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Rome's Original Jet Set

The Waters of Rome: Aqueducts, Fountains, and the Birth of the Baroque City

As you wander around Rome, awed by traces of ancient grandeur and Baroque power, the fountains provide welcome relief from hot vistas of brick and stone. They squirt, splash, spill, cool and chatter in the sun, the focus of many a piazza. But they are far more than just imposing or pretty landmarks. They are the overt expression of a huge and extremely ingenious network of underground pipes and conduits, magnificent Baroque mushrooms appearing above an unseen mycelium. Katherine Wentworth Rinne’s book sets out to examine all ‘the mechanisms − technological, social, aesthetic, political, economic and intellectual − that allowed [the] transformative waters to flow into Rome’.

The great network was partly based on the 11 ancient aqueducts, but these had been largely destroyed or damaged by the Goths in their sack of the city in AD 537 and subsequently they had been much neglected. Notwithstanding repairs to the imperial system by popes Gregory I and Hadrian I in the seventh and eighth centuries, Rome’s population shrank to little more than that of a large village for a long time; lack of adequate clean water was a major cause of decline. Yet by the Counter Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, Rome had expanded into being one of the largest cities in Europe and it was in desperate need of clean water. The reigning pope was responsible as the absolute monarch from whom power trickled down from high to low, like water in the great network. As Rinne remarks, ‘water was coin, literally a liquid currency’.

Pope Pius V, who reigned between 1566 and 1572, is one of Rinne’s heroes for extending the Catholic reforming zeal of the Council of Trent to the fabric of the city. During his reign, the Acqua Vergine, the first new aqueduct of Counter Reformation Rome, was completed in 1570 with fountains by Giacomo della Porta − prototypes of the great Baroque extravaganzas of Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his contemporaries. Sixtus V, a late 16th-century successor who did more in his short reign than most of his predecessors (and successors) to make Rome into a magnificent manifesto for the Counter Reformation, the Renovatio Romae, was devoted to easing the city’s congestion and improving water delivery. He cut axes through the urban tissue between the great pilgrimage churches. Under these new roads ran water mains that served properties on each side and the fountains in paved piazze that terminated the grand streets.

In general, the distribution system worked according to a standard pattern: water was conveyed from springs in the surrounding hills along the aqueducts, their gentle gradients established with the precision of ancient measures. Each of these artificial streams terminated in a castello, a distribution basin from which pipes buried under the streets took supplies to public and private fountains. Of course, aristocrats and cardinals had first choice and the largest rations, but the whole population had access to fresh(ish) water in one way or another, even if it was merely run-off from a rich family’s fountain further up the hill. Castelli were situated both overground and underground, depending on local topography.

To a limited degree, water could be led up hill by siphonage or, for rich customers, it could be pumped to higher levels by mechanisms powered by the flow in the mains below. At the other end of the social scale, the poor could collect water in jugs and buckets from the basins of formal public fountains or from small dribbling public outlets in the outer walls of palaces.

Fountains were much more than decorative urban flourishes; their water was used for cooking and cleaning, for refreshing animals and humans, for cultivating flower gardens and vegetable plots, and for public and private laundry works. It was also used for cleaning the streets, for without much of a rubbish removal organisation, the city relied on rain and run-off to sweep accumulated muck straight into the Tiber or into great sewers such as the Cloaca Maxima, which had fed into the river since ancient times. The Tiber remained the city’s dump well into the 19th century and was recipient of all kinds of rubbish (including the murdered and mutilated body of Juan Borgia, a son of Pope Alexander VI − one of an army of corpses chucked into the Tiber since ancient times).

By the beginning of the 17th century, it became clear that parts of the city to the west of the river − Trastevere and the Janiculum Hill − were seriously under-watered, and provision of a better supply would allow population and industry to grow. A small ancient supply served the Vatican, but a wholly new aqueduct was needed to satisfy Pope Paul V’s ambition for ensuring that the Vatican Gardens would remain lush throughout the year and the fountains in the Piazza San Pietro would never run out of pressure; together, these took about a third of the water provided by a new aqueduct, the Acqua Paola, with the remainder going to meet more quotidian needs of less exalted folk.

Rinne examines many such schemes with love and much attention to detail: she has literally walked down and analysed every street in the walled city. She writes fluently, but with a whiff of the lecture theatre of the ‘as we have seen’ variety. I could have done with a bit more on the technology of the pipework. How for instance did the engineers and architects ensure that water under pressure could be supplied through mains made up of quite short earthenware pots without massive leakage?

But, as never before, The Waters of Rome reveals the arteries and guts of the Eternal City and the way in which they form the basis of the marvellous urban artefact built above them on the seven hills.

The Waters of Rome: Aqueducts, Fountains, and the Birth of the Baroque City

Author: Katherine Wentworth Rinne

Publisher: Yale University Press

Price: £35

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