The Trevi Fountain may be Italy’s most notorious—think of Audrey Hepburn washing her feet in its streams in Roman Holiday and Anita Ekberg’s sultry, evening wear-clad dip in La Dolce Vita—but, at least until Covid cleared the streets of tourists in the city centre, it was almost impossible to view unobstructed except in the single-digit morning hours. And besides, Rome is overflowing with more than 2,000 other fountains whose origins span the ancient to modern eras, underscoring the fundamental role that public water has played in shaping the city. From animal effigies sculpted in stone to storied troughs that gained new status (and looks) through the centuries, here are a few of our favorite places to make a splash.
Fountain of Ludus Magnus
Find it at: Ludus Magnus, Celio area
This rare triangular fountain is located inside the largest gladiatorial school in Rome, Ludus Magnus, where gladiators-in-training would practice, eat, and live while they awaited their battles in the nearby Colosseum. This is the last remaining fountain of an original four, a precious sculptural witness to the school’s ancient layout. You’ll likely encounter the Ludus Magnus en route to the Colosseum, but while in the Celio area you might want to double dip into one of Rome’s most excellent vintage shops, the Vecchia America, for wares that are (almost) as ancient and unique as the fountain itself.
Fontana delle Tartarughe (The Turtle Fountain)
Find it at: Piazza Mattei
Like most of the Italian Renaissance fonts, the Turtle Fountain was created to supply water to the city’s population. Unlike the others, though, this gem was designed by a trio of Italian legends: architect Giacomo della Porta (mastermind of the fountains in the Piazza del Popolo and La Fontana del Moro in the Piazza Navona), the sculptor Taddeo Landini (whose famous copy of Michelangelo’s Risen Christ resides in the church of Santo Spirito in Florence) and Renaissance visionary and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who contributed the bronze turtles around the upper basin in the 1650s. Although some misattribute the exquisitely detailed fountain to Raphael or Michaelangelo, we know one thing for sure: it is best enjoyed while sipping a glass of wine from Il Vinaietto, an enoteca once favored by the 1960s political counterculture, at the corner of Piazza Mattei.
Fontana delle Api (Fountain of the Bees)
Find it at: Piazza Barberini, city centre
While tourists flock to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s iconic Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, another of his luminous works lies slightly off the beaten path. Sculpted in 1644 and located in Piazza Barberini, the Fountain of the Bees is a diminutive marble masterpiece depicting a bi-valve shell with three bees carved into it. Commissioned by Pope Urban VIII Barberini, the fountain is a tribute to his family heraldic symbols and also an ode to apian industry, as the flow of water trills like the humming of bees, turning this fountain into a poetic sound sculpture best enjoyed early in the morning before the neighborhood’s own buzzing has begun.
Fontana della Pigna (Pine Cone Fountain)
Find it at: Vatican City
Known locally simply as Pigna, this monumental pine-cone-shaped fountain was cast out of bronze in the first or second century AD and originally stood near the Pantheon, where it spouted water from holes pierced through its scales. In its current home outside the doors of old St. Peter’s, the pine cone is flanked by two graceful bronze peacocks, copies of those decorating Emperor Hadrian’s tomb at Castel Sant’Angelo. Immortalized in verse by Dante in the Divine Comedy to describe the head of the giant Nimrod, builder of the tower of Babel, Pigna presides over the Belvedere courtyard en route to the Sistine Chapel, an area once used by popes to hold parties (and even a bullfight!) and where an outdoor cafe offers a good excuse to linger and size up this piece of ancient history.
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers)
Find it at: Piazza Navona
The Fountain of the Four Rivers is as monumental as it is controversial. Designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1651 for Pope Innocent X, the fountain depicts four river gods, each representing a major river of the four continents where the Pope had authority: the Nile for Africa, the Danube for Europe, the Ganges for Asia, and the Río de la Plata for the Americas. But this fountain was more than just a devotional monument; it may be one of the only examples of a sculptural clapback. The Río de la Plata is depicted covering his face from what seems like a snake. Certain imaginative art historians believe he may have been shielding himself from another perceived horror: the nearby church of Sant’Agnese, designed by Bernini’s artistic rival Francesco Borromini. The story is more fiction than fact; the fountain was completed a few years before Borromini even began to work on his church. During the day the square is typically filled with caricature painters and milling groups, so it’s best to admire it at night, when the splashing blue water and submerged coins sparkle with light.
Il Babuino (Babuino Fountain)
Find it at: Via del Babuino
In another example of statue as commentary, the Babuino Fountain is known as one of the six “talking statues” of Rome. These statues were used as a form of political discourse: residents posted little poems or witticisms on top of them as a way to anonymously express dissent. (Consider it the Twitter of 1581.) Years down the road, residents still used Il Babunio for political commentary, but with an updated medium: graffiti became the tool of choice before the mayor had to intervene and restore the statue to its original glory. While the fountain officially depicts a homely Silenus (a mythological half-man, half-goat), his “ugly” features won him the nickname of “babuino,” or baboon, and a street, Via del Babuino, was named for him. Find Il Babuino today in the middle of Rome’s busy shopping district, muted from political discourse for now, but an eternal testament to the conversation.
The Fontana dell’Acqua Paola
Find it at: Janiculum Hill
Away from the city centre on Janiculum Hill sits the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola (also known as Il Fontanone, “the big fountain”). This behemoth was commissioned by Pope Paul V to create a source of clean water for the residents of the Janiculum Hill, in lieu of drinking from the polluted Tiber. Built in 1612 by a Dominican friar and late-Mannerist architect Giovanni Fontana, the fountain is in itself a must-see. However, the Janiculum Hill view of the entire city is simply stunning. End your day here in the best way possible: at sunset, refracted by the pastel hues of Italy’s eternal city.
Sofia Gallarate is an editor, writer and creative strategist based in Rome. From contemporary art to digital culture, her work and writing span an array of topics belonging to our forever shifting cultural landscape. She works as the creative strategist of Screen Shot Media, Associate Editor of CURA. Magazine, and is a writer for the Spanish theatre company VVAA.