Thousands of Coins in the Fountain

At many of Rome’s most popular (and crowded) tourist sights—the Colosseum and the Vatican spring to mind—prescheduled tours can save interminable waits in long lines. At the Gallery Borghese, pre-purchased tickets are mandatory. And are often sold out.

Our plan for Friday, our third (and final) full day in Rome was built around our visit to the Galleria Borghese. We had acquired advanced tickets thanks to the good advice of my friend, Nancy Bellantoni. Our entry was booked for 1 p.m. We planned out a walking route that would enable spend the entire morning getting there. And we would see two not-to-be-missed sights along the way: The Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. As happened several times throughout our three-week adventure in Italy, our timing by sheer luck gave us a front row seat (literally) at an entertainment we could never have imagined.

Getting there

We set out after breakfast following an easy ten-minute route from our hotel: a quick stroll down Pié di Marmo, past the Collegio Romano on our left and Palazzo Doria Pamphilj on our right (oh, how is it that we were so close yet never made it to this famous gallery?) and we were on the famed Via del Corso. Running straight and wide (well, actually it’s only a two-lane street, but in ancient times, 10 meters—about 32 feet—was considered inordinately wide) among a maze of alleys and piazzas, it runs from Piazza del Populo (once the northern boundary of the city) to Piazza Venezia and is famed for its many fashionable shops. We were not focused on shopping (or window shopping), however, and turned off onto Via Marco Minghetti knowing the Trevi Fountain was a few blocks over to the north and east. By happenstance we followed a stream of purposeful-looking pedestrians who walked through open wrought-iron gates into an archway that cut through an imposing building.

Once inside I stopped to look up in wonder. Here was an atrium several stories high that was elaborately decorated with colorful frescoes and topped by an ornate stained glass skylight. What was this place? I turned in a full circle looking up and up to take it all in. We must come back here, I told Mr. Penfire. (And we did!)

For now, though, on we marched straight through this building (Galleria Sciarra, we later learned) onto the Via delle Muratte, one of the three streets that converge at the fountain (perhaps that trio of roadways is the source of its name). And suddenly, there it was. Oh, wasn’t my imagination proven woefully inadequate. For me, the word fountain calls to mind a giant curlicued soup dish on a pedestal with a statue in the middle that spouts water. No. No. No. This is a monumental presence that takes over the entire end wall of the Poli Palace.

A bit of history

The fountain marks the terminus of an ancient aqueduct (13 miles long) constructed by Marcus Agrippa (son-in-law of Emperor Augustus) around 19 BC. Eighty-five feet high and 160 feet wide, its ornate travertine façade tops a jagged ocean reef (also sculpted from travertine).

Statues of carrara marble are set into tall, pillared niches: in the center stands the figure of Ocean, sixteen feet high, bearded, muscular, and majestic. From his chariot (made of massive seashells) Ocean commands two rearing horses; they, in turn are guided by Tritons; these mermen and messengers of the sea are able to calm or stir up the waves when they blow on their conch shells. In niches on either side of Ocean are female figures. One representing Abundance holds a horn of plenty and has an overflowing water jar at her feet. The other, Health, holds a medicine bowl from which a snake is drinking.

Bas relief panels above these two illustrate, on one side, a virgin showing Roman soldiers the source water, and on the other Agrippa commanding the construction of the aqueduct that will carry the water to the city.

A wordy Latin inscription on a panel set above the figure of Ocean praises Pope Clement who, in the mid-1700s, commissioned this spectacular tribute to the importance of Rome’s water supply.

A surprise!

All this detail (and much more) were lost on the two of us at the time. For Mr. Penfire and I were astonished to realize that the fountain we had come to see seemed to be closed for maintenance. Well, not closed, exactly. But definitely paused. For there was no water flowing. Instead, what we saw was the magnificent façade and statuary described above hovering over the fountain’s wide, blue-floored pool. On its deck a half dozen workmen were wrestling with equipment: a long snaking hose attached to a vacuum head at one end and a noisy motorized giant drum at the other. Behind the railing that blocks public access to the deck and fountain, a gaggle of tourists, including us, was watching these proceedings with great curiosity and interest.

For these men were doing work that is obviously essential when you consider the traditions surrounding this famous fountain: they were collecting coins. Think about the irresistible compulsion most people have to throw coins into fountains for “good luck.” Then think about the fact that this is perhaps the world’s most notable fountain for coin-throwers. Legend has it that if you throw a coin into the Trevi over your left shoulder, you will return to Rome; throw in two coins if you’re looking for romance (with a Roman); and three if you want to marry that Roman. How many tourists visit this fountain each day? How many throw in at least one coin? The answer to both questions: Thousands!

And so, (I found out after returning home and asking Google), workers shut down the fountain three times a week so they can collect its coins. We watched. With the grace and skill that comes from longstanding practice, the workmen push the coins into a long thick underwater necklace, then used a pole to guide the vacuum hose as it noisily sucked up the loot.

An unexpected entertainment

Playing to the crowd, the men took turns holding open the sturdy white moneybags that were hooked to the side of the vacuum, using their thickly gloved hands to scoop coins out of the vacuum drum, filling the bags, which obviously became pretty heavy, and tying up the bags. With expressive miming and silly smiles, the workers complained to those watching that this was, indeed, a troublesome yet tantalizing task. Who wouldn’t want to handle all that cash? The fantasy of running off with it all was enticing. Yet impossible.

For next to the men, looking on with stern good humor, was a police officer wearing, of course, the beautifully tailored uniform for which Italian polizia and carabinieri are both well known. Nearby, beside a small white van (probably armored) were two more officers, waiting to jump into their vehicle, turn on their lights and sirens, and spirit the money away.

Mr. Penfire found a stray police officer to interrogate. How much money comes out of the Trevi Fountain? More than a million Euros a year. What is done with it? It goes to the Church. Online investigation later told us that the ultimate recipient is Caritas, the Church-sponsored charity that focuses on helping the poor and the homeless.

A wish

Finally, the prelude was over. Time for the real show to begin. The moneybags were gone. The workmen had put away their equipment until next time…. and the fountain was turned back on!

Sheets of sparkling water flowed out from under Ocean’s chariot, past the horses and the Tritons, over the travertine rocks and into the wide oval pool below. The iconic Trevi was back in business. Like all the other tourists, we tossed coins over our left shoulders. Only one each. We did not want to launch romance with an unknown Roman, or (certainly not) marry one, as we are already married and too set in our ways to consider changing partners at this late date. But for sure, we wanted to toss a single coin to ensure our return to Rome. Indeed we could not imagine how anyone would not.