Pietro and Gianlorenzo Bernini's Fontana della Barcaccia by Mary Elizabeth Podles

A Thousand Words

Pietro and Gianlorenzo Bernini's Fontana della Barcaccia

by Mary Elizabeth Podles

The Barcaccia fountain, at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome's Piazza di Spagna, is best known as a bustling urban meeting place for young people. It was not always this way. We would hardly recognize the city of Rome in the sixteenth century. In 1570, Pope Nicholas V conceived a plan to put a fountain of potable water in every open space in Rome. In 1598, a disastrous flood brought far too much water here from a nearby bend in the Tiber River; the waters rose so high that a cargo boat was beached at this spot. Thus was born the idea for the Barcaccia, literally the "Big Old Boat" fountain.

Continuing Nicholas's clean water initiative, in 1623 Pope Urban VIII undertook renovations to the Roman aqueduct called the Acqua Vergine. Originally built in 19 b.c., the aqueduct was repaired by Nicholas, and its range was extended by further renovations made under Urban. It feeds the Barcaccia, and, to this day, its waters are drinkable. Unfortunately, the Barcaccia's piazza is very near one of the aqueduct's distribution tanks, so that the water pressure is very low and rules out the more spectacular jets possible to fountains further downhill.


Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the author of A Thousand Words: Reflections on Art and Christianity (St. James Press, 2023). She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland. She is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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