The parish church of S. Maria a Trevi is the "official" subject
of the plate, but its real focus is on Fontana di Trevi which was not yet fully completed in 1756 when Giuseppe Vasi
engraved this etching. The marble statues at the centre of the fountain were made in 1759-1762, but Vasi had an idea of their appearance because they were based on 1738 gypsum models by Giovanni Battista Maini.
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map here below (more or less from the steps of SS. Vincenzo e Anastasio). In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Fontana di Trevi; 2) Palazzo Conti; 3) S. Maria a Trevi; 4) Street leading to Convento dei Padri Cappuccini. The small map shows also 5) Oratorio del SS. Sacramento; 6) S. Maria in Via; 7) SS. Vincenzo e Anastasio.
The view in May 2009
It is not possible to see S. Maria a Trevi from the point chosen by Vasi for his view and it was so in 1756 too. In order to see the church it is necessary to move to a more central position. Apart from some modifications to buildings on the eastern side of the square, no major changes have occurred and Fontana di Trevi continues to be a surprise for those who reach it by walking through a maze of narrow streets.
|poi tutto d'un colpo te trovi|
Fontana de Trevi tutta pe' te!
(Arrivederci Roma by R. Rascel)
(then out of a sudden you find yourself
at Fontana di Trevi which is waiting for you)
A series of projects to enlarge the square and open a large street opposite the fountain were developed in the 1810s, 1870s and 1920s, but they were never implemented.
(left) S. Maria a Trevi; (right) detail of the portal and of the inscriptions with the coat of
arms of Pope Alexander VII which was added in 1667
S. Maria a Trevi (or in Trivio) is one of the oldest churches of Rome; according to tradition it was founded by Belisarius, the Byzantine general who conquered Rome twice in the VIth century. According to an XIth century inscription on the side wall of the church he did so to expiate his wrongdoings.
Inscription on the side wall
The church was known as S. Maria in Fornica because it was built by incorporating some arches (Lat. fornices) of an ancient Roman aqueduct. It must have been at a lower level than the current church which was built for the 1575 Jubilee Year by Jacopo del Duca during the pontificate of Pope Gregory XIII. It became known as S. Maria a Trevi because it stood at a trivio, a junction where three streets met: one coming from Piazza di Trevi, the fountain square, one leading to Via del Tritone (near Oratorio del SS. Sacramento) and one leading towards Piazza Colonna. Eventually the name of the junction was used to indicate the whole neighbourhood (Rione Trevi).
Detail of the ceiling by Antonio Gherardi - 1667-1669
The church belonged to the Betlemitani or Crociferi (Cross-bearers), a military order founded at Betlehem in the XIIth century to care for the sick. The Order was dissolved in 1656 by Pope Alexander VII who assigned the church to Ministri degli Infermi, an order founded by St. Camillus de Lellis in 1586.The new owners of the church promoted its decoration with a fine ceiling which you can see in its entirety in a page covering this topic.
Without the usual crowds the view of Fontana di Trevi conveyed a feeling of sadness, but was more consistent with accounts which were written before it became a tourist attraction.
The moon shone clearly over Rome, which, in the silence of night, looks lovely, as if it were inhabited but by the spirits of the great. Corinne, on her way from the house of a female friend, left her carriage, and, oppressed with grief, seated herself beside the fount of Trevi, whose abundant cascade falls in the centre of Rome. (..) In other cities it is the roll of carriages that the ear requires, in Rome it is the murmur of this immense fountain, which seems the indispensable accompaniment of the dreamy life led there. Its water is so pure, that it has for many ages been named the Virgin Spring. The form of Corinne was now reflected on its surface. Oswald, who had paused there at the same moment, beheld the enchanting countenance of his love thus mirrored in the wave: at first it affected him so strangely that he believed himself gazing on her phantom, as his imagination had often conjured up that of his father: he leaned forward, in order to see it more plainly, and his own features appeared beside those of Corinne. She recognised them, shrieked, rushed towards him, and seized his arm.
Madame de Stael - Corinne or Italy - 1833 English edition
Fontana di Trevi (aka Mostra dell'Acqua Vergine)
The Fontana di Trevi is not without marginal Rococo
features such as the large rocaille shell of Neptune, but Salvi's architecture is remarkably
classical. Taking up an idea of Pietro da Cortona, who had first thought of combining
palace front and fountain, Salvi had the courage and vision to wed the classical
triumphal arch with its allegorical and mythological figures to the palace front. It was
he, too, who filled the larger part of the square with natural rock formations bathed by
the gushing waters of the fountain. The Rococo features in the Fontana Trevi are entirely
subordinated to a strong Late Baroque classical design.
Rudolf Wittkower - Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 Penguin Books 1958
In the late XVth century the Piazza di Trevi became the terminal point of Acqua Vergine, an ancient Roman aqueduct which was built by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (Emperor Augustus' son-in-law) to supply water to the baths named after him. The aqueduct lay underground for most of its length: it came to the surface near Collegio del Nazzareno where some of its arches are still visible. It was restored by Pope Nicholas V in 1453 and again in the following century. It ended with a large plain basin designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for Pope Urban VIII.
The several streams and jets are united, and, forming a fine cascade, flow over into a spacious basin, which is below the level of the piazza. This is the scene of the moonlight interview between Corinna and Oswald; (..) and, to this day, whenever the moon has touched the trembling waters with her silver rod, the mind's eye sees the shadows of the lovers resting upon the stream.
George Stillman Hillard - Six Months in Italy in 1847-1848
Several popes considered the idea of building a monumental fountain similar to those of Acqua Felice and Acqua Paola in the existing basin, but little was done until Cardinal Michelangelo Conti was elected Pope Innocent XIII in 1721. His family owned the palace behind the basin and the construction of a fountain was regarded as an addition to its importance. The Conti were Dukes of Poli and the palace is usually referred to as Palazzo Poli. Pope Innocent XIII passed away after just two years.
Pope Benedict XIII, his successor, wanted to dedicate the fountain to the Virgin Mary, but because of lack of resources the project was shelved until 1730 when it was resumed by Pope Clement XII whose gigantic coat of arms by Paolo Benaglia is placed at the top of the fountain (Benaglia designed another coat of arms of the Pope at Palazzo della Consulta).
The Fontana di Trevi is in the heart of Rome. A mass of rocks is tumbled together at the base of the facade of an immense palace. In a large niche, in the centre of the facade, is a statue of Neptune in his car, the horses of which, with their attendant tritons, are pawing and sprawling among the rocks. On either side of Neptune, in a smaller niche, is an allegorical statue, and above the head of each of the statues is a bas-relief. All this is in bad taste, an incongruous blending of fact and fable, chilled by the coldest of allegories; but it sounds worse in description than it looks to the eye. Hillard
Pope Clement XII was personally involved in choosing the design of the fountain and its decoration; it is interesting to note that the project by Nicola Salvi that he endorsed is totally free of religious connotations; the main statue portrays Oceanus, but only those very familiar with traditional iconography can tell that it does not portray Neptune, the pagan God of Sea (the former does not hold a trident, while the latter is usually, but not always, portrayed with it). The Pope reintroduced the game of lotto to finance the construction of the fountain.
The water gushes up in sparkling and copious masses from the crevices between the rocks, spouts from the nostrils of the horses and the conchs of the tritons, and gives to the whole scene its own dancing and glittering beauty. The figures, human and animal, seem to be no more than men and horses enjoying their bath, and having a frolic at the same time. As we look, we begin with criticism, but we end with admiration. Hillard
The overall design of the fountain resembles that of a Roman triumphal arch, in particular of Arco di Costantino, the restoration of which was promoted by Pope Clement XII. The reference to ancient Rome was emphasized by the two tritons acting as horse tamers. They are evocative of Castor and Pollux, the twin demigods who protected the Romans. Castor in particular was known as a horse tamer: Castor, skill'd to guide the rapid horse - Francis Fawkes, The Argonautics of Apollonius Rhodius (1780) - Book I
You may wish to see their statues as horse tamers at Piazza del Quirinale.
Triton blowing into a conch shell by Pietro Bracci, which brings to mind Fontana del Tritone by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (another image of this triton can be seen in that used as background for this page and from a different angle in the historical section)
Nicola Salvi had to face a major difficulty when he designed the project for the fountain. The water of Acqua Vergine ran just above the ground level. In 1627 at Piazza di Spagna Pietro Bernini, the father of Gian Lorenzo, placed Fontana della Barcaccia, which was supplied by Acqua Vergine, in the lowest possible position. Salvi greatly emphasized the decoration of the lower part of the fountain in order to attract the attention of the viewer to that. The arch does not house water spouts.
Pietro Bracci was the most skilled sculptor of his time, but he did not have the charisma of Michelangelo or Bernini. He generally worked on statues for funerary monuments which were designed by someone else (see his Monument to Cardinal Renato Imperiali). Oceanus stands on a precarious balance as if he were dancing a minuet. His torso shows the familiarity Bracci had with ancient sculptures (which he often restored), but the head lacks energy.
The four statues at the top of the fountain were completed by 1735.
At that time Pope Clement XII was almost entirely blind and he did not notice that the sculptors had portrayed women in déshabillé, something which was very much in line with the rather frivolous XVIIIth century society, but not with the traditional view of the Roman Church on nudity.
Pope Benedict XIV and Pope Clement XIII, his successors, made sure that the statues which were added during their pontificates portrayed fully clothed women.
One of the two reliefs portrays a young woman indicating the spring to thirsty soldiers: it explains the traditional name (Aqua Virgo/Acqua Vergine) given to the water carried by the aqueduct.
Actually Acqua Vergine was not a major Roman aqueduct because its source was not very far from the city and its construction did not require the imposing arches which are shown in the other relief (you may wish to see a 1911 map of the environs of Rome showing the source of the spring to the north of Via Prenestina).
In 1999 an ancient cistern where the aqueduct water was stored was found behind SS. Vincenzo e Anastasio.
(left/centre) Plants by Francesco Pincellotti and Giusppe Poddi; (right) coat of arms of Monsignor Giancostanzo Caracciolo di Santobono
The formal inauguration of Fontana di Trevi took place in 1762. Pope Benedict XIV rewarded in an unusual way
Monsignor Giancostanzo Caracciolo di Santobono who was in charge of the completion of the fountain:
he allowed him to have his coat of arms placed among the rocks on
the right side of the fountain.
(In the XVIIIth century) foreigners streamed to Rome in greater numbers than ever before, and artists from all over Europe were still magically drawn to the Eternal City. But the character of these pilgrimages slowly changed. Artists no longer came attracted by the lure of splendid opportunities as in the days of Bernini and Cortona; more and more they came only to study antiquity at the fountain-head. Wittkower
The new fountain was considered an example of bad taste for a long time, but gradually, as testified to by Hillard's account, it became a landmark of Rome.
Fifty swallowed palmfuls of the Fountain of Trevi could n't make us more ardently sure that we shall at any cost come back. This is the closing sentence of Henry James' account of his 1873 visit to Rome (you may wish to read some excerpts from that account).
Today tossing a coin into the fountain has replaced drinking its water. It is not allowed to imitate Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini's La Dolce Vita (it opens in another window).
(left) S. Maria in Via; (centre) detail of the altar; (right) coat of arms of Cardinal Patrick Joseph Hayes, Archbishop of New York in 1919-1938
The church is very old and most likely owes its name to the fact that it was near the urban section of ancient Via Flaminia which later on was called Via del Corso. The current building is the result of a series of additions and modifications which started in 1576 and ended more than a century later with a new façade designed by Carlo Rainaldi. The interior was poorly modified in the XIXth century, leaving only a few elements of the original decoration. American visitors may be interested in observing the complex coat of arms of Cardinal Patrick Joseph Hayes: he was of very humble Irish origin and he probably exceeded in the use of symbols when he designed his own coat of arms (the three shamrocks are a symbol of Ireland).
(left) Banner with the sacred image worshipped in the church; (right) relief on the wall of the adjoining building
The fame of the church is associated with an event which occurred in 1256 when a nearby well overflowed; the water carried with it a sacred image. It was called Madonna del Pozzo (well) and it was placed in a chapel of S. Maria in Via. The event is celebrated in a relief placed on an adjoining small palace which was bequeathed to Confraternita del SS. Sacramento, a brotherhood, by Mons. Giovanni Battista Canobi, secretary to Pope Gregory XIII. The revenue from the building had to be used for pro maritandis puellis, i.e. for providing poor girls with a dowry so that they could marry.
(left) Oratorio del SS. Sacramento; (right) detail of its ceiling
Confraternita del SS. Sacramento received so many donations that in 1727 its members decided to build a small church for their ceremonies. The façade was designed by Domenico Gregorini between two identical small buildings which in addition to facilities for the brotherhood, had some apartments for rent. The interior of the church was redesigned in the XIXth century.
In 1883-1889 the enlargement of Via del Tritone, the street linking Piazza Colonna with Piazza Barberini, led to pulling down the building to the right of the church.
Next plate in Book 6: S. Lorenzo in Lucina.
Next step in Day 3 itinerary: Chiesa dei SS. Vincenzo e Anastasio a Trevi.
Next step in your tour of Rione Trevi: Chiesa dei SS. Andrea e Claudio dei Borgognoni.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Molto celebre è la sorgente dell'acqua di questo fonte, poichè essendo stata da una donzella insegnata
ai soldati Romani, che ne andavano in cerca, le diedero il nome di acqua vergine, la quale poi per le
ottime sue qualità fu condotta con somma magnificenza a Roma da Marco Agrippa cognato di
Ottaviano Augusto. Il suo fonte, o per dir meglio, emissario non fu già, ove ora lo vediamo, ma
presso alle terme di quel gran Cittadino Romano. Ma poi rovinati per la vecchiezza i suoi condotti,
Niccolò V. fu il primo, che la restituisse in Roma, e qui facesse il fonte, e
finalmente il Pontefice Clem. XII. con immensa spesa riattati i condotti, fecevi il gran prospetto
con disegno di Niccolò Salvi Romano; ora compito colle statue, e bassirilievi di marmo dal regnante
Sommo Pontefice. La statua di mezzo, e i tritoni co' cavalli marini sono di Pietro Bracci; le due
statue laterali di Filippo Valle, il bassorilievo a destra di Andrea Bergondi, e quello a sinistra di