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The fountains of Rome

| Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Rome is filled with fountains, some of them famous but many of them not. Numerous monumental fountains appear in movie scenes and on lists of “must-see” sites around the city. Even more fountains are located in less notorious piazzas and on random city blocks. These are often much smaller. Walking past some of them, it would be easy to not even notice their presence. The city streets teem with crowds and chatter, so these small fountains might be neither seen nor heard.

Nearly three months into my semester in Rome, I have walked past so many of these fountains — sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. Sometimes I notice them tucked between buildings or in the centers of small squares. It’s likely that there are even more fountains that I don’t notice. But rather than a reflection on what might keep me from noticing these incredible works of stone, this is just a saga of visiting fountains at exactly the wrong time.

The Trevi Fountain is — arguably — the most famous fountain in all of Rome. It is featured in numerous movies, in countless pieces of travel propaganda and on the social media feeds of nearly anyone who happens to walk by it. One cannot visit Rome without going to the Trevi Fountain and expect anything but disdain from those aware of this grave misdeed. On my second day here, a friend was shocked to hear I hadn’t already been to see it. At the end of my second month, my friend had resigned herself to the fact that I would never make the effort to go there at all.

I did eventually visit the Trevi Fountain. It was certainly beautiful. But more memorable than the intricately carved figures was the sound of a machine cleaning it. The coins thrown by visitors became large piles, sliding together as the water drained. Fighting hordes of tourists to get a good picture was unnecessary, as a chain blocked the pathway to the pool. Hoses and machinery were the only things to be photographed in front of the fountain that morning.

Less famous is the Turtle Fountain, which gets its name from carved turtles rather than live ones. At the bottom of this interesting structure is a shallow pool with a few coins scattered throughout. On my visit there, the pool also held hoses and two men with rakes and rubber boots who worked to clean it. No water flowed from the open-mouthed fish that served as spouts.

My most recent encounter with a fountain occurred on an innocuous and insignificant street corner. No more than three-feet wide, this fountain probably gets overlooked a lot. The day I happened to notice it, a cleaning agent was being poured into the empty basin. I nearly tripped over the black hose that rested on the puddled sidewalk.

Every time I’ve walked by the Fontana del Pantheon, it has been too crowded to test my theory that fountains are always being cleaned on the days I visit them.

So, what have I learned from my unfortunate tendency to visit fountains when they are at their least photogenic? The city of Rome does actually clean them.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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