The Trevi Fountain: Inside the History of Rome’s Iconic Tourist Site

One of the most famous tourist sites in Rome is the Trevi Fountain. It contains masterful sculpture work and depictions of mythological figures.

Jun 25, 2024By Elizabeth Berry, BA English, Italian, & Writing Seminars

trevi fountain history rome

Rome’s Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi) was constructed between 1732 and 1762 and it remains one of Italy’s most iconic sights to see. This fountain sits in a popular tourist area in Rome, and the site has been featured in popular culture many times, including Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita. Connected to an ancient Roman aqueduct, the Trevi’s impressive sculpture work contains depictions of mythological deities and figures relating to water and the fertility of the Earth.


The Construction of the Trevi Fountain: History and Sculptors

The Trevi Fountain in 2006, photograph by Vyacheslav Argenberg. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Let’s take a closer look at the sculptures featured in this well-known fountain and discover the rich symbolism and history behind them. Though the construction of the Trevi Fountain did not begin until 1732, it existed as an idea long before that. Potential renovations for a fountain in the piazza were considered as early as the 1620s, and designs were created over the years by famed Italian artists Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Pietro da Cortona. Though the fountain did not end up being built until a century later, Bernini and Da Cortona’s blueprints proved highly influential in the eventual appearance of the Trevi Fountain.


In 1730, Pope Clement XII held a contest to decide which architect would win a commission for the Trevi Fountain. Though Alessandro Galilei, a family member of Galileo Galilei, won the initial contest, the project ended up being awarded to architect Nicola Salvi after the public expressed that they wanted a Roman to build the fountain. The fountain was built at the intersection of three of Rome’s streets: Via Delle Murate, Via Poli, and Via De’Crocicchi.


Fountain of Trevi, Rome by Giovanni Paolo Pannini, 18th century. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston


Head architect Nicola Salvi worked on the Trevi Fountain for many years until he died in 1751, at which point additional people were hired to complete the project. Following Salvi’s design, Giuseppe Pannini took over as the architect, while sculptors Pietro Bracci, Filippo della Valle, Andrea Bergondi, and Giovanni Grossi finished the ornamental elements of the fountain. Famed Italian painter Giovanni Paolo Pannini, father of architect Giuseppe Pannini, painted Fountain of Trevi, Rome in the 18th century after his son’s work.

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The Aqua Virgo: The Trevi’s Ancient Water Source

Details of the Aqua Virgo aqueduct. Source: Cultural Heritage Online


An important aspect of the Trevi Fountain is its close connection to Rome’s aqueducts. The fountain’s water supply comes from the Aqua Virgo or Virgin aqueduct, an ancient Roman aqueduct that is still in use today. The Aqua Virgo’s water travels 14 miles in a series of underground tunnels to the heart of Rome, where it supplies the Trevi. The theme of the sculpture work on the fountain centers on its water source and the ancient sentiments surrounding the Aqua Virgo.


Agrippa Approves the Design of the Aqueduct, relief from Trevi Fountain by G.B. Grossi. Source: Walks in Rome


Many of the designs on the Trevi Fountain reference this connection with the aqueducts directly. This relief from the fountain depicts the Roman general and architect Agrippa approving the design of the aqueduct, an important moment in the history of the fountain’s water source. The first project for which the aqueduct provided water was centuries before the Trevi, in 19 B.C., when it supplied the public baths at the Pantheon in Rome.



Oceanus by Pietro Bracci, 1762. Source: Flickr


The most prominent figure in the Trevi Fountain is Oceanus, who stands tall in the center on his chariot. Oceanus was a Greek Titan and god of the sea. Because the Trevi is in Rome, many confuse this sculpture of Oceanus with Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. Instead, the designers chose to depict this older Titan figure with Roman styling—an unconventional choice.


The Right Triton on the Trevi Fountain in 2009, photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Oceanus’ chariot is led by two sea horses and two tritons, which were demigods of the sea with a man’s head and a fish’s tail. These sculptures, along with the large sculpture of Oceanus, are the work of Pietro Bracci, an Italian baroque sculptor. These smaller figures are important for identifying the central figure as Oceanus since he is usually accompanied by tritons and sea horses, whereas Neptune typically has a trident and a dolphin with him.


Statue of Abundance

Abundance by Filippo della Valle, c. 1751-1762. Source: Wikimedia Commons


On either side of the central Oceanus figure on the Trevi Fountain, there are two feminine figures representing the changing tides of the sea. To the left of Oceanus, there is the statue of Abundance, carved by Florentine sculptor Filippo della Valle. This sculpture features a large basket of fruit as well as a toppled jug at the figure’s feet, representing the abundance of water available from the fountain’s aqueduct source.


Statue of Health

Health by Filippo della Valle, c. 1751-1762. Source: Wikimedia Commons


On the right side of Oceanus, there is the statue of Health, also created by sculptor Filippo della Valle. This figure holds a cup, from which a snake drinks, and represents the good quality of the water brought by the aqueduct. These two feminine figures on either side of Oceanus provide a symmetrical balance to the overall fountain and further enforce the thematic element of mythological blessing surrounding the Aqua Virgo water source.


The Ace of Cups: Salvi’s Feud With a Barbershop

Ace of Cups by Nicola Salvi, c.1751. Source: Cirpac Travel


An element of the fountain with a unique history behind it is the Ace of Cups, constructed around 1751 by Nicola Salvi. The Ace of Cups, or the asso di coppe as it was called by the Romans, is a large vase positioned on the right side of the fountain. This was one of the last elements constructed by Nicola Salvi before his death, and it was named because of its resemblance to a symbol on a tarot card. As the legend goes, Salvi was unhappy with a barber whose business was on the square, as he gave him a lot of trouble regarding the construction of the fountain. As a final act of petty revenge, the architect constructed the Ace of Cups to permanently block the barbershop’s sign.


Smaller Statues Symbolizing the Fertility of the Earth

Statues Symbolizing the Fertility of the Earth, c.1751. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Near the top of the Trevi Fountain, there are four more figures: the statue of Abundance of Fruit, the statue of Fertility of Crops, the statue of Products of Autumn, and the statue of the Joy of the Gardens. All of these figures represent a different type of abundance brought by the fountain and its water source, further highlighting the Trevi’s greater theme. They each hold an item signifying their identity: a horn of plenty, ears of wheat, a cup with grapes, and a basket and crown of flowers. The four feminine figures, spaced out atop the fountain, mirror the symmetry brought by the statues of Health and Abundance down below.


The Papal Coat of Arms Atop the Trevi Fountain

The Papal Coat of Arms atop the Trevi Fountain. Source: Walks in Rome


Located at the very top of the Trevi Fountain is the Papal Coat of Arms. This is the coat of arms of Pope Clement XII, who commissioned the construction of the fountain and first held the contest to determine the architect. The baroque grandeur of the fountain is a reflection of his papacy, as he presided over a large influx of money and thus was able to allocate funding to projects like the Trevi Fountain.


Though Pope Clement XII died in 1740 before the fountain was completed, he is honored to this day through this coat of arms atop this famous landmark. His successor Pope Clement XIII held the inauguration of the fountain in 1762, and the Trevi has since become a beloved historical site as well as an iconic location in films and media.

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By Elizabeth BerryBA English, Italian, & Writing SeminarsElizabeth Berry is a writer from Los Angeles, California. She holds a BA in English, Italian, and Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University, and is working towards her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews. In her spare time, she writes articles about Italian art, culture, and literature. She loves golden retrievers, the color fuchsia, and kayaking.