It isn’t by Gian Lorenzo, however, but by his less-famous father, Pietro. The middle of the boat sculpture is submerged in water, while the bow and stern peek out. It’s a dramatic site, with the Spanish Steps towering above and the boat slowly sinking, water seeping through its cracks. Walk the plank to fill your bottle.
Anyone who loves Bernini’s fountains should take a trip to the Borghese Gallery. There you’ll find what may be the most expressive group of sculptures in the world, Bernini’s Daphne and Apollo, the Rape of Persephone and David. But those baroque masterpieces aren’t the only draw in the vast, manicured gardens; there are also fountains aplenty. The most famous is found on a path with the same name as the fountain, Cavalli Marini. Turn right to see a huge basin held up by life-sized snarling horses with giant fishtails instead of hind legs.
THE FOUR FOUNTAINS
The busy intersection of Via del Quirinale and Via Quattro Fontane doesn’t offer much room to stand, but the four fountains there, carved in the late 16th century, are worth investigating. Look in the recesses of each corner building for four reclining figures, and stone trees and flowers that seem to sprout right out of the walls. When the traffic gets to be a nuisance, you can decompress with a visit to Borromini’s lovely church, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, on the southwest corner.
THE POPOLO FOUNTAINS
In the Piazza del Popolo, Rome’s northern gateway, a group of lion fountains sit on plinths, like guardians of the city. Flanking the big oval piazza are grand neo-classical fountains that represent the four seasons and Neptune. Each is arresting, but taken as a whole, the scene is spectacular. Before hitting the fashionable shops of Via del Corso, stop in to see the Caravaggios at Santa Maria del Popolo, on the piazza’s northeast corner.
THE ACQUA PAOLA
A walk up the steep Janiculum Hill, on the west side of the Tiber, is worth it for the view alone. The giant fountain at the top has triumphal arches, a huge basin and volumes of cascading water. Turn around to see the whole city of Rome laid out before you.