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Speleo-archaeologists are updating miles of tunnels that make up 11 Roman aqueducts, including the Acqua Claudia seen here.
Patrick Landy/Creative Commons
The Most Beautiful Fountain In the World
May 22, 2012 -
Possibly the most famous, and often called the most beautiful, fountain in the world, Rome's Fontana di Trevi celebrates its 250th birthday today. Built under the patronage of three popes -- Clement XII, Benedict XIV and Clement XIII -- the splendid water display was officially unveiled on May 22, 1762 after 30 troubled years of work. Here's a look at the history of this magnificent meeting place of Rome.
Aqua Virgo Although it was completed in the 18th century, the history of the fountain has its roots in antiquity. It begins in 19 BC, when Roman general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (64/63-12 BC) built the Aqua Virgo, an underground 13-mile aqueduct to feed Rome's first public baths. Standing 85 feet high and 65 feet wide at the juncture of three roads, the fountain marks the terminal point of the Aqua Virgo.
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Reliefs Coming from a spring in the Alban hills east of Rome, the pure and cold Aqua Virgo (Virgin Water) was so named because a young girl pointed out the the hidden source to Agrippa's military engineers. The story is depicted in two relief carvings above the fountain. The one on the right shows the young girl pointing out the spring to Agrippa and his engineers; the other, on the left, portrays the architects kneeling in front of Agrippa with the plans for the aqueduct. Busy workers building the aqueduct can be seen in the background.
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Two Architects, Ten Sculptors, Dozens of Assistants Before it became a tourist hotspot, Rome's Piazza Trevi housed another fountain, a simple basin designed in 1453 by architect Leon Battista Alberti for Pope Nicholas V. In the mid-17th century Gian Lorenzo Bernini had this fountain destroyed in anticipation of remodeling the piazza and fountain into a grandiose monument. In fact, the work was stalled for nearly a century. Finally, Pope Clement XII sponsored a competition in 1732 for the fountain construction, which was won by architect Nicola Salvi. Construction of the new fountain against the façade of a palace took 30 years, between 1732 and 1762, using two architects (Salvi died when the fountain was half finished) ten sculptors, and dozens of assistants.
Neptune on a Shell A Baroque triumph, the fountain is dominated by a giant figure of the sea god Neptune on a seashell-shaped chariot. This is drawn by two sea horses and two Tritons (half-man, half-fish). One wild, the other tranquil, the horses represent the mood of the sea. Standing in niches, the statues of Abundance to the left, and Salubrity to the right oversee the scene. The water is made to fall over artificial rocks at the fountain travertine base. Emulating nature, the base features grottoes, rocks and carved representations of thirty plant species. This image is of Neptune flanked by the statues of Abundance and Salubrity. His chariot is pulled by two sea horses and Tritons.
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La Dolce Vita Thanks to the 1954 movie "Three Coins in the Fountain" with Clifton Webb and Dorothy McGuire, the fountain became one of the must-see sights of Rome. Swedish actress Anita Ekberg helped spread the fountain's fame when she took a famous moonlight dip there with Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini's 1960 film "La Dolce Vita." When Mastroianni died in 1996, the Trevi was hushed and draped in black as a tribute to his memory.
Throwing Coins Each day, thousands of tourists throw coins over their shoulders into the fountain. According to legend, this is the recipe for a prompt return to Rome. To make the wish come true, one must stand with the back to the fountain and throw the coin in over the left shoulder, using the right hand.
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Fishing Coins There are many cases of people who regularly attempt to fish coins out of the fountain. Trevi's most famous raider, Roberto Cercelletta, known as d'Artagnan, collected coins from the fountain for 34 years until he was caught in 2002.
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Cleaning Up The coins which are splashed daily into the Trevi fountain are regularly collected at night or early morning. The cleaning collects several thousand euros and is turned over to the religious organization Caritas to be used to aid the poor.
Blood Red Water The Trevi Fountain's waters turned blood red in 2007, when Graziano Cecchini, believed to be an artist from the Italian Futurist art movement, threw paint into the basin. The fountain suffered no damage, but the man was placed under investigation for allegedly damaging a historical and artistic building.
Armed with laser rangefinders, GPS technology and remote control robots, a group of speleologists is completing the first ever mapping of the aqueducts of ancient Rome on archaeology's "final frontier."
They abseil down access wells and clamber through crevices to access the 11 aqueducts that supplied Rome, which still run for hundreds of kilometers (miles) underground and along stunning viaducts. The mission of these "speleo-archaeologists" is to update the last above-ground map of the network compiled at the beginning of the 20th century by British Roman archaeologist Thomas Ashby. As he made his way through a perfectly preserved tunnel section of the Acqua Claudia on the grounds of a Franciscan convent in Vicovaro near Rome, Alfonso Diaz Boj said he was "proud" of the study.
"It combines what was the birth of archaeology as a science with the latest instruments available," said Diaz Boj, a member of Sotterranei di Roma (Underground Rome), in a hard hat and torch.
The pick marks of the Roman diggers can still be seen in the limestone of the tunnel completed in 38 AD under the Emperor Claudius and a lawyer of calcification about half a meter off the ground shows where the water level would have been.
"These aqueducts may not be as beautiful as a statue or like some architecture but I think they are important, they are very beautiful," he said.
The ancient waterways were true feats of engineering, which relied solely on gravity to ensure a flow of water can be seen across what was once the Roman Empire from Germany to North Africa.
Their strategic significance is underlined by the fact that Rome had a special magistrate to oversee their maintenance and that the Visigoths cut them off when they were laying siege to the city. The Acqua Claudia runs 87 kilometers (54 miles) from the Simbruini Mountains to the heart of Rome and supplied 2,200 liters of water a second.
Only one of the aqueducts is still operational today -- the Acqua Vergine -- which can be accessed in various hidden locations near Rome including a doorway near the Villa Medici that leads down a spiral staircase to the water. The Acqua Vergine runs for a total of 20 kilometers and ends up in the Trevi Fountain, photographed every day by crowds of tourists.
Speleo-archaeologists are updating miles of tunnels that make up 11 Roman aqueducts, including the Acqua Claudia seen here.Guido Baviera/Grand Tour/Corbis
The Acqua Vergine runs for a total of 20 kilometers and ends up in the Trevi Fountain, photographed every day by crowds of tourists.
"Underground Rome is a final frontier," said Riccardo Paolucci, another explorer, as he examined a viaduct in a valley near Vicovaro that carried the water further towards the city.
"Water was a fundamental service for hygiene. In a city like Rome, which had a million inhabitants, there were very few epidemics," he said.
"There was a concept of service for the people, for the city. It is a key concept that is maybe lacking not just in modern Rome but globally."
Diaz, Paolucci and the others from Sotterranei di Roma work together with Rome's archaeological authority, helping them understand what can be seen above the ground from what is underneath and inaccessible without specialist equipment.
"We are who we are because of what we have inside and Rome is what it is because of what is underneath it," said Paolucci, a specialist potholer who is also called to emergency incidents or whenever a sinkhole opens up in the city.
The group also organizes guided tours and courses, including one on the aqueducts starting next month, and are earning an international reputation. They were commissioned to map the underground remains of ancient Ephesus in Turkey.
Their study of the aqueducts is based on the map made by Ashby, director of the archaeological British School at Rome between 1906 and 1925.
Ashby's signature can be seen scrawled on the wall of a section of the Acqua Marcia aqueduct, which also transits through Vicovaro, alongside graffiti and poems dating back to the 17th century from visitors who stumbled on the ancient waterway.
"Ashby's maps were ahead of their time," Diaz said.
"He want to the villages, to the local trattorias, he spoke to farmers, to hunters. He found what he found thanks to local knowledge," he said.
"It is a technique that we still use today."