One summer morning a couple of years ago, a passerby took photos of three young women bathing in the Fontanone dell’Acqua Paola, the 17th-century fountain on the Janiculum Hill in a quiet part of Rome. Almost immediately the snapshots were posted on @TrastevereRM, the popular Twitter account that promotes the city’s cultural and artistic traditions. The commentary was indignant: “It’s very hot, but the Janiculum fountain should not be treated as a swimming pool by the tourists. Rome deserves more respect!” A few days later, this episode was reported in The Local, an English-language news agency specializing in domestic coverage. “Rome residents have reacted angrily after three tourists were snapped frolicking in one of their city’s historic fountains while wearing bikinis and swimsuits.” 1
By coincidence, that same week the Italian capital witnessed another event that put a spotlight on its historic fountains. To celebrate its 90th anniversary, the Italian fashion house Fendi staged the showing of its autumn and winter collection at the Trevi Fountain. Clad in dramatic garments of lace, organza, feathers, and fur, the models — led by Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid — paraded against the Baroque backdrop of violently twisting tritons, winged seahorses, and marble rocks on a plexiglass podium built over the receiving basin. The performance, titled “Legends and Fairytales” and conceived by Fendi’s creative director Karl Lagerfeld, was described by CNN as “a magical story of an enchanted forest populated by beautiful, otherworldly creatures.” In a similar vein, Harper’s Bazaar welcomed the “first-ever fashion show to take place at the Italian landmark.” 2 The reaction of local residents to fashion models sashaying across the 18th-century fountain has received no press.
Why were the tourists splashing in one fountain denounced as trespassers, while the models parading across another in haute couture were praised as a tribute to the artistic legacy of Italy? One could argue that the large pool in front of the Fontanone dell’Acqua Paola, added by Carlo Fontana in 1690, 3 was never intended for bathing; but nor was Nicola Salvi’s celebrated Baroque creation meant to accommodate a temporary catwalk. What enabled Fendi to lay claim to this unique venue was presumably its $2.4 million contribution to the fountain’s restoration. 4 But if money can go a long way in Italy, so does the cult of celebrity. Decades earlier the Trevi Fountain had been the setting for the iconic scene in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, in which Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni wade into the pool in evening dress; in this light Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid could be seen as following in the couple’s notorious footsteps.
The Fellini film and Fendi show underscore the uneasy relationship between historic fountains and their modern audiences in a culture built on blind veneration of its artistic past.
More than half a century separates the dreamlike monotony of Lagerfeld’s show from the syncopated rhythms of Fellini’s film. The robotic gliding of the reed-like models across the shimmering podium seems an unwitting inversion of the animated dance with which the voluptuous Ekberg, in a strapless black gown, entices the reluctant journalist, played by Mastroianni, to join her in the fountain after a night of partying. At first this act of transgression, the overcoming of cultural taboos — symbolized by the movement of running water — has a liberating effect on his character. Yet when the flow suddenly stops and the fountain goes silent at the break of dawn, the spell ends; the protagonists find themselves drained of emotion, slightly ridiculous and dripping wet, standing knee-deep among the Baroque carvings.
Together the Fendi show and Fellini film underscore the uneasy relationship between historic fountains and their modern audiences in a culture that to a large measure is built on blind veneration of its artistic past. Travel books, tourist websites, official notices, and heritage custodians — whose ranks include tour guides, museum guards, police officers, watchful residents — repeatedly warn us that the art is not to be approached too closely, let alone touched, even on hot summer days when cool running water is especially tantalizing. Such written or unwritten rules have a long history. The contemporary tourist will find them embedded in fountain design in the form of protective railings, inaccessible basins, and the ubiquitous signs that caution “acqua non potabile.” In this context, the only culturally sanctioned forms of engagement with water are such ritualistic gestures as throwing coins in the pool, which Karl Lagerfeld does at the close of the Fendi show. Anything less mediated would be seen as verging on vandalism.
Fountains have been among the top attractions of the Italian capital for so long that it can be hard to determine when they ceased to be viewed as public water utilities — and thus as markers of papal and private beneficence 5 — and came to be regarded as purely artistic works. Ubiquitous in the architecture and planning of Italian Renaissance and Baroque cities, fountains served as prestigious settings for sculptural masterpieces or as focal points for public squares and important vistas. Yet along with their monumental role in the urban fabric came uncertainty about their architectural status: were fountains utilitarian structures or mere ornaments? By the mid-20th century, this functional and aesthetic ambiguity was informing academic discourse. Were fountains works of sculpture or architecture? And which branch of art history should then concern itself with them?
The architectural status of fountains has long been uncertain: Are they utilitarian structures or mere ornaments?
In the end, sculpture historians, led by the American scholar Bertha H. Wiles, author of a pioneering study of fountain design, won the day. 6 It was therefore hardly surprising that the Italian theorist Bruno Zevi, less than two decades after Wiles’s influential book, would claim that fountains were not works of architecture because they lacked internal space. He illustrated his argument with the examples of the Fontana della Barcaccia by Bernini as well as other Roman landmarks such as the Arch of Titus, the Aqueduct of Claudius, the Column of Marcus Aurelius, the Pyramid of Cestius, and the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II. All these structures, in Zevi’s assessment, were to be classified as commemorative or infrastructural monuments rather than as architecture proper. 7 Thus marginalized from mainstream architectural scholarship, fountains also failed to claim the attention of urban historians. In his seminal book The City Assembled, Spiro Kostof made only casual reference to these structures. 8 And even theorists who sought to rethink architecture in phenomenological terms — including Joseph Rykwert, Dalibor Vesely, Anthony Vidler, and David Leatherbarrow — did not extend their purview to the design of fountains. 9
Whatever their place in the taxonomies of buildings, fountains are distinguished from other urban monuments by one essential element: water. 10 From the perspective of architecture history, this factor complicates both the design and experience of these structures; for it requires that the traditional cognitive scheme involving the object and the viewer be replaced by a more complex phenomenological triad consisting of architecture, water, and the body.
We can see this more complicated relationship in artistic representations of both garden and urban fountains over the centuries. In late 17th-century drawings of Roman gardens by Giovan Battista Falda and Giovan Francesco Venturini, we find figures who casually violate all the behavioral rules that confront modern tourists. They play with dogs, set up picnics, fish in ponds, and, if provoked, readily engage in violent brawls. In a scene at the Villa Mondragone at Frascati, four lads fight a water duel, pressing the fountain nozzles and aiming the jets at each other. On the grounds of the Villa Doria Pamphilj, outside Rome, an all-male bathing party is happily naked even as a gardener passing by — so unlike the modern paparazzo — chooses to ignore the group.
In drawings of urban fountains, the relationship between water and the body is portrayed with a similar immediacy. In 17th-century depictions of the fountains of Ponte Sisto and in the Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, the human figures are out of scale, dwarfed by colossal basins and steps that emphasize the monumentality of the structures. In these scenes people are bending down to drink from low spouts; women are carrying water in buckets or jugs suspended on a pole over a shoulder or borne by the head. Indeed, early modern fountain users could be found in various poses: leaning over to dip a bucket into a receiving basin, lifting and resting a jug on a stone edge to collect drinking water from a spout, or simply reaching out to catch a refreshing jet.
This need to accommodate a range of different actions had a direct impact on fountain architecture, which, in turn, choreographed the movement of those trying to access water. In the Fountain of Orion in Messina, designed by Giovan Angelo Montorsoli in the mid-16th century, the puzzling intricacy of the plan reveals a coherent division of spaces, a complexity not only aesthetic but also functional. Jets of drinking water flow from large urns held by four reclining river gods positioned above oblong basins; these receptacles serve both to collect runoff and to provide support for pitchers and jars. The central receiving basin is accessed by climbing three angled steps flanked by pedestals with sea monsters carved from dark stone; directly below these sculptures are small vessels used to water domestic animals. Within this complicated design, different actions — drawing water with a bucket, waiting to fill a jug, leading a harnessed horse to a trough — can all happen at once with no confusion or disturbance.
Montorsoli’s inclusion of watering facilities for animals suggests that the human body was not the only measure to which fountain design could be scaled. A mid 17th-century etching by Stefano della Bella shows a roadside basin elevated to the level of a horse’s head, so that riders could water their animals without leaving the saddle. Almost a century earlier, in his instructions for the Fountain of Neptune in Florence, Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici had stressed the need to offer access to water for both human and beast. 11 The fountain’s eventual design by Bartolomeo Ammannati is a more integrated version of Montorsoli’s scheme, with animal troughs in the form of scallop shells scooped out of the low steps that surround the polygonal basin, receiving runoff from the jets of drinking water.
Most activities associated with urban fountains were not gender specific, with the notable exception of laundry washing.
Most of the activities associated with urban fountains were not gender specific, with the notable exception of laundry washing. It would be hard to imagine early modern Italian cities without their industrious, often rough and rowdy washerwomen, whose vocation became synonymous with lowly social status. 12 Laundresses usually worked in designated areas, laboring alongside each other and fighting for better spots in a variety of spaces: the vaulted medieval fountains of Siena, vast semi-enclosures typified by the Fontana delle Novanta Nove Cannelle in Áquila, or cramped lavatoio — washhouses — some of which operated well into the 20th century. 13 Their technique was to soak the fabric in water with added soap or lye and then vigorously rub it against the flat edge of the receiving basin. As an old Tuscan proverb put it, “A bad washer-woman can never find the right stone surface,” referring to the rims typically inclined inwards to drain the runoff. 14
Just as works of architecture responded to gendered exercise, so too was the female body transformed by intensive physical labor and exposure to heat and cold, wet and dry, fluid and hard. In Renaissance paintings and books, laundresses, whose ranks included reformed prostitutes, were usually portrayed with bare legs and arms, large hands and red feet. This partial nudity, ungainly and provocative at the same time, was enough to inflame the desire of a lewd priest, as captured in an obscene joke by Leonardo da Vinci:
A woman was doing laundry and, because it was cold, had very red feet. A passing-by priest, struck by their color, asked whence it came; to which the woman replied that it was caused by the fire that she had beneath. The priest then put a hand on the bodily member that made him a priest rather than a nun and, moving closer to the washerwoman, begged in a sweet and humble voice to give him some of that fire to light up his candle. 15
Loud and raucous, washerwomen were part of a distinct fountain soundscape: a clatter of neighing horses, braying donkeys and mules, and people laboring, chattering, laughing, arguing. This cacophony often drowned out the sound of water itself, which was a highly appreciated acoustic experience in early modern Italy. The agitation that such commotion might provoke is suggested by the ordeal of the nuns of San Niccolò al Ceppo in Florence during the construction of an aqueduct in the mid 16th century. When the street in front of their convent (which is now the Accademia) turned into a temporary building site with a stream of running water, the area was quickly taken over by laundresses, servants, and silk dyers, who, together with the instruments of their trade — in the absence of a stone surface, fabric could be beaten with a stick — brought noise, confusion, and foul language. Accustomed to a regime of muted sound and quiet devotion, the nuns soon found themselves in an impossible situation, unable to attend mass, pray, or sleep. 16
From washerwomen to bikini-clad tourists, we can see that fountains were scaled not only to buildings and cities but also to bodily movements and sensations.
From the washerwomen to bikini-clad tourists, we can see that fountains were scaled not only to buildings and cities but also to the movements and sensations of bodies. 17 In this light it is worth remembering that the exclusion of bodily experience from the realm of architecture is a relatively recent phenomenon. In early 20th-century Italy, this tendency was reflected in the prevalent cultural attitudes of a country whose artistic heritage was perceived as a cornerstone of national unification. To the ruling Fascists, art was primarily a rational undertaking, comprehensible through sight and the intellect; aesthetic appreciation was reduced to a disembodied visual exercise. 18 Deprived of its sensory faculties, the body itself — notably that of Il Duce, Benito Mussolini — became a work of art. Strong and loud, a living symbol of overweening masculinity and ruthless political power, he famously addressed his supporters from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia, his expressions and gestures amplified through propagandistic photographs and documentaries. 19
In post-Mussolini Italy, when the laundresses were supplanted by launderettes, the female body was also abstracted and fetishized. As presented by the film, advertising, and fashion industries — the protagonists of the “golden age” of la dolce vita — it shimmered in erotic semi-nudity or designer couture, its presence on screens, billboards, and magazine covers striking an uneasy balance between glamorous aestheticism and Catholic morale. This denial of physicality and agency is betrayed by such telling details as the tight gown that Anita Ekberg wears as she plods through the Trevi Fountain, or the transparent podium that confines the movement of the models in the Fendi show. No wonder that the discovery of real, unmediated bodies splashing in the Fontanone dell’Acqua Paola — female and foreign, and therefore both exotic and alien, shocking in their near nudity and sensory appeal — was rationalized by the @TrastevereRM commentator not as a transgression of public norms but rather as an assault on the artistic legacy and historical traditions of Italy.
Whichever side in this deeply rooted cultural conflict we might take, it seems apt to conclude with an image of another body — middle-aged and male — paddling after dark in the waters of the very same fountain. On July 15, 1757, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the great Prussian art historian and the future keeper of the papal antiquities, wrote to a friend during a sweltering summer in Rome:
I am now learning to swim, for bathing is absolutely necessary here in the great heat, and the companion of whom I speak is my teacher. This happens an hour after sunset in the large basin of the Fontana Paolina, which is on the Aventine [sic], where at that time no one comes. My only affliction in Rome is that at times I can sleep neither at night nor during the day, although my lifestyle is quiet enough: this is the time now, and this is why I bathe. 20
Winckelmann was a foreigner, yet there seems little doubt that the unnamed, clandestine, and, as one suspects, erotic companion who taught him to swim was not a newcomer to the Eternal City. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Rather than showing ignorance or disrespect, the insomniac Winckelmann was presumably introduced to a common local practice.