Rome’s Trevi Fountain: Understanding the Rituals
No trip to Rome would be complete without the ritualistic act of throwing a coin into the vivid blue water of the city’s most exuberant fountain, the Fontana di Trevi. Doing so is said to ensure your return to Rome, and it certainly seems to have worked for me so far. But where did this appealing tradition come from? What are the origins of Rome’s most romantic landmark?
Amazingly, there has been a fountain on the same site since the 15th century, though the original fountain was a far simpler affair. In 1732 work began on a new fountain, designed by the architect and poet Niccolo Salvi, who was little known at the time but had won the commission, in a competition instigated by Clement XII, against a number of far more famous architects, one of whom was the great Bernini. While the Spanish Steps, begun at the same time, took just three years to build, the Trevi Fountain wasn’t finished until 1762 – by which time its unfortunate architect had sadly perished.
Its waters spring from the famous Roman aqueduct, the Aqua Virgo, which was built by Marcus Agrippa in 19BC to bring water from a source around fourteen miles away to supply his public baths. It’s a wonderful example of continuity with ancient Rome, and the same aqueduct also supplies the Piazza Navona, Piazza di Spagna and Piazza Farnese fountains.
So where did this superstition about throwing coins in come from? Interestingly, it’s not until the 19th century that there are references to any such traditions, and the earliest known instance actually describes a slightly different ritual. In 1860, Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Marble Faun, a large part of which was set in Rome and observed the lives of some of the artists and sculptors inhabiting the city at that time. One of the story’s protagonists is seen drinking the water of the Trevi Fountain to ensure her return to Rome:
“I shall sip as much of this water as the hollow of my hand will hold,” said Miriam. “I am leaving Rome in a few days; and the tradition goes, that a parting draught at the Fountain of Trevi ensures the traveller’s return, whatever obstacles and improbabilities may seem to beset him.”
If it was indeed a tradition by the time Hawthorne wrote this, then there’s no telling how long it had been around; people had been travelling to Rome for many centuries by that time. Judging by subsequent travel guides, such as the 8th edition of Baedeker published in 1883, the tradition seems gradually to have incorporated the throwing of a coin in addition to drinking the water, and in 1892, S. Russell Forbes described in his Rambles in Rome how this ritual ought to take place on the last day of one’s visit, and that the coin thrown should be a halfpenny, over the left shoulder.
So it would seem that the exact origins of this ritual will remain a mystery, and perhaps it is more charming that way. I would argue that it says a lot about Rome that such a tradition exists. I’m unaware of similar customs in any of Europe’s other great capitals, and to me this suggests that travellers are so deeply captivated by this extraordinary city that they are quite willing to partake in such dubious superstitions if it gives them hope that they’ll come back. Writing about the Trevi Fountain in the 1950s, the celebrated travel writer H.V. Morton observed:
“It is the singular charm of Rome that, turning a corner, one comes suddenly face to face with something beautiful and unexpected which was placed there centuries ago, apparently in the most casual fashion. Rome is a city of magic round the corner, of masterpieces dumped, as it were, by the wayside, which lends to the shortest walk the excitement of a treasure hunt.”
While I believe this statement is true of any of Rome’s monuments, it’s the perfect summary of the spellbinding allure of the Trevi Fountain; and it’s why I’ll be throwing in my coins for decades to come.
Rachel McCombie is the Rome editor for Wandering Educators. She is an Oxford University archaeology graduate with a passion for Rome, and you can see more of her writing on her blog, Rachel's Rome Writings. You can also follow her on Twitter @RachelsWritings.
All photos courtesy and copyright Rachel McCombie